When I first moved to Portugal, I was nervous about driving here. Portuguese drivers have a bad reputation plus I hadn’t driven for years and never on the right hand side of the road. Even so, I was determined to get a car so that I could travel around the country and quickly got used to the oddities of driving in Portugal.
If you’re considering buying or renting a car in Portugal, read on for practical driving tips that should prepare you for driving on Portuguese roads with confidence and patience.
Driving in Portugal Tips
1. Slip roads on and off dual carriageways are sometimes the wrong way around, which means that while you’re busy slowing down and indicating to pull off, new cars will be trying to enter the flow of traffic. I’m dumbfounded by the logic of this; any sane road designer would surely let existing drivers leave the road before adding more vehicles to the mix. This crazy situation isn’t standard but I’ve encountered it enough times to feel the need to warn you.
2. Slip roads are usually very short, meaning you need to slow down before you exit the main road to be able to negotiate the tight bends.
3. The use of indicators has never really caught on in Portugal so by all means use them as you would normally, just don’t expect anyone else to. Drivers will often stop in the middle of the road without warning so be prepared to slam on the brakes and wait for them to turn off.
4. In rural areas, don’t be surprised to find a car stopped in the middle of the road and the occupants catching up with local gossip. They will usually wrap up their conversation and drive off when they see you, but may need a little encouragement in the form of a gentle beep.
5. Another rural practice, especially in villages with single track roads, is for people to stop the car in the middle of the road and leave it there while they visit friends or family, even if there is a proper space to park a bit further up the road. If your path is blocked by an abandoned car, honk loudly and someone will come out and move it so that you can pass then return it to its previous spot.
6. Just because you would normally wait for a gap in the traffic before pulling out, you can’t expect that from everyone else. It’s not uncommon to be forced to slow down because someone has pulled out in front of you rather than wait for you to pass.
7. Another symptom of impatient drivers in Portugal is the tendency to ride your bumper. There’s often little respect for safe stopping distances and some drivers seem to think that they can drive through you. I find it extremely stressful but the only thing you can do is to continue driving safely and try your best to ignore them.
8. If you have got a tail hugger, they won’t hang around for long. At the first dotted line in the road, they’ll be off like a shot, overtaking you and six other cars on a blind bend. It’s scary stuff so I usually pull back a little to a) give me extra stopping time if there is a crash or b) let them duck back in before they hit the oncoming truck.
9. Unbroken white lines are not to be crossed, especially not double ones, which means that if you want to turn left onto a road with double white lines, you can’t. You have to turn right into the direction of traffic and use the next roundabout to change direction. If you don’t, you will be strongly tutted at by local pedestrians or fined by the police.
10. A lot of white lines desperately need repainting and it’s difficult to work out where the middle of the road is when you’re driving in the dark, especially when it’s raining. Go slowly.
11. Some local authorities seem to invest lots of money on building unnecessary roundabouts and none on pavements, which means that pedestrians are often forced to walk in the road. Some do it through choice. Either way, as a driver, you should be on the look out for people in unexpected places, especially during the annual pilgrimage to Fatima when groups of walkers take to the highways.
12. Zebra crossings are often on junctions, which means that you have very little time to register their existence and react if someone is trying to cross the road.
13. Speed limits are frequently ignored, except when the speed traffic lights are working properly. They operate on a sensor which is usually a few metres in front of the traffic lights so if you see flashing orange lights, you should make sure you’re doing no more than the speed limit as you pass them otherwise the traffic lights will turn red. Even if you manage to slow down in time, the lights could be triggered by someone speeding behind you, in which case you’ll just have to resign yourself to the wait.
14. Despite appearances, it’s illegal to use a mobile phone while driving unless it’s hands free. Stopping your car in the middle of the road to take a call isn’t an option either, although many people don’t seem to realise this.
15. And although locals often use hazard lights as licence to double park, it’s not okay.
16. When you are parking in a street, your car must be parked facing the direction of travel.
17. Larger towns and cities are infested with self-appointed parking ‘helpers’ who will point out and wave you into available spaces, hoping for a tip. I get stressed out by parking in the public gaze so I drive by and try to find somewhere to park in private. If you do use their ‘services’, don’t feel obliged to give them money unless you feel it’s deserved.
18. It’s not unusual to find cars and coaches parked on roundabouts but please don’t join them; it’s not just stupid, it’s illegal.
19. Roundabouts may have lanes but don’t expect anyone to use them properly. If in doubt, do what everyone else does and stick to the outside lane until you find your exit. No one will indicate either so play it safe and only pull out when you are certain that there are no cars to your left. Even if you do see a flashing orange light, it’s best to ignore it and wait to see what the driver actually decides to do.
Update for 2014: It’s now illegal to use the outside lane of roundabouts unless you intend to leave at the next exit. In practice, this means you need to be extra careful. Always give way to drivers already on the roundabout, whichever lane they are in and don’t expect the lanes to merge into exits as they do in the UK. You have to actively switch lanes in Portugal otherwise you’ll just end up driving in circles!
20. No matter how hard you look for signs, you will probably find that they disappear on you just when you need them most. Or they will only become visible after you have passed the roundabout exit. Try to stay calm and be prepared to do full circles of roundabouts when in unfamiliar territory. Better still, use GPS!
21. If you are relying on road signs, be aware that at night, many of them don’t show up in the dark unless you shine full beam headlights on them.
22. Most of the motorways (‘A’ roads with blue signs) are now toll roads. If you haven’t got a special electronic device fitted to your car, make sure you don’t drive through the ‘Via Verde’ channel as you will be charged for the entire stretch of motorway when you leave because you won’t have a ticket to prove where you entered the toll road. It cost me €50 so don’t let it happen to you!
23. An increasing number of toll roads don’t have toll booths so you either need an electronic device or you’ll have to pay at the post office a few days later. Car rental companies have to offer you the chance to hire a device, which makes the whole thing much easier – more details here. I’d recommend buying your own (from Via Verde or the post office) if you’re moving to Portugal.
24. You need to carry your documents and certain safety equipment with you and there are rules and restrictions about driving with children so you should read up on all the legal requirements here. Update for 2014 for expats: If you haven’t got a Cartão de Cidadão, you’ll need to carry your Contribuinte card with you as well as your ID and the usual paperwork. More information about the 2014 changes can be found here.
25. Not all Portuguese drivers are speed freaks. If there is a line of impatient drivers in front of you on a country road, chances are they’re stuck behind an Aixam. These pesky little cars have the power of a quad bike so can’t go very fast. You don’t even need to pass your Highway Code exam to drive one. Personally, I think they’re a liability. Impatient drivers get fed up of crawling along at 40 kilometres per hour and take even more ridiculous risks in order to get past them and be on their way. If you are patiently waiting for a safe opportunity to pass an Aixam, keep an eye on the drivers behind you who might not wait their turn.
Don’t let this list put you off driving in Portugal! It can be frustrating but with patience and practice it soon becomes second nature and it’s worth it to be able to get to places where the buses simply don’t go, at least not at weekends!