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Taking A Road Trip in Italy -- What to Bring, What to Do

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Taking a road trip in Italy is one of the best ways to see Italy, and certainly one of the most enjoyable. Italy has an overabundance of beautiful, clean and comfortable accommodations for travelers with great food right at hand, and the overwhelming majority of these accommodations do not need to be booked in advance.

Italian engineers have not lost the skills of their Roman predecessors for building fine roads. With rare exception, Italian roads are among the best engineered you will ever find, making driving a pleasure (and an amazement) in some of the most gorgeous parts of the country.

The moderate Italian climate allows for a long driving season in most areas, and air conditioned cars make summer car travel often more enjoyable than other options.

Historically, the joy of road-tripping in Italy has been one of the great attractions of Italian travel. (That was before the days of "trip planners"!) Millions of foreign visitors have done it successfully and It is still one of the most enjoyable trips you can take inside Italy.

Of course, you don't want a road trip driving a car if you are traveling to Italy's cities, which are so well-served by trains.

But if you want to get to know the whole of Italy -- primarily a nation of enchanting small towns and gorgeous natural scenery -- a road trip can be a lot of fun. It is a different kind of vacation from renting an Italian villa or apartment and exploring just one place, but it can be equally relaxing and rich in flavor, contrary to all the jabber you may have heard.

I'm posting some tips for enjoyable road-tripping in Italy. Remember, these are just my tips. I don't believe there is any truth to travel "dogmas" or "rule-of-three" formulas or buzzwords and slogans like "slow" or "smart travel" or "must-do" or "go where I went," Customize your own trip for optimal pleasure. You know best who you are, and nobody knows the whole of Italy anyway There is always more to see, even in places as supposedly completely "discovered" as Tuscany.

If you don't like taking road trips, this thread is not for you. But I hope others who still happily take road trips in Italy will share their tips.

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    TO BOOK OR NOT TO BOOK, THAT IS THE QUESTION:

    I prefer not to book my lodgings in advance when I go road-tripping because that has always worked out best for me. I want the full freedom of having a car to explore what looks interesting, and I want the pace of my daily driving determined by the weather and my mood -- not by having already booked a lodging 100 miles away.

    In my many travels in Italy, I have found Italy to be overflowing with clean, charming, comfortable accommodations, run by exceptionally friendly people who speak more than one language. Ninety percent of the time, when I drive up to a lodging and ask for a room, a nice one is available. On the rare occasions it wasn't, the owners offered to call nearby accommodations for me. I have never spent more than 30 minutes locating a place to stay.

    I like to be able to look at the location of a hotel and the interior space before booking. In fact, the only truly disappointing hotels I've stayed in in Italy have all been booked in advance, and I felt stuck with my mistaken choice. In a recent trip to the val d'Aosta, on separate occasions, I drove to recommended hotels in areas I wanted to stay only to discover I didn't like the location of the hotel, because of traffic noise or an unappealing view. In both cases, within 15 minutes, I had located another hotel I liked much better that was not in my guidebooks.

    I have never had to pay an extortionate rate when I walked in the door as a last-minute booker. In fact, sometimes I have gotten suites, terrace rooms, rooms with jacuzzis, and other high-end accommodations for a pittance as a walk-in traveler.

    On a recent road trip, I mapped out a general route, part of which took me through a mountain pass -- only to discover, when we arrived at the pass, that the road was in dangerously poor condition. We ended up taking the autostrade in a completely different direction. Had we pre-booked hotels, it would have been too late for us to cancel that day. We would have been charged for a room we didn't use. (Or worse, been tempted to use the dangerous pass anyway. Hope we wouldn't have made that mistake).

    When is it better to book in advance? If you have no choice but to travel in lousy weather, you should book in advance so you have a guarantee -- based on reading user reviews -- that your accommodations have the heat or the air conditioning you want. in the difficult weather months you will be traveling (However, if you get surprised by a heat wave or a cold snap, it is seldom hard to find a modern business hotel anywhere you go in Italy, especially in central and northern Italy).

    You need to book if the entire point of your trip is to spend the night in Italian towns that are world famous for being so charmingly small and antiquated, or if the point of your trip is to look at a world famous view from your hotel room.

