Renting a car and driving in Portugal/Spain
August 24, 2016 12:57 PM   Subscribe

I am considering renting a car for good portion of an upcoming two-week trip to Portugal and possibly Spain. I have never rented a car or driven outside North America. I have some questions about this.

My wife and I are considering renting a car for our trip to Portugal and Spain in late October/early November. I've rented cars and driven pretty extensively in the US and Canada (my wife less so, although she can drive), but have never driven or rented a car in Europe or anywhere outside those two countries. I am a bit nervous about this, but would like to do it because we have some financial flexibility here and a car seems like it would open up possibilities for exploring the countryside and out-of-the-way places.

We have some itineraries in mind; generally they start and end in Lisbon and involve renting the car for about 8-9 days. I may do another question about that at some point but for now I have some questions specifically around renting a car and driving...

-TRANSMISSION: We need an automatic transmission. I know this is not the norm in Europe, and everything I've read advises booking "well in advance" for an automatic. I would be renting in late October. How far in advance is "well in advance?" Is it already too late?

-What are the odds that I book an automatic and we show up at the rental place and they don't have one for us? Or that we get stuck with some gigantic boat of a car (I prefer smaller cars, and I understand the roads there are often narrow)? What can I do to ensure that this does not happen?

-Any tips for saving money renting an automatic? I've perused some quotes on Kayak; they seem a little high but not totally outrageous. Like I said, we have some financial flexibility, but we wouldn't mind saving some money.

Everything else kind of hinges on the above...if we can't get an automatic, we're not renting a car...

-INSURANCE: Do I need to notify my US car insurance of my plans and/or obtain any documentation from them?

-Normally, I decline the extra insurance on rental cars and don't give it another thought. However, in this instance, I am somewhat inclined to load the car up with insurance, just for peace of mind. Is this silly? Is there any way (credit cards, AAA) that I can get this rental insured to the hilt without resorting to the exorbitant fees charged by rental-car companies?

-DRIVING: I have read that drivers in Portugal and Spain are often very aggressive. How aggressive is "very aggressive?" Would their driving style shock someone who is used to, say, NYC and Boston?

-Are there any traffic norms, rules, habits or situations that I should be aware of which I may not be familiar with?

-COST: As I said, I've perused some quotes on Kayak, so I have some idea of the basic cost for a rental. But what of other costs, such as gas and tolls? I know gas is expensive, and the major highways are often (always?) tolled. What should we be budgeting for that?

Obviously I'm kind of overthinking this, but thanks in advance for any and all help!
posted by breakin' the law to Travel & Transportation (21 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
A Toyota Yaris hybrid might be a good choice (is an automatic, actually CVT.) I don't think the US practice of credit card coverage for insurance works overseas. I don't think you will find other drivers aggressive, but there is a style or discipline to driving on narrow urban roads, eg in historic towns where there is not space for two cars and so you play a game of who goes first.

Good luck
posted by A189Nut at 1:09 PM on August 24, 2016

Best answer: You need to request an automatic ahead of time and they might make fun of you, but I don't see any reason they wouldn't be able to have one available for you if you reserve it now. The biggest problem with renting automatics in Europe is that they are usually much more expensive.

The car is likely to be small. It's more likely that they will give you a smaller car than you request, not a larger one.

You do not need to tell your car insurance company. And you probably also don't need to purchase the additional insurance offered by the rental agency - almost all major credit cards offer rental car coverage as part of your basic card agreement (at no cost to you). Call yours and ask ahead of time to verify.

I can't speak to Portugal but we drove in Spain (Madrid area and Andalucia) for 9 days and saw zero evidence of the stereotyped aggressiveness. I have never driven anywhere with more polite and accommodating motorists. I remember very clearly coming home to the US and driving four minutes to the grocery store and having people pull out in front of me three times in the those few minutes - that sort of thing never happened once the entire time we were in Spain.

Spanish law says you need an International Drivers Permit to drive there. Nobody asked to see this even once, but it's good to have just in case. You can get it at AAA.

