Driving down to Italy from the UK can be fun and just as much part of your holiday as the destination. With the recent pandemic in mind, many may well prefer it over flying. I've driven up and down between the two countries many times so I thought I'd collect my tips and thoughts for any considering it for the first time.
CAVEAT: Different countries have different travel rules and testing requirements which change regularly. I updated this article in June 2022 and the rules have changed a number of times since the original article from June 2021!) rules for driving through Europe from the UK.
The rule is: Check before you go!
The Re-Open EU website is very useful - you can find it here: Re-Open EU.
I'm using a drive to Tuscany as my model, because that's where I've generally been heading, and that's where most of our villas and apartments are.
There are several choices open to you. I'm going to assume you're starting from Calais as that's where most people end up crossing, wherever you start from in the UK. I'm going to use Casole d'Elsa, the best village in Tuscany (where I grew up!) as my final destination:
To get to Calais you have two choices: a ferry or the eurotunnel. I now nearly always use the Eurotunnel - it's fast, there's very little fuss and, so far, it's never let me down. It's also a system that allows you to remain in your car - so has far less contact than a ferry. Their website is here: Eurotunnel.
But ferries are often cheaper. Try DirectFerries for pricing and booking.
From Calais to Italy by car, you'll be heading south, but there are three main routes you could follow (and a million variants!). Depending on traffic, here are my approximate calculations so you can see how long it takes to drive to Italy:
- Straight down, past Strasbourg and across Switzerland to Milan
- Straight down but avoiding Switzerland, crossing the Alps via the Mont Blanc Tunnel
- East toward Belgium, through Luxembourg and then Switzerland and Milan.
The first route is the fastest, the second has the emptiest roads while the third is the cheapest.
The straightest line runs from Calais past Reims, Metz, Strasbourg, Lucerne, through the Gotthard Tunnel, past Milan, down to Bologna and then across the Apennines to Florence. The Basel, Lucerne, Gotthard, Como route is probable the best route through the alps to Italy.
The roads are all good on this route, particularly if you stay on the French side past Strasbourg. If you go across to Offenbach and onto German motorways the roads are much more full and the surfaces more worn.
The timings are roughly:
|Calais||Reims||3 hrs 30 mins|
|Basel||Lucerne||1hr 30 mins|
|Florence||Casole d'Elsa||1 hrs|
Driving to Italy from Calais will take around 16 to 18 hours, on top of how ever many hours it has taken you to get to Calais from your home in the UK. So it's wise to split the trip up. When travelling with children it can be a good idea to take 3 days overall. A family road trip to Italy from the UK with interesting places to see on the way is more of an adventure than a flight after all!
Day 1: Leave London in mid morning, cross the channel at midday. A midday crossing will see you arrive in Calais by 1:30pm (you lose an hour on the way down), and then you could stop in or around Reims by 5 or 6pm.
Day 2: Leave Reims after a Cathedral visit and be in Lucerne (which is beautiful) by 5 or 6pm.
Day 3: Drive to Tuscany, arrive around 4 or 5pm
Or, for the early risers:
Day 1: Cross the channel as early as feasible, arrive in Calais by 9 or 10 am. Drive to Lucerne, arriving around 7 or 8pm Day 2: Leave Lucerne after a good Swiss breakfast, arrive in Tuscany by 4 or 5pm.
With this route you avoid Switzerland but head for Lyon, turning East just before the city to cross the Alps near Geneva, via the Mont Blanc tunnel. Useful if the Gotthard tunnel has queues - and if you'd like to stay on the fast, clear French motorways. Toll costs go up and the Mont Blanc tunnel is expensive too.
The timings are roughly:
|Calais||Reims||3 hrs 30 mins|
|Dijon||Chamonix||3 hrs 30 mins|
|Genoa||Casole d'Elsa||3 hrs 30 mins|
From Calais there will be roughly 17 to 20 hours driving, on top of how every many hours it has taken you to get to Calais from your home in the UK. So it's wise to split the trip up. When travelling with children it can be a good idea to take 3 days overall, while as a couple 2 days can be plenty.
One option which we have enjoyed is to stop just past Genoa, on the coast. Sestri Levante is a beautiful town to stop at for the night - or even for a couple of days.
Head east! This drive to Italy curves east through Belgium and than down on the German motorways, which can be exhilarating or terrifying depending on your take. German motorways are busier than the French ones, but you do go past Aachen, so you could pop in to see Charlemagne's throne room.
