Driving through Portugal is one of the best ways to discover the country’s secrets. There are many places you won’t be able to visit by train (like Montanhas Magicas or Miranda do Douro), buses are not even an option to consider in most cases and, while you could travel by foot along the Camino de Santiago, not everybody has the time for that.
So, with the goal to help you explore beyond the famous spots, I’ve decided to clarify the highway code and how to use the highways and speed ways (and pay their tolls.)
How is it like to drive in Portugal?
In general terms, it is very easy to drive around Portugal: signage is usually good, GPS work fine (Google usually loses the GPS signal at the worst time ever, but you can also try waze, which some friends say works better). Driving is mostly like anywhere else in continental Europe, with right-side driving, winding roads and some traffic jams in big cities.
But, there are a couple of things you should know:
- Many cities and towns have their streets cobblestone paved
- Max speed is 120 kilometres per hour in highways, speed ways and similar, but smaller roads are usually around 70-80 kilometres per hour
- Roads are controlled by the GNR, which wear green uniforms. If you break a rule and they stop you, they can make you pay in the spot (they can even take you to the closest bank)
- Gas stations at highways and speed ways are usually open 24/7. But the ones at little villages sometimes close at night.
- Most cities and villages have parking meters on the streets (blue zones), but there are also plenty of private parkings which (with some exceptions in the most touristic spots) are quite affordable
- Most car rentals are located in Faro, Lisbon and Porto, but you might find some in other cities
Which ones are the best portuguese roads?
Mountain roads are usually nice but with many, many, many curves. Just as like in many other parts of the world, the farther you go from major touristic spots, the worse they are (with some exceptions.)
Toll roads, as you might imagine, are the wider and best maintained roads, thus the best option when planning a roadtrip in Portugal. But if you worry about money: they are a bit expensive and you always have alternatives that are slower but free.
How do I know if I am on a pay road?
There are two types of toll roads in Portugal:
- Portuguese highways (auto-estrada) are labeled in blue signs with the text “portagem”. They also have the standard European (and mostly international) toll sign of a red circle with white inside and the text Portagem/Toll.
- Speedways (autovías or SCUT) which used to be free, but now are also toll roads. They are marked with a blue sign, but with these one next to it:
It is important to know the difference because this second sign means that the road is paid electronically (not in cash, not at the spot, keep reading below.)
Just as a reference, the SCUT speed way roads that travellers use the most are:
- A24 – Chaves to VIseu.
- A28 – Porto to Caminha.
- A4 – Porto / Amarante / Bragança.
- A41 – Circular Regional Exterior de Porto.
- A42 – Alfena to Lousada.
- A17 – Mira to Aveiro.
- A25 – Esgueira to Angeja (Aveiro area).
- A29 – Costa de Prata from Estarreja to Vila Nova de Gaia (Porto area).
- A25 – Beira Litoral/Beira Alta (between Aveiro and Vilar Formoso).
- A23 – Beira interior (between Torres Novas and Guarda).
- IC3 – between A23 and Tomar, Atalaia, Asseiceira and Santa Cita sections.
- A22 – Via do Infante (between Lagos and Castro Marim)
How are poruguese toll roads paid?
This is usually the part people get confused about, so I’ll try to make it as clear as possible:
1.- Auto-estradas are paid when you use them, in cash or by credit or debit card. When you enter the road you will see a few toll booths, some marked with a green sign or ViaVerde sign (for subscribed users that have ViaT or ViaVerde plans) and others without. If you are reading this, you will most likely go through the non-green signs and will have to pick up a ticket. Once you leave the highway you will find another set of toll booths, you will again go through the non-green ones (look for them, there are some places where the green ones outnumber the non-green ones), where you will hand that ticket to the person at the toll booth (or insert in the machine if there is not person) and it will be used to calculate the price. Please don’t loose the ticket or you will have to pay the whole highway length.
2.- Speedways (SCUT or the ones with a sign where the car seems to be getting wifi 😉 ) don’t have toll booths, but you still have to pay for using them. Payment is done through an electronic system that connects your car’s license number with your credit card or another payment tool. There are several ways to do this:
- you can buy a prepaid card online or at certain gas stations,
- buy a prepaid card for 3 days
- activate your credit (or debit) card so each time (within a month) that your car goes through one of this roads they will charge your card.
- use a ViaT or ViaVerde toll pay system (not all the ViaT machines work in Portugal, check before you visit).
3.- Both auto-estrada and SCUT can be paid with subscription ViaVerde devices (they have their own lanes at Auto-estradas so you don’t have to stop at the toll booth, and at SCUTs you just go through too.) But you need to rent them and install them at your car. (The Spanish ViaT also works here).
Having said this, the easiest thing would be to travel only through Highways (auto-estrada), so you always make sure you will not be fined. BUT you might end up at one of the other ones (electronic SCUT speed ways), without a choice to get out of them, so it’s better to be ready.
My recommendation would be to always carry a prepaid card with you, it’s valid for 1 year since you activate it. And if you are entering the country from Spain, try to access through any of the EasyToll spots (sometimes it would be a waste of time to travel to these spots, so I prefer the prepaid card).
How do I buy the cards or activate the connection with my credit card?
*Note this is only valid of those toll roads without toll booths.
Different ways, depending on the tool you use:
1.- If you choose to activate your credit card so they can charge you every time you go through, your option is EasyToll
EasyToll is only valid for a month and you need to reactivate it every month.
To use it, you need to go to an EasyToll point (they are all located near the Spanish-Portuguese border) and look for a sign that says “matrículas extranjeras / foreign vehicles”. They are similar to an ATM and labelled as EasyToll. The service has a cost of 0,74€ when you sign up and 0,30€ for each journey.
