If you’ve ever wanted to drive to Italy from the UK and wondered what the trip was like and whether it was worth the long journey then this blog post is for you.
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We did the journey a couple of years ago now in a really small car. Yes we could have probably flown and saved ourselves a long journey but we wanted to have the car when we were there so we could explore too. Also when you’re travelling on a budget with kids flights and then public transport at the destination can be a little bit pricey!
Nowadays we travel with a dog and that too means driving is a better option for Europe travel.
So with that in mind, here’s how our drive to Italy from the UK went. Scroll on down to see specific tips for driving from England, through Europe and on to Italy!
Pre trip – our road trip to Italy
So, when we first bought our car, which was a blue Mini, our first thoughts were of driving from UK to Italy and having a bit of an Italian Job Adventure! We all love the film, quote the lines and thought why not?
Italy had been on our radar for years, we’d planned to go in 2013 when we were driving round Europe in a camper van but felt that we didn’t want to be so far from the UK in a van that was struggling (she was an old van!) and we’ve also wanted to visit Venice for ages too. There always seemed to be something stopping us getting there – you know when you think a country is just being elusive? That was Italy for us – so close, but still we were unable to make it work.
We had a spare month after our Scottish house sit before another one we had lined up in London was going to start and so we decided to get moving with our Italian road trip! I searched high and low for an apartment for us for the month and settled on a gorgeous apartment from Airbnb in the town of Cogoleto (I’ll share pics of this in the next post – see here). Cogoleto is on the Ligurian coast, which is in the North West of Italy, just south of Milan and Turin and very near Genoa. It didn’t seem that far on the map!
Driving from UK to Italy – our experience
We had a long journey already in the UK as we were coming from Scotland, but we combined it with some cheap Travelodge hotels which broke it up nicely for us.
We did our normal Dover crossing early with DFDS Seaways which always seems to have the best prices for us, touched France briefly, picked up some food supplies in their supermarkets and begun the long task of driving through Europe.
When deciding our route for driving to Italy from England, we chose to drive through Belgium, Luxembourg, back briefly into France and through Switzerland to Italy. We chose this route as a) we’d never been to Luxembourg before and b) there were no French road tolls. Road tolls in France can be really high and we, as always, were on a budget!
Day 1 – Driving through Belgium to Strasbourg
Our trip started off pretty badly and we really had a tough time in Belgium and driving there. When we were there and driving in our van the year before we didn’t particularly enjoy the roads and the busyness of the motorways but thought that perhaps we’d just been there on a bad day. This time we had the same feelings and quite frankly couldn’t believe some of the manoeuvres and driving styles we saw driving through Belgium! James drives for a living and I had to take over from him because he was getting so stressed! Mostly it was erratic driving and not leaving any space in front when moving in front after overtaking. Quite a scary place to drive! (edit – in 2018 we drove through Belgium again. It wasn’t so bad this time so maybe we were just unlucky and the stress of the long drive ahead of us was playing a part!)
We were glad to get to Luxembourg, although didn’t see much of the place due to it taking us longer than we expected to get that far. We filled up the car there as it’s the cheapest place to get fuel and carried on driving.
Our first leg was due to be around 6 hours of driving on mainland Europe. It sounded a good idea and doable at the time, but I’m not sure who I was kidding! It was a LONG day, took way longer than 6 hours and when we arrived at our very budget hotel in the outskirts of Strasbourg we were so fed up. There was nowhere to eat either and we ended up having a really rubbish meal of whatever food we had in the car.
Our Italian road trip wasn’t sounding so romantic!
Day 2 – Driving from Strasbourg to Italy
We needed some decent food so got up early and drove to the next supermarket on our route for breakfast as soon as it opened. That felt better! It was another 6 hour drive or so, but we didn’t have the ferry trip at the beginning like the day before.
Driving through Switzerland was lovely, none of us had ever been there before so we could all tick off this beautiful place. I just wished we had more time to explore – an adventure for another time maybe! Even our stop at a service station to stretch our legs and have a toilet break was beautiful. The scenery was just stunning.
It didn’t seem to take too long to reach the other side of Switzerland, perhaps because we were enjoying the scenery and the roads, although the really long 15km Gotthard tunnel was interesting as it was very hot when we were driving though it! No time for claustrophobia!!
Our plan was to stop in Lake Como for Lunch and we made it there nice and easily, finding a nice car park as soon as we arrived (I always get stressed about finding car parks!!). We took our lunch to the waters edge and just enjoyed some people watching, leg stretching and the beautiful scenery. Lake Como has been on our list of places to visit for ages so it was great to be able to finally see it.
We were about half way to our destination now so back in the car to test out some Italian motorways and see how the Italians would drive! We arrived in Cogoleto at late afternoon to see the Mediterranean sparkling in the light and, after a bit of a worry trying to actually find our AirBnB place we were there and settled. Phew!
The drive from UK to Italy was a long one, way longer than I expected it to be I think.
Next time I think I’d try and take at least another day to do the trip and enjoy the journey a little bit more. On our return we decided to just pay the tolls and drive through France rather than Belgium and actually that worked a lot better.
Tips for driving to Italy from England
How long is the journey?
Obviously this might depend on your driving style, route and need for stops.
Overall Google maps states that it takes around 11 hours to reach the Italian riviera coast from Calais and if you’re driving deeper in to Italy then expect it to take much longer.
