About a month before Easter, four of us decided to go on a skiing trip to Italy. Shocked at the price of airfares for the peak Easter week (nearly £800 for all of us), we decided to drive instead.
It sounds a bit daunting –1000 km from Calais to Italy's Aosta Valley, on the far side of the Mont Blanc Tunnel. However, the French have kindly built a motorway all the way down eastern France from Calais to within 5 km of the Mont Blanc Tunnel, so it is really a question of pointing the car at the motorway once you get off the boat, and then staying awake until Italy. Just remember the new rules about breathalysers in France.
The car for our trip was a Ford S-Max, which was about as close to perfect as you can get. It's big enough that you never have to worry about squeezing in the luggage, it's very quiet on the motorway and it has more toys than Hamleys (at least in top spec Titanium X trim). With sat-nav, lane departure warning, adaptive cruise control which automatically adjusts the speed of the car if you get close to a car in front, DVD screens in the back seats and a good audio system which could play music from smart phones via Bluetooth, it did its best to keep us amused during the journey.
It might sound odd given the travelling time involved, but we always choose the ferry over the Tunnel. Apart from the fact it is usually cheaper, the break gives the driver a chance to relax rather than being stuck in a narrow metal tube. A few years ago, another motoring journalist recommended that we use P and O's Club Lounge (cheers, Gavin), and we now won't travel any other way. It costs £15 extra per person, but it gives you a quiet oasis, like being in an airline's Executive Club in the airport. The free drink and newspapers come in handy, too.
The weird thing about travelling on French motorways is that you can travel across the whole country and arrive within minutes of the time that the sat-nav predicted at the start (or see our driving directions here). On arrival in France at 11.40 am, we thought it would be amusing to ask the sat-nav to plot our course to the tiny Italian village of Gignod (population about 500 plus the four of us). It predicted an arrival time of 8.05 pm. Excluding time spent at fuel stops (not something a sat-nav can predict very well), our arrival time would have been 8.01 pm. Given that a sat-nav cannot accurately predict the journey time of a trip to the shops in congested England, that was quite spooky.
So how did it compare to flying? Well, on the way back, we left at 8.35 am and were back in our flat in London at 8 pm. If we had left Italy at the same time and flown from Geneva, we would have been on a flight just after midday and been home around 4 pm. That is less of a difference than you might expect because we averaged 72 mph from Italy to Calais (the French speed limit being 80 mph), with no effort required.
Once you take into account the cost of car hire at Geneva, as we were not staying somewhere directly on the slopes, the cost of flying would have been over £1000 all in. The cost of driving is approximately £200 in tolls, £270 in fuel (36 mpg from the fully laden S-Max) and around £170 in ferry costs, so about £640. On the plus side, you also get enough space to carry any luggage you want (OK we admit it, that included quite a lot of Speckled Hen beer in our case) and no airport queues. The downside is a long day and a tired driver or two. However, if you have the right car and you live reasonably close to Dover, we reckon it is well worth doing the sums before handing over your dosh to Stelios or Michael O'Leary.