Renting a car in Portugal can have huge benefits. Having your own transport allows you to see many new destinations, but it will enable you to do so when you want.
Want to sit at that charming cafe and sip your coffee a little longer? No problem! Enjoying the beautiful beach and want to stay an extra hour? You can do so when you have your own vehicle. Though renting a car in Portugal comes with a few things to bear in mind.
Portugal Rental Car Tips to Know
Should You Rent a Car in Portugal?
While public transport in Portugal is generally excellent in Porto and Lisbon, it helps to have your own car if you are two or more and want to explore outside the city. Unlike some other European countries that are connected well via rail, Portugal is not.
Having a car and renting a car in Portugal gives you great freedom to get off the traditional tourist track and see places that aren’t usually accessible. Many beautiful beaches and landmarks are not accessible by public transport.
My favorites to look at are:
- DiscoverCars: We use them to search rental car prices around the globe.
- AutoEurope: I can often find deals here for car rentals in Europe.
When Should You Book a Rental Car in Portugal?
In our experience with rental cars, the sooner, the better, because you can always cancel your booking should your plans change. We often find you get the best rate by booking 1-3 months in advance. If you find you get a better rate closer to your travel dates, cancel your old booking and create a new one. It’s best to check car comparison websites like Discover Cars and see what options are available to you.
What Do You Need to Rent a Car in Portugal?
To rent a car in Portugal, you need a standard driver’s license. If your license is not in English or Portuguese, have a translation just in case. It would help if you also were prepared to hand over your passport. You may find it beneficial to have an International Drivers Permit on hand, which can be obtained in your home country. For Americans, this is very easy to get at AAA for $20, however, it is not necessary in Portugal.
We have never been asked to provide proof of our IDP from the rental car agency, but they may ask you for it if you get pulled over. If you don’t have one and catch the police on a bad day, you could end up with a fine.
A few people need to apply for an International Driver’s License by law.
- EU Citizens can use their EU driver’s license in Portugal, as well as Swiss citizens and other European Economic Area countries.
- Canadians and Americans can use their license from home for maximum of 6 months in Portugal. If staying longer in Portugal, an EU license is to be applied for. Other Non-EU visitors with driver’s licenses in either English or Portuguese can drive in Portugal for up to 6 months.
- All others that do not have a driver’s license in English or Portuguese will need to apply for an International Driving Permit or an official translation of their current license. Carry these together when driving in Portugal.
How Old Do You Have to Be To Rent a Car in Portugal?
You have to be 18 to drive in Portugal, but if you’re hiring a car, you’ll find the minimum age is 23 and sometimes even 25. If you are under 25, you may face additional charges. It’s best to read all the fine print of your booking before you get to Portugal.
Get a Credit Card For a Rental Car Portugal
You cannot pay for your Portugal rental car with cash, so plan on throwing down your credit card for the charges. If you have a US credit card, many will carry car insurance on them, so you don’t have to pay unexpected extra charges.
Expect a Hold Charge on Your Credit Card
The other reason you need a credit card is because of the excess charge – or hold a charge. Every single one of our forty or so rental cars has put a hold on our credit card for the rental period.
Holds can range anywhere from a few hundred bucks to $1000+ in some countries. It all depends on the Portugal rental car operator. The “excess charge,” as it is called, is typically stated in your reservation details, but it can be easy to miss.
We know that they must put this hold on our card, but it can be a huge shocker if you are unsuspecting and end up exceeding your credit card credit limit. These excess charges are for scenarios where you disappear with the car and are never seen again, or get in a crash and refuse to pay.
Car Rental Insurance in Portugal
Do you need to add car insurance to your rental? Many Portugal car rental companies will try and convince you to add it on, and if you want to be safe and have peace of mind, it’s not a terrible idea.
However, as mentioned above, if you have a US credit card or equivalent in another country, you may already have CDW (collision damage waiver) insurance for rental car coverage and don’t know! It’s worth checking your documentation and calling your credit card company. It’s even worth considering signing up for a new credit card that does offer this, so you don’t have to pay for ridiculous car rental insurance.
Bringing me to my next point – credit cards with primary rental insurance. The Chase Sapphire Reserve is my favorite travel credit card for many reasons, but the primary rental insurance is one of its best perks (including Priority Pass membership). When you put your car hire on your Chase Sapphire Reserve card you get primary rental car coverage around the world up to $75,000.
That works out great for us since we are nomadic and don’t have a car or home. Car rental companies in Portugal and worldwide love to scare customers and upsell all their insurance packages. You need to make sure if you need it or not before falling victim to their trap. Call your credit card company and always find out before you get to Portugal
If you don’t have a credit card that covers rental car insurance, it may be worth adding it to your package. That way, you won’t be stuck paying for a car hire out of pocket if there is an accident.
The Cost of Renting a Car in Portugal
It’s now so easy to compare rental car prices online. You’ll find most of the big rental car companies have rates that end up being pretty close to one another; they keep an eye on the competitor’s prices, so they remain competitive themselves. But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t do a little shopping around.
