Road Trip in Portugal: 20+ Essential Tips You Need

Estimated read time 11 min read

We love road trips, and embarking on a road trip in Portugal was naturally on our bucket list. The allure of off-the-beaten-path places, combined with Portugal’s superb infrastructure, made our adventure all the more enticing. Whether you’re exploring by car or using Portugal’s efficient public transportation systems like trains and buses, a road trip in Portugal promises an unforgettable journey.

If a road trip in Portugal is on your agenda, here’s what you need to know:

Driving in Portugal: A Comprehensive Guide

From the perspective of a United States citizen, and as seasoned travelers accompanied by our children (ages 22, 10, & 8), we’ve put together a list of tips that we found valuable during our road trip in Portugal. Some are based on our personal experiences, while others are often noted suggestions for travelers in Portugal.

1. Choosing a Vehicle: If you decide to drive, selecting the right car for your road trip in Portugal is essential. Consider the size of your group, luggage space, and comfort.

2. Navigating the Roads: Portugal’s well-maintained roads make navigation a breeze. However, having a reliable GPS or map is still advisable for your road trip in Portugal.

3. Understanding Road Rules: Familiarize yourself with local traffic laws, speed limits, and parking regulations to ensure a smooth road trip in Portugal.

4. Alternatives to Driving: If you prefer not to drive, Portugal’s trains and buses offer a viable alternative, providing access to many of the country’s scenic vistas and hidden gems.

Embarking on a road trip in Portugal is an extraordinary way to see the country’s diverse landscapes, rich culture, and hidden treasures. With proper planning and these handy tips, your road trip in Portugal will be an experience to remember!

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mirador casa de santa maria - roadtrip in portugal

Visiting Portugal FAQ’s

Do you need a visa?

If you’re visiting Portugal as a tourist or for business purposes from a country that is part of the visa-exempt program, such as the United States, you may enter without a visa for up to 90 days. However, it’s essential to ensure that your passport is valid for at least 6 months beyond your departure date. For example, if you’re flying there on March 1, 2023, then your passport should not expire before October 1, 2023. Always carry ID as you might be asked for proof of identification.

What happens if my passport expires soon? 

If your passport does not meet the 6-month validity requirement, you could be denied entry or even prevented from boarding your flight to Portugal. Ensure that your passport meets the necessary criteria before planning your trip.

Do they take US Dollars?  

No, Portugal uses the Euro (€) as its currency. While some major tourist areas might accept US Dollars, it’s always best to have Euros on hand for convenience and to avoid unfavorable exchange rates.

Do you NEED cash?

Absolutely! While many places accept credit cards, there are locations, tours, or services that only accept cash. It’s wise to keep some on hand for such instances.

Which ATM to use?

Multibanco is a reliable and widespread ATM network in Portugal, often offering more favorable exchange rates and fewer fees. To avoid unnecessary expenses, use a debit or credit card that doesn’t charge international transaction fees.

Which credit cards are widely accepted?

Visa and Mastercard are widely accepted across Portugal. American Express might be accepted in some places, but it’s more rare. It’s best to have a Visa or Mastercard for hassle-free transactions.

Do I need to tip?

Tipping is not a common practice in Portugal, and it’s not generally expected. However, if you receive exceptional service, you might choose to tip by rounding up to the nearest Euro or leaving a small amount in a tip jar. If you do decide to tip, cash tips are more appreciated, as they are more likely to reach the server than tips on a credit card.

What You Need To Know About Renting a Car in Portugal

Car Rental Facts

  • Toll Roads and Parking: Driving in Portugal might involve frequent toll roads, and parking can be expensive, especially in urban areas. Ensure that your rental agreement includes all necessities, and be prepared for these costs.
  • Insurance and Extras: Most rental companies in Portugal include basic insurance in the rental fee, but additional services like GPS or WiFi may come with extra charges.
  • Recommended Rental Agency: Sixt Car Rental is a popular option in Portugal, with English-speaking agents in branches across the country. They also offer valuable additions like car seats or E-Toll service, which can simplify your travel experience.
  • Speed Limits: Adhering to the speed limits is crucial. Generally, the limits are 50 km/h within cities and up to 120 km/h on freeways. Speed cameras are common, so be mindful of your speed.
  • Right of Way Rules: In unmarked intersections, the vehicle on the right has the right of way. When entering a roundabout, always yield to cars already inside.
  • Seatbelts: All occupants of the car must wear seatbelts, and failure to comply may result in fines.
  • Mobile Device Use: Using mobile devices while driving is strictly prohibited, and hefty fines can be applied for violations.
  • Headlights: It’s mandatory to turn on your headlights in tunnels or during bad weather conditions. Failure to do so might attract penalties.

Places to Avoid Driving

  • Lisbon and Porto City Centers: While exploring Portugal by car is a fantastic experience, driving in the city centers of Lisbon and Porto can be challenging. Parking is scarce and often costly, and the narrow, steep streets can be intimidating, especially for those unaccustomed to hilly terrain. If you’re from a flat region, such as the Midwest in the United States, you might find the steep roads quite unsettling. Public transportation or walking is often a more relaxed and convenient way to explore these cities.

Renting a car in Portugal can open up many opportunities to explore this beautiful country at your own pace. By understanding the local driving laws, being aware of potential extra costs, and choosing the right rental company, you can enjoy a hassle-free road trip. Remember, it’s always best to ask questions and clarify any uncertainties with your rental company before hitting the road. Enjoy the scenic drives, breathtaking landscapes, and vibrant culture that Portugal has to offer!