This used to be my favourite route when saving money trumped any other consideration, and it has several advantages in this respect, namely that the motorways are free until you hit Switzerland and have to buy a vignette, and that Luxembourg has the cheapest fuel in Europe, currently around 1.48 Euro per litre of Diesel or Petrol.
The timings are:
|Calais||Luxembourg||4 hrs 30 mins|
|Strasbourg||Lucerne||2 hrs 30 mins|
|Florence||Casole d'Elsa||1 hrs|
Are we saving money by driving?
Airlines are notorious for hiking prices up for the school holidays, as well as for Saturday flights. Driving to Italy can actually end up being cheaper than flying.
If there are 4 of you in an average family car you will spend around £ 250 in fuel and tolls from Calais to Italy by car. The Eurotunnel crossing is around £ 100 one way. Then you will have your hotel and meal costs on top of this - a hotel in Lucerne will cost around £ 250 for a family room for 4.
Imagining you're leaving on Friday 8th July 2022 and returning on Sunday 17th 2022, the drive to Italy from UK return would cost:
|Fuel & Tolls outward||£ 250||£ 250|
|Fuel & Tolls return||£ 250||£ 500|
|Hotel & meals outward||£ 250||£ 750|
|Hotel & meals return||£ 250||£ 1,000|
|EuroTunnel return||£ 300||£1,350|
And there are ways to make it cheaper. You can find Hotels around £50 a night, and meals for £50 too. And by driving from UK to Italy through Luxembourg, you can get cheap fuel and avoid some of the motorway tolls. So a little planning can bring a return trip down to around £ 800 or £ 900.
Flying 4 people from London to Pisa with EasyJet on the Saturday 9th of July, returning on 16th July 2022 would cost £ 1,336 return (flying out at 0900 and back at 12.40). Car hire has increased a lot this year (2022) and a VW Golf will cost you £845 for 1 week, bringing the total to £2,181 (figures calculated on 12-06-22)
|Flights for 4||£ 1,336||£ 1,336|
|Car Hire||£ 845||£ 2,181|
Via Michelin - to calculate route costs (and find restaurants!)
Emovis Tag - to pay French Motorway tolls on the go.
or: Can driving be a green choice?
Flying is not a green way to travel and many families are trying to keep their carbon footprint low. Driving is not as green as traveling by train but is still a lot more efficient than flying. If you have a car of 4 travellers and a fuel-efficient car you can be just as green as train travel: here are some rough thumbnail calculations.
|Type of Travel||Emissions in Kgs of CO2|
|Flying (per person)||266|
|Flying (per family of four)||1064|
|Driving (per car)||178|
|Driving (per person if 4 in car)||45|
|By Train (per person)||45|
|By Train (per family of four)||180|
- For more information see ecopassenger.com
This is a matter of personal choice, but here are a few places we enjoy when travelling to or from Italy.
We've tried a few places but the hotel below ticks so many boxes we just keep going back:
23 Rue du Chemin des Dames, 02860 Chamouille, France Near Reims, so good for a first stop, this hotel has family rooms with a lake view and a good restaurant. There are some lovely walks around the area.
While we haven't yet stayed in a bad hotel in Lucerne we also haven't found a favourite. Recently we've stayed in the
Pilatusstrasse 1, 6003 Luzern, Switzerland
A large old-school hotel which sometimes has special deals on the large penthouse suites. An easy stroll from here across the bridge to the old town and a number of good restaurants.
More recently, we tried the
Süd-West : 5 Km Richtung Schwendelberg, 6048 Horw, Switzerland
A typical Gasthaus with hearty alpine fare, great views and some good mountain walks right from the door.
The open road, driving through several different countries, seeing the Swiss Alps - there are plenty of good reasons for turning the traveling into part of your holiday. The route can go through France, Belgium, Germany, Luxembourg, Switzerland - each with its own special character.
Children enjoy the adventure, particularly if you build in plenty of stopping points and interesting pauses - we once found a fantastic Dinosaur museum in the middle of Switzerland entirely by chance, and new restaurants are always fun!
More recently we stopped off in the Louvre-Lens Museum, an extension to the Louvre museum in the old mining town of Lens, not far from Calais. Fabulous, a real joy and well worth a stop.
99 Rue Paul Bert, 62300 Lens, France Contemporary, glass-walled gallery showing artworks from the Louvre in Paris, plus temporary shows.
Zürichstrasse 69, 8607 Aathal, Switzerland Educational museum featuring dinosaur bones, fossils & life-size models, plus events & a gift shop.