Be careful when looking online, as rental companies tend to use tricks to make prices look lower than they actually are. The main way they do this is by using a ‘from’ price, with the actual amount you’ll pay only revealed when you’re further into the booking process, and they reckon you won’t bother giving up and going elsewhere. Another trick they have is to show the price excluding tax, which means you’ll have something in the region of a further 20% to add to the headline price on show.
Needless to say, the cost of a smaller car will be lower than renting a larger one. The fewer add-ons (extra drivers, GPS, etc.) you require, the cheaper it will be too. We talk more about this later in this article. We’re rented cars in Portugal before for as little as €10 a day, but this goes up during periods of high demand and you may find prices closer to €30-50 a day in the summer.
My favorites to look at are:
- AutoEurope: I can often find deals here for car rentals in Europe.
- Discover Cars: Searches rental car prices around the globe.
Booking a Rental Car in Portugal
Nowadays, booking a rental car in Portugal is straightforward before you arrive in the country. There is a huge car shortage worldwide, and booking in advance of your trip is essential.
We think the benefits of doing this are huge. Not only are you ‘guaranteed’ the vehicle you’ve opted for, reducing stress levels, but you’ll be charged less for renting that exact vehicle simply because you’ve pre-booked. Walking up and trying to book a car is one of the worst things you can do for your wallet.
If you book less than 24 hours before your rental, you will often be charged a higher rate for exactly the same vehicle. I always warn people to book a car rental at least 24 hours in advance. You can see all my additional tips on renting a car abroad here.
Where to Pick Up Your Rental Car in Portugal
If you’re flying straight into Portugal on a direct flight rather than crossing in from Spain, it may be easiest to grab your car at the airport. Even if there is an airport surcharge from the rental agency, it can still be worth it to rent from there, so you don’t have to lug your luggage into the city center just to get your rental car.
All the major airports have car rental agencies in them. So if you are flying into Lisbon, Faro and Porto you can easily rent a car at the airport. There are also places to rent a car at the Madeira Airport and in the Azores.
You can also wait until you get to the town you are staying at and rent a car there. Even smaller towns often have at least one rental car company. Often it can save money to rent away from the airport, but it’s best to play around on Discover Cars beforehand to see where you can get the best rate.
Opt for a Return Trip Rental
One way rentals almost always cost more, even if it’s in the same city. To save money, you should pick up and drop off your car at the same location.
Choose the Right Portugal Rental Car
You’re going to want to opt for a smaller car when renting a car in Portugal. Why’s that? Roads are narrow, and you’ll see most of the cars are tiny too.
In some places routes even narrow down to a single lane for both directions of traffic. In this case, you’ll find ‘passing places’ in which to pass each other.
Another thing you should consider when deciding on what rental car type to opt for is how many people and how much luggage you’ll have. Nippy two-door cars are great for getting about (and really easy to park) but don’t offer much legroom in the back if those seats are going to be used, and obviously also have less space in the trunk for luggage.
It’s best to keep in mind your needs with Portugal car rentals. We had a family of five in a compact car, with luggage, and it was a super-tight squeeze. Always account for your luggage and group size!
Finally, you’ll have the option of a manual or automatic transmission vehicle. Manuals are by far the most common vehicles driven in Portugal and around Europe, which means you’ll have a more extensive choice if you’re happy to drive one.
They also tend to be slighter cheaper to rent as a result. However, if you’re not happy driving a manual transmission and shifting gears yourself, automatics are available too. Just make sure you make this preference absolutely clear when booking.
Fuel Choices in Portugal
When picking up your rental car in Portugal, you need to know what type of fuel your vehicle requires. Diesel and Unleaded are not interchangeable. Often on rental cars, a sticker will be near the gas cap to remind you of the fuel type.
You need to return your rental car with the same amount of fuel you were given. Don’t show up with less as the rental car agency will charge you to fill it back up at an astronomical rate.
Gas is expensive in Portugal. At the time of writing it’s about €1.90 per liter. Both gas and diesel are sold by the liter, and gas stations are generally self-service. You can pay by credit card, debit card, or euro.
Opt For Navigation
GPS is brilliant for when you’re driving along unknown roads in Portugal. Having a GPS kit (generally referred to as Satellite Navigation or SatNav) focus on the navigation means you can concentrate on driving without reading every road sign you pass.
Navigation systems are also useful because they can provide alternative routes, should they be needed, to take you around congestion hotspots. The most modern versions will indicate the road’s speed limit too – measured in miles per hour just like in the US.
That’s not to say you need to get the GPS add-on with a rental car. If you have a cell phone with a local SIM contract, you’ll be able to access the data network, which means you can use smartphone navigation apps such as Google Maps.
Alternatively, if you don’t have a local SIM contract and don’t want to spend lots of cash on international roaming, you can download a Google Map to your phone when you are on WiFi. If you forget to do this before you land in Portugal, most of the airports have free WiFi to download a map of the Portugal area you’re in to your phone, but make sure you have free space on your phone!
