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Renting a Car in Italy: What I Learned

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Foreign road trips are fun, but they do take extra levels of planning, patience and awareness. Here's what I learned last week after renting a car via Hertz in Italy.

When a girlfriend and I decided to do a road trip from Milan to Cinque Terre and Tuscany, I envisioned rolling hills, wildflowers, and thought the biggest issue would be deciding who needed to be the designated driver between tons of wine tastings. We had heard the common travel folklore that driving in a foreign country – especially Italy – was a nightmare and we were warned against driving in Rome so planned against it. Plus we had seen that clip from "European Vacation" enough times to avoid any traffic circle debacles.

I had also driven a rental car last year in South Africa (where traffic flows on the left side of the road), so I figured Italy couldn't be that tough of a road trip destination.

See me in that picture? I don't look too freaked out, do I? You can barely tell how tightly my knuckles were clenching the steering wheel...

Last year our friends at Gadling posted eight rules for renting a car in a foreign country, but I think there's more to consider than just those pointers. Here are five more tips I took away from renting a car in Italy:

1. Language Barriers Can Make it Harder Than You Think
In Italy, a STOP sign says just that – seriously (and surprisingly). But most of the other important info was conveyed in Italian, much of it abbreviated, which can be hard to interpret from a pocket dictionary while you're cruising down the A7 at 100kmph. If you aren't fluent in the language of the country you'll be driving in, try to study up a few key words (i.e. "exit," "toll," "right" and "left") before you hit the roads.

2. Co-Pilots Make the Ride Much Smoother
Reading Italian street names (embedded onto the sides of buildings, rather than on easily visible signs as in the U.S.), keeping an eye out for gutsy pedestrians darting in the street, or being able to dig some spare euros out to pay a toll at a moment's notice was one of the key advantages during my road trip through Tuscany and Liguria. Solo road trips are more advisable for the super ambitious (or bilingual) types.

3. Situate Yourself
Even with a car equipped with GPS, or with a companion along for the ride to help out with directions, it's still worth it to deeply study a city map and situate yourself before setting out on a journey. In most Italian cities, for example, the historical city centers are off-limits to drivers without special permits. Clueless road trippers caught in one of those zones can face fines. Roads are much more enjoyable in Italy outside of cities, so figuring out the quickest way to get out of those urban hubs is a good idea.

4. Prepare to Pay A LOT More for Gas
Renting a car might seem like an affordable option, especially for travelers who want to see a great deal of the countryside (train tickets can run upwards of €100 or more). But keep in mind that the cost of fuel is high in many foreign countries, especially Europe. In fact, we paid more than €70 on fuel to refill our Mercedes A160 rental, which was on top of the cost of renting, taxes and fees.

5. Keep an Eye on Your Stuff!
Last but not least, I'd like to point out that even in a locked rental car, or even inside a car rental office, it's best to keep close track of your belongings. I speak from experience: my credit cards, purse and digital camera were stolen while I was inside the Hertz rental car office in Florence, leaning over the counter to talk to an agent with my back turned to my luggage. On the bright side, it was a very convenient place to get robbed, what with the security cameras and customer service reps and phones on site. Plus, I did get to speak with a very handsome Italian police officer afterward ... but lesson learned: Somebody might be an experienced traveler, or perhaps a travel writer (ahem); whether in a rental car or the rental car office itself, be sure to safeguard personal items.