Common Assumptions about Traveling

“Everyone Speaks English”

Many people in the metro areas speak English but you will encounter cashiers, bakeries, and even tourist attractions where someone does not speak English well enough for a quality interaction.  You may misunderstand prices and services included without having some understanding in Portuguese.  Interacting without it is achievable but could be difficult. Try Practice Portuguese to boost some general conversational skills.

“You can always go to McDonald’s.”

Possibly but even in a small town, a McDonald’s citing does not mean it will be easy or that anyone there will speak English.

What You Need to Know In Case of Emergency During Your Roadtrip in Portugal

Where can an American go for help?

The American Embassy is located in Lisbon at Av. Fas Forcas Armadas 133C.  You should register for the Smart Traveler Enrollment Program prior to leaving so that you will receive important alerts while abroad.  These will keep you aware of important weather conditions and any other dangers you may not notice while traveling.

What do I dial in an emergency?

1-1-2 for life threatening emergencies.  

What if I need to see a doctor?

It is very easy to make appointments at clinics or with doctors if you fall ill.  You can also get some assistance at pharmacies. For instance, a covid test in Madeira at a local clinic could be pre-arranged online and was $10.

Is Portugal safe?

It is one of the safest countries to visit but petty crime does exist everywhere.  In high volume tourist areas, you can still get pick-pocketed or scammed.  Exercise caution with your valuables and public conversation.

More Travel Questions Answered

When is the Best time to travel to Portugal:

Most of Europe is the hottest and busiest during the summer months. In order to avoid crowds, higher prices, and heatwaves, it is best to visit before or after summer in May, June, or September.  If you visit before June and after mid-September, the temps will be cooler but swimming pools and beaches may be seasonally closed.

Winters are mild but can experience more rain.  If you don’t mind the rains, October and November work well too.

What about my electronics?

You should bring a plug adapter if you expect to use your American electronics in Portugal.

Can I drink the water?

Yes, tap water is safe to drink.  Bottled water is readily available if you would prefer it.

Will my cell phone work?

Portugal operates on the GSM network, so if you use AT&T or T-Mobile, your phone will probably still work and depends on your plan.  As a T-Mobile customer we had free data and text but in some areas still were hit with roaming charges making our bill an extra $70 for the 10 days we spent in Portugal.

An International Sim card would be the best option.

Are the attractions expensive?

No.  You will find that some museums are free on Sundays, many sites are free to visit with low parking fees of 1  – 3 Euros, and museums and attractions that do charge a fee are usually under 10 Euros with kids often free.  There is plenty to see and do on a budget.

Should I make hotel reservations?

Yes.  You should research before going and make plans for your accommodations along the way.  Some places could be sold out and prices can vary depending on the season.  A little bit of research can go a long way towards the experience you want to have.  You will most likely find a large range of accommodations from hotels, inns, vacation rentals, and villas in every budget range.  Start your search on TripAdvisor to see some of the best options.

6 Intriguing Facts About Portugal

  1. One of Europe’s Most Ancient Universities: The University of Coimbra, established in 1290, is one of the oldest universities in Europe. Its stunning architecture, rich history, and esteemed reputation have made it a UNESCO World Heritage site and a must-visit location for those interested in education and historical landmarks.
  2. The World’s Oldest Operating Bookstore: Bertrand Chiado in Lisbon is recognized by the Guinness World Records as the world’s oldest operating bookstore. Founded in 1732, this iconic store continues to be a hub for book lovers and a symbol of Lisbon’s vibrant literary culture.
  3. A Haven for Cork Production: Portugal is home to the world’s largest cork forest and produces nearly half of the world’s cork. The cork oak tree (Quercus Suber) is a national symbol, and the country’s commitment to sustainable cork harvesting ensures this unique resource continues to thrive.
  4. Pioneers in Drug Decriminalization: In 2001, Portugal became the first country to decriminalize the possession of all drugs for personal use. This groundbreaking policy has been accompanied by a focus on treatment and harm reduction, resulting in some of the lowest drug usage rates within the European Union.
  5. Home to Monumental Waves: Portugal’s coastline, especially the area around Nazaré, has become world-renowned for its enormous waves. Surfers from around the globe travel to these shores to ride some of the biggest waves ever surfed. The record wave, surfed by Rodrigo Koxa in 2017, reached an astonishing 80 feet in height.
  6. Leaders in Renewable Energy: Portugal has made significant strides in renewable energy. In March 2018, the country achieved a remarkable milestone by generating all of its electricity from renewable sources for an entire month. This achievement reflects Portugal’s commitment to environmental sustainability and positions it as a leader in the global movement towards clean energy.

Portugal’s rich cultural heritage, innovative policies, natural resources, and commitment to sustainability make it a country full of surprises and learning opportunities. Whether you’re a history buff, nature enthusiast, or someone interested in social policies, Portugal’s unique attributes offer something for every curious traveler. Explore the cobbled streets, taste the unique flavors, and delve into the intriguing facts that make Portugal a fascinating destination.

Wondering where to begin your road trip adventure? Try Cascais.

Looking for a beautiful retreat in Cascais? Try Onyria Quinta da Marinha Villas.

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      Portia O'Laughlin

      So glad you found it helpful! I’ll keep that in mind on future posts because those government pages sure can be complicated.

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