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Adventures in rental cars

I realize this probably isn't much of an adventure for anyone but me. And even for me, this isn't exactly a mind-blowing experiment. But it promises to be interesting: for the first time, I am going to rent a car during my fall trip to Italy.

I haven't rented a car in Italy before because I've balked at the expense -- especially for one person. Divided among a couple or a group, it probably isn't so bad. But the price of the rental itself, plus gas, parking (which can be really pricey!) and the general hassle that goes with driving in Europe has put me off in the past. Further, I realize that I tend to isolate myself as it is, and careening around solo in a car would only add to that, whereas riding trains and buses usually puts me in a position to talk to others, whether it's other tourists wondering if we're on the right train, or locals wondering who the hell I am.

But this year, I want to see some of the smaller Umbrian hill towns such as Montefalco and Todi and Spello, which are a bit difficult to visit by public transport.

Not only are these towns not on main train lines, but they are all places that take a good long lunch break. That means churches and museums can be closed for at least 3 hours, beginning as early as noon or 1 p.m. and extending to as late as 4 p.m. And if you're worried about catching the one bus back to Perugia that leaves at 5 p.m., such schedules can be a real constraint on sight-seeing.

So, a little Nissan Micra at $100 a day (plus parking, plus gas, plus road tolls) will surely be worth the expense for the extra bit of freedom it will give me to tour.

Just driving itself should be an experience. I've read some wacky tales from others about renting in Italy. So, I'm mentally compiling a list of what-not-to-do during my brief reign as Queen of the Road. I'm not at all worried about fast cars passing me, and so on. Really, it's the mechanics of it all that I'm interested in.

Take the example of Maitai Tom, a fellow Slow Traveler with a flair for exaggeration that rivals my own. Tom described in vivid detail how he pretty much destroyed one rental car by refueling with regular gas rather than diesel. Tom and his companions were stranded for several hours after that, when their rental conked out. A valuable lesson: I'll find out right off the top if my rental car uses diesel.

Tom and his group struggled for days trying to park, because they couldn't figure out how to get their Italian rental car into reverse. Apparently, some European cars require the driver to pull up on the stick shift, to engage the reverse gear. My own Toyota has button on the side of the gear shift that must be depressed or it won't move; a good safety feature, I suppose, so it can't be accidentally bumped into a different gear. But Tom's rental car came with no manual to explain these quirks. And actually, I rent cars often in Canada and have never once been given a manual. Which would have come in handy in trying to find such things as the lever to unlock the trunk or the gas cap. Anyway, Tom and his friends only learned how to put the car in reverse after their fuel fiasco, when they picked up a second rental and could actually ask the rental agent. This is all usual information for me to file away.

My biggest concern has been making sure I can get an automatic when I'm in Italy, where standard transmissions are by far the norm. I'm paying a hefty premium for not being able to use a stick. I figure mountainous Umbria will be no place to try to learn to use a stick shift! To further complicate things, although I'm actually hoping this will simplify the transaction for me, I've arranged to pickup and drop off my rental car in the town of Foligno rather than in the city of Perugia. Yes, Perugia has several different pickup points and lots of auto choices, but I really hope to avoid driving in and out of the city. Smaller Foligno sounds much easier to navigate.

Here's the complication. I've booked my car through AutoEurope, a highly recommended consolidator that works with the usual rental companies -- Avis, Hertz, etc. -- to find the customer the best deal. AutoEurope has assured me that although the small Avis office in Foligno doesn't normally stock automatics, they'll have one sent out for me, so I can pick up and drop off there. As a Canadian, I'm extremely skeptical about such an offer of customer service. Here, when you rent a car there is a huge premium for any kind of service -- if you want to pick up a car at the Edmonton airport and later, drop it off downtown it costs an extra hundred or so dollars. In Italy, you can pickup and drop off at different locations anywhere in the entire country for no extra fee. I find that amazing! I love Italy!!

