Portugal //

Getting there

There are regular direct flights to Lisbon, Faro and Porto from all over Europe and some US cities, 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 at their highest in school holidays and summer (basically Easter to September), and around Christmas/New Year and Easter week. The cheapest flights from the UK and Ireland are usually with the budget airlines, though watch out for the airport taxes, which can cost more than the flight itself, while luggage allowances and allocated seating are also charged as extra. Major scheduled airlines are usually (though not always) more expensive, while specialist flight, discount or online agents can sometimes 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 (weasyjet.com), Jet2 (wjet2.com), Ryanair (wryanair.com), Aer Lingus (waerlingus.com), Monarch Airlines (wflights.monarch.co.uk), thomsonfly (wflights.thomson.co.uk) or flybe (wflybe.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, can be as low as £20 or €25 each way, though you’ll have to travel off-peak and book a long time ahead to get this sort of deal. Around £100 total for a return flight is more common, but if you’re tied to school holidays or book late you’re likely to pay nearer £150–200 return.

The main scheduled airlines flying to Portugal are the national carriers TAP (wflytap.com) and British Airways (wba.com): TAP flies regular services from London to Lisbon and Porto, while BA serves Lisbon and Faro. 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 New York (Newark) to Lisbon with United Airlines (wunited.com) or TAP (wflytap.com), with fares starting at US$1000 return. Flight time is around seven hours. From all other cities you’ll need a connecting flight, either via New York or via a European airport with airlines such as BA (wba.com), Lufthansa (wlufthansa.com) or Air France (wairfrance.com) – 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.

From Canada to Portugal, most airlines route through New York or Europe, though SATA (wsata.pt) sometimes has direct flights from Toronto to Lisbon or Porto (about 11 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 stopoffs. 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, TAP (wflytap.com) and South Africa Airways (wflysaa.com) fly to Lisbon with a change of plane in Maputo, or you can fly with one of the major European airlines via their home hub.

Trains

Getting from London to Lisbon by train involves taking the Eurostar (weurostar.com) from London St Pancras to Paris, then Paris to Irun on the Spanish border by high-speed train (TGV) and finally the overnight Sud-Express “train-hotel”, which gets you into Lisbon at about 7.30am. It’s an enjoyable route, well worth considering, though the cheapest fares start at around £200 return (with couchette accommodation on the overnight train) – and the connections are such that you will probably have to spend a night in Paris. 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 wseat61.com, which provides full route, ticket, timetable and contact information. You can book the whole journey online with Rail Europe (wraileurope.co.uk) or call a specialist rail agent such as the Spanish Rail Service (t0203 137 4464, wspanish-rail.co.uk) or European Rail (t020 7619 1083, weuropeanrail.com). If you live outside the UK, you can book Eurostar and overnight train tickets through wraileurope.com. These contacts can also provide information about rail passes (principally InterRail and Eurail), which have to be bought before leaving home.

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 Lusitania Trenhotel takes ten hours and thirty minutes to Lisbon (change at Entroncamento in Portugal for Coimbra and Porto). Prices start at €60 one way, €97 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 (wrenfe.es) or Portuguese (wcp.pt) railway companies’ websites.

From the northeast, the overnight Sud-Express from the French border at Hendaye/Irun to Lisbon (around 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 €70 one way, €110 return (€94/150 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), 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 from the UK

Driving the 2000km or so from the UK to Portugal, using the standard cross-Channel services or Eurotunnel (w 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 (w brittany-ferries.co.uk) sails to Santander from Plymouth (1 weekly; 20hr) and Portsmouth (2 weekly; 24hr) and to Bilbao from Portsmouth (2 weekly; 24hr). A car-and-2-passengers fare starts at £324 one-way from Plymouth to Santander, £335 from Portsmouth to Santander, and £355 to Bilbao, though in summer and school holidays return fares can rocket. In winter the website often features special deals (it’s cheaper for foot passengers, though everyone has to book some form of seating or cabin accommodation).

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 off season. 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, while some feature activities such as birdwatching, horseriding, 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.

Specialist tour operators

Martin Randall Travel UK t020 8742 3355, wmartinrandall.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 £1700.

Birdwatching, botanical and adventure

09°West, Portugal t211 991 086, w09west.com. Lisbon-based company offering a range of hiking, birdwatching, surfing and photography tours throughout the country.

Formosmar, Portugal t289 817 466, wformosamar.com. Kayaking, bike tours, walking tours and birdwatching, around the Ria Formosa in the Algarve.

Limosa Holidays UK t01692 580623, wlimosaholidays.co.uk. Birdwatching in the Alentejo and Algarve. There’s some walking involved, and the holidays (from around £1700 for a week) include flights, meals and transport.

Nature Trails Portugal t926 543 289, wcaminhosdanatureza.pt. Guided and self-guided hikes and cycle trips, mostly in the south of the country.

Naturetrek UK t01962 733051, wnaturetrek.co.uk. Offers 7- or 8-day spring and autumn botanical and birdwatching trips in the southern Alentejo and the Algarve (around £1300), including gentle walking.

Food and drink

Arblaster & Clarke UK t01730 263111, wwinetours.co.uk. Sophisticated wine-tour specialist offering Douro vineyard walks, port-harvest trips, and escorted Portugal tours – from around £1700 for a week’s all-inclusive guided wine tour.

Horseriding

Equitour UK t0800 043 7942, US t1 800 656 6163; wequitour.com. Horseriding holidays in the Alentejo – a week for around £1000 (not including flights), with accommodation at a private country resort.

Walking and cycling

Easy Rider Tours US t1 800 488 8332, weasyridertours.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.

Portugal Walks UK t0965 753 033 or Portugal t965 753 033, wportugalwalks.com, wpedalinportugal.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. Typically, a four-night self-guided walk starts at around €300, a week’s guided group walking from around €600, or cycling for around €1300 (all excluding flights).

Ramblers Worldwide Holidays UK t01707 331133, wramblersholidays.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 £665 per week.

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