Last updated on November 7th, 2023
Ciao! Are you trying to figure out if you should rent a car for your trip to Italy?
Are you nervous about the differences between driving in the US and driving in Italy?
Maybe you’ve heard stories about renting a car in Italy and you’re not sure if you should just stick to the trains.
Well, I’m here for you! I’m originally from the US, but I’ve been working, living, driving, and renting cars here for over two decades. I also plan vacations here so I’ve helped plenty of visiting Americans rent cars and drive all around the country.
I’m going to help you:
- Decide if you really need a car on your Italy trip
- Start prepping the documents you need to drive in Italy as an American
- Learn about Italian road signs and some that will probably be totally new to you
- Rent your car
- Feel comfortable picking up your car at the car rental lot/garage in Italy
- Feel confident driving on Italian roads with Italian drivers
- Learn some of the big differences between driving in the US and Italy
- Return your rental car
By the time you finish reading, you’ll have a clear idea about how to rent a car in Italy as an American and the big differences between driving in the US and driving here in Italy.
STEP 1: Decide if You Really Need to Rent a Car For Your Italy Trip
Here are some of the basic pros and cons of driving your own car in Italy:
|PROS of Driving in Italy||CONS of Driving in Italy|
|Freedom to visit more places||Gas is expensive|
|Choose your travel schedule||Tolls are expensive|
|More room for luggage||Responsible for car and damages|
|Less expensive with larger groups||Parking is tricky and can be expensive|
|Flexibility with kids (bathroom breaks, etc)||May still need public transport if visiting cities|
Even after looking at the chart, you should still look at your particular trip and itinerary before you make a decision.
Itineraries with Cities Only
In the US, we pretty much drive everywhere (unless you live somewhere like NYC), but here in Italy:
- Cities are set up for walking and using public transportation
- You can move between cities using Italy’s excellent train network
So, if you’re planning on a visit like: Venice -> Florence -> Rome, you definitely don’t need a car.
Itineraries With Non-Car-Friendly Destinations
Some Italian destinations are made for renting a car, like:
- The Dolomites
There are certain areas in Italy that you want to avoid driving (or having a car) in, like:
- The Amalfi Coast
- The Cinque Terre
- Major cities
Alternatives to Renting a Car in Italy
Even if you’re visiting car-friendly destinations as a part of your Italy itinerary, you still may not want to drive.
If this is the case, besides taking the train, you can also:
- Hire a private driver – We call them NCCs in Italy – noleggio con conducente, or rental with driver).
- Take a guided tour – If you don’t want to worry about any trip logistics, you can take a group tour. There’s a huge offering of Italy group tours, from large groups like Rick Steves to smaller groups like Backroads.
- Go on guided day tours – Look into companies that offer day tours from cities. GetYourGuide and Viator are popular tour aggregators here in Italy.
- Use a combination of the above
STEP 2: Rent Your Car
Once you’ve determined you really do need to rent a car, it’s time to rent.
I use and recommend car rental consolidators like Discover Cars and Auto Europe. If you feel more comfortable, you can look at them and then book with the car rental company directly. I have my own car here in Italy but I do rent cars here and when I do I rent from Discover Cars.
Read my detailed guide to Renting a Car in Italy
When you’re booking, you’ll need to make some decisions, including:
- Airport vs. city rental – Take a look at the difference in rates, but also the locations. For example, if you’re flying into Florence and heading to the countryside, it’s easiest to pick up your car at the airport. If you get nervous driving in cities (traffic, ZTLs), you may want to avoid city pickups. Sometimes airport locations are more expensive, but they may have more space (and more inventory).
- Type of car – In the US, we’re used to certain brands and models. I notice very few vehicles here that are the same as the US. The models are often different – the Toyota Corolla here in Italy is totally different from a Toyota Corolla in the US. I drive a monovolume (minivan) here, but it’s about ½ the size of a typical minivan in the US – no joke.
- Size of car – Cars here will feel tiny to you after driving in the US. Trunk sizes are smaller and a 5-person vehicle here will feel like a squeeze compared to roomy vehicles you drive at home in the US. Keep this in mind when you’re booking your car – you need to have enough room for passengers and luggage. But, you don’t want to get a vehicle that’s huge, because our parking spaces and roads in Italy are narrow. I actually avoid driving my husband’s car in Italian cities because I have trouble parking it and navigating narrow streets.