It is really a lot less scary driving in foreign countries than you think. The historic cores of cities can be dicey because the roads are small and the layout is old, but the highways are just like highways everywhere. You'll be fine.
posted by something something at 1:09 PM on August 24, 2016 [4 favorites]

I've driven in Portugal. It's not all that bad, but people in general are fond of driving quite fast on very narrow roads.

Also, if you are on a highway-style road with more than one lane, the left lane is EXCLUSIVELY for people driving black Mercs or Beamers going 100KPH plus. Stay in the right lane. You'll know what I mean when you get there.

I rented an automatic Fiat a while back. It was through a service where you had to call from the airport and then they would drive the car over. It worked out all right. One thing I noticed was that the car, despite being an automatic, seemed to have no brake with your foot off the gas, so you just roll backwards immediately. Not sure if that's commonplace or just a fluke.

I drove around the Douro river valley and found it to be quite lovely and pleasant. If you'd like more information let me know. I'll try to dig up the rental company I used, but it's been a while.
posted by selfnoise at 1:15 PM on August 24, 2016 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Oh, there it is. I used "Economy Car Hire" which is now known as "Zest" apparently. This was in 2010.
posted by selfnoise at 1:19 PM on August 24, 2016

Best answer: I live in NYC and own a car here. I have taken many vacations to Southern Europe where I have rented a car. Most recently in May of this year in Spain. I can drive a manual, but my wife cannot, so on our most recent trip I rented a stick shift. I enjoy driving around Rural Spain a lot, and think it adds a lot to the trip.

1)Transmission - I don't think this will be a problem if you rent from a touristic area. Automatics are much much more common than even five years ago. I was even surprised that the price premium was quite small - like one grade notch. Its not like 20 years ago when the only automatic was a Benz. You will not get stuck with a gigantic car. The only big cars are basically minivans, and they won't have an interest in forcing one of those on you - and even those big cars aren't big by US standards.

2) Insurance works the same way as the US when renting a car, you do not need to notify them. That said I have found European operators to be much more aggressive about things that in the US would be seen as normal wear and tear, so I would encourage you to rent the car using a card that has some form of rental card protection. Make sure that rental protection kicks in as first loss and doesn't require you to report the accident to your insurance. If you have this I would feel free to decline the extra insurance. Contra to A189 I know for a fact AMEX and Chase rental card protection work in Europe.

3) Driving. Drivers are not aggressive/unpredicatable the way US drivers are. They will drive fast, and they will expect you to follow the rules - i.e. - signal, stay in the left lane, etc. The large toll roads and primary highways in southern Europe are generally in impeccable shape and easy to drive on. Smaller roads in the mountains can be half a step above a paved goat path, but you would need to be intentionally taking those to find them.

I generally have a preference for avoiding Cities, and an absolute refusal to drive in old parts of large towns. Usually you can find lots on the outskirts or at your hotel to park it and not think about it.

3) Costs - Fuel is expensive, Tolls are expensive. The degree to which your Autoroutes will be tolled is really a function of where you are going so I cant answer that. I'm also not sure if a Chip card w/o a pin will work to pay the tolls in Spain or Portugal. It worked in Italy in June. But make sure you have cash.
posted by JPD at 1:22 PM on August 24, 2016 [1 favorite]

Sorry, one more thing. I would avoid driving IN Lisbon if possible. It's not that scary, it's just a huge pain in the ass. If you are interested in Sintra (and you should be) and you are staying in Lisbon for a few days, take the train there as it's very easy.
posted by selfnoise at 1:24 PM on August 24, 2016

Response by poster: Don't want to threadsit, but...

JPD: Appreciate the info! I happen to have Amex and will see if I can arrange insurance through them. Also - in case anyone else reads this - per the Lonely Planet Portugal guide, you can get a toll transponder from the rental company. Unconfirmed, but hopefully this is the case.

selfnoise: I certainly have no intention of driving in Lisbon itself. Current plan is to go to Lisbon for 3-4 days first, then rent a car on the way out.
posted by breakin' the law at 1:29 PM on August 24, 2016

I've driven in Spain, not Portugal.

