Simon Calder: Why motoring abroad can drive you to distraction

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."

Life and Style
Steve Shaw shows Kate how to get wet behind the ears and how to align her neck
healthSteven Shaw - the 'Buddha of Breaststroke' - applies Alexander Technique to the watery sport
Arts and Entertainment
The sight of a bucking bronco in the shape of a pink penis was too much for Hollywood actor and gay rights supporter Martin Sheen, prompting him to boycott a scene in the TV series Grace and Frankie
footballShirt then goes on sale on Gumtree
Terry Sue-Patt as Benny in the BBC children’s soap ‘Grange Hill’
voicesGrace Dent on Grange Hill and Terry Sue-Patt
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Performers drink tea at the Glastonbury festival in 2010
Arts and Entertainment
Twin Peaks stars Joan Chen, Michael Ontkean, Kyle Maclachlan and Piper Laurie
tvName confirmed for third series
Cameron Jerome
footballCanaries beat Boro to gain promotion to the Premier League
Arts and Entertainment
ebookHow to enjoy the perfect short break in 20 great cities
Independent Travel Videos
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Amsterdam
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Giverny
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in St John's
Independent Travel Videos
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Travel

    Guru Careers: Events Coordinator / Junior Events Planner

    £24K + Excellent Benefits: Guru Careers: We are seeking an Events Coordinator ...

    Royal Yachting Association Cymru Wales: Chief Executive Officer

    Salary 42,000: Royal Yachting Association Cymru Wales: The CEO is responsible ...

    Guru Careers: Marketing Manager / Marketing Communications Manager

    £35-40k (DOE) + Benefits: Guru Careers: We are seeking a Marketing Communicati...

    Ashdown Group: Technical IT Manager - North London - Growing business

    £40000 - £50000 per annum: Ashdown Group: A growing business that has been ope...

    Day In a Page

    Abuse - and the hell that came afterwards

    Abuse - and the hell that follows

    James Rhodes on the extraordinary legal battle to publish his memoir
    Why we need a 'tranquility map' of England, according to campaigners

    It's oh so quiet!

    The case for a 'tranquility map' of England
    'Timeless fashion': It may be a paradox, but the industry loves it

    'Timeless fashion'

    It may be a paradox, but the industry loves it
    If the West needs a bridge to the 'moderates' inside Isis, maybe we could have done with Osama bin Laden staying alive after all

    Could have done with Osama bin Laden staying alive?

    Robert Fisk on the Fountainheads of World Evil in 2011 - and 2015
    New exhibition celebrates the evolution of swimwear

    Evolution of swimwear

    From bathing dresses in the twenties to modern bikinis
    Sun, sex and an anthropological study: One British academic's summer of hell in Magaluf

    Sun, sex and an anthropological study

    One academic’s summer of hell in Magaluf
    From Shakespeare to Rising Damp... to Vicious

    Frances de la Tour's 50-year triumph

    'Rising Damp' brought De la Tour such recognition that she could be forgiven if she'd never been able to move on. But at 70, she continues to flourish - and to beguile
    'That Whitsun, I was late getting away...'

    Ian McMillan on the Whitsun Weddings

    This weekend is Whitsun, and while the festival may no longer resonate, Larkin's best-loved poem, lives on - along with the train journey at the heart of it
    Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath in a new light

    Songs from the bell jar

    Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath
    How one man's day in high heels showed him that Cannes must change its 'no flats' policy

    One man's day in high heels

    ...showed him that Cannes must change its 'flats' policy
    Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

    Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

    Dominic Rossi of Fidelity says his pressure on business to control rewards is working. But why aren’t other fund managers helping?
    The King David Hotel gives precious work to Palestinians - unless peace talks are on

    King David Hotel: Palestinians not included

    The King David is special to Jerusalem. Nick Kochan checked in and discovered it has some special arrangements, too
    More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years

    End of the Aussie brain drain

    More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years
    Meditation is touted as a cure for mental instability but can it actually be bad for you?

    Can meditation be bad for you?

    Researching a mass murder, Dr Miguel Farias discovered that, far from bringing inner peace, meditation can leave devotees in pieces
    Eurovision 2015: Australians will be cheering on their first-ever entrant this Saturday

    Australia's first-ever Eurovision entrant

    Australia, a nation of kitsch-worshippers, has always loved the Eurovision Song Contest. Maggie Alderson says it'll fit in fine