Road trip through Arrábida Natural Park

I’ve lost count of all the road trips in Portugal that I’ve done over the years. While I certainly enjoy car-free city breaks and day trips, I’m usually keen to explore further afield in order to get to know a particular area. Given the limited public transport in rural areas, the most flexible way to explore the Portuguese countryside, small towns and villages is without a doubt by car.

Before setting off on a self-drive tour of Portugal, there are a few things you should be aware of, all of which are included in this practical road trip essentials guide.


These include having a vehicle that’s fit for purpose and making sure you’ve got all the required documents and safety equipment plus the extra items that will make your journey more enjoyable.

Planning your route and packing ahead will also make your Portugal road trip less stressful so I’ve got some tips for you on that.

If you’re not used to driving in Portugal, it pays to know a bit about the local road rules and learn some basic Portuguese phrases in case you get stuck or stopped by the police.

Click on the relevant heading to go to the section.

Plan ahead to make your Portugal road trip go smoothly

Choose the best road trip car for you

As I mention in my tips for renting a car in Portugal, size matters.

Obviously, you’ll need to make sure that your vehicle is big enough for all the passengers to travel comfortably. However, the historical centres of many Portuguese towns have narrow cobbled streets so you’ll find parking and downtown driving easier with a smaller vehicle. 

If you’re travelling with more than carry-on luggage, you’ll need to check that there’s sufficient boot space so that you won’t be leaving any of your valuables on show if you make a sightseeing stop between overnight destinations.

COMPARE VEHICLES AND PRICES ON RENTALCARS.COM
Village streets Trevões, Douro wine village
Village streets Trevões, Douro wine village

Before a road trip car maintenance 

Make sure the vehicle is ready for the job before setting off.

A rental car should be in tip top condition when you pick it up, although you should always inspect it carefully for any existing damage and check that you’ve got a full tank of fuel.

If it’s a car you’re not used to, also find out:

  • Where the indicators and windscreen wipers are
  • Which side the fuel cap is and how to open it
  • What fuel the vehicle takes
  • How to open the boot
  • Whether it has a spare tyre or just that nasty filler liquid
  • How to reverse!
  • How the central/child locking system works

When using your own car, remember to:

  • Check that your tyres are in good condition and have the right amount of air
  • Check oil levels
  • Check water levels, including windscreen washer
  • Check the brakes are working well, especially if you’re driving a route with lots of bends, like the N2, or through mountains

Check driving times when planning your Portugal road trip 

Portugal might look like a small country but once you get off the motorways, it can take much longer than you think to cover short distances. I use Google Maps to get a sense of driving times when I’m planning my road trips in Portugal. Don’t forget to factor in comfort breaks!

To give you a rough idea, here are the minimum times for some common journeys via motorway:

  • ​Lisbon to Sintra: 30 to 45 minutes depending on traffic
  • Lisbon to Coimbra: 2 hours
  • Lisbon to Porto: 3 hours
  • Lisbon to Evora: 1.5 hours
  • Lisbon to Albufeira (Algarve): 2.5 hours
  • Lisbon to Peso da Régua (Douro Valley):  3 hours 45 mins
  • Porto to Peso da Régua (Douro Valley): 1.5 hours

Non-motorway driving will take you much longer.

Plot out your road trip itinerary

Spend time researching your ideal road trip so that you know where you want to stop and how long you are likely to want to spend in these places. Factor in extra time for finding parking, getting supplies, getting lost and breaks.

Then work out where you want to spend the night.

Pre-book your accommodation 

I know that some people like to book accommodation on the fly but in the times of covid-19, it’s important to book ahead as not all hotels are open, or they may have reduced capacity in order to comply with the government’s health and safety measures

Book accommodation with parking, in advance. I know it seems obvious but bear in mind that in towns and cities, it may be tricky to find free overnight parking. Also compare the hotel’s parking fee with nearby car parks if it seems high.

Choose somewhere with free cancellation just in case you need to make last-minute changes. You can filter your search on Booking.com for all of these as well as any other features that are important to you in your accommodation.

FIND ACCOMMODATION WITH PARKING ON BOOKING.COM

Have a paper copy of key information

The last thing you want is for all the important information about where you’re going, and especially where you’re staying, stored only on a phone that’s just died on you. For this reason, it pays to write down the addresses, phone numbers and other essentials on a piece of paper that you keep handy.

Road trip in Azores, Portugal
Road trip in Azores, Portugal

Documentation and safety requirements for driving in Portugal

Driving licence and ID

In order to rent a vehicle in Portugal you’ll need to have a full drivers licence that’s been valid for 2 years.

If your license was not issued in an EU country, you need to get an International Drivers’ Licence before you leave home, although you can order one online in a couple of hours for spur of the moment road trips.

