[This is an excerpt from our Driving in Italy ebook, which you can download for free here.
Having a car on your Italian vacation can be an expensive hassle, or it can be a means to more independence and a way to get off the beaten track. But which is it? The answer is, it depends. On whether you are visiting the countryside; on how light you are traveling; and on whether you are traveling on a budget.
Bottom line: do not assume renting a car in Italy is necessary.
But first: The 3 questions below aren’t even relevant to you unless you’re comfortable driving in Italy. You are? Great, read on. You think you probably aren’t? Read no further. Do not rent a car. The stress and hassle will not be worth it.
1) Are you visiting only cities or also venturing into the countryside?
Driving in Italian cities is a huge pain: plan to spend time stuck in traffic, getting lost, and circling for parking. Expect frustration when trying to interpret foreign road signs, avoid limited traffic zones, and navigate winding, narrow, and one-way roads. Conveniently, trains run frequently between all major and many smaller Italian cities, and it’s easy to get around within a city by either taxi, public transportation, or in many cities, just plain walking.
If your itinerary includes only cities, you do not need a car, and you do not need to read further. Renting a car in Italy is not for you. Take the train.
However, visiting the countryside can be challenging without a car. Check on whether trains go to the towns you’re planning to visit by plugging your cities into www.trenitalia.it. Even if trains do go to small towns, compare transit times, using www.viamichelin.com (I prefer it over Google maps) for driving times. If getting from A to B is five hours by train because you need to change trains three times, and driving is half that, then definitely consider renting a car.
If you’re doing both cities and countryside, just rent a car for the countryside part.
2) How light are you traveling?
There’s no question about it: lugging suitcases on and off trains and to and from train stations is no fun. But if you’re only visiting cities, I still recommend not renting a car. Just pack lighter. If you’re visiting the countryside and have a lot of luggage, it may make sense to rent a car. Unless of course…
3) Are you traveling on a budget?
If you need this trip to be as economical as possible, the train may cost less. To do a cost comparison, budget not only for the car rental, but also calculate gas, tolls, and parking. Compare that to the cost of the train by checking www.trenitalia.it to compare prices. A rule of thumb for road tolls is that 300 km (190 miles) = 15 Euros. Or to calculate road tolls for your exact trip, go to www.autostrade.it. I did the car vs. train cost comparison recently for I trip I planned for a family of 4 and the train was much cheaper. However the train would have been a big hassle, so in their case, renting a car in Italy turned out to be worth it.
Twisting road photo (St. Gotthard pass on Italy/Switzerland border) by Mikael Miettinen; Luggage photo by Geishaboy500
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