Italy has been on my bucket list for years but never in a million years did I think that I would be brave enough to rent a car and drive from city to city for 11 days straight. I guess I should start at the top and be completely honest… I drive like Miss Daisy. So you can imagine the shock on my sister’s face when I told her I’d be renting a left-hand drive… and driving on the right-hand side of the road in Europe. As intimidating as it might sound, (and as crazy as it was to drive in Naples) I’m pretty glad that I ended up renting a car and driving my way through. Of course, having some tips beforehand would have definitely made it easier, and that’s why I’ve decided to share what I learnt here with you.
Cheaper is not always better
While there are many car rental companies offering lower prices, it’s always a good idea to read the fine print so that you know exactly what your rental is coming with. Be mindful of the type of insurance offered, how much mileage is covered and if any additional extras are included like a GPS. Don’t be afraid to ask as many questions as you need to because often, there are hidden costs that you might not realise at first glance.
Book your car while still in your home country
I get the whole spontaneous nature of travelling… you know, rocking up to a country… deciding on the spot if you want to catch a train or rent a car… and just go. But sometimes you need a little pre-planning. Booking your car rental online and well in advance is going to be significantly cheaper than if you arrive in Italy and try to book at the airport. The reason why is that if you have a non-European driver’s license, you won’t pay the extra taxes that locals do when renting in neighbouring countries.
International Driving Permit
When driving in Italy you will need to have an International Driver Permit which you can obtain from your home country before arrival. In South Africa, you can purchase these at any AA counter upon presenting your driver’s license and ID/ passport.
Ensure you have a GPS
Driving in Italy can be pretty intimidating. While the highways are pretty well marked, they are marked with the Italian names rather than the well-known English names. For example, if you’re driving to Florence, make sure you look out for Firenze on the sign boards! Often the smaller back roads are not as well marked. The same goes for one-way streets and traffic circles… which aren’t always circles, making them harder to recognise! Having a decent GPS navigation system (either one rented with your car or just simple Google maps on your phone, will take a lot of the stress off and give you some foresight of what’s to come.
Manual vs automatic
Most cars in Europe are manual so unless you specify during your booking that you want an automatic car; you will be given a manual one. This can be pretty confusing if, like me, you’re from a country that drives on the left and has right hand drive cars. Personally, I prefer manual but automatic can be more convenient especially if you’re having to concentrate on a GPS navigation system as well.
Right or left?
Be mindful that you’ll be driving on the right lane in Italy which can get very confusing especially if you’re from a country that drives on the left-hand side of the road! Cars in Italy are right-hand drives which adds to the confusion, especially if you rent a manual car.
How old should you be?
The legal driving age in Italy is 18 but bear in mind that you will have to have your license for at least a period of one year. Also, many car rental companies will charge you an extra fee if the driver is under 25. On the other hand, insurance companies set an upper age limit of between 70 – 75 but this will depend on the service provider.
Driving through tolls
It’s really easy to drive from one city to the next in Italy but… it’s pretty expensive. In some instances, be prepared to pay between 20 – 30 euros. Many of the offer a cash and card option but it’s safer to carry cash with you and head for the booths with the cash and hand sign together. This means that even though it is an electronic system, there is someone sitting behind the glass should you get confused, not understand which buttons to press or just need a friendly face.
Take some time as soon as you get your rental to learn all the finer details about the vehicle you’ll be driving. This includes what type of gas you need, where the levers are and what the fuel price is (which differs slightly from city to city). Italy has both, self-service gas stations and stations with petrol attendants so choose which you feel comfortable with. It’s also a good idea to fill up your tank before returning it to the rental company so as to avoid any additional charges.
Be mindful of the traffic laws
As when driving in any country really, be mindful of the traffic laws. Take some time beforehand to read up on the simple do’s and don’ts of driving in Italy as well as what the rules of the road are, and what the meaning is of the road signs you’ll be seeing. Pay attention to the ZTL (Zona Traffico Limitato) zones which limit traffic at certain times of the day. Often these zones are fitted with cameras which capture the license plates of all cars entering. If you’re in a rental and haven’t declared / registered for a particular ZTL zone, then expect a hefty fine which will be mailed to you through your rental company.