GET YOUR INTERNATIONAL DRIVER’S PERMIT ONLINE

Insurance and roadside recovery documents

As well as your driving licence and personal ID, you need to be carrying the car insurance certificate in the vehicle. This will be displayed on the windscreen as a green square, which usually has the phone number for roadside assistance and claims on it but the more detailed page should be in the glove compartment, along with the vehicle registration document and proof that the tax has been paid and inspection is in date (again this will be on a square on the windscreen).

For rental vehicles, carry the rental agreement with you as well.

When driving your own car then be aware that limitations may apply to your roadside recovery details if you’re out of the country for more than a certain period of time. If you live abroad, your home package may not cover you if you’re driving in another country so check your coverage before setting off. 

Additional safety equipment

Your road trip essentials need to include certain safety items in your car, including a warning triangle, at least one reflective jacket and spare bulbs for external lights. These should be in the rental vehicle.

If you have to wear glasses or contact lenses for driving, you need to carry a spare pair with you in the car or face an on the spot fine if stopped by the police (GNR).

Things to bring on a road trip

Gadgets

Careful packing for a road trip will save you time and money.

I hate running out of phone battery when I’m on the road, which can happen pretty quickly if you’re using Google Maps on your phone to navigate. If you don’t want to get stuck with low battery, take an in-car charging adaptor or a portable power bank.

If you are planning to use your phone for navigation, get a cheap dashboard mount unless you want something fancier that doubles as a charger. This could also be handy if you want to make a timelapse video of your journey on your phone.

You might also want to pick up a data SIM card at the airport so that you won’t be caught short without internet.

Practical items to bring on a road trip

As well as the face masks and hand sanitisers you’ll need for travelling in the times of Covid-19, there are a few other road trip necessities you’ll want to make sure you’ve got in the car.

A map of some description is handy, even if it’s not very detailed. It will help you know which direction to go at junctions if your navigation system is not clear and you can point to places if you need help. I also like to see the bigger picture of where I’m going. You can buy Portugal road maps at motorway service stations, Bertrand bookstores and FNAC or order one online.

I always carry a pack of tissues – you can never be certain that restrooms will have toilet paper. If you think you might need to go in the wild, have some plastic bags with you so that you can take your litter with you. Wet wipes might not be a bad idea either. 

Refillable water bottles, especially ones that keeps drinks cool on long journeys are essential. I love my Chilly’s bottle because although it is a bit too heavy for carrying around in my handbag, it’s perfect for the car, or for picnics.

You might want to buy groceries from local markets to eat as a picnic, in which case, bring some bamboo plates and cutlery with you.

It gets very hot in Portugal during the summer and it’s not always possible to find a parking spot in the shade. I always carry a reflective sun shade for the windscreen to stop the car turning into an oven while we sightsee. You can pick these up in supermarkets and some petrol stations for very little so don’t feel you have to bring one with you.

SEE MY PORTUGAL PACKING TIPS FOR CLOTHING & FOOTWEAR

Think about what you need to have access to during the day

Plan ahead if you’ll have your luggage in the car during the day.

Think about what you’ll need when you stop en route to your overnight destination, e.g. camera, jacket, picnic gear, and have those items in the body of the car so that you don’t have to open the boot and reveal your luggage in public car parks.

Also have things like tissues, sunglasses, water and change for tolls (although see below for dealing with toll roads) and car parks within easy reach of the driver or helpful passenger.

If it’s hot outside, you might be happy walking around in sandals or flip flops but they’re not the best footwear for driving long distances. Consider what driving/walking/hiking around shoes you want to wear making sure they’re part of your road trip essentials and that they are easy to get at when you need them.

TAKE A LOOK IN MY AMAZON SHOP FOR TRAVEL ESSENTIALS

Parking in Portugal

Street parking in some small towns is free and easy to find – I usually just follow the signs for the Centro Historico and see what turns up. However, if you’re struggling to find free parking, or want to evaluate your options in advance, the Parkopedia website and app will help you find affordable parking.

In larger towns and cities you will undoubtedly encounter self-appointed parking ‘helpers’ who will point out and wave you into available spaces, hoping for a tip. If you do use their ‘services’, don’t feel obliged to give them money unless you feel it’s deserved.

Try to park in the shade to avoid your car turning into an oven during the summer months. You’ll probably have air conditioning in a rental vehicle but anything you can do to keep the heat out, especially if you have food and water in the car, will make your life more comfortable.

Road through the Serra da Estrela Mountains in Central Portugal
Road through the Serra da Estrela Mountains in Central Portugal

Toll roads in Portugal

Most of the motorways in Portugal are now toll roads. No matter how hard you try to avoid using toll roads, it’s easier to just have a payment method set up as you will undoubtedly end up on one at some point.

Some of them have toll booths where you can pay a real person or a machine as you go. However, many roads that were once free and therefore don’t have toll booths, have been fitted with overhead cameras that register the vehicles that pass through them. 

