Many scenic parts of Portugal are isolated from train or bus stations, so it's necessary to have a private car to do serious touring. That way, you're on your own, unhindered by the somewhat fickle train and bus timetables, which often limit your excursions to places close to the beaten track.
Portugal has few superhighways, and they're often interrupted by lengthy stretches of traffic-clogged single-lane thoroughfares. The roads, however, provide access to hard-to-reach gems and undiscovered villages.
Rentals -- Three of North America's major car-rental companies maintain dozens of branches at each of Portugal's most popular commercial and tourist centers, at rates that are usually competitive.
Budget (tel. 800/472-3325 in the U.S.; www.budget.com) has offices in more than a dozen locations in Portugal. The most central and most used are in Lisbon, Faro (the heart of the Algarve), Porto, Praia da Rocha (also a popular Algarve destination), and Madeira. Because Portugal has one of the highest accident rates in Europe, you should seriously think about buying the optional CDW (collision-damage waiver) insurance.
Note that some North American credit card issuers, especially American Express, sometimes agree to pay any financial obligations incurred after an accident involving a client's rented car, but only if the imprint of the card is on the original rental contract. Because of this agreement, some clients opt to decline the extra insurance coverage offered by the car-rental company. To be sure that you qualify for this free insurance, check in advance with your card issuer. Know that even though the card's issuer might eventually reimburse you, you'll still have to fill out some complicated paperwork and usually advance either cash or a credit or charge card deposit to cover the repair cost.
Avis (tel. 800/331-1084 in the U.S.; www.avis.com) maintains offices in downtown Lisbon and at the airport, and at 17 other locations throughout Portugal. One office is at Avenida Praia Da Victoria, Lisbon (tel. 21/351-45-60).
Hertz (tel. 800/654-3001 in the U.S.; www.hertz.com) has about two dozen locations in Portugal and requires a 3-day advance booking for its lowest rates. Hertz's main office is at Rua Castilho 72, Lisbon (tel. 21/381-24-30).
Kemwel Drive Group (tel. 877/820-0668; www.kemwel.com), sometimes offers a viable alternative to more traditional car-rental companies. Kemwel leases entire blocks of cars a year in advance at locations throughout Portugal and then rents them back out to qualified customers who pay the entire price in advance. In Portugal, cars can be retrieved in Lisbon.
Auto Europe (tel. 800/223-5555; www.autoeurope.com) leases cars on an as-needed basis from larger car-rental companies throughout Europe. Its rates sometimes are less than those at Hertz and Avis.
Package Deals -- Many packages are available that include airfare, accommodations, and a rental car with unlimited mileage. Compare these prices with the cost of booking airline tickets and renting a car separately to see if these offers are good deals.
Web Rentals -- Internet resources can make comparison shopping easier. Microsoft Expedia (www.expedia.com) and Travelocity (www.travelocity.com) help you compare prices and locate car-rental bargains from various companies nationwide. They will even make your reservation for you once you've found the best deal.
Gasoline -- Gasoline (petrol, to the British) stations are now plentiful throughout Portugal. However, if you wander far off the beaten track, it's always wise to have a full tank and to get a refill whenever it's available, even if your tank is still more than half full. The government clamps price controls on gas, and it should cost the same everywhere. Credit cards are frequently accepted at gas stations, at least along the principal express routes. You should note that ever-changing gas prices are much higher than you're probably used to paying, and gas is measured in liters.
Driver's Licenses -- U.S. and Canadian driver's licenses are valid in Portugal. But if you're at least 18 and touring other destinations in Europe by car, you should probably invest in an international driver's permit. In the United States, apply through any local branch of the American Automobile Association (AAA); for a list of local branches, contact the national headquarters, 1000 AAA Dr., Heathrow, FL 32746-5063 (tel. 800/222-1134; www.aaa.com). Include two 2*2-inch photographs, a $10 fee, and a photocopy of your state driver's license. In Canada, you pay C$10 and apply to the Canadian Automobile Association (CAA), 2525 Carling Ave., Ottawa, ON K2B 7Z2 (tel. 613/820-1890; www.caa.ca).
Note that your international driver's license is valid only if it's accompanied by an authorized license from your home state or province.
