Driving in Portugal: How to Get Around Safely

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Portugal isn't a large country, which makes getting around easy. Public transport is reliable and cheap, or you could rent a car. Our safety expert shares her tips for safe travels in Portugal.


Photo © Getty Images/bennymarty

Portugal has so much to see and do and one of the most important things for visitors to do once they arrive is organize transport. Whether you rent a car, use public transportation or see the sights on foot, here are a few tips to help you get around Portugal safely.

Driving in Portugal

There are plenty of places to hire a vehicle in Portugal. The legal driving age is 18 is the legal driving age but to hire a car, the minimum age is 23 or 25 depending on the hire company. If you are an inexperienced driver, you may have to pay an extra premium. You must also have a valid drivers' license and an International Driving Permit.

Many travelers who have experienced driving in Portugal first hand suggest never renting a vehicle that doesn't have a loud, working horn. It's important that you have a warning triangle, reflective jacket or vest, spare wheel and spare light bulbs in the car in case you break down or blow a headlight.

There are several toll roads in Portugal so check that your rental vehicle has a toll tag. Some, but not all, roads have pay booths, so if you don't have a tag you will need to go to a post office to pay the toll within two days to avoid being charged for the entire length of the toll road even if you didn't drive that far.

In Portugal, you drive on the right-hand side (same as the US) and overtake on the left. Undertaking (overtaking on the right) will see you score a 1,000 euro fine. On motorways, the middle lane is for overtaking.

It's important to drive defensively. Portuguese drivers often follow extremely close and sometimes will overtake dangerously, even around bends and up hills where visibility of oncoming traffic is poor.

You should also be prepared for vehicles turning out of side streets suddenly and without warning, as locals will often not use indicators. Parked cars can also be a problem, as some people will leave their vehicles parked haphazardly or double-parked. This can be particularly challenging when you're coming around a corner, so again be alert at all times.

Driving in Portugal can be dangerous. The IP5 and the N125 route to the Algarve, the EN125, the A20 in Porto and the Antigua ER101 are particularly dangerous roads. There are lots of windy, narrow roads and in rural areas, many are poorly kept.

When it comes to road safety, Portugal has one of the less impressive records in Europe, however, authorities have been taking steps in an attempt to improve the statistics; with fatalities dropping by 40% since 2010. Despite this, more than 400 people lost their lives in 2017 in road accidents and more than 40,000 injured.

Some other points to be aware of when negotiating Portugal's roads:

  • Watch out for potholes and oncoming traffic. Some roads are also poorly lit so driving at night can be especially hazardous
  • Street signs can be missing, so make sure you have a map or GPS to avoid getting lost
  • Prepare for the possibility of pedestrians on the road. A lot of streets don't have sidewalks so it's not uncommon to see people walking, sometimes four deep on the road. So take it easy and slow down
  • If you're traveling through rural areas, you may come across livestock crossing the road. Be cautious when driving around bends and be prepared to stop quickly
  • Watch your speed when you're driving in Portugal. Police are very vigilant and will issue a fine (payable on the spot) if they catch you driving too fast. There are also fixed and mobile speed cameras
  • The speed limits in Portugal are signposted in kilometers per hour. The national speed limits are 31 mph (50km/h) in urban areas, 56mph (90km/h) and 74mph (120km/h) on motorways
  • It's illegal to use the outside lane of a roundabout to travel straight through unless you are exiting the roundabout
  • The same goes for driving while using a cell phone. It's a finable offense that could leave your wallet up to 600 euros lighter
  • Dropping litter from the car will cost you 300 euros
  • Don't drink and drive. The legal limit in Portugal is lower than many other countries - anything over 0.5 mg/ml (0.05) and you could end up with a hefty fine, the loss of your license, or inside a Portuguese jail cell
  • The emergency number in Portugal is 112.

Should you get stuck in a sticky situation while driving in Portugal, here are a few handy phrases:

  • Eu tenho um pneu furado - I have a flat tyre
  • Onde é a estação de policia? - Where is the police station?
  • Onde fica o posto de gasolina? - Where is the gas station?
  • Onde é a agência dos correios mais próxima - Where is the nearest post office?

Walking and riding around Portugal

Portugal offers some of the most scenic landscapes in the world, with vineyards, valleys and endless coastline to explore.

One of the best ways to experience it all is by exploring it on foot or by bicycle. There are countless tours available, both guided and self-guided. Pedestrians and cyclists should be extremely careful when traveling on roads that don't have sidewalks.

The combination of aggressive drivers and visitors makes for a potentially dangerous situation for anyone walking, riding or even near the road. Be particularly cautious when traveling on roads that are narrow and winding. If you're walking around in a group, try to stay in a single file rather than side by side.

Another danger for those getting around on foot or by bike is the condition of the walkways. Many of them are made of cobblestone which can be uneven and sometimes broken. They also get extremely slippery when wet. The best advice for walking over these stones is to wear sturdy footwear and watch where you are going.

Public transport in Portugal

Portugal has a very reliable and inexpensive public transportation system. There is a wide variety of options for visitors to get from A to B across the country. Trams, trains, buses, and ferries all offer fast and affordable transport. But as with any public transportation, users must exercise common sense and appropriate safety precautions while aboard to avoid becoming a victim of petty crime.

Lisbon's Tram 28 is a must for any visitor to the capital. Opportunist pickpockets are known to frequent this line so keep an eye on your belongings, secure your valuables and never leave any bags unzipped.

Hiring a tuk-tuk is another fun and fast way to see the sights of the capital.

Personal safety while traveling

Most of the transportation options in Portugal, while convenient, can also be crowded. This type of environment is a pickpocket's idea of heaven, so watch your belongings. Keep all bags in front of you, zipped up and locked. Store money and valuables out of sight.

Taxis are also readily available and a much-less-crowded alternative to other forms of transport.

In areas including the Portuguese islands of the Azores and Madeira, taxis often make more sense given the shorter travel distances. Always set the fare with the driver before hiring to be sure that everyone is in agreement and there are no unpleasant surprises at the end of the ride.

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