Money-Saving Tips for Car Rentals in Italy
Pricey rental rates, high gas prices, insane parking fees—renting a car can get pretty costly if you're not careful. Here's how to shave the high price of renting a car into a reasonable travel expense.
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There’s nothing like seeing Europe from your own set of wheels, even taking into account the inscrutable traffic patterns, manic local driving methods, and insanely curvaceous roads that were designed 1,000 years before the advent of internal combustion engine. A car grants you the freedom to go wherever you want, whenever you want, turning up a dirt road to visit a vineyard or down a back alley to explore a medieval town.
Gasoline in Italy costs roughly three to five times what it does in the States. No joke. That's part of why they drive so many of those teensy, fuel-efficient, little Matchbox cars over there, and why they're still churning out diesel-powered sedans and wagons.
And let's not forget parking garages in cities that cost $30 to $80 a night (hint: always use a large public garage, not the pricey private ones in the historic center). High daily rates, mandatory insurance, obscure vehicle drop-off fees. Yep, renting a car in Italy can be a pretty costly proposition.
I’m here to help.
Book from home
Don't wait until you're over there to rent a vehicle. It is invariably cheaper to rent a car from the United States. Most major European rental agencies are now part of, or affiliated with, the big U.S. agencies (Hertz, Avis, National), so going direct to the European ones doesn't yield a better deal.
It goes without saying you should shop around. There seems to be nothing so variable as a car rental quote. The best way to do that is to research the going retail rates at various major rental outfits, booking sites, discounters, and travel agencies by using a meta–search engine called an aggregator: RentalCars.com, AutoSlash.com, Momondo.com, Vayama.com, Kayak.com, DoHop.com, Mobissimo.com.
Once you know all the best prices, go to Auto Europe (www.autoeurope.com), which operates something like a consolidator for car rentals and usually can beat the best rate offered direct from any company. » more
Have the rental agent run the numbers for all sort of scenarios. Sometimes picking up a day earlier or later (same for drop-off) can save you big bucks.
Unless you're leaving the metropolitan area directly from the airport and not even bothering to visit the major city to which it is attached, always pick up from downtown locations, not the airport, as there is invariably a usurious extra fee for airport rentals.
Trade down a few models; do you really near the Ferrari convertible, or can you make do with a Fiat Punto? Even try different pick-up/drop-off cities—you never know.
For families and small groups, cars are cheaper than trains
Renting is a particularly expensive proposition for the solo traveler, who has to shoulder the entire cost himself. For families or small groups, however, the fact that there's just one lump fee actually works in your favor, as the amount is spread across each person's costs. Sometimes the magic number of total passengers is three, sometimes four, but at some point renting a car becomes cheaper than buying three or four separate train tickets.
Still, even if it's just one or two of you and therefore renting is going to take a big bite out of your budget, there can be situations in which renting a car is worth the expense. If you are at all planning to visit the hilltowns and vineyards of Tuscany, the small towns of Sicily, or any other itinerary rarely of never served by trains or buses, get the car. The truer Italy lies in the small towns, not the big cities. Don't short-change your experience by short-changing your budget.
Rent by the Week, or Face the Con$equence$
Daily rental rates for periods less than one week are staggeringly high; it can cost almost as much to rent for two days as it does for seven. It's just one of the annoying realities of the industry. If, however, you only expect to need a vehicle for a day or two here and there, there is a loophole: the rail and drive pass (see next tip). » more
The best of both worlds: Consider a rail-and-drive pass
Look into the Italy Rail n' Drive Pass that get you several days of unlimited rail travel on a flexi-pass along with several days of car rental. You can add car days as needed to customize the pass to fit your schedule. » more
Traveling for more than two weeks? Don't rent, lease
If you're spending at least 17 days in Italy, do not rent a car. Lease one instead. I do this all the time. For periods longer than 17 days, short-term leasing a car fresh off the factory floor is almost always cheaper—often by 20 to 50 percent—than renting. And since the car is technically yours, you get full insurance coverage-no added charges for CDW or theft protection, no deductible, and no taxes (foreigners don't have to pay VAT on such major purchases—and leasing is technically a buy-back program). You also get something no rental can give you: that that new-car smell.
This is not a new phenomenon or a fly-by-night operation. These are deals set up directly by Renault, Peugeot, and other manufacturers, and they've been offering them since the 1950s—it's just never been widely advertised. It's easiest to arrange a lease through one of three agencies: Auto Europe (www.autoeurope.com), which reps Peugeot; Renault Eurodrive (www.renaultusa.com), which reps Renault; or Europe By Car (www.europebycar.com), which reps both. » more
Shifting to Manual Control… Now
Stick-shift models are always cheaper than ones with automatic transmission. What's more, you get better gas mileage (and Italy's high gas prices will make you thankful for that), plus you have more control over your vehicle and driving technique, which can be especially useful when navigating twisting Alpine roads or the impossibly narrow stone alleyways of medieval towns.