We found that an early ferry crossing from Dover allowed us to get a decent amount of driving done before having a night stop over half way down the route. We chose Strasbourg but I don’t recommend the hotel we had – it was a cheap roadside stop and it was definitely on the grim side.
You could do the drive in one day or overnight if you so desired, but it would be a very long day. Obviously if you’re driving further you might want to have 2 stopovers on the way down.
We had kids with us so that fueled our desire to not have driving days too long.
Ferry or Tunnel?
First thing to decide for your trip is how to cross the English channel and start off your journey. We travelled from Dover to Calais using the DFDS ferry which meant maximum driving time and minimal ferry journey. P&O Ferries also do the route are also worth checking to see if the times suit better.
Now we have a dog we’d probably use the channel tunnel which I feel is a much more dog friendly route.
If you were coming from the South West of the UK you might find it better to get a ferry from Plymouth or Portsmouth which will take you to Normandy and you could cross France from there.
If you want to compare routes I suggest the AFerry website – plug in your dates and it will give you the costs from different providers including the Eurotunnel.
Which route to take?
Your route will probably be dictated by your final destination in Italy but for the majority you might find that driving down the east of France and through Switzerland is the most direct route.
Don’t discount the french toll roads – I often see people say to stay off them becuase they can be so expensive and while that is true, sometimes if you’re just needing to get somewhere it pays to get there quickly and easily.
We listened to that advice and decided to drive through Belgium to avoid toll roads on our outward journey but in hindsight this was probably a mistake. Our return journey was much better for using them.
Tolls on the journey from UK to Italy
The toll roads in France are often quiet too which means a nicer, if a little boring experience.
Toll prices can change quickly so it’s probably a good idea to use the Via Michelin site for your route planning which handily gives you the costs. For the return journey we did using the toll roads the costs were around €50 (correct as at 2021).
You’ll also need a Vignette for driving through Switzerland and the tunnels there. You can buy this at the border and it costs around 40 Swiss Francs (you can also pay in Euros). The vignette lasts for a whole year so should be good for the return journey too.
Be aware if you enter Switzerland through the Mont Blanc tunnel you’ll also pay a toll there that isn’t included in the vignette.
Hotel stops on the journey
As with the UK you’ll find hotels dotted along main roads. These are generally basic hotels with little to recommend them. Our Strasbourg stop was really not that great but we had a better one on our return journey.
My tip for you is to check hotel booking sites for reviews – I like to use Booking.com – and also be aware of what the surrounding area is like. Can you walk anywhere nice? Are there any food options nearby?
Documents needed for driving to Italy
Check each countries driving rules before going and make sure you have any specific requirements fulfilled. For example, France needs you to have breathalysers on hand in the car and throughout Europe you’ll need UK stickers too (not GB anymore – this has changed recently).
To drive in Italy you need:
- a warning triangle
- reflective (hi-vis) vests
- a UK sticker
- headlamp converters (for right hand drive vehicles)
You’ll need your UK photo card driving licence for the trip, proof of ownership (your V5 document) of your vehicle and proof of insurance too.
Now that we’re out of the EU you’ll also need to make sure you have a Green Card which is provided by your insurance company. Basically this shows you have the required minimum insurance for your trip and for each country.
I try to keep this page up to date but obviously rules can change (especially with new Brexit rules) so definitely double check before driving!
Other tips for the journey
Stock up on water for in the car, especially if you’re driving in the height of the summer. It can get really hot especially in the tunnels!
Service stations are expensive for snacks so a supermarket stop is a good idea – we always loved the French supermarkets for some fresh pastries!
Tips for driving in Italy
We thought that Italy would be a crazy place to drive in as we’d heard so many horror stories, but in actual fact we found it quite a good place to drive. Don’t listen to the generalisations of the country!
Italian motorways and toll booths
Italian motorways (autostrada) are really good and are the best way to get from A to B really. In France there was always another route to go to avoid tolls, but the tolls in Italy aren’t so easy to avoid.
We found that it’s better to assume you’re going to have to use the Italian motorway tolls and budget for it accordingly. If you really have lots of time to spare you can avoid them and enjoy a myriad of small italian towns driving along the coast but if not, save yourself some time and take the motorway.
You take a ticket when you get to the toll booth and pay, in cash, when you exit the motorway. Really easy – just don’t go in the Telepass lane as you’ll not be able to pay there.
Speed limits in Italy
The speed limits in Italy are in Kilometres per hour and don’t think that you can drive as fast as you want and get away with it because others do. We saw plenty of people driving above the speed limit and never saw any police presence but I’d definitely recommend just sticking to the rules even though it may seem like the driving rules in Italy are lacking!
Speed limits also can change when the weather changes – in dry weather the autostrada limit is 130km/h but in wet weather the limit drops to 110km/h.
Navigating in Italy
Definitely invest in a good map if you’re planning to do a lot of driving in Italy and Europe. Up to date versions are of course always recommended! We used the Collins European road map ourselves but there are many that are good if you have a favourite brand.
We also used a sat nav with European maps – I normally like to use my phone, but after a couple of times when over in Europe and having it not work, I always like to have a back up sat nav! It’s also useful if you’re worried about using your data up on your phone especially now with european roaming charges back for UK phones.
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