I recently returned from a 50-Day Road Trip with my boyfriend, Marko, where we visited Croatia, Slovenia, Italy, San Marino and Vatican City. Our trip involved a bit of preparation (I don’t even mean in terms of trip planning) and at times some creative problem-solving. We learnt a lot during this trip about travelling in general, travelling as a couple and travelling via car – I thought it would only be fair that I pass on some of this knowledge to others who are considering doing a road trip in this region of the world.
I only ever travel on a budget (I live perpetually on a tight budget, actually) because it allows me to travel for longer and every now and then I can splurge on a special experience without any guilt or worry.
Here are some tips to help you to reduce your spending while driving around Italy and Croatia:
1. Use toll roads sparingly (especially in Croatia!)
Taking tolls regularly is the fastest way to drain your bank account of money that would be better spent on pasta or burek. It doesn’t always necessarily make a huge difference in terms of time, so I highly recommend checking the estimated difference in travel time on Google Maps before choosing whether to take the toll or not. Croatian tolls tend to be a lot more expensive than Italian ones, so approach those ones with care.
2. Shop around for petrol and diesel
This mainly applies to Italy where we found crazy price differences between cities/towns/regions and even on the same stretch of road. When you come across a good price please do yourself a favour and fill up all the way because it is unpredictable what you may come across. If you are passing through Croatia, Slovenia or San Marino, make an effort to check out the prices because they can be substantially cheaper, fill up while you have the chance.
Warning: Be wary of self-service petrol stations in Italy as their cash machines don’t always work and if you aren’t semi-fluent in Italian this could be a huge problem (one sucked in our 50 Euro note without giving us diesel, we eventually solved the problem – solely because Marko can read Italian).
3. Camp in your car
Now, this might seem like an out-there suggestion, it took Marko and I a while to get comfortable with the idea but after our first attempt, we were pretty pleased with the outcome. We were happy with the free accommodation which was sometimes even more comfortable than the bed in the accommodation we paid for. Buy yourself a sleeping bag, a pillow, have some toilet paper available and drinking water. Don’t forget to wind the window down a little bit for some air.
We found this very easy to do in Croatia (we even slept with an ocean view one night), whereas in Italy it was a lot harder but not impossible, we just had to search a little harder for a spot to park. I wouldn’t recommend trying this in a big city or around a popular tourist destination – it is a lot easier to do this in the countryside, which is perfect for road tripping.
4. Spend the night between bigger cities when possible
In general, it can save you a lot of money if you opt to stay in accommodation in the countryside instead of the city when possible. Try to avoid backtracking if you do this. We found that we had more authentic cultural experiences by staying in places that were untouched mass tourism and that the local people were actually excited to see us! We even managed to stay in a part of an Italian medieval castle in a really charming village for only $35AUD per night.
5. Bring some cutlery and an esky (icebox)
Dining out and even buying takeaway can add up – but if you have a few items of cutlery to help you prepare and eat your food you can save a fortune.
We carried a metal set of cutlery as well as some disposable spoons and forks for when we didn’t have the chance to clean our cutlery. This allowed us to eat yoghurt and cut up some snacks. We also carried around a hard plastic container to store dried fruit and nuts and an additional one to store leftover food that we cooked. We also had a blue esky or icebox, where we kept perishable food while on the road, typically with some frozen bottles of water to keep everything cold. As a result of our planning, we were covered for breakfast and snacks and didn’t waste our food and saved a lot of money by doing this.
Disclaimer: I am not a lawyer so this isn’t official legal advice but I do have some tips that you might want to consider or research yourself so that you don’t break the law while driving around foreign lands.
6. Carry the right documents
The documents that you will require to carry with you will depend on your passport. Everyone is required to carry their passport (with the exception of residents) and if they are driving, their drivers license, of course.
European passport holders don’t typically need to hold any additional paperwork to drive – you may wish to confirm this for yourself. Whereas Australian drivers, for example, require an International Driver’s Permit (IDP) for Croatia and either an IDP or an official translation of your driver’s license for Italy. This information comes from an official Australian government website, ‘Smart Traveller‘, this website is a really good resource in general, I highly recommend you check this out. You can purchase an IDP from RACV for $39AUD, for more information click on this link.
7. Carry the right equipment
Throughout the EU, regulations require that you carry a high visibility vest (which must be reachable inside the car by the driver), a reflective triangle and a first aid kit. The police can fine you if you do not have these things in your car. If you are driving in snowy conditions you are also required by law to carry snow chains.
8. Make sure you are insured to drive and that your travel insurance helps you with medical costs in the event of an accident
This is just common sense, you don’t want to end up in an international legal battle in the event that you are in a car accident and if you need medical care, the last thing you want to think about is the costs. I recommend checking out my blog post on choosing travel insurance if this is something you need to look into.
9. Always drive with low beam headlights on
You should always drive with low beam headlights on or LED running lights (if you have them), this another EU requirement and you can get fined for not abiding by this law.
Car Care – For Those Driving Their Own Car
Some of this is common sense but when you are preparing for a big trip some of these things may slip your mind.
10. Do car maintenance before and don’t skimp on essential repairs
11. Learn how to do the basics to look after your car
You should know how to change a tire, top up your car fluids (coolant, windscreen fluid etc.) and how to jump-start your car.
12. Carry jumper cables, a spare key and a torch.
Keep your spare key on your person just in case, this would have saved us a world of trouble.