Also, if you are on a highway-style road with more than one lane, the left lane is EXCLUSIVELY for people driving black Mercs or Beamers going 100KPH plus. Stay in the right lane. You'll know what I mean when you get there.

I know this comment was directed to Portugal, but to be clear I believe it does not apply to Spain. At least not all the time / everywhere. I found it very easy to pass and otherwise drive in the left lane without getting tailgated by Mercedes / beamers.

I don't think drivers are particularly aggressive in Spain, but I do think the driving experience differs significantly between rural / highway areas and urban areas, more than you're probably used to. I mean, driving in NYC and Boston is tough, but at least the rules still apply, you know? Whereas in old, dense European cities it's more like "we all know this road is too damn small for this car, but we're just going to have to make the best of it so here goes!" and then jump the curb onto the sidewalk or whatever. So be ready for that. Generally try to avoid driving in cities, if you can. If you're going to Barcelona, drive directly to the hotel / parking garage and don't touch your car again until you're ready to drive right back out. Same advice for other major cities, actually, but Barcelona is especially bad.
posted by Joey Buttafoucault at 1:33 PM on August 24, 2016

Oh, and I know your current plan is to drop off and pick up in the same country - you should stick to that. If your plans change, be aware that there is something like a $1000 extra charge for dropping off in a different country than where you picked up.
posted by Joey Buttafoucault at 1:34 PM on August 24, 2016 [1 favorite]

Yeah, that's exactly what I did. I spent some time in Lisbon, then picked up a car at the airport and drove directly north out of the city.
posted by selfnoise at 1:35 PM on August 24, 2016

The degree to which your Autoroutes will be tolled is really a function of where you are going so I cant answer that. I'm also not sure if a Chip card w/o a pin will work to pay the tolls in Spain or Portugal.

You generally don't have to worry about tolls in Portugal. Just zip through on the Via Verde line which most rental cars are equipped with - you settle up with the rental car company.

Source: American here who visits/drives in Portugal every few months.
posted by vacapinta at 1:36 PM on August 24, 2016

I drove out of Barcelona and then across Spain many years ago. While the traffic was aggressive getting out of the city, it will be familiar to those who have driven in NYC or Boston. Less abiding by lane markers and more roundabouts, but I found it to be very manageable. We rented a manual transmission.

The countryside was beautiful, and the highways were no problem whatsoever. 100kph is about 60, and pretending that every 10 kph is 5 mph will be fine. People will go anywhere from 100 to 170 (although maybe they've gotten more aggressive about enforcing the speed limit since I've been there).
posted by Phredward at 1:39 PM on August 24, 2016

(disclaimer, I'm from Britain so can't comment from a US perspective)

I've driven in (Northern) Spain and it was basically absolutely fine - the roads were better than I expected, a little narrow at times but really well maintained (much better than similar rural roads in Britain or France, in fact), really well signposted and generally really easy to drive on. Things got a bit more fraught around cities, as I'd expected, but really I didn't have much trouble. I remember the biggest peculiarity was traffic lights that were speed-triggered - i.e., if you enter a village too quickly, there's a set of lights that will literally turn red to stop you - but driving sensibly I had few problems.

Counterpoint, however: I've never driven in Portugal, but getting a taxi from Lisbon airport to a hotel in Cascais was one of the less pleasant travel experiences of my life. I didn't necessarily fear for my life, but I was definitely glad to not be the one driving. On the other other hand, friends have done the same journey in a hire car and say it's fine so it's possible we just got a bad day/driver.
posted by parm at 1:56 PM on August 24, 2016

Best answer: I haven't driven in Spain, but I've driven in Italy, France, the UK, and Iceland. Sardinian drivers could be rather unpredictable, but everywhere else has been fine.

Since you have an Amex card, I'd encourage you to consider signing up for their Premium Car Rental Coverage. It doesn't cover liability or uninsured/underinsured motorist coverage, but every car I have rented in Europe has included that coverage as a legal requirement. It's a lot cheaper than the rental companies' protection plans, because it's billed once per rental (up to 42 days), not daily, and it provides primary coverage, so if the rental car is damaged or stolen, you won't have to involve your own insurer. It might not be what you want, but it's worth a look.

