Top Tips for Renting a Car in Sicily and not getting Killed in it

Part umpteen of an occasional, hysterical series on DRIVING IN SICILY

Car rental in Sicily is quite a surprising experience for most people the first time around.

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Firstly, it is blood-curdlingly expensive. The insurance will be exorbitant but heaven help you if you opt out of that!

If you book online, or even if you pre-pay, you will find that when you arrive you have to pay a lot more, “for extras”. These “extras” will be different every time. The rep at the sales desk will not take you to the car to inspect it for any existing damage. You will just be given the key and the number plate and sent off to search round the car park full of five hundred silver Fiat Puntos.

When you do finally discover your own Fiat Punto, you will find that it has a fairly impressive selection of dents and scratches. These are not regarded as “damage” in Sicily and will not, therefore, be marked on the rental contract. A dent is regarded as ‘normal wear and tear’ unless it exceeds a depth of three inches or has actually breached the body of the vehicle and reveals what lies beneath.

Sicilians drive three types of cars. The first type of car is an “old car“. If you have an old car, it is a white Fiat Uno. The second type of car is a “new car“. People with a new car have a silver Fiat Punto. The third type of car is the “girlie car“. This will be a white Fiat Cinquecento. Sicilians don’t bother with other types of car because they cannot get the parts.

There are few foreign car factories in Sicily, and few authorised dealers, so you have to order the parts from Rome or some other far flung place and possibly wait weeks. And pay a fortune. Sicilians don’t have a fortune (unless they have “earned” it in creative ways, but we won’t talk about that just now.)

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Outside the category of “car” is the commercial vehicle, the Ape, which means “bee”. This is a microscopic van-type vehicle, consisting of a Vespa type Scooter (Vespa, for those of you who don’t know, means “Wasp”) with a miniscule cab encasing the front wheel and handlebars for steering, and an outsized baked bean can wrapped round the back wheel, wherein to store one’s wares such as artichokes, oranges, fish, bread, or anything else one might be able to sell at the roadside. These vehicles exist exclusively in the colour light blue. I believe other hues are illegal.

The bee and wasp names are, I presume, inspired by the fact that these vehicles are powered by something like suped-up lawnmower engines which make the same loud, persistent buzzing noise as an oversized stinging insect. If you find yourself stuck behind one in your rental car, you may discover you have developed tinnitus after they eventually disappear down a side road, in exactly the same way as you hear deafening static after emerging from an overly loud nightclub.

Sicilians spend a great deal of money on their cars. Firstly, to insure any car for a year you have to pay about twice what you paid to buy the car in the first place, and that’s only for third party cover. I have never met anyone in Italy who had anything more than third party cover for a vehicle. This is why your car rental will cost you less than half the price you pay for car insurance on your car rental.

Then there’s petrol. A litre of petrol in Sicily costs more than a litre of champagne (OK, I’m not talking about Moet Chandon here). Then you have road tax. Then you have speeding fines. These can be hundreds of Euros and often include confiscation of the driving license for a month or more. They are particularly costly as they are graded depending on the margin by which you exceeded the speed limit.

In Sicily, a favourite of the Italian traffic police, the Vigili Urbani, is to denote a section of motorway or a major state road as having a speed limit of thirty kilometres an hour. This is less than twenty miles per hour. It’s about the speed at which your granny can tow her tartan shopping trolley on wheels.

The Polizia, another police force, participate in this money-spinning activity too. They put up lots of notices saying the speed limit is seventy kph just before the go-slow section, then lie in wait with their radars, ticketing every vehicle that comes past. The Polizia are particularly good at camouflaging themselves inside luxuriantly leafy shrubbery. So stamp on the brakes every time you go past some oleanders in full bloom or a squat, spreading palm tree!

As a foreign driver of a rental car, you will be expected to fully understand all the road rules. Your headlights must be on at all times while driving on a motorway, even if it is high noon and the sun is blazing down at 40 degrees centigrade, you need two pairs of polariod sunglasses to be able to squint out of the windscreen without crying, and the car’s plastic handles are so hot they’re melting. The reason for this law is that the accident rate in Sweden fell by nearly 20% when they introduced this rule. The Italian governemnt wants to reduce the car crash rate, naturally, but failed to take note of the fact that Sweden only has two hours of daylight in the winter whereas Sicily is not so very far away from the tropics.

