Portugal Travel Tips
The Essential Things to Know for Portugal Travel
Are you thinking about visiting Portugal? Are you planning a scouting trip before applying for a visa, or do you just want to visit on a vacation? Planning a European trip can be exciting and full of not-so-great surprises unless you’re prepared. Here are some essential things to know before you plan for Portugal travel.
Note: I have updated the Covid-19 requirements for travel to and from Portugal as of April 23, 2022.
Air and Sea Travel Restrictions and Requirements
If you’re planning Portugal travel – either by air or by sea - you’ll need to stay on top of the most current travel restrictions and requirements. For up-to-date travel to Portugal information, visit the U.S. Embassy & Consulate in Portugal website. For current Covid information for Portugal, visit the website of Safe Communities in Portugal. Or, for the most current updates, visit their Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/scalgarve
Visit Portugal also has up-to-date information on requirements for traveling to Portugal.
Leaving Portugal to return home? You may need a negative Covid test depending on your destination: https://www.ucs.pt/covid-19-tests-to-passengers Note: As of August 2022, this is no longer required.
Airports in Portugal
Portugal has three major airports located in Lisbon (central), Porto (northern), and Faro (Algarve). All have international routes. Several commercial and budget airlines fly to these airports regularly. Transportes Aéreos Portugueses – more commonly known as TAP Air Portugal is a budget-friendly airline offering flights from North America and across the globe. Although economical (you can pay for upgrades), check the cancellation policies and the baggage limits. Their customer service can be spotty. If you need to call them be sure it’s during normal business hours in Portugal time.
The islands of Madeira and the Azores have their own airports with regular flights to and from the mainland of Portugal.
ATMs – Portugal has many ATM locations that you can use to get cash. Avoid Euronet machines as they have the highest fees. This resource from Frommer’s explains how to get money while traveling in Portugal.
Car Rentals – If you want to rent a car in Portugal, there are car rental companies at the airports and at major train stations. Driving is on the right side of the road, just like in the U.S. This resource explains what to look for when renting a car.
A few additional things to keep in mind:
Many roads are very (very!) narrow, so choose a vehicle that will fit down those roads as you never know when you’ll be driving down one until it’s too late to turn around.
Parking can be at a premium in major tourist areas during high season.
Portuguese people are generally very polite unless they’re behind the wheel. Don’t get upset if you see hand gestures, horns honking and sometimes a few expletives (in Portuguese so you probably won’t understand the words anyway) coming from a Portuguese driver.
Most cars are manual transmission. If you need an automatic, it will cost more and be harder to find.
You should familiarize yourself with Portuguese traffic laws before renting a car in Portugal.
Cash or Credit? - Not all Portuguese businesses accept credit cards – even in the tourist areas. We’ve been to some beachside tourist restaurants that only accept cash, we’ve been to small cafes where they don’t take credit cards, and we’ve been to wine bars that will only take cash or a Portuguese debit card. Also, taxis and transfer services may or may not accept credit cards, so it’s always good to carry some Euros (see Money below).
Cellphones – Check to see if you’ll need an international cellphone plan or if you can purchase a prepaid SIM card to use in Portugal. This resource helps to explain the differences and what to look for.
Converters and Adapters – electrical outlets are different in Portugal than in other parts of the world. To avoid burning out your electrical appliances or electronics, bring converters and adapters with you. This resource provides more information.
Credit Cards – If you have American Express or Discover credit cards, leave them home. Those are not widely accepted in Portugal. Your MasterCard may work, but the most popular credit card accepted in Portugal is Visa. In most cases, when using a credit card, you will be asked to choose payment in Euros or USD/CAD. Choose Euros since the transaction charge will most likely be less.
Driving - If you’re planning on driving in Portugal, you should get an international driving permit. Most automobile clubs (like AAA in the U.S.) will offer this service for a fee, or you can order one here.
Emergency - Consider filling out an Emergency Medical ID card. It is a card you carry with you in the event of an emergency while traveling in Portugal.
Footwear – I love shoes! Give me an excuse to wear pointy kitten heel slides, stiletto pumps, or strappy sandals and I’m lookin’ good! BUT…I’ve learned to love comfortable, practical, not-so-fashionable footwear even more now that I’m in Portugal. Bring comfortable flat or low-heeled wedge-style shoes when you travel to Portugal. Sneakers of all types are common to see here. Rubber gripping and cushiony-soles are great - you’ll come to appreciate those features. You’ll do a lot of walking while exploring the country. A lot of Portugal is hilly, and most streets and sidewalks are either tiled or made of cobblestone (and often a tile or stone or two is missing, leaving you vulnerable to a broken ankle or nasty fall if you’re not careful). Plus, when it rains, walking can be a slippery experience.