13. Don’t blindly trust Google Maps navigation – pay special attention to signage
We had Google Maps direct us down one-way streets multiple times and it even led us on an unplanned off-roading mini-adventure, it is pretty fortunate that nothing bad happened to us because of this. So please be aware that Google Maps is not always accurate, especially in Italy.
Gran Turismo – Where to go for unforgettable drives
Italy may seem like an ideal place for a road trip and I would that say it is but only because of its beautiful destinations – the journey itself can be very chaotic. Whereas, in my opinion, Croatia is a lot more suitable for a hassle-free road trip. I will elaborate further on this below.
Firstly, we found our driving experiences to overall be easier and smoother in Croatia, we NEVER came across bad roads, whereas in Italy we came across a lot of very bad roads, full of potholes. Italy also doesn’t seem to update their road closures anywhere (not on Google Maps) and there are no signs to redirect you when you get to the closure. This caused a lot of chaos for us, we wasted a lot of our time and money and this resulted in some rough travel days.
Secondly, If you are wanting to have a road trip where you are treated with awe-inspiring coastal views you will be very disappointed in some parts of Italy. We often found it impossible to drive with a good coastal view and were horrified by the east coast (from after Venice until Gargano). In Croatia we had crazy views all the way and drove so close to the ocean at times that we could see the waves crashing – sunsets were amazing to watch while driving along this coastline.
So overall, Croatia was better for Gran Turismo – followed by San Marino and then Italy.
14. Top places for driving in Italy
The Dolomites in our opinion is the best place to drive in Italy and this was confirmed by the fact that next year car models are test-driven here, we saw many being tested. You can identify these cars by a distinctive wrap that imitates a smoke pattern and it makes it hard to see the details of the car. The well-surfaced roads make driving pretty breezy, you have to take it slow around the mountain passes but it is impossible to complain with the kind of views you get.
Most of this National Park is incredible for driving, the diverse landscapes and architecture provide you with endless eye candy. We must note that Forest Umbra isn’t great for driving – it is an undoubtedly magical place but the roads are very poorly maintained, so the drive itself isn’t super enjoyable.
Tuscany leaves you feeling like you are driving dreamily off into the sunset, all the time. The roads are mostly straight and you can often get panoramic views of old villages, the rolling green hills never get tiring.
Amalfi is one of Italy’s most iconic stretches of coastlines for a very good reason. The road is well-cared for and the views are to die for! We must note though, traffic on this road can get crazy and if you don’t like getting stuck in traffic you probably won’t enjoy the actual drive much. There are lots of buses on this road that have to overturn to get around the roads which can be a little bit intimidating. Once you see the views with your own eyes you probably won’t mind the chaos so much.
15. Places to avoid driving in Italy
I beg you not to even dream of attempting this – you need to visit the towns either by train (which goes by the water and looks pretty cool) or by doing a hike. It is not worth attempting to do by car. The roads are extremely narrow, there isn’t a lot of parking and the parking that exists is super overpriced. These small fishing villages have been heavily hit by mass tourism and some may argue that it isn’t worth visiting anymore because with the influx of crowds the charm is disappearing.
City centres in big cities
This is probably common sense but the city centres in big cities like Rome and Florence can be absolute chaos to drive in, there are a lot of one-way roads and confusing signs. You are better off commuting into them by train or bus to save yourself the trouble. It is also very hard to find parking in cities and it can be quite expensive.
16. Top places for driving in Croatia
The entire coastline
Driving along the Croatian coastline was one of our trip highlights. The drive is smooth because as aforementioned, Croatia takes very good care of their roads and the abundant stunning views of the seaside, the mountains and towns keep you entertained for hours. If you are interested in seeing 50 shades of blue in the sea, you will love this drive!
Opatija is a coastal town full of opulent Habsburg-era villas, it was formerly a luxurious vacation hot spot for the Austro-Hungarian elite. It is worth driving through or visiting, simply just to marvel at the grand architecture.
17. Be aware that Italians drive very differently depending on the region
When arriving in some newer regions of Italy we were shocked by how rude some drivers were until we realised that is simply how they drive in the area. For example, we found that cutting off other drivers in Naples was pretty standard and isn’t frowned upon.
18. Head to McDonald’s for cheap coffee and reliable internet
As I mentioned in my last blog post – about shocking and surprising things we came across in Italy, the WiFi is generally very unreliable. The only place we found with reliable WiFi was McDonald’s, so we stopped there quite a lot. A coffee and a pastry combined are around 2 Euros, plus you get functioning WiFi and a clean bathroom – I highly recommend stopping there when you are doing a long road trip. We also stopped there for toilet and coffee breaks in Croatia.
19. Buy your own data (especially if you are travelling for a long time)
One of my regrets on our road trip was not buying data. We knew it would be expensive and I have travelled without it before, so we thought we would be fine but that didn’t go very well in Italy. It is also nice to have the peace of mind, so that if you have booked accommodation that you can contact your host to let them know if you are running late or ask for directions if you are lost.
20. Bring paper towel, toilet paper, baby wipes and a bag to throw rubbish into
Having these supplies at hand will ensure that if you accidentally spill food or a drink or get dirty that you can quickly and easily clean up with no problems at all.
Do you have any tips to share?
I hope you took away something helpful or interesting from this blog post for your future travels. If you have any tips to share for road tripping in Italy and/or Croatia I would love to read them down below :)!
Special thanks to Marko for sharing his knowledge and photographic contributions in this blog post.