Simon Calder: Why motoring abroad can drive you to distraction

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The Independent Travel

Things may come and things may go, but the allure of the open road stretches on forever – especially when you consider the alternatives. Next weekend, for example, sees another Bank Holiday, another shutdown of crucial parts of the UK rail network: stretches of the West Coast main line and Midland Mainline are closing. Suppose you decide to do the right thing: holiday at home, and shift from car to train; you could face a sluggish, cumbersome journey involving the dreaded bus-replacement service.

We are turning our backs on air travel, too, according to the latest figures from Nats – National Air Traffic Services. The rise in aviation turns out not to be so inexorable after all, as the price of fuel forces up many fares and the airport experience proves so miserable.

So, even though the Foreign Office this week revealed that the British behave on overseas holidays with all the subtlety of a Russian peace-keeping operation, millions of us are spending the summer behind a steering wheel.

With 21st-century traffic levels, watching lilting landscapes reveal themselves beneath benign skies, or threading through dramatic mountains in splendid isolation is not as easy as once it was. If you are desperate for such solitude, you could always rent a vehicle in Spitsbergen. Be aware, though, that a fly-drive in this Arctic archipelago is not the same as in France or Florida. Heed the warning that "as protection against polar bears, a suitable weapon is recommended"; and don't complain once you've exhausted the 30 miles of road emanating from the capital, Longyearbyen.

At lesser latitudes, prepare to join the throng on the roads in Europe and America, staring at the bumper of the car in front – and perhaps, weeks later, staring with some disbelief at how much the rental car company has hit your credit card. The rising cost of filling the tank could be just the start of your problems should you choose to drive abroad.

Earlier this summer I related the story of Leslie Rushworth's trip to Florence. He drove in the city in January, then months later received a demand, purporting to come from the city authorities, for €290 (£240) for alleged traffic violations.

I speculated that this was a scam, because there was no contact address nor right to appeal against the fine. But Rita Giannini, herself from Florence, insists: "This is not a scam; a large area of Florence is closed to private traffic, and the access is controlled by cameras which photograph the registration number of the car."

Many city centres in Italy have a zona blu, which is legally accessible only by residents and businesses. The system works like London's congestion charge. If a car without authorisation is caught on camera, a fine is automatically issued. "It is possible to go on the city website and find out exactly why you were fined," says Ms Giannini, "and even see a picture of the registration plate of your car when it was photographed."

Drivers of hired vehicles can be pursued for the cash by the car-rental company. But what if you were driving your own, British-registered car? Plenty of UK motorists simply ignored fines from abroad, but Ms Giannini warns that, these days, "collaboration between the European countries is more advanced, and it is easier to find out the owner of the offending car".

She confesses she recently incurred a fine in her home town: "I went along a road in Florence which was not closed when I lived there 20 years ago, but which is now included in the zona blu."

Any foreigner opting to drive in Italy starts at an automatic disadvantage to the local population, lacking both the local motoring and parking genes – and usually being unable to unravel intricate Italian instructions on street signs. The easiest solution? If you find yourself driving in Italy, assume that the central area of all cities is off-limits. Better still, go by train.

Stateside scams

Across the Atlantic they have other ways to extract money from visiting motorists. As mentioned here, Bill Swan took a fly-drive to California, but found his rental bill had trebled when he was duped into an upgrade to a four-wheel drive and persuaded to buy additional insurance. After protesting to his car-rental company, Mr Swan received a refund of $180 (£95).

Peter Mathews, who lived in Florida for 15 years, says a friend of his who works for a car-rental company maintains "foreign tourists are seen as easy prey" for selling all kinds of extras.

"Tourists are unaware of the state laws, and after long-distance flights are far more likely to go along with whatever the car rental agent wants them to buy."

He is particularly exercised by visitors being told they must buy insurance.

"By state law, every car-rental company must provide a basic insurance on their vehicles."