Portugal is not a large country and you can get almost everywhere easily and efficiently by train or bus. Regional trains are often cheaper and some lines very scenic, but it’s almost always quicker to go by bus – especially on shorter or less obvious routes. You’ll obviously have a great deal more flexibility if you drive, and you’ll be able to see much more in a short trip, though it’s worth bearing in mind that Portugal has one of the highest accident rates in Europe.
Comboios de Portugal (CP; enquiries on t808 208 208, wwww.cp.pt) operates all trains. For the most part it’s an efficient network with modern rolling stock, while there are some highly picturesque lines in the north that are among the country’s best attractions, notably the Douro line from Porto to Pocinho. Be aware that rural train stations can sometimes be a fair way from the town or village they serve – Portalegre station and town are 12km apart, for example. Also, at the time of writing, the famed Douro narrow-gauge branch line services (the Tâmega, Corgo and Tua lines) had been replaced by bus/taxi connections while upgrade work continues. Timetables (horários) for all lines are available from stations and on the CP website, which has a good English-language version.
Most train services are designated Regionais (R) or Interregionais (IR), covering the country from Faro in the south to Valença do Minho in the north. Intercidades (IC) are faster and more expensive services, connecting Lisbon to the main regional centres; while the modern, high-speed Alfa Pendulares (AP) trains run from Lisbon to Faro, and from Lisbon to Braga via Santarém, Coimbra, Aveiro and Porto. Urban services (urbanos) in Lisbon (to Cascais, Sintra, Setúbal and Vila Franca de Xira) and Porto (to Aveiro, Braga and Guimarães) provide a useful commuter link to local towns, while both cities also have an underground metro system.
Tickets, fares and rail passes
Most visitors simply buy a ticket every time they travel; first-class is primeira classe or conforto, second-class is segunda classe or turística. Always turn up at the station with time to spare since long queues often form at the ticket office. However, at unstaffed regional stations you can just pay the ticket inspector on board, while major stations have credit-card ticket machines for long-distance IC or AP tickets (on the day of travel or up to thirty days in advance); and you can also buy IC and AP tickets on the CP website.
Fares are extremely good value. A typical regional journey, across the Algarve from Faro to Vila Real de Santo António, only costs around €5; the Lisbon-to-Porto route costs around €20 second-class/€30 first-class by Intercidade, or around €30/40 on the fastest Alfa Pendular service. It’s cheapest on all services if you avoid travelling on Friday afternoons, Sunday afternoons, Monday mornings, national holidays and the day preceding a national holiday. There are fifty-percent discounts for children under 12 (under 4s go free), and thirty-percent for senior citizens (over-65s, ID required; ask for a bilhete terceira idade) and Euro 26 card-holders – but discounts aren’t given on AP trains, nor on some weekend IC trains. Seat reservations are obligatory on IC and AP trains, though they are included in the ticket price.
The major pan-European rail passes (InterRail and Eurail) are only worth considering if you’re visiting the country as part of a wider European tour. However, both schemes also have single-country Portugal passes available, which might prove better value. The InterRail Portugal Pass (wwww.raileurope.co.uk) is only available to European residents and allows three, four, six or eight days’ train travel within one month, with under 26, second- and first-class versions available. For anyone else, Eurail (wwww.raileurope.com) also has Portugal passes available, typically offering three, four or six days’ travel within a month, again in various classes. You can check current prices on the websites, but bear in mind that it often works out cheaper to buy individual tickets as you need them, and it’s certainly more convenient to be able to choose buses on some routes. All these passes also have to be bought before you leave home, and you’ll still be liable for supplements and seat reservations on long-distance and high-speed trains.
CP also has its own rail pass for those under 30. The Intra-Rail Card splits the country into four zones and offers unlimited train travel for three or ten days, including overnight youth hostel accommodation, with prices starting at €49. You can buy the card at participating stations and youth hostels in Portugal.
Buses connect almost all of the country’s towns and villages, with services operated by a wide array of private companies. It can be a little confusing at times: at some bus stations you may find two or more companies running services to the same towns; conversely, buses going to the same destination may leave from different terminals. However, there is a national network of express buses, with Rede Expressos (wwww.rede-expressos.pt) offering a daily service to destinations right across the country – you can book tickets online or buy them at bus stations and ticket desks (often in cafés by the bus stop/station). Buying tickets in advance is a wise idea, but even in summer in tourist areas the day before is usually fine. Fares are good value: the Lisbon–Porto express route costs €17.50, Faro–Lisbon €18. Under 4s travel free, under 12s half-price, and there are discounts for under 26s and senior citizens over 65 with relevant identification.
