Car Rental Options in Lisbon and the Algarve
Now that the holidays are over, people seem to be making their summer travel plans, and based on the messages I’ve received, Portugal is high on everyone’s 2019 list. My post “Should You Rent a Car in Portugal” is by far my most popular post, and if you read the comments, you’ll note that many people ask specific questions related to car rentals and their itineraries.
In the almost three years since that piece came out, my recommendation remains to use public transportation in the major cities of Lisbon and Porto and to rent a car to travel around the Algarve. At the time, I recommended renting cars at the airport for convenience of pickup and dropoff, and because, at the time, there were fewer in-town rental counters. With the explosive growth in tourism in the past five years, though, some things have changed. And one of the biggest changes is the availability of car rental options in both Lisbon and the Algarve.
At this point, I don’t recommend renting at the Lisbon airport unless you’re staying outside the city and will need the car right away. While rates vary by season and deals come and go all the time, the airport tends to be a more expensive rental location because of special fees. There are two other places in Lisbon where car rental offices are highly concentrated. One is the Oriente rail station, about a ten-minute drive from the airport. The advantages of renting there are that you can do so right after arriving in the city by train or bus, Oriente is a bus and metro hub (though not as centrally located as other areas), and if you’re nervous about driving in the city, the rental offices are located by the ramp to the Vasco da Gama Bridge and the highway to the east. It’s an easy drive there to Évora and other lovely and undertouristed spots in the center of the country.
While the area around Oriente station features new, family-friendly, and relatively inexpensive hotels, as well as a pretty mall and the world-famous Oceanário (aquarium), central location and charm are not its outstanding features. If you choose to stay in the central part of town, there are a number of rental options within a few blocks of the Marques de Pombal metro station and the one or two metro stations that surround it (Rato, Avenida, Parque, Picoas, Saldanha, Campo Pequeno). Renting a car from any of these will require you to drive in Lisbon, though the part of Lisbon you’ll drive through to get to a highway out of town is flat with wider streets. Besides being in areas where most visitors stay, these rental car offices are closer to highways leading to Sintra, the coastal towns north of Lisbon, and the 25th of April Bridge, which is the best way to get to the Algarve.
If you don’t want to make stops along the way, the quickest way to the Algarve is by plane or rail, and it’s easy to rent a car once you get there. For one or two people, public transportation is probably cheaper, though offers vary. If you fly to Faro, the rental car counter is at the airport. If you take the train, it’s better to get off in Albufeira, where choices of rental companies abound. However, if you stay elsewhere and want to avoid the Albufeira party scene altogether, you do have options. Popular towns with rental car offices include, from west to east, Lagos, Portimão, Vilamoura, Quinta do Lago, Olhão, and Tavira. Vilamoura and Quinta do Lago are known for their luxury resorts, and I expect the automobile offerings to match that. East of Faro, around Olhão and Tavira, you will find specialty rentals such as campers, because many people use the towns as a jumping-off point for camping in the eastern Algarve, the Alentejo region, and neighboring regions of Spain.
You may have noticed that I don’t recommend specific rental companies. That’s because prices change and the quality of experience varies. However, North Americans will find many familiar international chains such as Avis and Enterprise along with European outfits such as Europcar and Sixt. Check around for the best package, keeping in mind any special services you may want such as a transponder for the toll roads (including the enhanced Via-T that works in Spain and Portugal if you’ll cross borders) and one-way dropoff.
Drive carefully — and watch out for pedestrians!
Great advice as always, Lyn!
And it will be easier for people to ask questions and read responses rather than have to wade through 100 or so comments on the other post.
Please keep in mind it is often expensive and difficult to rent smaller automatic rental cars. Some companies offer a hybrid automatic/standard combination.
Good point, Jeff! Standard transmission is far more common throughout Europe, though from what I’ve heard, that’s changing. And renting a car is more economical for larger groups in any case.
Hi Lyn, we are planning a one day trip from Portugal to sintra, would you recommend oía to rent a car a tour or use public transportation?
Thank you so much!
If you’re only going for the day, and only to Sintra, I suggest using public transportation. The commuter train runs at frequent intervals from the conveniently located Rossio station in the center of Lisbon. Once you’re in Sintra, there are shuttle buses to take you up to the Pena Palace, which would not be fun for you to drive in any case because of the steep, winding road.
Hi Lyn thanks for all the info. We are traveling September/October for my sons wedding. After reading all this I am convinced we need to rent a car when we go to the Algarve area. Thinking we will rent in Lisbon, mainly because we will have 5 and 9 year old flying from the west coast of the USA and they will be tired and maybe cranky! We will be coming back to Lisbon for a few days before the wedding which is north of the city by about an hour. I will be the only one driving since I said we needed a stick!!! But I don’t mind. Are there any good places in the Algarve to take the girls too.
Congratulations on the wedding, Carol! As far as places in the Algarve for you and your daughters, it depends on what you like to do. Lagos is a good spot for a lot of activities, such as beaches, food, and shopping. Faro doesn’t have much by way of beaches, but the boat tour of the Ria Formosa, a wetland and nature preserve, is a lot of fun and again, there’s a lot of shopping along with historical attractions and an art school. Sagres, which is at the corner of the west and south coast of the Atlantic Ocean, is also in the middle of a national park. Some of the hotels in the area between Lagos and Faro are resort hotels with children’s programs, so you can check into those online and see if they still have the children’s programs in late September and early October since a lot of the staff has returned to school by that time.
great information! we are planning to travel to Lisbon and Algarve with 2 teenagers, in the 2nd week of october’22. We will be staying in Salema. Would you recommend getting a car rental in Lisbon and drive to Salema ( and Algarve area) or rent a car in Salema/Algarve area ? Are there any scenic spots along the way to Algarve from Lisbon ? Also, a brief look at rental cars shows most cars are smaller than what we are used to here in the US and the prices vary across companies.
Thanks for writing, Rahul! It sounds like you have a fun trip planned! Yes, there are many scenic spots from Lisbon to the Algarve, as well as in the Algarve itself. If you take the train to Albufeira and rent a car from there, you can cut down your driving and still tour the inland villages in the Algarve. If you’re only planning to take the highway directly to the southern coast, that would be my advice. However, if you rent a car in Lisbon, that will give you the opportunity to take back roads along the western coast, visiting Santarem, Troia, Sines, and the national park. I think it depends mostly on your schedule and how much time you have to spend in getting to Salema. (And how tired you’ll be after a long trip.) And yes, the cars are much smaller than in the US. Once you’ve driven in some of the towns in Portugal with their narrow, winding streets, you’ll appreciate the smaller car, though.