We planned our own European road trip–and you can, too

Photography by Tim Murray and Tim Suddard

The topic quickly turned to Italy–specifically, touring Italy. 

My wife, Teri, and I were at a local Italian restaurant with our friends Tim and Margie Suddard. Tim waxed eloquent about touring Lake Como in a classic Italian car, specifically a vintage Alfa Spider, smoothly heel-and-toe downshifting and expertly clipping the apexes on the scenic mountain roads surrounding the lake. 

Coincidentally, the Suddards were going to be in Rome at the same time Teri and I were going to be in Sicily. Did we want to meet up and tour Italy together?  Is the sky azzurro?  

Since the Suddards plan and host three classic car tours a year and justifiably might view organizing a trip to Italy as work, I agreed to plan our Italian adventure. Having just finished a mostly successful six-week circumnavigation of the U.S. in a BMW 525 Touring, I figured planning five days in Italy would be a piece of tiramisu. 

Actually, it was a bit harder than that, but with some organizational skills and the help of the internet, you too can plan a tour of Italy–or pretty much any other location you have your heart set on. 

1. Designate a Planner: There needs to be someone willing to outline the itinerary, propose it to the group, solicit and incorporate its feedback, and then document the final plan. This can be a volunteer, like me, or you can draw straws, but someone must be the scribe.

Day one was a transit day from Rome to Lake Garda before picking up our classics for the bulk of the trip. With a quick look at the map, we knew we had to take the long way through Pisa. How else could we get the touristy tower photo?

2. Know Your Group: This is arguably the most important step in planning your trip, especially if you’re going with people you haven’t traveled with before. What is everyone’s budget? What level of accommodations are acceptable? Are there dietary restrictions? 

How much driving is acceptable in a day? Can we go to every car museum in Italy, or do we need to throw a few churches, art museums and some shopping in the mix? Does anyone have a must-see/must-do stop on their list? 

Fortunately, this can be a fun process accomplished over good food and beverages. Even if you’ve known the folks in your group for years, it’s still a good idea to get together a few times prior to developing your initial itinerary. In our case, the high-level agenda for our trip was easy to see after our first get-together, and by our third meeting, I had all the input I needed.

3. Develop an Initial Itinerary: After Step 2, I knew that Tim wanted to drive a classic Alfa around Lake Como. Teri wanted to return to a winery we had visited in 2018, and I needed to make a pilgrimage to Maranello and pay my respects to Sig. Ferrari. 

We also agreed that we didn’t want to spend all our time doing “car stuff” and that experiencing local culture, especially if it included food, was key. 

With all of that in mind, it was time to come up with a draft plan or initial itinerary. I used an Excel spreadsheet, but a pen and paper would work as well. 

I started by entering the dates of our tour in the first column, then entering the key events that were already scheduled–at this point only our arrival and departure locations. Because these were determined by air reservations, I was able to confidently book hotels at the arrival and departure locations as well and arrange the rental car we would use for traveling from event to event.  

It’s important to know how much people and luggage space you’re going to need. Rental cars in Italy are small, and it was impossible for me to book a van from the U.S. I got a Fiat Tipo Estate, and we all packed economically–basically two carry-on bags per person. Make sure you know what the vehicle you’re renting will hold and pack accordingly, or your rear-seat passengers will hate you after the first day.  

Next, I needed to schedule the unscheduled key events, which for us were the Ferrari factory tour, the classic car rental and the winery visit. 

I picked the key event that was most difficult to schedule, the Ferrari tour, and then scheduled the remaining events around it. Using Google Maps, I was able to create routes from our arrival location to the first event location (Lake Como), then to the second event location (Modena/Maranello) and to our departure point (Milan). By doing this, I was able to determine how much time we had at each location, allowing me to further refine the schedule at each location. 

I would be remiss in not mentioning the town of Desenzano del Garda, where we stayed while touring the lake area. It’s a resort town on the southern shore of Lake Garda, and it’s very walkable, incredibly scenic and tourist-friendly (read: English spoken here). More must-sees that we must-saw: the Alfa and Ferrari museums.

4. Refine the Plan: Once the basic itinerary was complete, it was time to show it to the group and see if anyone had any objections or suggestions.  

We actually did this a few times, adding more detail in each iteration. For example, the classic rental car agency we used had the cars we wanted, but at a different location. This necessitated a change from Lake Como to Lake Garda as our hotel location for this part of the trip. Using Google Maps, we determined we could drive from Lake Garda to Lake Como and thus preserve Tim’s dream of driving around that lake–but more on that later. 

Once I had the cars locked in and the winery tour scheduled, I identified nearby hotels in Lake Garda and Maranello that were in our price range and had the highest reviews. I picked two, sent them to the group for approval and, once received, booked our rooms. 

Now that the overnight locations were all identified and agreed to, I refined the activities to do in each area. For the area around Lake Garda and Lake Como, I used Google to find sites of interest and then used Google Maps to identify interesting routes to those locations and back to the hotel. 

By creating waypoints in Google Maps, I could determine the distance and approximate drive times for each leg to make sure we included meal and bio breaks. Our spreadsheet started to get more detailed. 

5. Approve and Execute: By this time, everyone in the group was pretty much on the same page, but a final tweaking and approval was needed. This is analogous to sorting out a car that you just restored. We made a few minor tweaks at this point, changing a hotel in one spot and moving a planned visit to the next day to make things less busy. 

I obtained and entered everyone’s detailed travel info, hotel and rental car confirmation numbers, and reservation information for any event that needed to be pre-booked–like the Ferrari tour and some museums. You should already be aware of these pre-booking requirements from Step 4, but make sure to review the websites of places you want to visit to determine if advanced booking is required. 

At this point, you are ready for departure–just watch your inbox to make sure pre-booked events don’t change. Teri and I decided to add on a four-day visit to Sardinia at the end of our tour with the Suddards, and that intra-Italy flight itinerary changed twice in two months.

Of course, local food and drink are paramount. We may have tasted a wine or three–don’t dismiss Lambrusco; they’ve been perfecting it here for thousands of years. Pair it with local prosciutto (culatello is best), gnocchi fritti and some cherry jam, and your world will be changed forever.

6. And Be Flexible: Your plan is a key part of making your tour fun and stress-free, but it’s not the Constitution or the Ten Commandments. We didn’t change the key events in our schedule, but we modified a lot of the daily activities due to local conditions (weather, crowds), unplanned events (the Alfa broke down) or just the whim of someone in the group. 

For example, on the way from Rome to Lake Garda, we decided to make a side trip over to Lucca, which created one of the most exciting moments of our trip: Waze routed us through a section of that village that clearly wasn’t intended for vehicular traffic. We must have been a sight as we drove our loaded Fiat wagon within arm’s reach of the umbrella tables full of people eating lunch. A different car, a bit more speed and some special effects, and we could have been part of a “Mission: Impossible” movie.

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Colin Wood
Colin Wood Associate Editor
2/23/24 9:46 a.m.

I visited (parts) of Germany, Belgium and Austria on a study abroad trip back in college. I'd love to go back, especially at my own pace in rented classic.

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