The metric system on the road

Converting kilometers to miles: How to drive and do math at the same time

Gas prices are high in Italy
Gas in Italy: More than $7 per gallon. Even more disturbing: that weird six-legged, fire-breathing, backwards-headed devil dog that is Agip's mascot.
There are a few metric conversions that will help you make sense of driving in Italy.

If you can convert kilometers to miles in your head, figure how many liters in a gallon, and convert euros to dollars, you'll realize just exactly how far you need to drive...and how insanely expensive it is going to be to get there.

I'm not kidding. Check out the photograph of an Italian gas station sign on the left. Yeah, that was in 2009, and worked out to $7.21 per gallon. As I write this—in spring 2015—the cost of oil has plummetted (as has the value of the Euro against the U.S. dollar), yet still, at a national average of €1.65 per liter for regular, it adds up to nearly $7 per gallon.

You say kiLOMeter, I say KILometer

This one is fairly easy. A kilometer (km) is equal to 0.62 miles, and a mile is 1.61 km.

OK so it's not THAT easy. Still, doing a rough calc in your head isn't that hard. For kilometers to miles, just break it into two bits: 50% plus 10% (which totals 60%, or 0.60), then round up a smidge for that extra 2% (the 0.02).

Km Miles
1km 0.62mi
2km 1.24mi
3km 1.86mi
4km 2.46mi
5km 3.11mi
6km 3.37mi
7km 4.35mi
8km 4.97mi
9km 5.59mi
10km 6.21mi
50km 31.07mi
100km 62.14mi
Miles Km
1mi 1.61km
2mi 3.22km
3mi 4.83km
4mi 6.44km
5mi 8.05km
6mi 9.66km
7mi 11.27km
8mi 12.88km
9mi 14.48km
10mi 16.09km
50mi 80.47km
100mi 160.9km

That sounds more complicated than it is: The road signs says Siena is 80 km away. OK, so to get 50% you just cut that in half, which is 40. Tuck that away in a crevice of your cerebellum for a moment.

Now take 10% of the original 80—which is 8—then add that to the 40 and you get 48. Round up "a smidge" to cover that extra 2% and you get 50. That means 80 km is roughly 50 miles (actually, it's 49.6, so close enough). Here, I'll make it easy for you with the table up to the right.

Frankly, you'll rarely ever need to convert the other way, unless you want to say to someone in Europe something along the lines of "I live 20 miles outside of Boston," only put it in kilometers terms so he understands where your suburb is. No biggie. Ten miles is about 16 kilometers, so tell him you live 32 km from Boston. (This is assuming, of course, he has more than a vague sense of where Boston is in the first place.) That cheat sheet is also above to the right.

The yardstick by which meters are measured

Thank heavens for the yardstick. You can point with it, you can rap people in the knuckles with it, you can even measure stuff with it, so long as the stuff in question is less than three feet long.

And it's also about one meter long, so just picture a yardstick and you know what a meter looks like. Well, roughly.

Actually, 1 meter is 3.3 feet—a bit longer than a yard. So 10 meters is equal to 33 feet, or 11 yards, which is enough for a first down (only they play soccer in Italy, so that little joke wouldn't work). 100 meters is 330 feet (or 110 yards), 1,000 meters is 3,300 feet (or 1,100 yards). One thousand meters is also 1 kilometer, which is 0.62 miles; see above.

I point all of this out since road signs in Italy will often present distance information in terms of meters, as in a sign for a sight, rest area, or town turn-off that is "2500m" ahead. (Why they use 2,500 meters rather than 2.5km is beyond me. I guess, since meters are smaller, it somehow look closer that way.)

Gas is expensive, whether by the liter or by the gallon

Gal Liter
1gal 3.79L
2gal 7.57L
3gal 11.53L
4gal 15.14L
5gal 18.93L
6gal 22.71L
7gal 26.50L
8gal 30.28L
9gal 34.16L
10gal 37.94L
50gal 189.7L
100gal 379.4L
Liter Gal
1L 0.26gal
2L 0.53gal
3L 0.79gal
4L 1.06gal
5L 1.32gal
6L 1.58gal
7L 1.85gal
8L 2.11gal
9L 2.38gal
10L 2.64gal
50L 13.2gal
100L 26.4gal

OK, quick and easy way to remember how much is in a liter: a liter is roughly the same size as a quart. Technically a bit more, since there are around 3.8 liters in 1 gallon.

I like to keep the math easy, and whenever I see gas prices by the liter just multiple by four to figure the per-gallon price.

I then take a few deep breaths to calm my nerves about the travel budget.

Then I remember that that amount is in euros, not dollars, and get all panicky again.

Perhaps it's best just not to do the math after all. (This, by the way, is the main reason Italians drive those tiny Matchbox cars around. They may look puny and pathetic, but they get great gas mileage—and when gas costs $7–$9 per gallon, you want good mpg.)

Still, when stopping for benzina (gas), you'll want to go ahead and get a full tank, so say "al pieno, per favore." And remember: if it's diesel, specify "gasolio."

Tips & links

Car rental & driving resources
  • Car resources
  • Emergency service/tow: tel. 803-116
  • Highway agency: (traffic info, serivce areas, toll calculator, weather)
  • Italian automotive club (~AAA):
  • ZTLs: (lightly outdated, but handy, links to cities' traffic-free zones)


Useful Italian phrases for car travel
car automobile (ow-toh-MO-bee-lay)
macchina (MAH-keen-ah)
gas benzina (ben-ZEE-nah)
diesel gasolio (gah-ZOH-lee-oh) / diesel (DEE-zell)
Fill it up, please al pieno, per favore (ahl pee-YAY-noh, pair fa-VOHR-ray)
Where is... Dov'é (doh-VAY)
...the highway l'autostrada (lout-oh-STRA-dah)
...the road for Rome la strada per Roma (lah STRA-dah pair RO-mah)
to the right à destra (ah DEH-strah)
to the left à sinistra (ah see-NEEST-trah)
straight ahead diritto (dee-REE-toh) / avanti (ah-VAHN-tee)
keep going straight sempre diritto (SEM-pray dee-REE-toh)
thank you grazie (GRAT-tzee-yay)
please per favore (pair fa-VOHR-ray)
yes si (see)
no no
Do you speak English? Parla Inglese? (PAR-la een-GLAY-zay)
I don't understand Non capisco (non ka-PEESK-koh)
How much is it? Quanto costa? (KWAN-toh COST-ah)

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  • Car resources
  • Emergency service/tow: tel. 803-116
  • Highway agency: (traffic info, serivce areas, toll calculator, weather)
  • Italian automotive club (~AAA):
  • ZTLs: (lightly outdated, but handy, links to cities' traffic-free zones)

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