    You need to book in advance if the point of your trip is to attend a world-famous Italian event (a Palio, Monza, Salone di Nautica, feast day of St Francis in Assisi, etc)

    You also need to book in advance if you are traveling as a large party during peak tourist season in a scenic area popular for family tourism.

    You need to book in advance if you are following a Rick Steves itinerary and want his recommended accommodations.


    NEXT UP: WHICH GUIDEBOOKS, MAPS AND A GPS, PLUS A CELLPHONE.

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    You'll need more than a Fodor's or a Michelin Green Guide in your car if you want to go road-tripping and book lodgings spontaneously. Carry in your car the Slow Food guide to Locande (inns) and the Michelin Red Guide for Italy. If you can't get these books in the US, buy them in Italy. A guidebook to Italian agriturismi (farm stays) is a great addition, and I've seen them sold through Amazon. Even those these guidebooks are written in Italian, you can easily decipher the essential information about the price, parking, wi-fi, air con, swimming pool, and how many meals are available on site.

    You also need in your car a large detailed map for every separate Italian region you visit. If you can't find them in the US, buy them when you arrive in Italy at bookstores, gas stations or magazine kiosks.

    If you don't own a GPS with European maps, you can rent one with your car. I almost never use my GPS, because I find following Italian road signs more reliable. However, sometimes the GPS has been a real asset, either in locating an isolated farm or winery, or driving through a large city to drop off my car rental. NEVER leave a GPS in your car. Always take it with you, even to lunch.

    Whenever you travel by car, it is good to have a cellphone for emergencies. You can also use it to call ahead to find out the availability of lodgings.

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    BRING A TOTE OR DAYPACK WITH YOU (and a lot of small plastic bags)

    One of the standard warnings about road trips is that "you'll inevitably lose half a day, unpacking and re-packing, checking in and out of hotels." That's never happened to me, so I guess it's not inevitable! One of the great advantages of taking a road trip with a car in Italy you don't have to haul your luggage in and out of hotels. You can leave it in the car, and take just what you need in a small bag when you check in and out. This is particularly nice if you are road-tripping among Italian hill towns, where parking is only available at the bottom of the hill, and you are lodging at the top.

    I wouldn't travel this way in America. I wouldn't leave things in the trunk of a rental car overnight, even unimportant things like my dirty laundry. But I've never had any worry about doing it in Italy. I take my small number of valuables with me, and lock everything heavy, including guidebooks, in the trunk.

    I use a small canvas backpack to hold my laptap, cellphone, GPS, a cosmetics bag, night clothes, my next day's fresh clothes and one plastic bag. I take that to my hotel room and leave everything else in the trunk of my car. The next day, I put on my clean clothes, use the plastic bag for my dirty clothes, and when I get back the car, I put the plastic bag in my suitcase. I'm on my way. (When I head down to breakfast, I ask the owner to make up my bill so I don't have to wait for it when I leave.)

    COMING UP: WANT TO ROAD TRIP BY TRAIN?

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    Road-trip by trains are best if you pack light.

    Trains go to a great many wonderful places in Italy, including marvelous small towns and cities rich in traditional Italian life, beauty and art. Again, one can find an overabundance of accommodation if you choose your targets well, and packing light is a huge help in making rolling road trips by train enjoyable.

    Italy's most important business cities -- such as MIlan, Bologna, Verona, Rome, Torino -- have a chronic shortage of accommodation. But smaller towns nearby -- like Pavia, Mantova, Modena, Peschiera del Garda, Alba and almost anywhere is Lazio near Rome -- have an overabundance of clean, affordable, last-minute accommodation -- and that by no means exhausts the list. The smaller towns and art cities around Florence and Venice with good rail and bus connections are not only great targets for last minute accommodation, they are incredibly enjoyable Italian places, with great sights, food and wine.

    In addition to good guidebooks, road trip travelers who are using the trains should know the opening hours of the tourist office, which is often a great resource for simplifying for locating the available locations in-town. I also think it helps to budget a bit for taxis, rather than to be constantly limited by what is nearest the train station when you are carrying luggage.

    Lastly, train travelers packing light but traveling for more than 10 days need to think about spending enough time in one location often enough to do a laundry, and let it dry. It s better to pack light and plan a road trip that includes a 2 or 3 day layover in one spot than to haul around luggage containing enough clean clothes for a multi-week trip.


    NEXT UP: Are some places in Italy better than others for a road trip?

