At the turn of the century when MudGuide started taking the overnight ferry from Civitavecchia to Palermo it was an eccentric alternative to driving the scenic Autostrada Sole with a short ferry crossing at the Straights of Messina. Since then the autostrada south of Naples has deteriorated to the extent that very few Italians will pay for the privilege of driving on an eroding infrastructure suffering from permanent and ineffectual repair carried out by corrupt contractors that must be protected by the Italian Army from reprisals by organized crime clans that lost out on the bidding process.
Unfortunately, the Italian economy is forcing cutbacks in ferry sailings from the Italian mainland to Sicily. As of this writing, ferries from Civitavecchia depart only once a week (Fridays at 8PM) when it used to be a daily service. In partial compensation, twice weekly departures (Mondays and Wednesdays at 8:30PM) have been added for Civitavecchia to Termini Imerese. This is actually a more desirable route since exiting Termini Imerese during the morning rush hour is much easier than extricating one’s vehicle from the madness that is downtown Palermo (the opposite is true for foot passengers, however, since Termini Imerese is worth at most a one night’s stay).
Since the main problem is avoiding the autostrada south of Naples, most departures and arrivals from Sicily are being funneled into Naples and thus the greatest planning flexibility for travelers will involve ferries into and out of that city (daily departures around 8PM). If you are in the north of Italy and you would like to skip all the autostrade between you and the land of Nero d’Avola, Genoa also maintains more departures and arrivals from Sicily (every day at 11 PM) than Civitavecchia.
The bottom line is to check ferry schedules well in advance for any Italian port(s). MudGuide has found the Italian ferry websites, such as Grande Nave Veloci and Tirrenia, to be cumbersome and vague. We recommend www.aferry.co.uk for both planning and purchase of ferry tickets, even though they may be a bit more expensive than their Italian (or other national) competition, because their scheduling information is always accurate, their pricing always transparent, and their information concerning boarding procedures and port layouts always correct. Their website and enroute travel support are also very good. Needless to say, all departure times sited above are subject to pretty much random change at any time.
Once you’ve purchased your ticket, be sure to arrive at the port with plenty of time to spare. You will need to take the ticket you printed after making the booking on line and go into the ticket office at the port to get the boarding passes and, if you have a vehicle, the car pass. In some cases, just finding the ticket office can be a challenge, so give yourself a couple of hours to figure it all out the first time.
And note that once you leave your auto behind in the bowels of the ferry, you won’t be able run back and retrieve an essential forgotten item. They lock the doors to the car hold and don’t reopen them until it’s time to depart. In fact, staging what you’re going to take out of your car near a door can also be a good idea. The garage attendants pack the cars tail to nose with very little room between. If you have your take aboard luggage in a hatchback, you may have trouble opening it and you’ll have to retrieve your luggage by crawling over the back seat.
For a fun writeup on our ferry adventures, read our Easter in Western Sicily.