Teresa Hunter: Wheels versus wings for cheaper holidays

MORE families are considering taking their car on holiday this summer, as the cost of flights edges up and following repeated airport disruptions.

But working out precisely how much it will cost is not easy, given the many elements which must be included, such as insurance, ferry crossings, breakdown cover, fuel, overnight stops and motorway tolls.

Another factor to weigh up is how happy will you be driving long distances on the wrong side of the road? There is plenty of information available on the internet to help you. Yet when you come to make such journeys, the theory and practice do not always match.

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The Hunter family has just returned from our annual holiday, driving through France to Barga in Tuscany, a town with exceptionally close links to Scotland.

During the last century, Barga had the highest levels of emigration in Italy, with a huge chunk of those leaving heading for the west coast of Scotland. Six out of ten Barghigiani are supposed to have relatives in Scotland.

Our journey, which was roughly equivalent to driving to northern Spain, was very educational.

Unsurprisingly, prices in France were eye-wateringly expensive, largely following sterling's depreciation. But we didn't stay there long. Italy's tourist traps were also pricey, although less so than France.

However, rural Italy was pleasantly affordable, with prices similar if not slightly cheaper than in the UK.

Given sterling's devaluation, we were also relieved to find that petrol was not as expensive as we feared, and in Italy at least was much in line with what you pay in the UK. Better still, diesel was generally cheaper, which was good news for our diesel car.

What we saved on diesel, we spent on motorway tolls, the cost of which have soared, particularly in France, with 40 (35.50) single hits at toll barriers far from unusual.

The upside to this was that the motorways were empty, making driving long distances easy and leisurely as the car effortlessly ate up the miles. Clearly, the toll prices are too high for the French to swallow.

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When planning a car journey out of the UK, the first step is to contact your insurer. Companies are obliged to provide cover for the minimum required by EU law automatically, but some may require an additional premium to extend fully comprehensive protection, of perhaps 50. Ours did not.

Next you must investigate breakdown insurance, to make sure you are not left stranded at the side of the motorway. We shopped around and opted for a policy with Green Insurance costing 52.97.

A standard travel policy, covering medical insurance and the loss or theft of baggage or other possessions is also to be recommended.We already had annual cover from Marks & Spencer so did not need to buy more protection.

We also applied online for a European Health Insurance Card for each of us. This allows you to receive for free the medical treatment available to nationals (it can also be applied for over the telephone by calling 0845 606 2030).

This card proved invaluable when one of our party suffered a distressing eye problem. We took him to the casualty department at the local hospital, and on presentation of the card were immediately taken to see their top eye specialist. Very impressive.

He diagnosed the problem and prescribed three medications. The first two we were required to pay for ourselves at the pharmacy; but the third, the consultant said cost 120 (106.50) and this would be paid for by the government.

To get this for free we had to go to another department and get it written on a pink form. As time was short, before the pharmacies closed for the day, we decided to do without the pink prescription.

In the event, the drug was not needed. That night the pharmacy did not have the drug, and by the morning, the other two were working well. But it seems in Italy, patients pay for their drugs up to a certain limit, but the government will foot the bill for very expensive ones.

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Each country has different rules, which is why travel insurance gives security that the cost of treatment will always be covered.

The next thing to examine is the price of the ferry crossing. We opted for a return Dover to Calais crossing with P&O, which cost 60. We were able to stay with relatives in Dover the night before, ready for an early start.

As in the UK, fuel prices varied between garages. On average, diesel was around 1.46 (1.30) in France and 1.41 (1.25) in Italy, compared with 1.40 in the Scotland.

Similarly, petrol in France was 1.61 (1.43) per litre and 1.53 (1.36) in Italy, identical to the typical 1.36 in the UK.

Fuel consumption was poorer than usual, at 43 miles per gallon, partly because the car was laden with luggage, but also because we travelled at high speeds on the motorways and then at low speeds on mountainous roads crossing the Alps.

The journey from Calais to Barga was about 900 miles one way. We drove for eight hours the first day and five the next, arriving at lunchtime.

However, over the fortnight we clocked up just under 3,000 miles.

The return journey cost something in the region of 245 in diesel. The 1,000 miles we spent running around cost a further 130.

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The body blow was the tolls, which came to nearly as much as the petrol, totalling 128.80 or 114.31 one way. The lion's share of this was in France, where one-way tolls mounted to 95.70 (84.93), with Italy's motorways adding 33.10 (29.38).These will vary, depending on which route you take and whether you opt to leave the motorway in favour of other non-charging routes.

Other expenses included the cost of overnight stops, as well as the bill for travelling down to the Channel crossings.

We only required one overnight hotel stop each way. The first night we paid about 80 for bed and breakfast for double rooms with spectacular views under the shadow of Mont Blanc. On the way home, we opted for the more basic Etape chain, paying about 40 for two for bed and breakfast.

Our travel costs amounted to around 700. However, you could cut this figure by more than 100 if you avoided some of the motorway tolls.

Even so, for a couple, flights and arranging car hire at the other end would be cheaper.

For a family, though, the costs are more evenly balanced, especially if you enjoy driving across Europe and consider it part of the holiday adventure. We do.

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