Guidebooks for Portugal – One of my favorite guidebooks for Portugal is Rick Steves’ Portugal. There’s also a handy map included that you can pull-out and use while traveling in Portugal.
Before you leave on your Portugal travel, check out this series of some of our favorite YouTube videos from POV Tours, for walking video tours of many major cities and attractions in Portugal.
Hotels & Vacation Rentals – Check your hotel or vacation rental amenities online before you travel. You may be accustomed to in-room items such as coffee or tea makers, hair dryers, and irons/ironing boards, but not all accommodations include that, and in many cases, the coffee maker will be for espresso (which will definitely wake you up in the morning). Bottled water is sometimes complimentary and sometimes there’s a charge. And if you use washcloths, bring some with you. They’re not something accommodations have in Portugal.
Also, if you’re planning on staying in a vacation rental, be sure linens are included (as Portugal has become a more popular tourist destination, most places now include things like linens, but it’s always good to double-check).
It’s probably also a good idea to check if there are elevators in your hotel or vacation rental especially if your accommodation is not on the ground floor (or first floor as ground floors are sometimes stores or restaurants) - more common in older places where elevators (a/k/a lifts) were not part of the building code.
Learning the Lingo - English is spoken (more or less) in many areas, and you can get away with not knowing any Portuguese in cities such as Lisbon, Cascais and Porto as well in most of the Algarve. In rural areas, not so much. However, it’s helpful to learn a few basic words and phrases in Portuguese. The Portuguese people you encounter will appreciate it, and you’ll feel great knowing that you’re saying the correct word or phrase at the right time. Check out our friend Jessica Sintra’s Native Portuguese videos on YouTube for some easy words and phrases to learn before you travel to Portugal.
If nothing else, download the Google Translate app to your cellphone. It’s not a perfect Portuguese to English translation tool but it helps in a pinch.
Masks - You may not be happy about this depending on where you’re traveling from but be aware that mask wearing is currently mandatory in Portugal on all public transportation, including trains, buses, subways, taxi cabs and Ubers. Also in government buildings, and possibly (check each venue for their requirements) in areas such as shops, malls, grocery stores, hotels, museums, concerts, large festivals, mercados, and farmer’s markets, and other types of events. You can purchase masks practically anywhere in Portugal, but you might want to pack a supply to use when you first arrive. Be sure to be respectful of the rules of the country or you may be refused access to the places you want to visit. Note: As of September, 2022, the mask mandates have been lifted with the exception of hospitals and healthcare facilities. Some pharmacies may also require masks.
Before your Portugal travel, you might want to consider ordering some Euros from your local bank, so you’ll have cash on hand when you arrive in Portugal for incidentals such as tips, coffee, and travel to your destination. If you’re concerned about the exchange rate and/or fees a bank charges for this service, ask before you place your order. Don’t bring any Euros larger than 50 EU and ideally bring more in 5’s, 10’s or 20’s. Note that anything from 2 EU and under will be coins.
To check current exchange rates, click here.
Patience – Portugal is a laid-back country, and nothing gets done quickly. If you’re accustomed to quick service – especially in restaurants - bring along a large dose of patience on your trip to Portugal. Unless you want fast food (Portugal has McDonald’s, Burger King, and Pizza Hut restaurants if you’re really in a hurry), dining out is meant to be a relaxing, leisurely experience. Food takes time to be prepared and served. So does wine (but usually not as long as the food). You may be asked if everything is satisfactory with your meal, but not always. You won’t be asked if you’re ready for the check, either. It’s not the custom. You’ll have to ask for it (and then it will take some more time to get it…).
Make sure it’s up to date and won’t expire 6 months before the date of your travel to Portugal. It’s always a good idea to make color copies of your passport (all pages with stamps) and keep in a safe place in case your passport is lost or stolen. It won’t act as a replacement but it will help to prove where you come from. You can also scan your passport pages and keep in a safe place such as in the cloud.
Restaurants & Cafés – Menus in many of the tourist-area restaurants are in both Portuguese and English, but not always. In less-touristy areas almost nothing is in English. Some of the pastelarias (pastry shops) don’t have menus, although most often there are hand-written boards with the specials of the day (here is where smiling, pointing, and using hand gestures works well).
