Portugal is one of those countries that is still relatively undiscovered by many travelers, and that’s a shame since it has so much to offer in terms of its culture, history, people and food. Plenty of travelers from neighboring UK and European countries flock to Portugal to enjoy the sandy beaches and top-quality golf courses on the Algarve, but Portugal is much more than just a beach and a golf course.
Visitors who do make the trip find it’s a very easy country to get around, as the distances are not that dispersed. You can drive the 700 km. from Faro, in the Algarve on the southern coast of the country, to Portugal’s border in the north with Spain, in a little over 6 hours. From Lisbon in the west, to the border with Spain on the east is just 230 km, or about 2 hours by car. So visitors can easily cover a lot of ground and see a variety of sites without logging a lot of hours behind the wheel, sitting on a train, or going through airports.
Portugal has good infrastructure for transportation, and traveling by car, train or plane are all options that are available to visitors. Which you choose will depend on your itinerary, flexibility, travel style and budget.
Roadways in Portugal have improved significantly over the past 20 years, as the roadway infrastructure has expanded and safety has gotten better. A great deal of investment has gone into upgrading and expanding the existing national road network, as well as creating a new network of tolled expressways.
There are 3 main types of roads in Portugal: highways (autoestradas), national roads, and rural roads. Highways are roads that have multiple lanes in each direction, and are most like the types of highways most U.S. drivers are accustomed to. National roads are usually just two lane roads (one for each direction) and will require drivers to brush up on their car passing skills if they need to overtake the car ahead of them. Rural roads are almost always only two lanes (one in each direction) and tend to be much narrower.
In 2012 a number of highways that were previously free were converted to toll roads with the implementation of electronic tolls. This has caused quite a bit of confusion for everyone, and a bit more so for foreigners, as there are no toll booths and tolls are only collected through electronic methods. Signs have been posted at the beginning of the highways to warn drivers that they are entering a highway with an electronic toll.
Electronic devices are available so that tolls can be prepaid, and car rental companies have installed systems and devices in their cars that can be used to process electronic toll payments. Be sure to check with your car rental vendor to understand what options they offer for electronic toll payment, in case you plan on driving on these types of highways. Since most locals are not accustomed to tolls and do not like paying them, the upside to the toll roads is that they are usually not crowded and they will save you time in getting from one point to another.
Renting a car in Portugal is easy, and the major U.S. rental companies (e.g. Hertz, Avis, Budget) have offices in airports, train stations, as well as downtown locations. Check with your rental company to determine whether an international driving permit (IDP) is required to drive in Portugal. Keep in mind that an IDP is not valid on its own and must be accompanied by a driver’s license, as it is just a translation of the driver’s license into 10 languages. The translation allows foreign officials to interpret the information contained in your license. IDPs can be obtained through AAA; for more information click here.
The Portuguese railway company is CP–Comboios de Portugal. They operate Alfa Pendular high-speed trains between Braga in the north to Faro on the Algarve, intercity (intercidades) service in Lisbon-Oporto-Guimarães, and regional, inter-regional, and suburban trains covering the entire country.
The high-speed Alfa Pendular trains offers 2 classes of service: Classe Conforto (1st Class) and Classe Turística (2nd Class). Classe Conforto passengers can reserve seats in advance, get a drink and newspaper/magazine, and earphones for the audio and video programs onboard. Meals can also be reserved in advance.
Due to recent economic issues, some service has been scaled back on lesser-used lines. A high-speed line between Lisbon and Madrid that had been planned was cancelled in 2012 due to budget issues. For more information on all train routes, as well as schedules and prices, click here to visit the CP website.
TAP Portugal is the state-owned airline of Portugal. Lisbon, Porto and Faro are the busiest airports on the mainland, and offer the most scheduled flights. Together with its regional service subsidiaries, Portugália Airlines and PGA Express, TAP provides domestic air service throughout the country, including the islands of Madeira and the Azores. TAP is a Star Alliance. For more information, click here.
SATA International is an airline based in the Azores, and provides scheduled service between the mainland and the islands (Madeira and Azores), as well as other international destinations. For more information, click here.
Travelers have a variety of options for getting around Portugal, and it’s quite easy to do so. Since distances are not that spread out, driving is probably your best alternative, both from a time and cost perspective. The train service is not as frequent as you may find in other countries, and it doesn’t save you much time. Flying can also be more costly and when you consider the amount of time (and hassle) you have to allot for getting to the airport and going through security, etc. you can almost just as easily drive there, since the actual flight time will be an hour or less to most locations. Driving also allows you to make your own itinerary and timetable according to your own interests. You’ll see more of the countryside and you can always stop or take a detour if you see something that catches your attention.
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