If you’re renting a car in Italy, bring your driver’s license. You’re also technically required to have an International Driving Permit—an official translation of your driver’s license (sold at your local AAA office for $20 plus the cost of two passport-type photos; see www.aaa.com). While that’s the letter of the law, I generally rent cars without having this permit. How this is enforced varies from country to country: Get advice from your car-rental company.
Rental companies require you to be at least 21 years old and to have held your license for one year. Drivers under age 25 may incur a young-driver surcharge, and some rental companies do not rent to anyone 75 or older. If you’re considered too young or old, look into leasing (covered later), which has less-stringent age restrictions.
Research car rentals before you go. It’s cheaper to arrange most car rentals from the US. Consider several companies to compare rates.
Most of the major US rental agencies (including Avis, Budget, Enterprise, Hertz, and Thrifty) have offices throughout Europe. Also consider the two major Europe-based agencies, Europcar and Sixt. It can be cheaper to use a consolidator, such as Auto Europe/Kemwel (www.autoeurope.com—or the often cheaper www.autoeurope.eu) or Europe by Car (www.europebycar.com), which compares rates at several companies to get you the best deal—but because you’re working with a middleman, it’s especially important to ask in advance about add-on fees and restrictions.
Always read the fine print or query the agent carefully for add-on charges—such as one-way drop-off fees, airport surcharges, or mandatory insurance policies—that aren’t included in the “total price.”
For the best deal, rent by the week with unlimited mileage. To save money on fuel, request a diesel car. I normally rent the smallest, least-expensive model with a stick shift (generally cheaper than an automatic). Almost all rentals are manual by default, so if you need an automatic, request one in advance; be aware that these cars are usually larger models (not as maneuverable when dealing with tight parking spaces and narrow, winding roads). You’ll do yourself a favor by renting the smallest car that meets your needs.
Figure on paying roughly $250 for a one-week rental. Allow extra for supplemental insurance, fuel, tolls, and parking. For trips of three weeks or more, leasing can save you money on insurance and taxes.
Picking Up Your Car
Compare pickup costs (downtown can be less expensive than the airport) and explore drop-off options. Always check the hours of the location you choose: Many rental offices close from midday Saturday until Monday morning and, in smaller towns, at lunchtime.
When selecting a location, don’t trust the agency’s description of “downtown” or “city center.” In some cases, a “downtown” branch can be on the outskirts of the city—a long, costly taxi ride from the center. Before choosing, plug the addresses into a mapping website. You may find that the “train station” location is handier. Returning a car at a big-city train station or downtown agency can be tricky; get precise details on the car drop-off location and hours, and allow ample time to find it. And be aware that most Italian cities have a “ZTL” (limited traffic zone) that’s carefully monitored by cameras. If your drop-off point is near this zone, get clear directions on how to get there without crossing the line and getting a big fine.
When you pick up the rental car, check it thoroughly and make sure any damage is noted on your rental agreement. Rental agencies in Europe tend to charge for even minor damage, so be sure to mark everything. Before driving off, find out how your car’s gearshift, lights, turn signals, wipers, radio, and fuel cap function, and know what kind of fuel the car takes (diesel vs. unleaded). When you return the car, make sure the agent verifies its condition with you. Some drivers take pictures of the returned vehicle as proof of its condition.
Car Insurance Options
Accidents can happen anywhere, but when you’re on vacation, the last thing you need is stress over car insurance. When you rent a car, you’re liable for a very high deductible, sometimes equal to the entire value of the car. Limit your financial risk in case of an accident by choosing one of these two options: Buy Collision Damage Waiver (CDW) coverage from the car-rental company (figure roughly 30-40 percent extra), or get coverage through your credit card (free, but more complicated).
In Italy, most car-rental companies’ rates automatically include CDW coverage. Even if you try to decline CDW when you reserve your Italian car, you may find when you show up at the counter that you must buy it after all.
While each rental company has its own variation, basic CDW costs $15–30 a day and reduces your liability, but does not eliminate it. When you pick up the car, you’ll be offered the chance to “buy down” the deductible to zero (for an additional $10–30/day; this is sometimes called “super CDW” or “zero-deductible coverage”).
If you opt for credit-card coverage, there’s a catch. You’ll technically have to decline all coverage offered by the car-rental company, which means they can place a hold on your card for up to the full value of the car. In case of damage, it can be time-consuming to resolve the charges with your credit-card company. Before you decide on this option, quiz your credit-card company about how it works.
For more on car-rental insurance, see www.ricksteves.com/cdw.
Theft Insurance: Note that theft insurance (separate from CDW insurance) is mandatory in Italy. The insurance usually costs about $15–20 a day, payable when you pick up the car.
If you prefer the convenience of a dedicated GPS unit, consider renting one with your car ($10-30/day). These units offer real-time turn-by-turn directions and traffic without the data requirements of an app. Note that the unit may only come loaded with maps for its home country; if you need additional maps, ask. Also make sure your device’s language is set to English before you drive off.
A less-expensive option is to bring a GPS device from home. Be aware that you’ll need to buy and download European maps before your trip.
Maps and Atlases
Even when navigating primarily with a mobile app or GPS, I always make it a point to have a paper map. It’s invaluable for getting the big picture, understanding alternate routes, and filling in when my phone runs out of juice. The free maps you get from your car-rental company usually don’t have enough detail. It’s smart to buy a better map before you go, or pick one up at a European gas station, bookshop, newsstand, or tourist shop.