When driving in Portugal, it is not permitted to use a cell phone to make calls or send/receive SMS text messages. You can use your smartphone for navigation purposes, but it must be hands-free only (such as safely stowed on the windscreen), and you must not program navigation while the vehicle’s engine is running.
Inspect Your Portugal Rental Car
Often, the rental car agent will ask if you’d like them to show you around the vehicle or whether you’re happy to do it yourself. Always accept the offer of being shown around the vehicle. If they don’t show you around, do a thorough inspection yourself and note anything and everything. Take photos of damage on your phone so you can always revert back to that as proof of damage.
The agent will generally start with the outside of the vehicle, pointing out any bumps or scratches that already exist, make sure all the damages are noted. This will also assure you of the roadworthiness of the vehicle.
On the inside of the vehicle, make sure that before you leave the parking bay, you know how to operate the headlights, indicator lights, and hazard lights. You should also know the location of the windscreen wipers, as well as the horn.
Make sure you know how to alter the position of the driver’s seat, how the parking brake works (is it a traditional manual one you pull up, or a newer electronic one), and how to engage reverse gear (which often requires you to push a button of some sort first). They will also help you set up the GPS if you’ve opted for one.
Remember that if you’re not happy with anything you see, you should insist on an alternative vehicle. If you find cigarette burns, broken mirrors, or windshield cracks, these must be noted before leaving the parking lot. Otherwise, you could be charged for the damages once you return the rental.
Distances and Speeds in Portugal
Distances and speeds are measured in kilometers in Portugal. The speed limit is usually signposted on each new stretch of road or change in speed.
In the city, the speed limit is generally 50km/hr on main roads, 90 km on rural roads and motorways are between 90km-120 km. In Portugal, vehicles drive on the right side of the way. Speed limits are enforced by unmarked police cars and radar traps.
Turning right on a red light is not permissible in Portugal- don’t do it or you could face a fine. Though you should also be aware that many local drivers run red lights.
Some rural roads may be single lane (and roads tend to be relatively narrow compared to those in the US in any case). There will generally be passing places that allow cars to pull aside to allow vehicles coming in the opposite direction to pass. (Speaking of which, don’t park in passing places – only ever use dedicated parking spaces.)
Speed limits are limits, not targets; only drive as fast as feels safe. Try not to worry if locals who know the roads better than you pass you at a safe place on the road.
Speed Cameras in Portugal
Speed cameras exist throughout Portugal. If you are caught speeding on the camera with a rental car, the hire car company will pass it on to you.
Tolls in Portugal
Many toll roads in Portugal are mainly run by an electronic toll system (Via Verde). When renting your car an e-toll device can be added on to your rental and will allow you to use the toll road system in Portugal. This is one piece of equipment costs about €1.50 to €2 per day, with a cap for longer rentals. We believe it is worth paying for for the ease of travel.
The toll road fees will be automatically added to your car rental price at the end of your booking.
If you don’t want to add on this option to your Portugal car rental, you can also sign up for EasyToll online beforehand. You’ll need your car plate number and a linked credit card. Then the toll road fees will be automatically added to your account when used.
Can You Cross Borders With Your Portugal Rental Car?
If you want to venture in to Spain with your rental car, it’s generally okay to do so! As these countries are within the Schengen Zone, you won’t have to stop at a border crossing. Many times you may not even know you’ve entered a new country! (We’ve done this!)
However it’s worth informing your rental car agency of your plan, as they may provide you with a cross-border letter.
Scooters and Mopeds in Portugal
It’s essential to watch out for locals driving scooters and mopeds in Portugal. They are everywhere, especially in the cities, and should be treated with the same respect that you treat a car. The mopeds drive a bit erratically, so don’t be surprised if they suddenly pull out in front of you!
Renting a Car in Lisbon
Unless you are taking day trips from Lisbon and going out of the city, you don’t need a rental car for exploring Lisbon, and it could become more of a hindrance with parking.
However, once you leave Lisbon to go explore other destinations in Portugal, you may opt to rent a car at one of the many rental agencies in Lisbon. You can often save money by renting your car in Downtown Lisbon as there are many options and car rental agencies.
What to Pack for Portugal
What to wear in Portugal is one of the first things to consider once you plan the basics of your first trip to the country. Packing can be simple.
Plan For Your Trip
- Protect Your Trip: We don’t travel without travel insurance, nor should you. You never know what can happen while traveling, so it’s best to be prepared. HeyMondo provides excellent short-term and long-term travel insurance plans.
- Find Cheap Flights: Sign up for Going (formerly Scotts Cheap Flights) to get notified when prices get ultra low.
- Travel Adapter: Make sure you find a good adapter to keep your personal electronics charged. Otherwise, you may be paying for a cheap one once you land. Purchase one here.
- Travel Backpack: We like the Nomatic Travel Backpack for our travels. Check the price here.
- Our Favorite Travel Shoes: Our answer to this question is always ALLBIRDS! Check them out on their site!
- Get a Travel Credit Card: We travel worldwide for free because we have leveraged our spending into points. See why you should get a travel credit card and how you can do the same with our favorite travel credit cards.