A helpful website for schedules and prices to assist with your trip planning is www.transpor.pt.
Other than river cruises along the Rio Douro from Porto and the Rio Tejo from Lisbon, Portugal’s only remaining waterborne transport is cross-river ferries. Commuter ferries include those across the Rio Tejo to/from Lisbon, and across the mouth of the Rio Sado.
Hitching is never entirely safe anywhere, and we don’t recommend it. In any case it isn’t an easy option in Portugal. Almost nobody stops on major highways, and on smaller roads drivers tend to be going short distances so you may only advance from one field to the next.
A host of small private bus operators, most amalgamated into regional companies, run a dense network of services across the country. Among the largest companies are Rede Expressos (707 223 344; www.rede-expressos.pt), Rodonorte (www.rodonorte.pt) and the Algarve line Eva (289 899 760; www.eva-bus.com).
Bus services are of three general types: expressos are comfortable, fast buses between major cities, rápidas are quick regional buses, and carreiras, marked CR, stop at every crossroad (never mind that carreiras means something like ‘in a hurry’ in Portuguese). Some companies also offer a fast deluxe category called alta qualidade.
Even in summer you’ll have little problem booking an expresso ticket for the same or next day. A Lisbon–Faro express bus takes four hours and costs €15; Lisbon–Porto takes 3½ hours for €13.50 or more. By contrast, local services, can thin out to almost nothing on weekends, especially in summer when school is out.
An under-26 card should get you a discount of around 20%, at least on the long-distance services. Senior travellers can often get up to 50% off.
Don’t rely on turismos for accurate timetable information. Most bus-station ticket desks will give you a little computer print-out of fares and all services.
Portugal’s modest network of estradas (highways) is gradually spreading across the country. Main roads are sealed and generally in good condition. And if you choose to pootle around on lesser routes you’ll find most of the roads empty.
The downside is your fellow drivers. A leading Swedish road-safety investigator was quoted as saying the Portuguese ‘drive like car thieves’ and the prime minister described what happens on Portugal’s major highways as ‘civil war’. The country’s per-capita death rate from road accidents has long been one of Europe’s highest, and drinking, driving and dying are hot political potatoes.
A tough law in 2001 dropped the legal blood-alcohol level to the equivalent of a single glass of wine. But the law was suspended months later following intense pressure from –you guessed it – Portugal’s wine producers. Even the present limit of 0.5g/L is pretty stringent, plus there are fines up to €2500.
The good news is that recent years have seen a 10% decline in road-death rates thanks to a zero-tolerance police crackdown on accident-prone routes and alcohol limits. Along those lines, it’s also illegal in Portugal to drive while talking on a mobile phone.
Driving can be tricky in Portugal’s small walled towns, where roads may taper down to donkey-cart size before you know it, and fiendish one-way systems can force you out of your way.
A common sight in larger towns is the down-and-outers who lurk around squares and car parks, wave you into the parking space you’ve just found for yourself, and ask for payment for this service. Of course it’s a racket and of course there’s no need to give them anything, but the Portuguese often do, and €0.50 might keep your car out of trouble.
If you are involved in a minor ‘fender-bender’ with no injuries, the easiest way for drivers to sort things out with their insurance companies is to fill out a Constat Aimable (the English version is called a European Accident Statement). There’s no risk in signing this: it’s just a way to exchange the relevant information and there’s usually one included in rental-car documents. Make sure it includes any details that may help you prove that the accident was not your fault. To alert the police, dial 112.
Automóvel Club de Portugal (ACP; 808 502 502; www.acp.pt in Portuguese; Rua Rosa Araújo 24, Lisbon; 8am-8pm Mon-Fri), Portugal’s national auto club, provides medical, legal and breakdown assistance for its members. Road information and maps are available to anyone at ACP offices, including the head office in Lisbon and branches in Aveiro, Braga, Bragança, Coimbra, Évora, Faro, Porto and elsewhere.
If your national auto club belongs to the Fédération Internationale de l’Automobile or the Alliance Internationale de Tourisme, you can also use ACP’s emergency services and get discounts on maps and other products. Among clubs that qualify are the AA and RAC in the UK, and the Australian, New Zealand, Canadian and American automobile associations.
