During our trips I keep a small notebook to keep track of our budget and spending. This not only keeps us aware and in control of our finances, but is also good for posterity. When planning new trips we refer to the budget book to see where our biggest expenditure lies and to see if there is any way of beating the budget. The more we save on the everyday costs such as travel and food for example, the better it is for our bank balance and the more we have available to spend on other stuff without worrying about overspending.
While planning this year’s trip to Italy we used the budget book to see where our biggest costs previously went. Our previous holidays saw us driving through France and last year, for example, we took the Eurotunnel over to Calais and drove southwards. As the journey is way too far to cover in one day alone we split the journey into two by stopping in the Puy-de-Dome region for a week before heading to Padua in Italy. The stop in France was approximately halfway between Calais and Padua but still took a full day to do. Driving in France isn’t a bad thing in itself. The roads are clean and in good condition but we soon realised that the tolls added a huge amount onto our travel costs. Travelling through the Mont Blanc tunnel alone added almost €60 to our costs – and that was just one way! We decided to look into whether alternative routes would save us money on our travel expenditure.
Obviously, the only other route you are left with to get to Italy without going through France is to travel via Germany. Germany is absolutely stunning to drive through. The roads are immaculate and even roadworks are dealt with with utmost efficiency. Houses look like they’ve jumped from the pages of a storybook and even the service stations were a pleasure to use with none of the rolling up the hem-of-your-trousers-before-sitting business there, thank you. The self-cleaning loos were also riveting to watch. Either we are so easily pleased or we have experienced more than our fair share of less than enjoyable slip road amenities.
Toll charges do not apply in Germany. Not unless you are driving a heavy goods vehicle. Given that our transport was our rusty yet faithful 17-seater minibus we would not be charged a cent. Germany does have several Low Emission Zones throughout, aiming to meet the EU’s air quality limit values which are known as Umweltzones. Vehicles driving through Umweltzones without displaying a sticker representing the vehicle’s environmental rating will be fined. The sticker, known as an Umweltzone Plakette, will either be red, yellow or green depending on your vehicle’s level of emissions. You only need to purchase the sticker once as it will last the lifetime of your vehicle (as long as you keep it displayed on the windscreen). It does not need to be renewed or replaced unless you replace your vehicle for a different one.
Umweltzone Plakettes can be bought from the service stations just before the German borders, either in Belgium or Austria, but wanting to be as prepared as we could be before we set off we decided to hunt around for any way of ordering them online. We found a few places charging upwards of €40 for the privilege of ordering the Umweltzone Plakette. Don’t use them! The sticker only costs €6 and can be bought directly from the German government website here. All you have to do is to enter your vehicle’s registration number and they will work out which sticker applies to it. You will also need to upload a copy of the vehicle’s registration paperwork. Payment can then be made by card and your sticker will be posted out to you – we received ours within a week.
After a short stop in Hammelburg – approximately halfway between Calais and our final destination in Padua – we continued our drive via Austria. Much like Germany, Austria doesn’t have tolls as a rule. The only tolls we had to pay were near the Italian border and they were minimal. Unfortunately, none of us could remember exactly how much and I didn’t make a note of it. It was nothing more than a handful of Euros though. However, before crossing over into Austria you will need to purchase a vignette for your vehicle which you must once again display on the inside of your windscreen. The vignette costs €8.70 for vehicles up to 3.5tonnes and is valid for a total of ten days, including the day of purchase which is indicated with hole punches at the time of buying. Therefore, if you were staying in Austria for two weeks for example, you would need to purchase a second vignette for the remainder of your time there. The vignette can be bought at the last service stations before crossing the border into Austria – you’ll see large signs at the side of the motorway advertising them. Like Germany, fail to purchase and display it and you will be hit with a fine. Please note: purchasing the sticker alone isn’t enough – you have to display it clearly on your windscreen too.
Once through the Brenner Pass and you are in Italy. Driving in Italy is more aggressive than we are used to in the UK. Drivers and pedestrians compete for space on the road, both of whom seem both oblivious of the other. During our first visit there we found it surprising when cars wouldn’t automatically stop when they would see people waiting at zebra crossings as they would here. The Italians, knowing this, weren’t averse to stepping out in front of fast-moving vehicles, almost daring them to keep on moving as they made their way over the road. The sound of honking horns is common, but only as a means of letting you know that they’re coming so you might want to move out of the way… pretty soon! Cycling is a hugely popular mode of transport and it isn’t unusual to see both the very young and the very old on their bikes so you’ll need to watch out for them approaching from all directions.
As with most countries in Europe there are rules on the equipment you need to carry in your vehicle when driving in Italy. You need to include a reflective jacket and a red warning triangle in case of breakdown which should be kept close to the driver’s seat (not in the boot) for easy access in the event of an emergency. You also need to ensure you have added headlight beam reflectors too. There are tolls in Italy but unlike France they cost far, far less. The roads are, contrary to popular belief, actually very good to travel on for the most part. We witnessed fabulous efficiency during our stay there where a main road was completely resurfaced in only two days and with minimal disruption. Talk about impressive!
As you can see, the overall cost of travelling to Italy via Germany is far more favourable than doing so via France. Obtaining the required stickers is relatively fuss-free and it can make a great difference to your final travel costs – our entire costs for the stickers required came to far less than last year’s one-way Mont Blanc toll alone and saved us hundreds of euros in comparison to previous years. For us it is now our preferred option when driving over to Italy or beyond.