You follow the instructions (similar to paying at an ATM) and it will give you a ticket you should keep. The ticket is so you can prove you connected it, in case the GNR stops you.
You can do this:
- A28 – Viana do Castelo (at the gas station that is in the speed way, direction Porto)
- A24 – 3,5 km away from the border between Chaves/Verin, on one side of the speed way;
- A25 – at the service area and gas station of Alto de Leomil (Vilar Formoso);
- A22 – at Vila Real de Santo António.
2.- If you want to use a prepaid card
You can buy prepaid card at the Portuguese site, at portuguese post offices and at some CEPSA gas stations on Highways (auto-estradas), like the ones in Guarda, Lagos, Loulé, VIla Velha de Rodao, Vouzela, Celorico, Custoias, Modivas, Aveiro and Barcelos.
When you buy the card online, they don’t send you the card, they activate that amount for your car license number right away. But if you buy the paper cards at CTT or the gas stations, you will need to activate them by SMS message (a bit old school, isn’t it?) or through the online store, where you write your car’s license and a secret code. The SMS is not free and you need to send it to a Portuguese number.
There are 5€, 10€, 20€ and 40€ available at the website (I’ve only managed to buy 5€ ones at bus stations, so it might be better to shop online in advance.) In addition, it also has an administrative cost of 0,74€ each time you add money and 0,30€ per jouney (once per speedway when passing by consecutive toll archs).
The good side is that you can keep activating new cards and the amount adds to the previous ones, so you don’t have to wait for them to expire to activate the next one. And the money you add is valid for one year (from the last time you added money.)
You can also check the remaining amount at CTT website and they send you an SMS telling you when the card is over (hasn’t happened to me yet, so I don’t know how this works. At the website, you will need your license number and the activation code they sent you by SMS (if you don’t seem to find it, you can contact them by email so they can send you the activation code or check the remaining amount).
If you buy a card and never use it (nor activate it) you can return it at any Portuguese Post Office (Correios) and they will refund you. If you bought it online, you can also request a refund online, but it can take up to 6 months and they will discount the postage and activation costs.
3.- 3 days unlimited toll service or Vignette
You can buy this one online, at service areas of A24, at Porto and Faro airports (at the Correios post office), and at IKEA Matoshinhos. Also, it should be available at any post office (Correios CTT) and at EasyToll spots.
Sure the best option for a short roadtrip in Portugal, but not worth the cost if you are only going around Lisbon or Porto (or exploring smaller towns). Price now is 20€ plus an activation fee of 0,74€
* Whatever you choose, this money won’t serve to pay at toll booths, only at electronic speed ways (SCUT). If you go through a highway with toll booths, you still have to pay at the spot.
** You can also rent a ViaVerde or ViaT device. These devices are valid for both Auto-estradas and SCUT. It is the easiest way if you don’t want to worry about which road you are in. But they come with a cost (and the ViaVerde site is not designed for travelers, and the english version is not currently working.)
Without toll booths, how do I know how much I’m paying?
At SCUT speed ways, you will find big boards saying how much you are spending. It depends on the distance and other facts, so in 20 kilometres you might come accross a few of these boards (each of them with low amounts). If you don’t want to keep the record (or are traveling alone), you can check the remaining amount (or costs if you are using the EasyToll service) through the web or sending an email to firstname.lastname@example.org
At Auto-estradas, you will find toll booths, but don’t forget to keep the ticket they gave you when you got in so they only charge you for the distance you covered and not all the length of the road.
What happens if I use an electronic toll SCUT without having activated the service or without credit?
Great question! There was this rumour in Spain that said that you didn’t have to pay in Portugal because they can’t send you fines abroad. Don’t follow this advice: if any GNR agent (or police) stops you, they can fine you and make you pay on the spot, no matter where you are from.
Fines are 10 times the amount you “skipped” with a minimum of 25€. Doesn’t seem much, but it can crush your wallet.
The only possible way to pay after you’ve used an SCUT speedway, is to activate a card, but you need to do it the same day you’ve used it (on the first day). The electronic system crosses the information from the cars and the amounts on the next day, so you can technically buy the card afterwards and they will discount what you used that day, before or after you activated. Won’t work if you do it the day afterwards.
Portuguese people have some additional options to pay afterwards, but it’s not valid for foreign cars/licenses.
What happens if I skip the booth (through the ViaVerde), lose the entry ticket or get in without money/my card doesn’t work at an Autoestrada toll booth?
At Autoestradas, it is easier to sort things out, since there is always people to talk to (in person or through the machine.) Solutions are:
- If your card doesn’t work or you run out of money, you can ask them to issue you a “factura” (invoice) which allows you to pay at cities in several places, the next day or several days after (the invoice says how and where).
- If you lost your entry ticket or skipped the booth through the ViaVerde when entering the Autoestrada, you will have to pay the whole Autoestrada length, which can be 10 times your journey, so be careful with this. If you happen to find your ticket afterwards, you can go back and get partially refunded
- If you skip the booths through the ViaVerde way in&out, you can pay afterwards at any of the offices of Brisa-Via Verde (never met anyone who did this, but they say it’s possible).
I am renting a car in Portugal, which option should I choose?
If you are renting a car in Portugal, they can charge you the tolls you didn’t pay for, afterwards. Just take into account they will also charge your card for any fines (since their cars have Portuguese car licenses, these come automatically to their offices).
So, before renting the car check with the company if:
- the car brings its own ViaVerde device (or if it comes at an extra cost)
- the car has electronic payment activated (and they will charge you when you return the car)
- they will allow you to pay afterwards (next 5 days after you used that road) at any Portuguese postal office (it is rare, but some do.
And, if you are renting your car in Spain to travel a bit around Portugal, you can also rent a Via-T device which works the same as the ViaVerde one. Just confirm with the car rental it will be valid in Portugal.