Another important signal you’ll need to understand is the headlight flashing. If you are waiting to turn left and a bus slows down and flashes its headlights at you, in England and the rest of northern Europe, this means “you can go, I’ll wait for you”. In Sicily it means “DO NOT GO! I AM ACCELERATING AND WILL MOW DOWN ANYTHING IN MY PATH!”

Motorbikes are also something you must know how to handle. Sicilians are generally in love with their motorbikes. With the kind of traffic one encounters in rush hour, the vast majority of men travel to and from work by motorbike every day, taking their wife on the back and leaving her at her place of work first. Unlike mainland Italians, it is unusual to see a Sicilian man on a Vespa, a scooter, or a farty little motorbike. These are for the teenage boys, who cannot afford anything else (including a crash helmet), and for the girls – that is, the ones who haven’t got boyfriends or husbands to give them a lift.

Sicilian men travel on serious motorbikes with large, fast engines, Honda or BMW being regarded as the elite. Be careful not to kill them! They are very prone to speeding and will overtake you to the left or the right, or even by driving over the roof of your car and down the bonnet.

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Maybe that was an exaggeration. But they would love to buy a motorbike to do that with, if one existed. If you still believe that Concorde was the fastest motorised means of transport created by man, you clearly have never witnessed Sicilian men on their motorbikes trying to get home before a thunder storm begins.

I should explain that, when it rains in Sicily, it buckets down like a tropical monsoon. The sky is capable of depositing so much water in so little time that, not only do the poor motorcyclists get drenched through their waterproof jackets and trousers and even get their hair wet inside their helmet, but also the sewers cannot cope and half the roads in the city get flooded to a depth of up to three feet.

This means that the man on the motorcycle cannot get home to eat his pasta. He may have to travel four times his normal commuting distance to find usable roads.

Therefore, when the sky turns black and you start to get blinded by flashes of lightning and hear thunder which makes the car windows vibrate, think of the poor Sicilian men on their Honda bikes desperate to get home, drop all their sopping wet clothes into the shower tray, blow-dry their chest hair and finally eat their plate of spaghetti. Slow down, keep to the kerb, and give them room to pass. You won’t actually see them, as they will be about as fast as the speed of light, but believe me, they are there.

Finally, don’t fret about all the dents, scratches and components of the car missing when you take it back to the Car Rental office. They won’t charge you for that type of normal wear and tear.

So chill out, relax, and enjoy driving in Sicily!

I AM ON HOLIDAY IN ENGLAND TILL THE END OF AUGUST, BUT LOOKING FORWARD TO READING ALL YOUR COMMENTS AS SOON AS I CAN GET ONLINE!

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30 thoughts on “Top Tips for Renting a Car in Sicily and not getting Killed in it

    1. I suppose you could ave a quintessentially Sicilian driving experience if you motored the whole length of Italy without a valid driving license. Go for it!
      I’m really starting to miss Sicily myelf, to be honest, now that it’s started raining here in England….

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  1. Once I rented a car at Catania airport. It was a Volkswagen “Golf”, black, no scratch … then I went to see an archaeological site in the inner part of the island – you know, the streets are sometimes not so good, there, especially not the ways to single farms. I had a good time to cover up all the scratches afterwards, and when I brought the car back – the guy only had a very short glimpse at it and said it was all ok! Unbelievable!

    Unbelievable also the streets, “Autobahnen”, well πŸ™‚

    But the most nice experience was when I was trapped with my car in a narrow street in Adrano when it was market day, there: All was crowded with Apes (the bees!). Your description of these vehicles fits exactly to reality …

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  2. My wife and I rented a car in Sicily, and the rental chap could not have been more helpful.He picked us up from where we were staying and offered to take us back when we returned the car to them. Rates were good too, it was Avis, and in this instance they tried harder and meant it.
    The driving was at times interesting, shall we say.Enjoy your holiday.

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      1. BTW I rented an Avis car in England last week and they were fab and also much cheaper than the other companies. I was so impressed!
        We’re sounding like an advertisement now, we’d better stop!!!! πŸ™‚

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    1. I’m glad you liked it!
      Stick around for more tips on Palermo, and do ask me for any travelling tips if you like. I love helping tourists find the really exciting things in Sicily, as there are so many astonishing sights to see!

