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Driving down to Italy


Driving to Italy from the UK

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 are coming out of lockdown at different times and with different rules! At the moment driving through France is allowed, but the Swiss borders were closed in June. All countries are open at the moment but, with the situation still in flux the rule is: Check before you go!

The FCO website is useful, as is this Swiss government website

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.

How long does it take to drive to Tuscany from the UK?

London to Central Tuscany will take approxiamtely 17 hours of driving, so it's best to plan a couple of days, if not three if you're travelling with young children. You have to factor time to cross the Channel - Eurotunnel is the fastest option but check-in still takes time, and of course, eating and resting time. I have made breakdowns of the various routes further down the page.

Best route for driving from the UK to Italy?

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 started from in the UK - and I'm going to use Casole d'Elsa, the best village in Tuscany (where I grew up!) as my final destination:

Crossing the Channel

To get to Calais from Dover 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 you'll be heading south, but there are three main routes you could follow (and a million variants!):

  1. Straight down, past Strasbourg and across Switzerland to Milan
  2. Straight down but avoiding Switzerland, crossing the Alps via the Mont Blanc Tunnel
  3. 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.

1. The Straight line

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 roads are all good on this route, particularly if 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:

From To Approx. driving time
Calais Reims 3hrs 30mins
Reims Basel 5 hrs
Basel Lucerne 1hr 30mins
Lucerne Milan 3hrs
Milan Florence 4hrs
Florence Casole 1hr
Total time 18 hrs

From Calais there will be roughly 16 to 18 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.

For example:

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.

Straight Route on Via Michelin

Map of Route from UK to Tuscany

2. The Mont Blanc variation

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:

From To Approx. driving time
Calais Reims 3hrs 30mins
Reims Dijon 3hrs 30 mins
Dijon Chamonix 3hrs 30mins
Chamonix Genoa 4hrs
Genoa Casole 4hrs
Total Time 18hrs 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.

Mont Blanc Route on Via Michelin

3. The Belgian option

Head east! This routes 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 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 90c of a Euro per litre of Diesel or Petrol.

The timings are:

From To Approx. driving time
Calais Luxembourg 4hrs 30mins
Luxembourg Strasbourg 3 hrs
Strasbourg Lucerne 2hrs 30mins
Lucerne Milan 3hrs
Milan Florence 4hrs
Florence Casole 1hr

The Belgian option on Via Michelin

Costs compared

Are we saving money by driving?

Airlines are notorious for hiking prices up for the school holidays, as well as for Saturday flights. Driving down can actually end up being cheaper than flying.

If there are 4 of you in an average family car you will spend around £ 175 in fuel and tolls. The Eurotunnel crossing is around £ 90 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 the 10th of July, the reutrn trip would cost:

Item Cost Total
Fuel & Tolls outward £ 175 £ 175
Fuel & Tolls return £ 175 £ 350
Hotel & meals outward £ 250 £ 600
Hotel & meals return £ 250 £ 850
EuroTunnel return £ 180 £1,030

And there are ways to make it cheaper. You can find Hotels around £50 a night, and meals for £50 too. And by driving 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 £ 600 or £ 700.

Flying Flying from London to Pisa with EasyJet on the 11th of July would cost around £ 570 return. But once you add luggage, book seats so you can sit together and then hire a car for a week, the total is £ 1200 - so a clear saving. (figures calculated on 01-06-20)

Useful websites:

Eurotunnel

DirectFerries

Via Michelin - to calculate route costs (and find restaurants!)

Emovis Tag - to pay French Motorway tolls on the go.

Carbon Footprint

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
Driving 178
Driving (4 passengers) 45
By Train (per person) 45

Adventure

the non economic reasons to drive.

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.

Here are some of our favourite accounts of driving down to Italy from the UK:

  1. Travelling to Italy after Lockdown - by HollyGoesLightly
  2. Driving from UK to Italy - tips for an Epic Trip by Lost in Landmarks

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!

Dinosaur Museum in Switzerland