Driving to / from Corfu

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Driving to Corfu

People often talk about driving to Corfu for their holidays, so, as we have done this each year since 2009, I have added some thoughts and advice here.  These are very much personal thoughts / experiences, based on our journey in the Spring (to Corfu) and late Autumn (to UK) - many people have done this journey and some have quite "specific" thoughts on routes, etc.

For most, the journey really starts in France - either Calais (Eurotunnel / Ferry) or Dunkirk (Ferry).  It is also possible to get an overnight ferry down from the north of England to Zeebruge, although this can be affected by bad weather in the North Sea (as can the Dover ferries of course!) at the time of year when we travel. There are additional options if you travel from the south west of England, but these are not covered here as we have not used these services.  

There are two primary routes thereafter that we use - France / Switzerland / Italy and France / Belgium / Germany / Austria / Italy. 

Although it is feasible to do most of the journey overland (by travelling down through Slovenia, Croatia -- see below for more thoughts on this), most people who drive will take the ferry from one of the main northern Italian ports - Venice or Ancona (Trieste was a third option that was briefly available around 2016/2017 but the operators now appear to have dropped that port).  The ferry companies have changed their routes several times recently so, particularly outside of the July / August period, the ferries no longer stop at Corfu and you therefore need to use Igoumenitsa on the Greek mainland (which has plentiful connections to Corfu).  Which Italian port you use will often depend on how the sailing times "work" for you.  We used Venice for a number of years until we were held outside the Grand Canal for eleven hours in November 2011 due to fog (two weeks later there was a thirty six hour delay) - we now use Ancona which only adds around 170Km to our road journey but does not suffer the same sort of delays, and the sailing time is also quite a bit shorter (around 17 hours against 25 hours).

Since we last used the Venice route, the port has changed such that the ferries no longer have to use the Grand Canal and now dock on the mainland, which in theory makes the driving process easier as it will no longer require a drive across the Causeway from the mainland in to Venice.   However, in our view the shorter journey time on the Igoumenitsa / Ancona route still makes Ancona our favoured port.  It is also possible to drive down through Italy to pick up a ferry in Bari or Brindisi - these ferry routes are much shorter (and cheaper), but many have reported that the ferries are not particularly comfortable. You also have additional fuel, toll and, possibly, hotel costs.  A cost comparison exercise we carried out in 2015 showed that there was nothing to be gained (financially speaking) by driving that extra distance as, for us, it would have required an extra nights hotel, food, etc.

When planning your journey, it is worth noting that the ferry companies have a regular (weekly) "Maintenance" day when there is no ferry, and also that the departure times are not the same every day.  There are two main ferry companies on the route - Minoan and Anek.  Both have good websites, with English as one of the language options, and with the ability to make bookings on them - indeed, this is the only way we have made bookings since we started making the journey.  Both companies offer "early booking" discounts as well as discounts for Over 60', booking return journey's, use of certain car recovery companies, etc.

The choice of route from the English Channel can also be affected by your views on Tolls - there are none in Germany but France has plenty while Austria and Switzerland have mandatory "Vignettes". As with all these, and those in Italy, it is possible to avoid them by using alternative roads (the likes of Google Maps and ViaMichelin have "avoid tolls" options on their route planners), but we have found that with some planning we can easily avoid some of the more expensive tolls but still leave us on motorways (see below for costs).  Another aspect of the planning can be how long you want to spend on the journey.  It is possible to do the drive from Calais in around fourteen hours (with multiple drivers and minimal stops). 

Another aspect of the planning / routing, is that a number of countries, most notably France, now insist on purchase of a "clean air" sticker - in several cases these must be purchased before your journey.  Some of the route planners (see below) indicate if a sticker is required.

It is also worth noting that several countries (including France and Germany) ban most lorries on motorways on Sundays - this can make a major difference to the driving experience, as, instead of "nose to tail" lorries on some motorways during the week, you might only see a dozen lorries during a Sunday drive.  In Germany and northern Italy many of the motorways on the routes we take are two lanes only, so, away from Sundays, you are constantly having to "slot in" between lorries as the "boy racers" come racing up behind you flashing their lights!.

The ViaMichelin route planner includes details of individual Toll costs on the routes.  The toll booths normally accept credit / debit cards (but rarely pre-paid cards). It has been noticeable in the last few years that the number of booths that accept cash has increased - in most instances these are "manned" booths rather than slot machines.

The AA and RAC websites (and a few others) have details of mandatory requirements for driving through the various countries (e.g. Winter Tyres, Warning Triangle, etc) - it is important to ensure you meet these requirements as fines can be large for certain offences (e.g. Dash Cams are banned in a number of countries - there is a five figure fine for using one in Austria where their ownership is actually banned!), while others can be somewhat unexpected (e.g. it is a criminal offence to run out of fuel on German motorways).  The websites are also starting to show details of the motorway "emergency vehicle" rules - a number of countries have introduced a requirement that if you come to a halt on a motorway you have to move to the left or to the right to allow emergency vehicles through.  Whether you move to the left or to the right varies depending on what lane, and what country, you are in though!

For overnight accommodation we pick places easily reached from the motorway - it can be dark around 16:30 when we travel and we think it is worth having places that are easy to find.  We also prefer to use hotels with restaurants attached - after a day in the car we certainly do not want to drive out to a restaurant in the evening.

