Tips for Driving in Portugal

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Driving in Portugal is one of the best ways to explore its beautiful scenery, particularly its majestic beaches. Cruising through the Algarve, marveling at tiny white-washed villages and cliff-side beaches, provides the freedom necessary to properly experience this part of the world. Driving through the center of narrow, castle-walled hill towns, however, is not a relaxing. We have found Portugal one of the easiest European countries to rent and drive a car, but do your homework before you go. There are some important differences that you should prepare for when driving in Portugal.

  • Headlights are required to be on at all times, even during the day.

  • Right turns at a red light are ILLEGAL. That’s right, you cannot turn right until the light is green. Be patient.

  • Instead of police patrols monitoring roads you may see speed cameras. It is best to always drive within the speed limit to avoid a surprise ticket when you get back home.

  • Signs point towards cities or landmarks, not points on the compass. You won’t see exits to head north, south, east, or west, for example, but rather signs will point to the nearest town. Study the towns and landmarks along your route, or better yet, use a GPS.

  • Speaking of GPS, you likely don’t need to rent one with your car. It will be expensive, and won’t work as well as what you’re used to using on your phone app. Instead, sign up for an international cell phone plan with your carrier. The major carriers offer plans that charge a flat fee, approximately $10 per day, allowing you to use your normal message and data rates after that. Use this strategically for GPS on days when you need it, then leave your phone in airplane mode on other days when you don’t, and you won’t be charged. GPS is wonderful, but don’t place blind faith in it either. Towns or addresses can be named very similarly, and the GPS could direct you to ZTL areas where you shouldn’t be driving. Plan before you leave, then use it as a general guide.

  • Roundabouts are plentiful in Europe, and Portugal is no exception. Yield to traffic already in the traffic circle, and do your best to know which exit you’re taking prior to entering. Many roundabouts contain multiple lanes, so be cautious and understand that typically the outer lane, and perhaps the second, are allowed to exit, but watch out for cars in your blind spot when crossing lanes to exit. You can always make another loop if you are unsure.

  • Technically, you are not required to carry an International Driving Permit along with your national Drivers License. I have never been asked to present one, even when picking up my car from the rental agency. It is advisable, however, to carry your passport with you at all times, in addition to your national drivers license.

  • If your itinerary calls for driving to Spain, and why not considering beautiful Seville is so close when in the Algarve, know that there are no special acts or applications you need to make. Simply drive over the border. Of course, carry your passport just in case, but don’t expect an immigration checkpoint or any additional customs process.

Overall, there is no reason to be anxious or nervous about driving in Portugal. Stay calm, drive safely and cautiously, do your research before you leave, and you will have a wonderful trip.