Do not rent a car in any city. Save it for the countryside.
Avoid at all costs renting a car for your time in any major city. Public transportation is efficient, cheap, and always gets you where you want to go, even on the outskirts. Driving, on the other hand, is a frightening, expensive, and pointlessly time-consuming experience.
Not only is the traffic horrendous (and local traffic laws and practices only semi-scrutable), but gas is terribly expensive, as is parking. Speaking of parking, there isn't any. Not, at least, where you want to go. Most street-side parking is time-limited and pricey. Your best bet if you end up with a car and are in a city is to find a large, cheap communal garage and stick your vehicle there for the duration.
The best overall rental strategy is to arrange to pick up your car at some downtown office on the last day you are in the first city of your trip, and to drop it off on your first day in the last city on your itinerary. Um, that may have made little sense. In other words, spend your three days in Rome, then pick up the car on the morning of the fourth day to spend a week driving leisurely northwards through Tuscany, Emilia-Romagna, and the Veneto, and finally drop the car off as soon as you get to Venice (where it's completely useless anyway, unless it's one of the James Bond jobbers that converts into a submarine).
Conveniently, this technique also helps you avoid the airport pick-up/drop-off charge. Instead of driving into town and parking the thing for three days (figure on $30 to $80 a day), you can just use the high speed rail link to get downtown (usually $7 to $20). Also, it shortens you rental period and saves you some dough that way. Win, win, win.
Return the car on-time, with a full tank, and not a single scratch
If you are 15 minutes late, they can (and often do) tack on a full day's extra rental fee. If you don't return the car with a full tank, they will charge you up to three times the going rate for gas to top it off. Leave a virtually invisible, hairline scratch, and they'll likely charge you the full $500 deductible.
No I'm not being overly dramatic. I have had each of those things happen to me, more than once. They will find any loophole in the contract that allows them to charge you more fees. Don't let the man stick it to you. In fact, that's a good final tip:
Don’t let the man stick it to you
Treat car rental companies like the worst kind of snake oil salesmen, 'cause that's how they treat you. They'll try their hardest to hide as many fees from you as possible so that their price looks like the best deal in town.
Don't let them.
Pressure them to reveal all the fees involved, then get it all in writing and don't let the actual car office in Italy where you pick the vehicle up (or the one where you drop it off) try to tack on anything else, as they often will try to do. They will try to bamboozle you with fine print to cheat you out of more money. Sad, but true.
Also, never trust any promises the guy giving you the keys makes. He won't be the one accepting the return, and that guy will try his best to drain your wallet, confident that, no matter how much you yell and fume and berate him with fully justified indignation, you will eventually sign on the dotted line because you have a flight to catch. Even if you refuse to sign, it doesn't matter. They do, after all, already have your credit card number.
Here are some (thoroughly legal) scams to watch out for.
In Italy (and Spain, for that matter), local laws make purchasing theft protection and CDW (the Collision Damage Waver) from the rental agency itself mandatory. This sucks. There's also a road tax (makes up for the highway stickers Italians must buy) or about €3 to €5 per day.
Beyond that, don't let them force-feed you any extra fees. These days, almost every credit card covers CDW if you use it to pay for your rental. Tell the rental agent that. Fax her a copy of your card agreement's fine print if you have to. Don't let the company bilk you out of money for insurance coverage you already have.
But any for any other insurance—or if you're visiting other countries on your trip and can arrange to pick up your rental elsewhere—buy any other insurances separately, from a third company (use the comparison site www.insuremytrip.com, or go direct to Travel Guard, www.travelguard.com). This will be cheaper and, from an insurance point of view, a bit safer.
On a related note, make sure the rental agent quotes you an absolutely-everything price. Don't let her get away with leaving off the taxes and such, as they can be hugely significant. In my experience, the original price quoted-just for the rental, before they get into taxes (often, multiple taxes), drop-off fees for returning to a different location, mandatory insurance, and more-turns out to be roughly half of what the final price is. Yes, I said "roughly half." It's ridiculous.
Here's an example of just one of many such battles I've waged with various major car rental agencies over the years. I'll leave out the brutal details, but in summation: I was quoted a rate of $404.74, my credit card was later charged $620.11, and we eventually compromised on $488.75, but only after much effort (and much time) on my part to prove they were overcharging me. Scandalous, no?
- Top tips for cars in Italy
- Renting a car in Italy
- Short-term leases
- Rules of the road in Italy & Driving tips
- Italian road signs
- Italy by Vespa or scooter
- The metric system
This material was last updated December 2010. All information was accurate at the time.
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