There are regular direct flights to Lisbon, Faro and Porto, though travellers from outside Europe may find it cheaper to fly via London and arrange onward travel from there. If you want to see some of France or Spain en route, or are taking a vehicle, there are overland combinations of ferry, rail and road to consider, though these nearly always work out pricier than flying. Package holidays and tours can be good value, whether it’s an Algarve beach holiday or escorted walking tour – and travel agents and specialist tour operators can also provide car rental, hotel bookings and other useful services.
Air, train and ferry fares are seasonal, at their highest in school holidays and summer (basically Easter to September), and around Christmas/New Year and Easter week. Always book as far in advance as possible to get the best deals. The cheapest flights from the UK and Ireland are usually with budget and charter airlines, which are sold direct (by phone or online) on a one-way basis, so you may find that one leg of your journey is significantly more expensive depending on demand. Be aware, too, that airport taxes can cost more than the flight itself, while increasingly things such as in-flight meals and luggage allowances are being charged as extra. Cheap flights tend to have fixed dates, and are non-changeable and non-refundable, while tickets with charter airlines may limit your stay to one month. Major scheduled airlines are usually (though not always) more expensive, but tickets remain valid for three months or more and have a degree of flexibility should you need to change dates after booking. You may be able to cut costs by going through a specialist flight, discount or online agent, which may also offer special student and youth fares plus a range of other travel-related services.
Flights from the UK and Ireland
Flying to Faro, Lisbon or Porto takes two to three hours from airports around the UK and Ireland, and usually the cheapest flights are with budget airlines such as easyJet (wwww.easyjet.com), bmibaby (wwww.bmibaby.com), Jet2 (wwww.jet2.com), Ryanair (wwww.ryanair.com), Aer Lingus (wwww.aerlingus.com), Monarch Airlines (wwww.flights.monarch.co.uk), thomsonfly (wwww.thomson.co.uk) or flybe (wwww.flybe.com). Between them they fly direct from around twenty regional British airports, plus Belfast and Dublin, and although Faro on the Algarve is the most common destination you should be able to find a route that suits you. Not all routes are daily or year-round: some Algarve flights are summer-only, and other Lisbon or Porto routes have a reduced winter service. Fares vary wildly and, depending on promotions, start at just £1 or €1 each way, plus taxes. Under £100 total for a return flight is common, but even if you miss the best deals, travel in peak season or book late you’re unlikely to part with more than £150–200 for a flight to Portugal.
The other main scheduled airlines flying to Portugal are the national carriers TAP (wwww.flytap.com) and British Airways (wwww.ba.com), flying regular services from London to Lisbon and Porto. You’ll also be able to arrange add-on sections to London from regional UK airports. They are not necessarily more expensive than the budget airlines, and flight times may be more convenient – that said, you’re unlikely to get a rock-bottom deal and the fully flexible fares offered can run into the hundreds.
Flights from the US and Canada
The only direct nonstop services from the United States are from NewYork (Newark) to Lisbon with Continental Airlines (wwww.continental.com) or TAP (wwww.flytap.com), with fares starting at around $700 return. Flight time is around seven hours. From all other cities you’ll need a connecting flight, either via NewYork or via a European airport with airlines such as BA, Lufthansa and Air France – in which case you can add four or five hours to your total travel time, depending on the connection. TAP can also arrange onward flights from Lisbon to Porto or Faro, as can some other European airlines.
From Canada to Portugal, most airlines route through NewYork or Europe, though SATA (wwww.sata.pt) has direct flights from Toronto to Lisbon or Porto, with a flight time of around eight hours.
Flights from Australia, New Zealand and South Africa
There are no direct flights to Portugal from Australia or New Zealand, but many airlines offer through-tickets with their partners via their European or Asian hubs. Flights via Asia are generally the cheaper option, but fares don’t vary as much between airlines as you might think, and in the end you’ll be basing your choice on things like flight timings, routes and possible stop-offs. If you’re seeing Portugal as part of a wider European trip, you might want to aim first for the UK, since there’s a wide choice of cheap flights to Portugal once there. Or consider a Round-the-World fare, with most basic options able to offer Lisbon as a standard stopover. From South Africa, there are direct flights with TAP (wwww.flytap.com) from Johannesburg to Lisbon, which take around ten hours.
The quickest route from London to Lisbon by train takes 24 hours, via Eurostar (wwww.eurostar.com) from London St Pancras to Paris, then Paris to Irún on the Spanish border by high-speed train (TGV) and finally the overnight Sud-Express “train-hotel” to Lisbon. It’s an enjoyable route, well worth considering, though the cheapest fares are from around £200 return (with couchette accommodation on the overnight train). For Porto you change at Coimbra, while there are also direct connections from Lisbon to the Algarve. The alternative route to Portugal is via Madrid – this takes two nights (overnight trains from Paris to Madrid and then Madrid to Lisbon), but gives you a day in Madrid en route. The overnight trains have seats (not really recommended) as well as couchettes and cabins complete with showers, plus restaurant, buffet bar and lounge.