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    MAPPING OUT SOME POSSIBLE ITALIAN ROAD TRIPS

    The whole point of a road trip is to be able to go where curiosity takes you, do what you want to do on the spur of the moment. A road trip is often more fun the less planning you do.

    Weather is the biggest consideration in Italy, plus how much time one wants to spend driving as part of a vacation. A lot of successful Italian road trips cover some ground by train and some by car, combining major art cities with small town travel.

    The difficult heat of central and southern Italy's summers can be beautifully escaped with road trips into the amazing Alps at Italy's north borders, or along the northern Mediterranean, from the French border to the Tuscan border.

    You can combine Venice with a short train trip to either Udine or Trieste to then pick up a car and visit the wine country of Friuli-Venezia-Guilia and enjoy the Julian Alps. You can also combine Venice with a short train trip to Trento, where you can pick up a car and head into the Dolomiti (it is especially nice to head for the less touristed and most beautiful val Badia and val Pusteria areas of the Dolomiti).


    Flying into Milan or Pisa offers the possibility of using trains to see both the Italian Riviera and the spectacular scenery of the valle d'Aosta.

    Flights into Pisa or Florence can combine the Garfagnana area of Tuscany and the Italian Riviera, or the sea-skirting Maremma area of Tuscany, ending up in Rome. It is possible to catch ferries to Elba or even further, to road trip on the island of Sardegna.

    In Autumn, a train loop from Florence to Modena and up to Torino can include the Piemonte wine and truffle country, flying out of Milan or Genoa. Or from Florence, train to Arezzo and then head into Le Marche for trips through the colorful hills and hilltowns, looping back up the Adriatic and ultimately flying out of Bologna.

    Sicily is a great destination for a two week road trip, either in Spring or Fall.

    Tuscany and Umbria are probably at their best in Spring, with plenty of access from Rome and Florence.

    And some day I will get to explore the southern half of Italy by car!

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    ITALIAN DRIVING SHOES

    Many Americans renting a car in Italy rent a manual transmission/stick shift -- which means a lot more footwork behind the wheel than Americans drivers customarily do at home. Investing in Italian-made driving shoes can add to your pleasure in taking to Italy's highways.

    They can not only be wonderfully comfortable on the road, they can go from car to dinner (while you wear thick-soled walking or running shoes for muddy places).

    http://www.ehow.com/how_2059984_buy-driving-shoes.html

    http://www.franchettibond.co.uk/shoes/flats/taupe-driving-shoes-manuela

    http://www.herringtoncatalog.com/ls780.html

    http://www.kwintessential.co.uk/articles/article/Italy/Italian-Driving-Shoes/4595

    Happy road tripping in Italy!

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    Hi Zeppole,

    Thank you for all of the above insight, it's super helpful. I just have a question regarding booking hotels. We're visiting Italy from August 24-Sept 4 and will be driving along the west coast. We've been told that it will be impossible to find lodging during August because it's a super high season. Do you think this would be the case, or can we avoid booking lodging in advance and find places to stay while we're there?

    Any advice would be greatly appreciated!

    Sarah

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    Hi,

    I use a different screen name now.

    The west coast of Italy is quite a long coast, and loaded with hotels. Not knowing which part of it is on your target list for overnights makes it impossible to advise. It is definitely high season, but there are also many beautiful locations that have more hotel rooms in all price categories than they do tourists. There are some parts of the Italian Mediterranean coast I would feel comfortable heading for without reservations, but others, no.

    But you can use booking.com today to plug in your dates and the towns you are considering. Booking.com will show you availability not only for the town you searched, but also for towns 3 kms way, or 13 ams away, etc. Very often a famous town will have no availability, while the lovely beach town just down the road does.

    By doing that kind of search, you can get a general idea of what the possibilities will be 2 weeks from now in the area you want to visit and whether or not you want to risk it. Generally speaking, Aug 24 to the end of the August are days of holidaying for all Italians, and they like to head to the beach, so those days will be tougher for locating rooms in the most famous towns than September will be.

    Since you say you will be driving, you should first do searches for hotels WITH PARKING (plus any other amenities you want like wi-fi).

    You should also look closely at cancellation policies. If you have a pretty good idea of where you will be on what nights, and you see availability now of hotels you like with a good cancellation policy, you can book them now. If your trip turns into something different midway, just remember to cancel.

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