Local and rural bus services go virtually everywhere you’re likely to want to go, with the notable exception of some of the natural parks, like the Serra da Estrela, Serra de Malcata and Montesinho. However, services are often restricted to one or two departures a day, or geared towards school and market times – meaning early morning weekday departures, sometimes only during term times. Many local services are reduced – or nonexistent – at weekends.
The local bus station – Rodoviaria or Camionagem – is usually the best place to check services and routes. Most companies have timetables posted in the ticket-office window and copies to give away, though outside the Algarve it’s rare to find anyone who speaks English. Turismos often have bus timetables too, though you can’t always count on them being up to date.
A massive EU-funded construction programme has improved roads right across the country – particularly in previously remote areas such as Trás-os-Montes and Beira Alta – and what appears to be a minor route on a map can turn out to be a beautifully engineered highway. But there are still plenty of winding, poorly maintained rural roads – and you can expect to encounter highway repairs, farm vehicles, roaming animals and locals laden with wood or produce on almost any countryside journey. Other than on city approaches and during rush hour, traffic is generally light, though as car ownership has increased dramatically in recent years so too has congestion.
Most main roads are prefixed EN – Estrada Nacional – or just N, with the faster regional highways denoted as IP (Itinerário Principal) or IC (Itinerário Complementar). On the whole, they are two-lane roads, with passing lanes on hills, though stretches near some towns and cities are dual carriageway. The motorway (auto-estrada) network (prefixed with “A”) comprises a central spine of four- or six-lane toll roads (signposted “Portagem”) that link the Algarve with Lisbon, Porto, the main inland towns and the north. The tolls are considered expensive by the Portuguese, who tend to use the older routes where possible; driving up the A1 from Lisbon to Porto, for example, costs around €20 (though some motorways are free, such as the east–west trans-Algarve A22 or the eastern A25). However, it’s always much quicker by motorway and, with some sections virtually deserted, they are a pleasure to drive. Incidentally, at the toll gates don’t drive through the lane marked “Via Verde” (an automatic debit-payment lane), but use any lane with a green light above it – you pay in cash, or with Visa or Mastercard. You can also pay by credit card at most petrol stations for fuel (gasolina) – unleaded is sem chumbo, diesel gasóleo.
Traffic drives on the right: speed limits are 50kph in towns and villages (often enforced by tripped “Velocidade Controlade” traffic lights), 90kph on normal roads, and 120kph on motorways and inter-regional highways. Unless there’s a sign to the contrary at road junctions (and there rarely is), vehicles coming from the right have right of way – it can be horribly confusing, but most drivers use something approaching common sense to interpret whose turn it is. Other road signage is also poor, particularly at roundabouts, city exits and highway access roads, where the signs you’ve been following simply dry up for no reason; often, too, there’s little or no warning of turns at slip-roads and junctions; or destinations are often signposted in one direction and not the other. In addition, many roads keep their old designations when upgraded, so for example, the Vila Real–Chaves road, once the IP3, now a motorway, is also marked as the A24 and, just for good measure, as the E801 (a pan-European route).
Driving licences from most countries are accepted, so there’s no need to get an international one before you leave. Many car insurance policies cover taking your car to Portugal; check with your insurer when planning your trip. However, you’re advised to take out extra cover for motoring assistance in case your car breaks down, and motoring organizations like the RAC (wwww.rac.co.uk) or the AA (wwww.theaa.co.uk) can help. Alternatively, you can get 24-hour assistance from the Automóvel Clube de Portugal (wwww.acp.pt), which has reciprocal arrangements with foreign automobile clubs.
If you’re stopped by the police in Portugal, they’ll want to see your personal ID or passport, driving licence, and papers for the car (including ownership papers if it’s your own car). By law, you should also have a red warning triangle and a fluorescent yellow jacket in the car (provided in rental cars). It pays to be patient and courteous since the police can – and do – levy on-the-spot fines for speeding, parking and other offences. Pleading ignorance won’t get you anywhere.
Many towns and beach resorts are now flooded with traffic, especially in summer, so you may find problems finding a central parking space. Some cities, such as Coimbra, have park-and-ride schemes, while in Porto there are huge car parks at suburban metro stations. We’ve pointed out useful parking advice in the guide, and also highlighted accommodation with private or easy parking. When parking in cities, do as the locals do and use the empty spaces pointed out to you. A tip of €0.50 to the man doing the pointing will pay them for “looking after” your car. On-street parking is usually metered, even in the smallest towns. The price varies, but averages €0.40 an hour, though it’s generally free from 8pm until 8am the next morning on weekdays, on Saturday afternoons and all day Sunday. Garage parking is always more expensive – up to €10 a day – but where it’s available it is the most secure option.