The best first stop is the excellent wwww.seat61.com, which provides full route, ticket, timetable and contact information. You can book the whole journey online with Rail Europe (wwww.raileurope.co.uk) or call a specialist rail agent such as Ffestiniog Travel (t01766/772050), the Spanish Rail Service (t020/7725 7063, wwww.spanish-rail.co.uk) or European Rail (t020/7619 1083, wwww.europeanrail.com). If you live outside the UK, you can book Eurostar and overnight train tickets through wwww.raileurope.com. These contacts can also provide information about rail passes (principally InterRail and Eurail), which have to be bought before leaving home.
You can get to Porto, Lisbon or Faro and points in-between from the UK with Eurolines (wwww.eurolines.co.uk), but it’s a very long time to spend cooped up in a bus (35–40hr depending on the route). It’s also a limited service (currently once or twice a week from London) and it’s going to cost £180–200 return, though special offers, student and youth discounts and advance bookings can bring the price down. Book tickets online or at any UK National Express bus terminal.
Overland from Spain
It’s easy to travel by train from Spain to Portugal, and there are some rewarding stops en route. Rail passes are valid, though you’ll be liable for supplements on many trains.
From Madrid (Chamartin station), the overnight Lusitânia Tren-Hotel takes ten hours and thirty minutes to Lisbon (change at Entroncamento in Portugal for Coimbra and Porto). Prices start at €59 one-way, €95 return, for a second-class seat, or €85 one-way, €135 return, for the cheapest berth (four-bed cabin); there are also singles, doubles and gran classe cabins available. Tickets can be bought in Madrid at Chamartin, through the Spanish (wwww.renfe.es) or Portuguese (wwww.cp.pt) railway companies’ websites, or from one of the rail agents mentioned in “Trains” above.
From the northeast, the overnight Sud-Express from the French border at Hendaye/Irún to Lisbon (13hr) passes through San Sebastian and Salamanca, entering Portugal at Vilar Formoso in Beira Alta and then calling at Portugal’s highest town, Guarda; change at Coimbra for Porto. Tickets start at €67 one-way, €107 return (€87/139 for the cheapest six-bed berth), and again can be bought online or from agents.
From northwestern Spain, two trains a day connect Vigo in Galicia to Porto (around 3hr 15min; €12.75 one-way), passing the border at Tuy/Valença on the River Minho, then following the river and coast down via Vila Praia de Âncora, Viana do Castelo and Barcelos.
From Granada, Córdoba and Seville in southern Spain you are well placed to get a bus to the border at Ayamonte/Vila Real de Santo António, for onward transport by bus or train along the Algarve coast.
There are numerous other border road crossings, but if you’re in a rental car check first whether you’re covered to take the vehicle between countries. The major routes from Madrid or Salamanca make for an easy motorway drive to Portugal’s biggest cities, but there are some excellent minor routes into the country as well – like those from Zamora to Bragança or Miranda do Douro, or from Cáceres to Castelo Branco.
Driving to Portugal
Driving the 2000km or so from the UK to Portugal, using the standard cross-Channel services or Eurotunnel (wwww.eurotunnel.com) through the Channel Tunnel, takes two full days. It’s not a cheap option (factoring in the cross-Channel trip, fuel, tolls, overnight stops and meals), but it is a good way of seeing France and Spain on the way.
The best way of cutting down the driving time is to catch the ferry to northern Spain, though this still leaves a six- to eight-hour drive before you reach Portugal. Brittany Ferries (wwww.brittany-ferries.co.uk) sails to Santander from Plymouth (1 weekly; 20hr) and Portsmouth (1 weekly; 24hr), or there’s a P&O service (wwww.poferries.com) from Portsmouth to Bilbao (twice weekly; 34hr; restricted services in winter). Car-and-passenger fares start at around £125 one-way to Santander, £240 to Bilbao, though in summer and school holidays return fares can cost £800 or more (it’s cheaper for foot passengers, though everyone has to book some form of seating or cabin accommodation).
Tickets can be bought from travel agents or ferry companies, or consult wwww.directferries.com which has details about, and links to, every European ferry service.
Package holidays, tours and city breaks
Standard package holidays concentrate on hotels and self-catering apartments and villas in the Algarve’s main beach resorts, and bargains can be found online or at any UK high-street travel agent for as little as £125 per person for a seven-night flight-and-accommodation package. There are often really good deals for families, though obviously the more bells and whistles you want (beachfront accommodation, pool, kids’ clubs etc), the more you pay, while prices are always significantly higher during school holidays.