The 24-hour emergency help number is 707 509 510.
Fuel is expensive – about €1.39 (and rising) for a litre of sem chumbo (unleaded petrol) at the time of writing. There are plenty of self-service stations, and credit cards are accepted at most.
Top of the range are auto-estradas (motorways), all of them portagens (toll roads); the longest of these are Lisbon–Porto and Lisbon–Algarve. Toll roads charge cars and motorcycles around €0.06 per kilometre (eg a total of €18.15 for Lisbon–Porto, €6.60 for Lisbon–Setúbal and €17.75 for Lisbon to the Algarve).
Nomenclature can be baffling. Motorway numbers prefixed with an E are Europe-wide designations. Portugal’s toll roads are prefixed with an A. Highways in the country’s main network are prefixed IP (itinerário principal) and subsidiary ones IC (itinerário complementar). Some highways have several designations, and numbers that change in mid-flow.
Numbers for the main two-lane estradas nacionais (national roads) have no prefix letter on some road maps, whereas on other maps, they’re prefixed by N. If you want to get off the big roads, consider going for the really small ones, which tend to be prettier and more peaceful.
To rent a car in Portugal you must be at least 25 years old and have held your driving licence for more than a year (some companies allow younger drivers at higher rates). The widest choice of car-hire companies is at Lisbon, Porto and Faro airports. Competition has driven Algarve rates lower than elsewhere.
Some of the best advance-booking rates are offered by internet-based brokers such as Holiday Autos (www.holidayautos.com). Other bargains come as part of ‘fly-drive’ packages. The worst deals tend to be those done with international firms on arrival, though their prepaid promotional rates are competitive. Book at least a few days ahead in high season. For on-the-spot rental, domestic firms such as Auto Jardim (www.auto-jardim.com) have some of the best rates.
Renting the smallest and cheapest available car for a week in the high-season costs as little as €135 (with tax, insurance and unlimited mileage) if booked from abroad, and a similar amount through a Portuguese firm. It can cost up to €400 if you book through Portuguese branches of international firms such as Hertz, Europcar and Avis.
For an additional fee you can get personal insurance through the rental company, unless you’re covered by your home policy. A minimum of third-party coverage is compulsory in the EU.
Rental cars are especially at risk of break-ins or petty theft in larger towns, so don’t leave anything of value visible in the car. If you can unscrew the radio antenna, leave it inside the car at night; and put the wheel covers (hubcaps) in the boot (trunk) for the duration of your trip.
Motorcycles and scooters can be rented in larger cities, and all over coastal Algarve. Expect to pay from €30/60 per day for a scooter/motorcycle.
Caminhos de Ferro Portugueses (CP; 808 208 208; www.cp.pt; 7am-11pm), which is the state railway company, offers car transport by rail with certain services on the Lisbon–Porto, Lisbon–Guarda, Lisbon–Castelo Branco and Porto–Faro lines.
If you can match your itinerary to a regional service, travelling with Caminhos de Ferro Portugueses (CP; 808 208 208; www.cp.pt), the state railway company, is cheaper than by bus. Trains tend to be slower than long-distance buses, however.
Since the recent completion of main-line tracks to Pinhal Novo, there is now a direct rail link from Lisbon to the south of Portugal.
Three of the most appealing old railway lines, on narrow-gauge tracks climbing out of the Douro valley, survive in truncated form: the Linha da Tâmega from Livração to Amarante; the Linha da Corgo from Peso da Régua to Vila Real; and the beautiful Linha da Tua from Tua to Mirandela.
Children under four travel free; those aged four to 12 go for half-price. A youth card issued by Euro26 member countries gets you a 30% discount on regional and interregional services on any day, and on intercidade (express) services from Monday noon to Friday noon. Travellers aged 65 and over can get 50% off any service by showing some ID.
Get timetable and fare info at all stations and from CP (www.cp.pt). You can book intercidade and Alfa Pendular tickets up to 30 days ahead, though you’ll have little trouble booking for the next or even the same day. Other services can only be booked 24 hours in advance. A seat reservation is mandatory on most intercidade and Alfa trains; the booking fee is included in the price.
