In general, Portugal's roads are in good condition. When driving through the country, you'll often have the roads to yourself, though traffic can be busy in and around urban centers. On the downside, tolls here can add up quickly. The local driving may be faster and less forgiving than you're used to; drive carefully.
Red tape–wise, your driver's license from home is recognized in Portugal. However, you should learn the international road-sign system (charts are available to members of most automobile associations).
Gas stations are plentiful, and many are self-service. Fuel tends to cost more on motorways. At this writing, gasoline costs €1.52 per liter (approximately ¼ gallon) for 98 and 95 octane sem chumbo (unleaded) and €1.34 for diesel. Credit cards are frequently accepted at gas stations. If you require a receipt, request um recibo.
Commercially operated autoestradas (toll roads with two or more lanes in either direction identified with an "A" and a number) link the principal cities, including Porto, with Lisbon, circumventing congested urban centers. The autoestrada runs from Lisbon to Faro, and a toll road (E90) links Lisbon with Portugal's eastern border with Spain at Badajoz (from which the highway leads to Madrid).
Many main national highways (labeled "N" with a number) have been upgraded to toll-free, two-lane roads, identified with "IP" (Itinerario Principal) and a number; highways of mainly regional importance have been upgraded to IC (Itinerario Complementar). Roads labeled with "E" and a number are routes that connect with the Spanish network.
Because of all this road upgrading, one road might have several designations—A, N, IP, E, etc.—on maps and signs.
Autoestrada tolls are steep, costing, for example, €22.55 between Lisbon and Porto, but time saved by traveling these roads usually makes them worthwhile. Minor roads are often poor and winding, with unpredictable surfaces.
In the north the IP5 shortens the drive from Aveiro to the border with Spain, near Guarda. Take extra care on this route, however. It's popular with trucks (you may get stuck behind a convoy), and it has curves and hills.
The IP4 connects Porto through Vila Real to Bragança. Pick up the IP2 just southwest of Bragança and continue to Ourique in the Alentejo, where it connects to the IP1 down to Albufeira on the southern coast. This same IP1 is an autoestrada from Albufeira and runs east across the Algarve to the Spanish border near Ayamonte, 1½ hours east of Seville.
Heading out of Lisbon, there's good, fast access to Setúbal and to Évora and other Alentejo towns, although rush-hour traffic on the Ponte 25 de Abril across the Rio Tejo (Tagus River) can be frustrating. An alternative is taking the 17-km-long (11-mile-long) Ponte Vasco da Gama (Europe's second-longest water crossing after the Channel Tunnel and Europe’s longest bridge) across the Tejo estuary to Montijo; you can then link up with southbound and eastbound roads.
Signposting on these fast roads isn't always adequate, so keep your eyes peeled for exits and turnoffs.
Some highways in Portugal now use electronic tolls only, with no method of payment accepted on the roads themselves. To avoid getting fined for not paying the tolls, if you rent a car in Portugal, make sure the rental car company installs an electronic device that adds the costs of the tolls to your final bill. Otherwise, you have several options. You can: buy a three-day unlimited-use toll pass online, once you know your license plate number; associate a credit card with your license plate number, from which the tolls will automatically be deducted; or buy a preloaded toll card activated by SMS from your mobile phone. Sign up for any of these services online or in person at various pick-up points within Portugal.
Portugal Tolls. www.portugaltolls.com.
If you are unfortunate enough to be involved in a mild accident, you will be required to fill out a Declaração amigável (European Accident Statement), which will be used by the respective insurance companies (including those relating to rental cars) to exchange information.
All large garages in and around towns have breakdown services, and you'll see orange emergency (SOS) phones along turnpikes and highways. The national automobile organization, Automóvel Clube de Portugal, provides reciprocal membership with AAA and other European automobile associations.
Car theft is common with rental cars. Never leave anything visible in an unattended car, and contact the rental agency immediately, as well as the local police, if your car is stolen.
Automóvel Clube de Portugal. 70/750–9510; www.acp.pt.
Rules of the Road
Driving is on the right. The speed limit on the autoestrada is 120 kph (74 mph); on other roads, it's 90 kph (56 mph), and in built-up areas, 50 kph (30 mph).
At the junction of two roads of equal size, traffic coming from the right has priority. Vehicles already in a traffic circle have priority over those entering it from any point. The use of seat belts is obligatory. Horns shouldn't be used in built-up areas, and you should always carry your driver's license, proof of car insurance, a reflective red warning triangle, and EU-approved reflective jacket for use in a breakdown.
Children under 12 years old must ride in the backseat in age-appropriate restraining devices (facing backwards for children under 18 months). Motorcyclists and their passengers must wear helmets, and motorcycles must have their headlights on day and night.
Billboards warning you not to drink and drive dot the countryside, and punishable alcohol levels are just 0.5g/L—equivalent to approximately three small glasses of beer.
To rent a car in Portugal you must be a minimum of 21 years old (with at least one year’s driving experience) and a maximum of 75 years old and have held your driving license for over a year. Some car-rental companies may require you to have an International Driving Permit (IDP), which can be used only in conjunction with a valid driver's license and which translates your license into 10 languages. Check the AAA website for more info as well as for IDPs ($20) themselves.
In general, it's a good idea to reserve your car two weeks in advance (a month in advance if possible) for car rentals in the Algarve between May and September. Among the most common car makes are Citroën, Opel, Nissan, Toyota, Volkswagen, Peugeot, and Ford. Four-wheel-drive vehicles are only available from the larger international agencies, such as Avis and Hertz.
Rates in Lisbon begin at around $70 per day, with three-day rates starting at around $120 and weeklong rates starting at about $210 for a standard economy car with unlimited mileage. The value-added tax (V.A.T.) on car rentals is 23% and is included in the rate. Algarve rates can be considerably higher due to the increase in demand.
Automatic cars are more expensive and harder to find than standard ones. The good news is that most rental cars have air-conditioning and, increasingly, use diesel fuel, which equals a lot more mileage. There's generally a surcharge of around $8 per day for each additional driver, and most agencies charge a small surcharge of around $11–$13 per day for children's car seats, which must be reserved at the time of booking.
If you own a car, your personal auto insurance may cover a rental to some degree, though not all policies protect you abroad; always read your policy's fine print. If you don't have auto insurance, then seriously consider buying the collision- or loss-damage waiver (CDW or LDW) from the car-rental company, which eliminates your liability for damage to the car.
Some credit cards offer CDW coverage, but it's usually supplemental to your own insurance and rarely covers SUVs, minivans, luxury models, and the like. If your coverage is secondary, you may still be liable for loss-of-use costs from the car-rental company. But no credit-card insurance is valid unless you use that card for all transactions, from reserving to paying the final bill. All companies exclude car rental in some countries, so be sure to find out about the destination to which you are traveling. In Portugal CDW will cost around $25 per day depending on the type of car and will reduce your liability to a few hundred euros. For an additional fee, you can take out a Super CDW where you will be completely covered.