There are a few Portuguese-specific things to know before you get behind the wheel over here, other than what the road signs mean. Renting cars in Portugal is much like anywhere else, with a few peculiarities such as restrictions on taking the car out of the country, where exactly you’ll be picking it up, how the rental companies handle damage coverage, and a very weird, counter-intuitive, and ridiculously overpriced toll system that you’ll have to plan for before you rent.
Your Options and How to Comparison-Shop
There are several car rental comparison websites that work the same way in Portugal that they do everywhere else, but we’ve been favoring HolidayAutos.com as of late. Like most sites, these guys organize all your options by price and size of car — but they seem to have a bigger number of firms accessible than others, so you’ll likely find the best deal here from pretty much all the different providers in town. What’s more, this site is very good about showing you the additional costs and whatever restrictions each car rental company imposes on you (more on that later).
When choosing between actual car rental firms, the devil is in the details. Although some companies like Budget and Hertz have pick-up locations in the city center, for example, it’s much cheaper if you pick up a car from the airport, and even cheaper, normally, if it’s from a company that doesn’t have a counter inside the airport. Fear not — all companies offer a shuttle bus service from the meeting point at Terminal 1 to their rental locations in a nearby industrial zone called Prior Velho, which is about a five- to 10-minute drive. If you get one of these, and you’re already in Lisbon, we recommend taking a bus or taxi straight to the pick-up location instead of waiting around for the rental agency to fill up their shuttle bus. This can sometimes save you up to an hour.
How Much Does It Cost to Rent a Car in Portugal?
As little as 4€ a day, in our experience. That’s just the basics, though. Read on for all the things that can make that price go up substantially, but for a regular weekend outing, with no frills and no extras, you can expect to pay about 30€ to 50€ for two-three days and around 70€ to 180€ for a week. You can sometimes get a convertible for about 50€ a day if you need to impress your mom (because your love interest will not fall for that;).
Necessary Documents for Car Rentals
Bring both your driver’s license and your passport if you’re the main driver. The same goes for any additional driver you add (which can be done starting at around 5€ a day or 20€ for the whole rental period). If you have a driver’s license in a different alphabet, it’s best to bring an international driver’s license. In the U.S., for example, it takes 15 minutes and costs about $20 at your local AAA. (Americans are typically fine using their U.S. licenses, in our experience).
Credit Cards, Insurance, and Deposits
The main driver will have to be the one to pay on the credit card, so make sure that’s sorted before you arrive: sometimes placing a call to your credit card company ahead of time will save you headaches at the counter.
If you have a credit card with built-in insurance coverage, you don’t need to buy separate insurance in Portugal, no matter what the car rental company says. But be prepared to have a hold of about 1500€ put on your card. The good news is, if something happens and you have to pay for repairs, they will deduct it from that hold but you will be reimbursed by your credit card company. The bad news is, it can take up three to six months filing an incident report, waiting for documents from the rental company, and in some cases the police, getting the PDFs of the associated paperwork to the credit card, and so on, before you get that money refunded, depending on your card. Sometimes buying the no-hassle added insurance from the car rental company is worth it, sometimes it’s not, basically.
Going to Spain (and France)
If you plan to hop on over for a few days in Spain, there’s a catch: many rental companies will simply not let you do it (and since most cars now come with automatic GPS devices, whether you use them or not, the company will know). Luckily, most rental companies in Portugal do let you drive to Spain, and a small number even let you drive into France. But there is typically a fee of 30€ or more associated with that. How do you figure out if the car rental company of your choice allows out-of-Portugal travel? This is one of the reasons we like HolidayAutos.com, because it allows you to pull up information like this for each firm:
Upselling: Do You Need That?
We’ve used GoldCar, DriveOn Holidays, Hertz, Budget, UDrive, Europcar, and more, and they’re all pretty much the same. They will all try their best to up-sell you on an upgrade, wifi drives, Via Verde toll device (see below), GPS, and maybe a folding bike. So just prepare yourself before you go and bring everything you may need to be self-sufficient on the road. For navigation, get the OsmAnd app for offline GPS navigation, or download google’s offline maps to save big on data. Also, bring a USB cigarette-lighter charging plug and an audio-to-audio jack if you want to plug in your music. But sometimes you do get offered a good deal, such as getting no-deposit insurance for a few bucks a day with an additional driver and the ViaVerde device thrown in for free. In cases like that, it could be worth it.
The ViaVerde Toll System – What the Hell Is It?
Be ready for tolls. Lots and lots of expensive tolls, unless you want to drive more slowly on national roads. Portugal’s highways are pricier than anywhere else we have driven. Getting to Porto from Lisbon, for example, costs over 20€ in tolls.
But that’s not the worst of it. Most toll roads have toll stations divided into ViaVerde lanes and pay-as-you-go lanes (marked with a credit card and euro symbol (€) — the machine may or may not take your credit card, and most will not, so cash, and a human being, is your best bet).
Unfortunately for anyone who doesn’t own a Portuguese car, some roads here have automatic camera-checkpoints that beep you as you drive under them (if you have the ViaVerd device, that is). If you pass under one of these and you didn’t rent a ViaVerde device, you’ll have to go to to the post office (in any town you choose) to pay for the toll, or you can expect a fine. Take a photo of the license plate to show the post office and they’ll tell you how much you owe. You can do this after you return the car, as long as it’s within 10 days of when you passed the toll. If you wait longer, extra fees will apply, though they usually don’t amount to much.
If you opt to rent, or rather, activate the Via Verde toll device from the rental agency, you can take the ViaVerde lanes and skip this last step as you’ll pay all your tolls at the rental desk when you return the car or expect a bill in the mail. Car rental companies charge about 1.50€ per day and up for the device, so sometimes it’s worth it.
On Not Getting Screwed
Lastly, before you drive away to your destination, be sure to check the car thoroughly. We’ve taken to filming a short video as we walk around the vehicle with the attendant who will be marking the nicks and scrapes down on his or her clipboard. Wiggle the side-view mirrors, kick the tires, check if that smear is bird poo, a watermark, or a scratch. You don’t want to have to pay for someone else’s whoopsie-daisy, so gather your evidence in advance should they try to pin something on you when you return the car.