Portugal is the perfect destination for a road trip or a self-drive holiday. The beautiful coastlines of the Alentejo and Algarve, in particular, are best explored with your own vehicle. Renting a car in Portugal will also give you the chance to visit traditional villages and national parks inland that are normally hard to reach by public transportation.
I’ve lived in Portugal for several years now, so I can share with you some first-hand tips on driving or renting a car in Portugal.
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The quality of the roads is good
Concerned about the roads? There’s no need to be.
Even though Portugal suffered plenty of economic problems over the past decades, the roads are generally very well-maintained. In fact, the road quality in Portugal ranks 6th in a worldwide ranking.
Of course, if you go well off the beaten path in the countryside, you may find some crumbly roads, but this is the same as anywhere. All the main roads are in great condition.
Drivers aren’t crazy like in Italy
Some foreigners are worried that the driving style in Portugal might be quite similar to Mediterranean countries like Greece or Italy, which have a reputation for chaotic and irresponsible drivers.
You’ll be happy to know that Portuguese drivers are a lot better. While road rage can be expressed quite passionately at times, the driving manners are in no way as anarchic as in certain other southern European countries.
That’s not to say all driving behavior will be precisely the same as what you’re used to at home. Some foreign drivers in Portugal do rate the local driving style as a bit ‘erratic’, so it’s always best to drive cautiously. Not all drivers will indicate when maneuvering, only when taking turns, for instance. Drunk driving can also be a problem in Portugal, especially in rural areas.
There are many toll roads
Many of Portugal’s main motorways are toll roads. These are fantastic roads to drive, generally light on traffic and very easy to drive, however they can cost quite a bit extra. To drive from Lisbon to the Algarve via toll roads, for example, count on spending about €30.
When renting your car in Portugal, ask about getting a toll road transponder so you can pay electronically for your use of toll roads. Not all toll roads have payment booths, so to use them it’s best to have a transponder.
There are multiple payment systems but it’s easiest to use the Via Verde system, as it will work on all toll roads. Ask your rental agency about this if you plan on using toll roads at all during your trip.
Avoid entering green lanes if you do not have a Via Verde card.
You don’t need a car in Lisbon or Porto
There is no need to have a car in these cities as there are many other modes of transport available. Besides, the road layouts can be confusing if you don’t live there, and parking can be difficult or expensive.
If you’re staying in the cities on your trip, just drop off your car and explore the cities by foot, public transit, or by taking cheap rideshares with Uber or Bolt.
To travel between Lisbon and Porto, it’s comfortable to do so by high-speed train (about 3 ½ hours and €25 per person).
Don’t confuse diesel and petrol
The Portuguese words for diesel and petrol are a bit similar.
Gasolina is petrol and gasóleo is diesel.
If your car runs on petrol, look for the 95 or 98 signs indicating unleaded petrol.
Hide your belongings
Although Portugal is not known for unusually high criminality, theft does exist in Portugal and so it’s wise to not give anyone ideas.
Keep luggage in the back underneath the cover, or take your belongings with you while you’re sightseeing.
It’s good to book early
Booking your car early will typically get you a better price. In certain parts of Portugal, especially the islands (Azores and Madeira), there is also a limited stock of cars available, making it wise to book well ahead of time.
This is doubly true if you’re American and wish to drive automatic, as most cars available are manual.
I recommend comparing prices from all the different car rental companies via Discover Cars.
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Car rentals in Portugal can be cheap
You can find good deals for car rentals in Portugal. For example, a compact car might cost around €20 a day including insurance.
Do keep in mind this is highly seasonal; in the summer, it could cost twice as much, while in the winter you can often get crazy cheap deals. (I once rented a car for €5 a day in winter!)
Fuel is relatively pricey
To the chagrin of many Portuguese, the local fuel prices in the country are rather high, often being thought of as a “stealth tax” on the public. Fuel prices are regularly ranked among the top in Europe, despite Portugal being a low wage country.
If you find yourself anywhere near Spain, consider getting a full tank across the border, where fuel can easily cost 30% less.
Wondering where you should go on your Portuguese road trip? Here are my favorite places to travel in Portugal.
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