There are three main types of long-distance service: regional trains (marked R on timetables), which stop everywhere; reasonably fast interregional (IR) trains; and express trains, called rápido or intercidade (IC). Alfa Pendular is a deluxe, marginally faster and pricier IC service on the Lisbon–Coimbra–Porto main line. International services are marked IN on timetables.
Lisbon and Porto have their own suburbano (suburban) train networks. Lisbon’s network extends predictably to Sintra, Cascais, Setúbal and up the lower Tejo valley. Porto’s network takes the definition of ‘suburban’ to new lengths, running all the way to Braga, Guimarães and Aveiro. Suburbano services also travel between Coimbra and Figueira da Foz. The distinction matters where long-distance services parallel the more convenient, plentiful, and considerably cheaper, suburbanos.
Only the Faro–Porto Comboio Azul and international trains like Sud-Expresso and Talgo Lusitânia have restaurant cars, though all IC and Alfa trains have aisle service and most have bars. There’s a nonsmoking section somewhere on every CP train.
Lisbon-based Cityrama (213 191 090; www.cityrama.pt), Viana do Castelo’s AVIC (258 806 180; www.avic.pt), Porto’s Diana Tours (223 771 230; www.dianatours.pt), and the Algarve’s Megatur (289 807 485; www.megatur.pt) all run bus tours.
Caminhos de Ferro Portugueses (CP; 808 208 208, www.cp.pt; 7am-11pm), the state railway company, organises weekend day trips up the Douro valley during almond-blossom time.
If you prefer to assemble your own holiday, Portugal specialist Destination Portugal (www.destination-portugal.co.uk) will tell you all you need to know and can help with flights, car hire and accommodation, separately or together.
Try the following for special-interest tours:
Arblaster & Clarke (01730-893344; www.arblasterandclarke.com) Offers wine tours in the Douro.
Martin Randall Travel (020-8742 3355; www.martinrandall.com) Cultural specialist that arranges first-rate escorted art and architecture tours.
Naturetrek (01962-733051; www.naturetrek.co.uk) Specialist in bird-watching and botanical tours, runs an eight-day excursion around southern Portugal.
Flights within mainland Portugal are expensive, and for the short distances involved, not really worth considering. Nonetheless, PGA Portugália Airlines (218 425 559; www.flypga.com) and TAP Air Portugal (707 205 700; www.tap.pt) both have multiple daily Lisbon–Porto and Lisbon–Faro flights (taking less than one hour) year round. For Porto to Faro, change in Lisbon.
Mountain biking is hugely popular in Portugal, even though there are few dedicated bicycle paths. Possible itineraries are numerous in the mountainous national/natural parks of the north (especially Parque Nacional da Peneda-Gerês), along the coast or across the Alentejo plains. Coastal trips are easiest from north to south, with the prevailing winds. More demanding is the Serra da Estrela (which serves as the Tour de Portugal’s ‘mountain run’). You could also try the Serra do Marão between Amarante and Vila Real.
Local bike clubs organise regular Passeio BTT trips; check their flyers at rental agencies, bike shops and turismos (tourist offices). Guided trips are often available in popular tourist destinations.
Cobbled roads in some old-town centres may jar your teeth loose if your tyres aren’t fat enough; they should be at least 38mm in diameter.
If you’re cycling around Portugal on your own bike, proof of ownership and a written description and photograph of it will help police in case it’s stolen.
There are numerous places to rent bikes, especially in the Algarve and other touristy areas. Prices range from €8 to €20 per day.
For listings of events and bike shops, buy the bimonthly Portuguese-language Bike Magazine, available from larger newsagents.
For its members, the UK-based Cyclists’ Touring Club (CTC; 0870 873 0060; www.ctc.org.uk) publishes useful and free information on cycling in Portugal, plus notes for half a dozen routes around the country. It also offers tips, maps, topoguides and other publications by mail order.
Boxed-up or bagged-up bicycles can be taken free on all regional and interregional trains as accompanied baggage. They can also go, unboxed, on a few suburban services on weekends or for a small charge outside the rush hour. Most domestic bus lines won’t accept bikes.