Other specialist tour operators offer a wide range of fly-drive holidays based around accommodation in historic manor houses and pousadas, whilst some feature things including birdwatching, horse-riding, hiking, biking and wine tours. Prices vary wildly depending on the standard of accommodation, and whether the tours are fully inclusive or not (with guides and meals etc). Most tour operators should also be able to tailor-make a holiday, and arrange flights, accommodation, insurance and car rental.
City breaks are mainly to Lisbon, though you’ll also find Porto and even short breaks to the Algarve offered. UK prices start at around £200 for a three-day (2-night) break, including return flights and B&B in a modest hotel. Adding extra nights or upgrading your hotel is usually possible too. The bigger US operators, such as American Express and Delta Vacations, can also organize short city breaks to Lisbon on a flight-and-hotel basis.
Discount travel agents
North South Travel UK t 01245/608291, wwww.northsouthtravel.co.uk. Friendly, competitive travel agency, offering discounted fares worldwide. Profits are used to support projects in the developing world, especially the promotion of sustainable tourism.
STA Travel UK t0871/2300 040, US t1-800/781-4040, Australia t134 782, NewZealand t0800/474 400, South Africa t0861/781 781; wwww.statravel.com. Worldwide specialists in independent travel; also student IDs, travel insurance, car rental, rail passes, and more. Good discounts for students and under-26s.
Trailfinders UK t0845/058 5858, Ireland t01/677 7888, Australia t1300/780 212; wwww.trailfinders.com. One of the best-informed and most efficient agents for independent travellers.
Specialist tour operators
Abreu Tours US t1-800/223 1580, wwww.abreu-tours.com. Pousada bookings, Douro cruises, tailor-made holidays and fly-drive packages.
Arblaster & Clarke UK t01730/263111, wwww.winetours.co.uk. Sophisticated wine-tour specialist offering Douro vineyard walks, port-harvest trips, and escorted Portugal tours – from around £1600 for a week’s all-inclusive guided wine tour.
Destination Portugal UK t01993/773269, wwww.destinationportugal.co.uk. Portugal specialist offering flights, car rental and accommodation, as well as cruises, special-interest and tailor-made holidays.
Easy Rider Tours US t1-800/488 8332, wwww.easyridertours.com. Guided cycling and sightseeing tours in various Portuguese regions, from a leisurely Sintra tour to a nine-day mountain-to-coast trip, with prices ranging from $3000–4000.
Equitour UK t0800/043 7942, US t1-800/656 6163; wwww.equitour.co.uk. Horseriding holidays in the Alentejo – a week for around £1000 (not including flights), with accommodation at a private country resort.
Green Portugal Portugal t235 778 094 or t912 611 137, wwww.greenportugal.com. Rough Guide author Jules Brown organizes tailor-made self-guided walking holidays in the hills and valleys of central Portugal (near Coimbra), from €289 for three days (flights not included). Also local tours, information and accommodation bookings.
Iber Tours Australia t1-800/500 016, NewZealand t0800/444 843; wwww.ibertours.com.au. Can arrange fly-drive or escorted tours, as well as manor house and pousada accommodation.
Limosa Holidays UK t01263/578143, wwww.limosaholidays.co.uk. Birdwatching in the Alentejo and Algarve. There’s some walking involved, and the holidays (from around £1400 for a week) include flights, meals and transport.
Martin Randall Travel UK t020/8742 3355, wwww.martinrandall.com. Leading cultural tour specialist, offering small-group, expert-led trips either along the Douro by train and boat or to the historic centre of the country. Departures a couple of times a year, from around £2000.
Naturetrek UK t01962/733051, wwww.naturetrek.co.uk. Its two-centre “Spring in southern Portugal” tour is an eight-day botanical and birdwatching trip in the southern Alentejo and Algarve (around £1100), including gentle walking.
Portugal Walks UK t0871/711 3315 or Portugal t965 753 033, wwww.portugalwalks.com,wwww.pedalinportugal.com. A good range of group and individual guided and self-guided walking and cycling holidays in the Algarve, Alentejo, Lisbon coast and north Portugal. Prices vary, and flights are not included, but typically, a four-night self-guided walk starts at around €260, a week’s guided group walking or cycling from around €900.
Ramblers Worldwide Holidays UK t01707/331133, wwww.ramblersholidays.co.uk. Long-established walking-holiday operator with guided walking trips along the Douro and Minho rivers, as well as the Algarve and the northern national and natural parks. From around £600 for one week, £900 for two weeks.Read More