Many restaurants will offer small plates of bread with olive oil and butter, a mixture of olives, or some cheese before you even have time to peruse the menu. These are not complimentary items. You will be charged for them – this is a standard practice. The charge is usually nominal (and generally posted on the menu somewhere). If you don’t want them, don’t touch them (once you do, you’ll be charged for it) and politely tell the waiter that you do not want them.
Bread is generally not included in the price of meals. You can order bread (always delicious) and there will be a charge for that. Sometimes butter or olive oil is extra as well.
Water in restaurants is not free and may not be automatically brought to the table. If you want water with your meal, you’ll have to ask for it, and select either Still Water or Sparkling Water (sometimes known as water with ‘gas’). The charge is nominal (unless you want designer water), but it is not complimentary. There are usually a couple of sizes of water to choose from depending on how thirsty you are.
Safety – Portugal is one of the safest countries in the world, but that doesn’t mean you should let your guard down, especially in cities, crowds, and on public transportation. There are pickpockets, sometimes posing as families with children, who will ‘accidentally’ bump into you in an attempt to distract you (this happened to me in the Cascais train station, but I was already aware, so nothing bad happened).
Also be aware of your surroundings at ATM machines. One time in Lisbon, we were at an ATM machine located on a main street, when two men came up behind us attempting to distract us with ‘conversation.’ Paul blocked the transaction screen and I stood facing the men. We were polite, but they got the message.
Using Google Maps on your cellphone while you’re walking around is also a sure sign you’re a tourist.
Use common sense and don’t leave your valuables on the table in restaurants or bars. Don’t leave valuables in a backpack with outer zippers. Wear cross-body bags in front and put items like cellphones and wallets in your front pockets.
For travelers from the United States, you can enroll in the Smart Traveler Enrollment Program (STEP) with the U.S. State Department. It’s a free service from the U.S. State Department for United States citizens who are traveling or living abroad, enabling them to receive the latest security updates from the closest U.S. Embassy or Consulate.
Tipping – To Americans, tipping is second nature when going to a restaurant, hotel, using a taxi or an Uber ride, or for any number of other services. A 15 to 20 percent tip or larger in the U.S. is not unheard of. In Portugal, it’s somewhat different and not as much of an expectation. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t tip – especially if a service was exceptional. If you do tip, be sure the tip is in Euros. For guidelines on how and when to tip in Portugal, read my article on tipping.
Tour operators – Sometimes it’s easier to have someone show you around. Tour operators both large and small offer a variety of options to see some of the places in Portugal. Your hotel concierge will have suggestions, or you can contact me for some recommendations.
Transfer services – If you’re going to a hotel, ask if they have a recommended transfer service to pick you up at the airport. Taxi cabs are generally available outside of public transportation areas. If you need some suggestions, contact me.
Travel insurance – make sure you have enough coverage including overseas health coverage while you’re traveling.
Vaccination cards – be sure to bring your vaccination cards including any boosters (if you’re from the U.S.) or a digital EU vaccination certificate if you’re from the European Union, or if you’re from Canada, a Canadian proof of vaccination.
Portugal currently requires this to enter the country. (Note: This is no longer a requirement). For the latest updates check out the Safe Communities Portugal Facebook Page: https://www.facebook.com/scalgarve
Be sure to scan your physical cards and keep in a safe place in case you lose the hard copies.
For emergencies, it’s 112 - not 911.
Many restaurants and cafes are closed on Mondays. Some restaurants open daily from 12:00 noon to 3:00 pm and then close for a few hours and reopen at 7:30 pm.
Most museums are closed on Mondays.
Local pharmacies are usually closed on Saturday afternoons, all day on Sunday, and on holidays.
Portuguese banks are usually open Monday through Friday from 8:30 am to 3:00 pm. Some banks may be open for a few hours on Saturday.
Uber Eats is popular throughout Portugal.
Serving ice with water, soft drinks or other beverage is not common in Portugal.
Smoking and vaping are allowed on outdoor cafes and outdoor restaurants everywhere in Portugal.
Not all taxi drivers accept credit cards. Always ask the driver beforehand if you don’t have cash. Know the name of your destination and clearly print it out with the name, address, and zip code. This helps to get you to where you want to go, especially if the taxi or Uber driver doesn’t speak English.
Not all dogs are on leashes when they’re walking with their people.
Not all people pick up after their dogs. Watch your step when walking.
Europe in general writes dates using the day first, then the month, and then the year. So, for example, July 1, 2022 is written 1 July 2022 or 1/7/2022.
For information on what’s going on in PT such as events, fairs, festivals, visit https://www.visitportugal.com/en
Did I miss anything?
Do you have more suggestions for this list? Drop a comment to me – I’d love to hear from you!
Until next time…