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  3. My sister and I just got back from 2 weeks driving around Sicily in a rented Fiat Panda. I agree that it was pretty expensive with the full insurance cover. We annoyed many Italian drivers by going at a safe speed on steep, narrow, winding roads – frequently pulling over to let the impatient person who was right on our tail pass. The best moment was when a motorcyclist coming the other way passed the car ahead of him so close to us that we had to stop so as not to collide head on with him!

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  4. hilarious and read, as always

    and somewhat relatable …or in some aspects the experience is even a milder version of driving in India. I have a very relevant article/story on the India counterpart that I cant seem to find now, but I will share when I do.

    and in India, you can’t rent (rare exceptions) a car – can’t trust it to come back. they rent you a driver along

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    1. Based on what I’ve heard about drivers in India, I would be far too scared to rent a car that didn’t come with a driver fitted!
      I went to a school in London where about a quarter of the pupils were from Indian families, and so spent the summer with relatives there. They would come back in September with staggering tales of how there aren’t really traffic lanes in India, the vehicles just go anywhere they can see a gap that they reckon they would fit into. They also said you see literally everything in the roads in India, including cows and elephants going where they want and people on bicycles piled so high with stuff that they cannot see where they are going.
      I always try to bear in mind that at least I am not having to swerve round elephants whenever the Sicilian drivers are a bit too much for me. πŸ™‚

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  5. 13 oct 2013 just returned from Sicily and my driving experience concludes with others amazing, frightening, amusing, edge of the seat stuff, but never ever dull.

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  6. Thank you Sicilian housewife. I have two questions please:

    1) which is the best (most reputable) company to rent a car in Milazzo, then leave it in Palermo?

    2) Do I need an international driving permit? Is it required??

    Thank you in advance for your help!!

    Regards

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    1. Hi!
      You don’t need an international driving permit so long as your own driving permit has a photo on it. There are just a couple of countries from which licenses are not accepted (I believe Saudi Saudi Arabia is one, where I have been told the driving test consists of driving forwards ten meters then stopping!).
      Generally you’re OK with any rental company, but I usually go for the major international chains like Herz as they are clearer about charges. You tend to get quoted a price then, on the spot, required to pay a lot more because of extra insurance charges or whatever. If you prepay online it’s worth phoning or emailing to make absolutely certain that what you are paying is the full fee and there will be no extra charges.
      Also be prepared you may end up queueing for several hours to pick up your rental car and finally, walk around it to check for dents and go back with them marked on your contract if there are any, because Sicilian car hire companies don’t do this and you don’t want to risk paying for the last renter’s damage.

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  7. Dear Sicilian Housewife – I have been three times driving in Sicily – all around Sicily, for a total of 5 weeks between the three trips. I have always rented through Auto Europe in advance and my experience has been that cars are very affordable and the insurance is not expensive. Also, they have always gone out with me to look around the car before I leave. There is a $3.50 tax which gets charged everyday the car is out and that is additional.

    Although I will say my experience of the drivers in Sicily is somewhat entertaining, at times a bit on edge, I have never had a problem and never felt threatened or anxious about getting on the road. Now, perhaps because I was driving in May or September – it was not as busy on the roads.

    I do tend to find though, that there are no two lane roads in Sicily. Even if they are marked as so – Sicilians see three lanes – which means – they can always pass even if a car is coming from the other direction – as the other cars intuitively move to the sides of the roads to avoid a head on collision. Now – if that is what you are speaking of – I can understand your experience.

    A presto

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  8. We just got back from the most horrific vacation in Sicily. We planned on staying two weeks but left in two days. Firstly , everywhere we went it was filthy, beaches,roadways etc. We made the big mistake of renting a car! When you rent a car in Italy especially in Sicily, you are a marked target for Sicilians but also speed traps and any fine they can impose on tourist. Understand that I am a professional driver driving the Amalfee coast is a breeze compared to the constant assault driving anywhere in Dirty Sicily. On day two I nearly came to blows with an idiot taxi driver who told me in English to leave his filthy Sicily which we promptly did. Stay away from this disgusting filth hole !!

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