Car and motorbike rental
Car rental is relatively inexpensive and usually cheapest of all arranged in advance through one of the large multinational chains (Avis, Budget, Easycar, Hertz, Holiday Autos, or National, for example). Check their websites for special offers. Otherwise, rental agencies (including local firms) are found in all the major towns and at the airports in Lisbon, Porto and Faro. Local rates start at €30–50 a day with unlimited mileage, theft cover and collision damage waivers. Minimum age for rental is 21, though up to and including the age of 24 you’ll have to pay a supplement.
Collision insurance is vital, since without it you’ll be liable for costs should the vehicle be damaged – and this includes even minor scratches, easily acquired down unmade tracks or in crowded car parks. Ensure that all visible damage on a car you’re picking up is duly marked on the rental sheet. It’s definitely worth considering paying the extra charge to reduce the “excess” payment levied for any damage, but these waiver charges (by the day) soon add up. However, you can avoid all excess charges in the event of damage by taking out an annual insurance policy with wwww.Insurance4carhire.com, which also covers windscreen and tyre damage.
You can also rent mopeds, scooters and low-powered (80cc) motorbikes in many resorts, with costs starting at around €25 a day. You need to be at least 18 (and over 23 for bikes over 125cc) and to have held a full licence for at least a year. Rental should include helmet and locks along with third-party insurance. Helmet use is obligatory.
Travelling by taxi in Portugal is relatively cheap by European standards, and meters are used in towns and cities – an average journey across Lisbon or Porto costs around €6. Additional charges are made for carrying luggage, travelling at weekends or between 10pm and 6am (twenty percent more), and for calling a cab by phone – these charges are all posted inside the cab, so there shouldn’t be any misunderstanding. You may have to rely on taxis more than you expect, since bus and railway stations are often some way removed from town centres, while in rural areas there may be no other way to reach your next destination. Outside town limits, the journey is usually charged by the kilometre – the driver should be able to quote you a figure for the trip.
Bicycles are a great way of seeing the country, though anywhere away from the coast – especially north of Lisbon and inland from the Algarve’s beaches – is hilly, and you’ll also find pedalling hard work across the Alentejo plains. Specialist outlets, plus hotels, campsites and youth hostels, rent bikes from €10–15 a day.
Portugal’s woeful road accident statistics mean that defensive riding is essential. Fitting a rear-view mirror to the handlebars is a definite advantage, as is reflective and fluorescent clothing (or sashes) at night. In general, it’s best to assume that drivers will not obey road signs or regulations – just be prepared. Minor country roads have far less traffic to contend with, but locals know them backwards and so speeding – even around blind corners – is the norm. For more information on cycling abroad, contact the UK’s national cycling organization, the CTC (wwww.ctc.org.uk), though you’ll have to join to access their tours and notes on cycling in Portugal.
Collapsible bikes can be taken for free on regional and inter-regional trains (ie, the slow ones), so long as they’re dismantled and stowed in a bag or other cover. Otherwise, bikes can be taken on the Lisbon and Porto urban lines and regional trains from Coimbra – there’s usually a small charge during the week, free at weekends. The CP website (wwww.cp.pt) has the latest details.Read More
Driving: a survivor’s guide
Driving: a survivor’s guide
Portugal’s accident statistics are shocking (the worst per capita in the EU) and only a couple of days’ driving on Portuguese roads will tell you why. Drink-driving is rife, despite the strict laws and advertising campaigns: this is a country where motorway service stations have bars, and truck drivers in roadside restaurants polish off a jug of wine with their lunch before getting back in their rigs. Sunday afternoons, after big family lunches, are considered particularly dangerous times to be on the roads. Reckless overtaking is the norm – across solid white lines, on blind corners, on hills, in crowded town centres – while on otherwise deserted motorways you’ll need to check your mirror every few seconds to make sure someone isn’t right up your exhaust pipe. Posted speed limits, meanwhile, are viewed by most drivers as minimum requirements. On bends in country roads, oncoming vehicles routinely approach down the middle (or even right on your side), so as not to lose any preciously acquired speed – and speed bumps are always dealt with by shifting across to the other side of the road rather than slowing down. “Right of way” is something of an alien concept – vehicles zoom across roundabouts without so much as a glance – while the use of indicators is in its infancy. Parking restrictions are treated with impressive disdain – cars are routinely left on corners and at pedestrian crossings, garage exits and bus stops. In addition, drivers are always happy to stop for a lengthy chat with passers-by or other drivers at traffic lights, thus blocking the road. It goes without saying that talking (illegally) on a hand-held mobile phone while driving is considered a basic motoring skill.
Despite all this, driving in Portugal is – paradoxically – less stressful than in most European countries. There’s far less traffic for a start, while the locals take most things in their stride. There’s relatively little road rage, and, surprisingly, the horn doesn’t get much use (unless you’re driving far too slowly for the liking of the car behind). And, of course, any mistakes you might make blend seamlessly into the general mayhem that is an average day out on the roads.