Planning to drive in Portugal? My experience

Various sources of information about road safety in Portugal had me a little nervous before we entered the country a month or so back. Since then we’ve driven the length and, in some places, the width of the country, almost all of it on non-motorway roads. How was it? My thoughts below:

  • There’s nothing to worry about. Driving in Portugal is pretty much the same as the UK (don’t drive on the left here though, that wouldn’t work). Rules and signs are a close match. Take your time, don’t rush and all will be good.
  • The Portuguese aren’t big on using their indicators it seems. Roundabouts work in the same way as the UK (people arriving at the roundabout give way) but it’s almost impossible to tell if people are exiting before you, or coming round past you.
  • Portuguese drivers seem to fit into three camps:
    1. Camp 1: They drive dog slow, wandering off onto the hard shoulder and back onto the carriageway, and perhaps having a good chin wag with their passengers, or perhaps just scared to death to be driving, I don’t know. We’ve seen literally 3 people like this, nothing to worry about.
    2. Camp 2: They drive at a reasonable speed, something in line with the speed limit. Almost everyone fits in here, and they are courteous drivers.
    3. Camp 3: A few guys will overtake anything, anywhere. They’ll overtake someone who’s overtaking you. ‘No overtaking’ solid white lines and blind corners? To be ignored. Not many guys in this camp fortunately.
  • Even Camp 2 drivers will not be able to help themselves but overtake you. As I’m generally doing 70 or 80Kph on 100Kph roads, and Dave’s acceleration is somewhat shy of a Space Shuttle, I’m fair game. Their overtaking technique consists of getting close enough to you that they can’t see past (and I can’t seem them in my mirrors), then they pop out into the other carriageway every now and again until a gap arises, then they nip past (or sometimes they don’t, I’ve had cars sat a few meters from my back bumper for miles, even with really obvious overtaking opportunities?). If I know I’m going to have to pull out onto the other carriageway for some reason, I indicate stupidly early, to give the occasional Camp 3 nutter at least some chance of holding back
  • The non-motorway roads are generally good. They will occasionally deteriorate, giving you a bumpy experience for a few km, but on the whole they are OK and we’ve not seen many suspension-busting potholes. We’ve only come across a dirt road once, and that was in the middle of nowhere near Evora, going to see ancient standing stones. Even that road was passable for us, can cars were nipping along it no problem. The non-motorway routes will be join-the-dots, taking you from town to town, so you’ll be slowing down a lot (see next point).
  • The Portuguese have an ingenious way to get you stick to the 50kph speed limit in towns. If you’re over the limit, a set of traffic lights with an attached radar sat at the border of the town spots you coming. If you’re over 50kph, they go red. Genius. Took me a while to figure out what on Earth was going on – why did this lights keep going red with no junction around them, no one coming the other way and no-one crossing the road!
  • Talking of 50kph zones. Good luck figuring out when the 50kph zone has ended. I’ve not yet seen an ‘end of 50kph’ sign, and have very infrequently seen a sign with the new limit after a town.
  • Our experience of motorways was excellent. They were pretty empty and good quality, but you pay for it. Whether you consider it expensive or not depends on you, your budget and how fed up you are with the smaller toads.
  • Everyone stops at zebra crossings in Portugal to let pedestrians cross, even Camp 3 nutters.
  • Towns are often cobbled with narrow roads. We attempt to avoid the old town areas and park outside them in our motorhome. If you do end up in there (we have, grrr, satnav) then it pays to have a good feel for how wide your vehicle is. I look across at the passenger wiper blade mount point and line it up with the edge of the road, I then know I’m almost as far right as I can get. This works well on narrow roads with a big lorry coming the other way, but takes some nerve.
  • Fueling up is easy, same as the UK. Look for Gasoil if you’ve a diesel van, and as far as I can remember all the stations we’ve used have been self service. Worth making sure you have enough hard cash to cover your purchase though, we’ve had credit cards refused occasionally. In 2011/2012, diesel is running at about €1.40 a litre (compares with €1.69 in the UK, and €1.31 in Spain). Fuel is cheaper in supermarket stations.
  • GPL (LPG) is more widely available than Spain’s about 10 fill-up points, but we don’t see it all that often. They use the French type connector. Cost is about €0.70 a litre and the one place we’ve used was self service (Spain seems to employ people to do this for you, for some reason).

Cheers, Jason

P.S. Just to put this all in context:

  • I’m hardly a driving expert, so take the above with a pinch of salt, but do have some ‘non-UK driving’ experience. I’ve driven in the US, France, Spain (including Ibiza and Minorca), Portugal (including Madeira), Germany, Belgium and a quick nip through Luxembourg.
  • We use a combination of a TomTom Go 730 and a good old paper map. Ju makes sure the TomTom doesn’t take us down daft roads to save a few minutes, or onto new toll roads which it doesn’t know about as I’m too tight to pay £80 or £90 for an update).

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