In Portugal, as elsewhere in Europe, to drive a car legally you must have in your possession an international insurance certificate, known as a Green Card (Carte Verte or Carte Verde). The car-rental agency will provide you with one as part of your rental contract.
Driving Rules -- Continental driving rules apply in Portugal, and international road symbols and signs are used. Wearing safety belts is compulsory. Speed limits are 90kmph (56 mph) on main roads, and 60kmph (37 mph) in heavily populated or built-up sections. On the limited number of express highways, the speed limit is 120kmph (74 mph).
Road Maps -- Michelin publishes the best Portugal road maps, and they're available at many stores and map shops throughout Europe and in the U.S. and Canada. Or you can order them from Michelin, P.O. Box 19008, Greenville, SC 29602-9008 (tel. 866/866-6605 in the U.S.) The maps are updated every year; always try to obtain the latest copy because Portugal's roads are undergoing tremendous changes. One of the best Michelin maps to Portugal is no. 440 (on a scale of 1:400,000, or 1 inch = 9.8km/6 miles).
Breakdowns -- If you rent your car from one of the large companies, such as Avis or Hertz, 24-hour breakdown service is available in Portugal. If you're a member of a major automobile club, such as AA, CAA, or AAA, you can get aid from the Automóvel Club de Portugal (ACP; tel. 808/502-502; www.acp.pt).
Hitchhiking -- No law against hitchhiking exists here, but it isn't commonly practiced. If you decide to hitchhike, do so with discretion. Usually Portuguese auto insurance doesn't cover hitchhikers. Considering the potential danger to both the passenger and the driver, hitchhiking is not recommended.
Portugal is a small country, and flying from one place to another is relatively easy. Though most people still take trains to get around, TAP Air Portugal flies four times a day to Faro, in the Algarve, and Porto, the main city of the north. Service to Faro is likely to be more frequent in July and August. Four flights a day depart for Funchal, capital of Madeira, plus limited service to the Azores.
For more information, contact TAP Air Portugal, Gare Do Oriente, 1200 Lisboa (tel. 21/841-50-00; www.tap-airportugal.pt).
The Portuguese railway system is underdeveloped compared to those of the more industrialized nations of western Europe. Still, there are connections between the capital and more than 20 major towns. Express trains run from Lisbon, Coimbra (the university city), and Porto. Electric trains, which leave from the Lisbon waterfront, travel along the Costa do Sol (Estoril and Cascais) and on to Queluz and Sintra.
At Lisbon's Santa Apolónia Station, you can make connections for international service and the Northern and Eastern lines. The Rossio Station serves Sintra and the Western line; the Cais do Sodré Station handles service for the Costa do Sol resorts of Estoril and Cascais. Finally, trains leave from the Sul e Sueste Station for the Alentejo and the Algarve.
In summer, express trains depart Lisbon for the Algarve Monday through Saturday. They leave from the Barreiro Station (across the Tagus -- take one of the frequently departing ferries). Off-season service runs four times weekly. For information about rail travel in Portugal, phone tel. 808/208-208 in Lisbon, or check the Portuguese Railways website at www.cp.pt.
Railroad information and tickets for travel between almost any two stations in Europe, including stations throughout Portugal, are available from the representatives of the Portuguese National Railway, Rail Europe, Inc. (tel. 800/848-7245 in the U.S.; www.raileurope.com). The telephone representatives sell one-way and round-trip tickets into or out of Portugal, tickets for travel within Portugal, and rail passes for travel within Portugal and the rest of Europe. Couchettes (sleeping cars) can be arranged.
Senior Discounts -- The Portuguese National Railway's 50% discount policy applies for people 65 and older. These tickets are good all year.
This is a cheap means of transportation in Portugal. A network of buses links almost all the major towns and cities. Many routes originate in Lisbon. The former national bus company, Rodoviária Nacional (tel. 969/50-20-50; www.rede-expressos.pt), has been privatized but essentially offers the same service as before. In addition, there are local and private regional bus links.
Express coaches between major cities are called expressos. Once in most cities and towns, you can take cheap bus rides to nearby villages or sights. Of course, in many towns and all cities, you can take buses to get around within the city.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.