We are planning to travel around Portugal in June. We're open to using public transportation, but we're interested in renting a car to have more independence with routes and times. We've never rented a car in Europe before. What should we know about renting a car to travel around Portugal?
Get an International Drivers Permit from your nearest AAA, even if you're not a member. Shop around - we usually don't use Hertz in Europe, but they had the best price when we rented in Lisbon years ago. Smaller cars generally get better gas mileage, and fit in small parking spots, but get a vehicle that's big enough for all occupants plus luggage, if you're going to be going anywhere with your bags. A manual transmission is the standard, but if you want an automatic, you'll need to specify that, and it will likely come with a higher rental cost. Both diesel and gas engines get great mileage, but you'll need to know which kind of fuel your car uses, and ensure at fill-ups that the right kind goes in the tank. Some companies give you the option of buying the gas that's in the car when you rent it at the time of the rental, so you essentially want to return the car as empty as possible; otherwise, you pick up the car with a full tank and are expected to return it with a full tank (or get charged an exorbitant amount for not returning it full). Speed limits and distances on signs will be in metric measurements, and the speedometer/odometer will register in kilometers.
Having a car gave us freedom to travel to Sintra, Obidos, and the sights in and around Evora.
While I always like to book directly through the first party for flight and rooms, with the rental car I always use AutoEurope. It's always worked well, and, when they're having a good sale, the rate is less and I don't have to individually compare each company.
For our Portuguese adventure, we picked up in Madrid and dropped off in Granada, which meant having the car while in Lisbon. While not a pleasure, driving to our hotel in the city was not that hectic or nerve-wracking. However, if you fly in or out of 'Lisboa', I would suggest waiting until you head out on your road trip to pick up the car.
Destinations are too numerous to tick off here, use Rick's book for that. But one thing he doesn't mention that I would love to go back for is 'Leitão da Bairrada' in Mealhada, just north of Coimbra (Google it!).
I've always used Auto Europe - which is a consolidator based in the US. I'm using them again for Portugal in May. Their prices are good and website is very user friendly and if there is a glitch in the website, they have an 800 number to call. I did call them this year for the first time because the times on the website kept coming up unavailable - and they were very easy to work with.
Since Auto Europe is a consolidator, you will pick up from a car rental agency (Europcar is common) but the name of the agency and all the details are on the voucher you are sent by Auto Europe.
I recommend not picking up or dropping off in a big city such as Lisbon due to the traffic issue. And don't plan to have the car during the times you are staying in the big cities. But driving out of the big cities has been very easy in other European countries. There are things written about Portuguese drivers but as this is my first trip to Portugal, I can't speak to that. I do know that Italian drivers are pretty notorious and I didn't have a problem there. The RS books have a section that includes traffic signs and other tips. Learn the words in Portuguese for exit, north, south, etc.
I usually do a combination of public transport and rental cars. I like having a car in the more rural areas and for the small towns. And - there seem to be many areas like that in Portugal that would be difficult to visit via public transport.
Thanks very much to the three of you who have responded so far. I appreciate your advice and suggestions. We definitely would like to see some 'off the beaten track' places in Portugal, so car rental seems necessary. I'd never heard of AutoEurope. I'll check it out asap.
We (UK based) always use Holiday Autos (consolidator) for booking cars in Europe. Trains and buses are slow and sometimes infrequent, so a car is much better.
A few additional things to watch out for: there are now tolls on many Portuguese motorways that work via a transponder in the car and you usually pay the hire company at the end - check the car as this, as otherwise, you will have to go to a Post Office to pay - a pain! There are slower routes that are not tolls - check online to see which routes are tolls and the cost of these at www.portugaltolls.pt. Most hire cars are manual not automatic and nearly all will run on unleaded (gasolina sem chumbo).
Drink driving limits are fairly low and it is illegal to park facing against the flow of traffic. Front and rear seat belts are obligatory. Petrol stations in large towns have in my experience all taken credit cards but be prepared to pay cash in small rural locations or fill up in town.
If you are going to the Algarve, ensure that you do not leave anything visible inside the car. There are an increasing number of attempted break-ins at out of the way beaches and supermarkets. We leave the back parcel shelf out and the glove box open as a precaution after someone tried to jemmy the door lock. It has not put us off going back - it is mostly Romanian and African immigrants apparently. There seem to be fewer problems north of the Algarve as there are fewer tourists.
See also a variety of renting and driving tips at http://www.ricksteves.com/travel-tips/transportation. Outside of the big cities, driving in Europe can be quite pleasant. A single, smaller country like Portugal is a good place to start, not really needing to cover many miles.