If you are driving a Portuguese-registered vehicle, the easiest way to pay for these is by using a transponder device, which you can rent with your vehicle or buy from the Via Verde website if you live in Portugal. Your toll fees will be automatically recorded and deducted from your chosen payment method, e.g. credit card or Portuguese bank account.

Some toll roads (A2 between Lisbon and the Algarve, I’m looking at you!) are suprisingly expensive so if you want to work out costs in advance, use the toll calculator.

IMPORTANT NOTE: If you have the Via Verde transponder, you can drive through the special lane at toll booths and pay later. Whatever you do, don’t drive through the Via Verde lane if you haven’t got the device. I’ve stupidly done this twice and paid around €45 for the privilege each time.

EasyToll for foreign cars

For foreign-registered vehicles, the easiest way to pay for electronic toll roads is using the EasyToll system, which you can set up online via the Portugal Tolls website.

If you’re driving across the border from Spain via a motorway, there will be an EasyToll station near the border where you can register your licence plate and credit card details for a pay-as-you-go method or buy a pre-paid toll card – more details here.

There’s also a pre-paid toll card but you’ll need to work out in advance how much you need to buy so I think this is a more fiddly away of doing things.

Basic road rules in Portugal

As in the rest of mainland Europe, we drive on the right in Portugal, which means vehicles coming from the right also have priority at junctions. On roundabouts, those vehicles already on the roundabout have right of way.

Overtake on the left and don’t hog the middle lane on a motorway.

Speed limits in kilometres per hour (kph) for cars without trailers are as follows, unless otherwise indicated:

  • 20 kph outside schools
  • 30 kph in some urban areas
  • 50 kph in built-up areas
  • 90 kph on normal roads
  • 100 kph on roads that are restricted to motor vehicles
  • 120 kph on motorways

Seat belts are compulsory for all occupants and children under 12 must sit in the back and use a booster seat or special car seat as appropriate.

DO NOT use your mobile phone while driving unless you have it on hands-free mode.

Drinking and driving in Portugal

Bottom line – don’t risk it!

The legal blood alcohol limit is 0.5 mg/ml, which is equivalent to one small beer and considerably less than the 0.8 mg/ml allowed in the UK and US.

This is one of the reasons why I don’t recommend driving between wineries in the Douro Valley unless you have a designated driver.

Read all my tips for driving in Portugal.

What to do if you get pulled over by the police while driving in Portugal

Random stop and checks are commonplace in Portugal, especially around holidays. There are on the spot fines for certain offences including speeding, use of mobile phone while driving and not wearing a seat belt. These are carried out by the Guarda Nacional da República (GNR), which is the military branch of Portugal’s police force.

The other branch is the Polícia Segurança Pública (PSP) and they tend to patrol urban areas.

Either way, if you are stopped by the police, the golden rule is to be polite and respectful.
 
They will usually speak enough English to deal with the situation and will ask to see your documents. Hand them over, and be willing to do the same for passengers if requested, although this has never happened to me.

For serious offences, e.g. driving way above the speed limit, there may be a follow-up penalty, e.g. a suspended driving ban. This can sometimes take more than a year to be processed.

Basic Portuguese phrases for road trips

These are a few Portuguese phrases worth learning, or at least writing down in case your phone or translation app dies on you.

Tip: If you want to make more of an effort to learn Portuguese, check out these resources.

Good morning/afternoon/evening Officer: Bom dia / Boa tarde Senhor/Senhora Guarda

I’m sorry = Peço desculpas

Please fill the tank with petrol (or diesel) = Por favor, encha o tanque com gasolina.

Where is the nearest gas/petrol station? = Onde fica a bomba mais perto?

Can I park here? = Posso estacionar aqui?

Is this the way to (Faro)? = Este é o caminho certo para (Faro)?

Left = Esquerda

Right = Direita

Straight ahead = Sempre em frente

Can you call the police, please? (If you’ve been involved in an accident) = Pode ligar ao GNR, se faz favor?

Key phrases that you will need to understand:

No parking = Proibido estacionar

No access except weekends = Sem accesso, excepto fins de semana

Vehicles will be towed = Os veículos são sujeitos a reboque 

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3 Comments

  1. very nice thanks so much for sharing

  2. Hi very good article, just a couple of points.
    I was told at annual inspection that i had to carry at least two reflective jackets in the car at all times. I believe that it could be illegal to record whilst driving (i.e. Go- pro) something about infringement of personal rights etc. This is why you don’t seem to see dash cams, which given both driving standards and mostly only 3rd party insurance was a surprise to me.

    1. Author

      Hi Paul, We always carry two reflective jackets but as far as I can find out, only one is required by law. As for the GoPro, on further investigation, it seems that there are issues about civil rights so I’ve edited the text accordingly. Thanks for pointing this out.

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