- Automatic or manual transmission – I recommend renting a car with an automatic transmission, just because it gives you one less thing to think about (changing gears). I often hear about travelers being stressed about getting an automatic – but Italy’s car rental agencies know that many travelers want one, so there’s plenty of inventory. The only time in my 2+ decades of renting cars in Italy that I haven’t been able to rent an automatic was when I made a mistake with my booking, realized it at the pickup, and there were no automatics left at the moment.
- Navigation system – You can usually add on a GPS navigation system for a charge (and sometimes it will come with your car for free). I tend to stick to using Google Maps on my phone because I’m used to the look of the maps and the icons and I’m comfortable using it. It’s no fun to miss your turns because you can’t tell where the arrow is pointing on your GPS.
- Kids options – If you’re traveling with little ones, stay on top of the Italian car seat laws, which are different from the US. Also, if you’re bringing a stroller and multiple suitcases, make sure your trunk space is large enough.
- Car rental insurance – I never used to book rental car insurance when traveling because my credit card covered it. But, you’ll see that it’s required here in Italy and it’s part of the rental rate. But it’s basic and you’ll have a high deductible, which you can reduce by purchasing a ‘lower deductible plan’ or ‘zero deductible plan.’ You can purchase these when you rent the car, or when you pick the car up. Read more details here.
Read more about
Renting a Car in Florence
Renting a Car in Pisa
Renting a Car in Tuscany
Renting a Car in Palermo
Renting a Car in Sicily
Renting a Car at the Bergamo Airport
Renting a Car in Milan
Car Seats in Italy
STEP 3: Start Prepping Your Car Rental Documents
You’ve rented your car! Now, start gathering your documents and checking expiration dates.
As an American driver in Italy, you’ll need the following in order to rent a car:
- Your state-issued driver’s license – It needs to be valid (I say this because I’ve seen people show up with expired licenses) and you must have had it for at least a year (If you’ve recently renewed your license, bring along your old one). And, it rarely comes up – but know that your 17 year-old can’t drive here even if he/she has a valid US driver’s license. You must be 18 to drive in Italy.
- International Driving Permit – This is basically a translation of your license. It’s inexpensive and while you’ve heard plenty of travelers say, “they didn’t even ask for it,” you may be asked for it at the rental car desk or by the police. I’ve seen travelers walk away from the rental car desk in tears – because they didn’t have an IDP and the rental car company would not give them their reserved rental car.
- International ID (your passport)
- Credit card – Unless you’ve arranged with your car rental company to pay in another way (like with a debit card)
Read more about these topics
Can I Rent a Car in Italy with a US License
International Driving Permit in Italy – Why & How to Get One
STEP 4: Study Italian Road Signs
The stop sign is the same in Italy as it is in the US, but many Italian road signs won’t look familiar to you. For example:
I suggest you check out Important Italian Road Signs. You may even want to print the PDF and bring it with you.
STEP 5: Gather Important Items for Your Rental Car
- Phone charger and holder – If you’ll be using your phone for GPS, you may want to bring along a charger and a vent attachment. True, there’s no 100% guarantee they’ll fit. You can also buy them once you have your car (but you may not want to spend your time looking for them). I usually don’t bring a vent attachment – I just hope I’ll be able to set my phone somewhere on the dash. I do bring phone cords (currently ones with USB-A and USB-C) and I’ve always had one that worked.
- Paper maps – You can find maps at most gas stations and sometimes at the airport in Italy. If you like a particular brand, or want to be ready when you land, you can bring your own from home. I mostly use the the Touring Editore (green and yellow) maps as a backup for Google Maps.
- Phone data plan – It’s not a physical ‘item’ but if you’ll be using Google Maps, make sure you have an international data plan or a data plan purchased through an Italian carrier (I have Vodafone but have also been happy with TIM).
You may want to download my favorite Italy Travel Apps
STEP 6: Pick up Your Rental Car
The car pick up process is similar to the US, but I’ll mention a few important things:
- Rental cars are a little more ‘beat up’ here – I remember the first few times I rented a car here, I was unimpressed with the state of the cars. They had plenty of dings and a few scratches. Now I know that’s the norm. Maybe it’s the tiny roads and parking spaces, but it’s rare to get a pristine rental car.