Gas is more expensive, but unless you drive a small car in the US, your rental is likely to have better fuel economy. As a rule of thumb for budgeting, I figure that my fuel costs in western Europe will be twice what they are in the US.

Finally, if you have a recent iOS or Android phone, you can download the HERE We Go app (formerly just HERE), originally produced by Nokia; create a free online account; and then download free offline maps of Portugal and Spain. Even with data turned off, the app can use your phone's GPS to provide real, turn-by-turn driving directions. I used it all the time in offline mode in Northern Ireland, England, and France, and found it to be quite helpful. And it's obviously easier than bringing your own GPS (for which you'd have to download maps) or renting one at the extortionate rates that rental companies charge.
posted by brianogilvie at 2:42 PM on August 24, 2016 [3 favorites]

brian is right about needing a supplemental plan with AMEX beyond what is stapled to your card for primary coverage. But the chase program that comes with some chase cards is primary coverage. Or at least comes with my Chase BA card.
posted by JPD at 3:07 PM on August 24, 2016 [1 favorite]

In addition to what folks have said above, the only thing I would add is to read up on how roundabouts work with regards to right of way (and right of way in general). That's the only major difference I've really experienced between driving in the U.S. and driving in Europe. (Disclaimer: I've only ever driven in France and Italy, but road rules tend to be similar all over Europe.)

Also bring a detailed map with you. The rental place may not have one. Sometimes roads are not marked with the road number, but rather with the town/direction it leads to. You'll get a crash course in Portuguese geography.
posted by Liesl at 3:56 PM on August 24, 2016

lived and drove in spain for 8 years, no one's driving ever came close to the aggro mania of nyc or boston, unless they were a drunk tourist. the only thing it took me a little while to get used to were roundabouts.
posted by poffin boffin at 4:50 PM on August 24, 2016

Best answer: I recently rented an automatic in Portugal (picked up in Lisbon and drove to Porto and back). Some tips:

1) Try getting quotes on non-US sites for the rental companies. I ended up booking through the Avis UK site and got a much lower rate than the one on the US site for an automatic transmission.

2) Read the rental contract carefully and don't be afraid to ask questions and ask for changes to be made. We got in later than expected and I rushed through signing things. Even though I was looking for it, I missed the section where I confirmed I wanted to be charged in USD instead of euros (terrible exchange rate = extra profits) and I still don't quite understand the extra coverages that ended up getting added. As a result my rental ended up being about 25% more than my original quote.

3) Driving in Portugal was not the nightmare I was expecting based on anecdotes I had read beforehand. Other drivers mostly followed the rules of the road and driving on the toll highways was a great experience.

4) If you opt for electronic tolling, don't try to go through the cash lanes as they are unmanned and apparently don't read the toll transponder. We had a dicey experience trying to convince an angry voice that we shouldn't be charged cash for the max (lost ticket) rate. Scary!
posted by roomwithaview at 5:10 PM on August 24, 2016

Are there any traffic norms, rules, habits or situations that I should be aware of which I may not be familiar with?

Don't turn right on red.
posted by chainsofreedom at 6:03 PM on August 24, 2016 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Just got back from driving around Portugal for a week and it was lovely, highly recommended! One more thing that has not been covered -- pay close attention when the rental agency tells you what gas to put in your car and again when you are at the gas station. Leaded gas and diesel are much more common there than in the US and you do NOT want to put leaded gas in your rental car, unless you want to sit for an hour on the side of the road of rural Portugal in 90 degree heat waiting for the tow truck. Not that I speak from experience or anything.
posted by EmilyFlew at 6:45 AM on August 25, 2016 [1 favorite]

My only issue with driving in Spain, Portugal and Italy has been the remarkably short slip roads on and off motorways. There is very little time to get up to speed or merge into traffic compared to those in the UK and Ireland. Likewise, there can be little time to react when large vehicles are about to merge onto the motorway in front of you.
posted by knapah at 5:20 PM on August 27, 2016

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