So, I shouldn't worry that Avis will forget to have my car waiting at Foligno. And if it doesn't work out, it won't be the end of the world -- I'll just have to schlep my luggage back onto the train from Foligno to Perugia, which will likely take an extra hour or so, get the car in Perugia, navigate the city traffic back out, past Foligno to Bevagna, which will be my base for 3 days of hilltown exploring (via the rental car) A bit of extra hassle and time lost but not the end of the world.

BTW, lest anyone think I'm spending only 3 days in Umbria -- perish the thought! -- what I plan to do is spend two weeks in Umbria. I'll arrive in Assisi and spend 3 nights there, then take the train to Foligno (about 20 kilometres away;) collect the rental car, drive to Bevagna (about 10 kilometres from Foligno) and stay there for 3 nights, driving in and out for tours of nearby hill towns; drop the car off again at Foligno and train to Perugia (maybe 30 kilometres away) for a final, car-free week. Not nearly enough time, of course. I spent three weeks around Perugia and Assisi last year and only scratched the surface of what I want to see. But I'm sure the car will help a lot this time to give me a better taste of rural Umbria.

Comments (11)

Jill:

Tom is not alone.

We knew our rental took diesel, but the pumps were not labelled correctly and we still ended up putting gas in the car...the advice from the helpful Italian guy wasn't so helpful. So be careful at the pumps!

You are much braver than I am. I am so excited that you will be taking the leap and renting a car. Smart to take notes from others, especially MaiTai Tom. I would have never thought about asking for the type of gas needed and how to get into reverse.

Eden:

Hi Sandra,
First of all, congratulations on the "continue to next page" / aka extended entry post!
Your planned Umbrian road trip sounds exciting. What an adventure that is going to be!

I'm reading "Living in a Foreign Language" by Michael Tucker (the LA Law actor) and he has a funny story about filling up the car with the wrong gas too. He and his wife bought a house in Umbria - it's a good (but quick) read if you haven't already read it.

Sandra:

Jill, thanks very much for the tip -- I hadn't thought of trouble at the pump, so I'll keep that in mind. And try to learn the Italian words for "diesel" and "regular"!

Annie, someone else just mentioned that book to me today and it sounds like a fun read -- I'm going to look for it. I wonder how often this happens, and what it does to a car's engine?

Thanks Susan, and Eden, for your support -- this should be fun! I think, though, I had better look into getting a GPS with the car.....

We once were at a SHELL station outside Venice, where an ATTENDANT at a full-serve station put regular gas in our clearly marked diesel gas tank! You are better off doing it yourself! It died a violent death 3K later on the onramp to the autostrada in the rain. Brad walked the 3K back, and then the tow truck wanted to leave us there with our luggage in the rain and just take the car!

According to Michael Tucker, it makes the car knock and jerk along very slowly. I'd be horrified but the way he told the story made it sound funny.

I admire your bravery and daring too and can't wait to read all about your trip!

Sandra - you shall be fine. If I can drive through the hills of Tuscany without any difficulty than ANYONE can!

Sandra:

Jerry, thanks -- that's encouraging!

Palma, I can't believe this happened to you and Brad, too! I think I will make sure I pump my own gas or diesel or whatever the car wants.

This is hilarious, I had no idea the problem was so widespread.

Annie, I ordered Tucker's book today -- it looks like a fun read. Thanks for telling me about it!

valda:

Sandra,
We hired our car through Avis in Perugia and they were totally fantastic. Very helpful and efficient.
Hopefully they'll be the same in Foligno!

We took a manual (as usual) but next time we've said that we'll pay the extra for an automatic. We've gotten used to the easy driving of an automatic - and in a hill ridden city like Perugia and the other hill towns, taking off on an incline is a constant. A constant pain in the bum, that is!

Stick with the automatic!

Sandra:

Thanks, Valda, I'm definitely sticking with the automatic. And I'm getting excited now with the idea of having my own wheels, so I can get to small places easily and just enjoy driving in such beautiful country!

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