- Get photo or video evidence of damage – See lots of dings and dents? Take photos and/or videos. I like to take a video and if there is any major damage, I’ll also email the company with the photos when I pick the car up (that was there’s at least time-stamped evidence of the damage). I’ve found that here in Italy the staff in the garage or lot will not update the contract unless it’s something major. If you’re like me and this makes you nervous – document the damage using your phone!
- Be prepared for your exit – Ask the attendant how to exit the garage or lot and get to the Autostrada or the first part of your directions. It’s no fun to start your Italian road trip off by being lost 100 meters from the car rental center. Also, learn which direction you’re heading in – for example, if you’re getting on the Autostrada in Florence, you’ll need to either head toward ‘Bologna’ or ‘Roma.’
STEP 7: Drive in Italy – Know These 11 Important Differences Between Driving in Italy & the US
As an American, these are the main things that I find are different or surprising for Americans driving in Italy for the first time:
- Flashing headlights – If a car’s behind you and flashes its lights, it means ‘get out of my way,’ which is the opposite of the ‘go ahead, you can move in front of me’ that flashing our headlights means in the US.
- No right on red – It’s illegal here, everywhere. You may turn right on green only.
- Stay on the right except to pass – I know we all learned this in US driving school, but we all know it’s not a common habit on US roads. In Italy, it is!
- Tailgating is not road rage – It’s just how people drive here. If it makes you nervous that the car behind you is about to give your bumper a bacio (kiss), pull over and let the car pass.
- Traffic circles are the norm – I’ve noticed they’re becoming more popular in the US. You’ll see them everywhere here. 99% of the time, you yield to cars that are already in the traffic circle. I say 99% because we have one near our home that has cars in the circle yield at one exit (so weird), and in some places (like parts of Sicily), drivers enter the traffic circle freely, without yielding.
- Directional signs – A big difference between road signs in the US and road signs here in Italy is that here you need to know which city you’re headed toward, not the name of the road you need to turn onto. For example, in the US, you’d come to a T-intersection and turn right onto Highway 15. Here in Italy, you come to the T-interection and turn right toward Bari.
- Speed limits aren’t always posted – So, it’s important to know the general speed limits. And, if it seems like you’re going really fast, remember that you’re driving in kilometers per hour (so, 130 km/h on the Autostrada is about 81 miles per hour – faster than what we drive in the US, but not 100 mph.
- You’re warned about speed cameras – Here in Italy, it’s illegal to surprise someone with a speed trap (so, don’t look for police cars hiding behind bushes). You’ll usually see a sign announcing ‘controllo elettronico della velocità’ – electronic speed control.
- Safety Tutor – We also have a special type of speed control here (and someone please tell me if we have this anywhere in the US) that measures your average speed between two points and send you a fine if you’re above the speed limit.
- Paying tolls is routine – If you’re planning on driving on our toll roads (the Autostrade), read up on how to get a ticket and pay your toll, and which lanes you should use in Autostrade – Italy’s Toll Roads.
- Limited Traffic Zones – Most cities and towns (and even many villages) have a ZTL – zona traffico limitato, which limits entry to certain vehicles at certain times and days. If you enter when you’re not supposed to, you’ll receive a large fine. While you’re likely used to driving downtown in US cities, keep an eye out here, because it’s not always allowed.
STEP 8: Return Your Rental Car
Like in the US, you’ll return your car to the same location or even in a different city, depending on what you set up in your rental contract.
- Confirm the return location – Even if you’re returning it to the ‘same’ location, the actual place you need to return the car may be different. For example, if you rent a car from the Milan train station, you may actually return it to a different building. Always confirm the return location when you pick up the car.
- Try to return the car during open hours – When it’s time to return your car, know that like in the US, you can return your car after-hours by dropping your key in a box or mail slot. I prefer to give it to an agent, and to get it checked off for no damage while I’m there. If there is an issue, it’s time to break out your photos and videos. Some agents may make you go through corporate (I recently had to do that and it was cleared up with a photo I’d sent at pickup).
- Get gas before you return the car – If your rental contract states you must return the car with a full tank (or at the same level you received it), use Google Maps to search for ‘gas’ or the Italian words for gas station: benzinaio – ben-zee-NEYE-oh, distributore (di benzina) – dee-stree-boo-TOE-ray dee ben-ZEE-nah, or a stazione di rifornimento – stah-tsee-OH-nay dee ree-for-nee-MEHN-toe.
Read more about Getting Gas in Italy
And that’s it! I hope this has helped cleared up any doubts or questions you had about renting a car and driving in Italy as an American.