You should be prepared when using the Switzerland route that you will normally have to show your passports at both the France / Switzerland and the Switzerland / Italy borders - there can be quite a queue for this, particularly on Monday mornings.  As these are borders where you leave / enter the EU, it is also possible that your car may be "pulled over" and a series of questions asked - your car can also be searched at these crossings. I "lost" nearly an hour going in to Italy in both 2016 and 2017 for a questions / car search session.  As a result, we are tending to use the Germany route more frequently.

The impact of the UK leaving the European Union when travelling in to France from the UK has yet to be confirmed but once in France there should be no changes to current regulations, although the entry in to / departure from Switzerland (if using that route) has not, as far as we are aware, been documented yet.

When boarding the ferry in Ancona, security checks at the port have increased substantially over the last few years - cars can be directed to the "security" area when entering the dockyard (after check-in) and you are asked to take luggage from the car in to a building for security screening. We pack most things in a number of clear plastic boxes and to date (2020) we have only had to remove suitcases / wheelies from the car for security checks.  It is perhaps advisable though to ensure that as much as possible is packed in to boxes / cases to make the transfer to the security building as straightforward as possible.

A SatNav, whilst useful, is not essential (we didn't use one for the first few years).  The roads mostly have European Road numbers (E....) which cross national borders and thus make navigation relatively simple - most printed road maps and route finders include these.  We have also found that the road signs on motorways will frequently mention cities (and countries) several hundred kilometres away so, even driving "solo", you only need to know three or four cities on your route to navigate quite easily.  Even when using a SatNav though, we still have a road map in the car "just in case"!.


Our "Swiss" route to Corfu is normally:

In terms of mileage, Day 1 is around 500Km while days 2 and 3 are around 750Km and 600Km respectively, and day 4 around 250Km.  In March 2017 (the last time we used this route) the tolls were EUR13.40 (in France) and EUR34.60 (Italy) with EUR37 for the Swiss Vignette (which is valid for the whole calendar year).

Our "Germany" route to Corfu is:

In July 2020 (we were delayed because of Covid restrictions), tolls were EUR14.60 (Austria) and EUR40.50 (Italy) with EUR9.40 for the Austrian vignette (valid for ten days).

Both Vignettes can be bought at most service stations before the borders, or, for the Swiss Vignette, actually at the border (although there can be a queue for this).  We normally buy ours in advance from a German website as this allows us to get them stuck on to the car windscreen before we depart.

Driving to the UK

For this, we follow a similar route to the journey down and again ensure that our Sunday drive is through France or Germany - this requires a Thursday evening departure from Corfu.  Depending on which ferry company we use, the ferry normally docks in Ancona at around 14:00 (Minoan) or 17:00 (Anek) so we spend our first night near Imola (14:00 arrival) or Senigalia (17:00 arrival), our second just north of the Swiss / French border and the third in northern France or Belgium.

For the German route, we again spend the first night in Imola or Senigalia, the second on the Austrian / Germany border and then the third in Belgium / northern France. In both instances, this leaves us with a 150-200Km drive to Eurotunnel, where we normally get the train around 10:30 (and avoid most of the M25 rush hour traffic!). 

After our drive to the UK in November 2018, we both agreed that time spent in the car was becoming uncomfortable (probably down to our age!!), and that we should consider taking an extra day for the journey. We took this approach for the first time on our journey in November 2019.  Thus, we spent the first night near Forli / Imola, the second on the Austrian / Germany border, the third in Luxemburg and the fourth near Ashford in Kent.   In terms of mileage, this equated to 180Km on Day 1, 620Km on Day 2, 560Km on Day 3, 440Km on Day 4 and 450Km on Day 5.  

Other Routes

The main routes we use have been indicated above, but there are others!.     Prior to country borders being closed as part of the CoronaVirus pandemic during 2020, we did look at a number of other options.

The first of these was one that quite a few people have talked about but not too many have used - this involves driving all the way to Greece rather than using a ferry from Italy.  After travelling through Germany and Austria, there are several possible routes from Austria down to mainland Greece, and the choice largely depends on your thoughts in respect of leaving the EU for part of the drive.  If you prefer to stay within the EU and thus (in normal circumstances) avoid stops/ searches / passport display at borders, then it is necessary to leave Austria near Vienna / Wien and travel through Hungary, Romania and Bulgaria in to mainland Greece near Thesaloniki.   Shorter routes which take you out of the EU include those that take you down through Serbia, Kosova and Northern Macedonia or through even more countries and down through Albania. The route from Thesaloniki to Igoumenitsa is along a motorway with a couple of tolls.  Whichever route you take, it is worth checking on vignette requirements as for some countries they must be purchased in advance (viz. they cannot be bought at the border) - unlike Austria and Switzerland, several countries only have e-vignettes.

Another option that involves only two countries, is to travel down through France to the west of Switzerland and in to Italy via the Mont Blanc or the Frejus tunnel.   Whilst, mileage-wise, this is not much different than other routes above, it is more expensive in terms of Tolls / Tunnels (appx EUR210) - the tunnels themselves cost in the region of EUR50 each way.