Portugal is an easy country to see whether by car or by train, and is one of our favorite destinations for a cooking vacation. Only about as large as the state of Illinois, it offers a ton of exciting things to see in the cities and the countryside. Certainly the easiest way to manage your trip is to let us handle the logistics – that’s what we’re here for! But you also have the option of stationing yourself in one or two cities and exploring by train, or of renting a car and driving yourself.
If you do choose to rent a car, here are some things to keep in mind.
1) Tolls, tolls, tolls
Portugal is full of toll roads, which makes traveling from place to place easy and quick. Driving from one end of the country to the other (or even into Spain) is a half-day’s drive. But one thing to keep in mind is that many of the toll roads are Electronic Toll Roads, meaning that you MUST have a transponder to pay. There are no toll booths, and if you use an electronic toll road without a transponder you risk fines of up to 10 times the amount of tolls you incur (the fines will be sent to the car rental agency, who will charge you after the fact). Not to worry, though, the car rental company will have a transponder you can rent (usually for 1 to 2 Euros per day) and then you simply pay the toll amount when you return the car. If you don’t have a transponder and accidentally take an electronic toll road, you can pay after the fact at a post office or a designated “Pay Shop” (marked with a red “Pay Shop” sign in the window), but only between 2 and 5 days after the fact. So depending on when you are leaving Portugal, you might be out of luck. It’s definitely just easier to get the transponder.
Can you avoid toll roads? It’s possible, but frankly difficult. The tolls do add up quickly (from Porto to Lisbon, for example, is over 20 Euros), so you might want to mix it up and do some toll roads (designated by an “A” as in “A1,” “A3,” “A5,” etc.) and some local highways, which also allow you to see the countryside in a bit more leisurely manner,
One last note on the toll roads: there are some that use the old fashioned “take ticket” method, asking you to take a ticket when you enter the toll road and to pay upon leaving it. When you pay you can use the transponder, if you have it, by going through the lanes marked “V,” or you can pay the machine with a credit card or cash. Sometimes it’s difficult to get it to read your credit card, so it’s always good to have extra cash on you.
2) Gas up early
Another tip is to leave yourself a bit of extra time when gassing up the car to handle and difficulties you may have. Sometimes it’s easy – a manned pump where you simply give the attendant your credit card and he fills the tank for you. But sometimes you pump yourself and the instructions are not in English. In theory you can pay for the gas at the pump with your (chip-enabled) credit card. If you have trouble try asking the person a the next pump for help. The Portuguese are not effusive, but they are unfailingly polite and helpful. You can also fill the car first and pay inside, but don’t move the car from the pump until after you pay, even if there is a line of cars waiting.
3) Time your drives.
When driving in the countryside you don’t have to worry much about traffic (unless you get stuck behind a farm machine). But if driving into and out of the cities, try to time your trip to avoid traffic. That means avoid the 8-9:30 rush, and again try to arrive at your destination before 5 or after 9.
4) Parking can be difficult
Most of the hotels we work with offer parking for guests (sometimes free, sometimes for an extra charge). Even when parking in a garage expect the parking spaces to be tight and the maneuvering difficult. If parking in a city, check to see if there are “P” parking signs in blue with a big “P” for parking and an image of coins, an indication of “Zona paga” with the hours in which one needs to pay, or (most likely) a hand feeding a coin into a slot. All of these indicate it’s a zone where there is paid parking. There are not meters, just look for the small machine nearby. Check the cost of the amount of time you want (paying attention to the hours when it is necessary to pay), insert that number of coins and press the green button to print the receipt, which you display on your dashboard. A couple tips: the times will be displayed using a 24 hour clock, and I could never get the machines to accept anything but 1 Euro coins – so make sure you have some of these on hand.
5) Round and round again
Expect to go through your fair share of round abouts while in Portugal! Remember that the sign will indicate which “point” of the star you need to take (1st, 2nd, etc.) and remember that those already in the round about always have the right of way.
These are just a few tips for renting a car and driving around Portugal. If you have questions, please submit them in the comments or contact us directly.
Learn why we think Portugal is one of our favorite destinations!
Travel tips by The International Kitchen are valid as of March 28, 2017.