Tips for driving in the Algarve

My wife Diane and I made our first trip to the Algarve in early March 2001. We accumulated experiences other first time travelers might find useful.

I had recently retired after 40 years in the workforce and a trip to Europe was our reward. Cost was of some concern as well as good accommodations, excellent food, especially that originating from the sea, beautiful scenery and roadways that were easily traveled in a rented vehicle.

The travel literature led us to the southern region of Portugal called the Algarve.

Finding a travel agent:
With brochures in hand and eager anticipation, my wife and I went to visit travel agencies. We approached the first travel agent with our request for a two-week trip to the Portimao area of the Algarve.

The package was to include accommodations in an apartment complex and a rental vehicle. After only a few minutes on her computer terminal, the disinterested agent informed us that our timings were not available. If we wanted to visit the Algarve we would have to take a three-week package.

Disappointed, we headed for home. Then I remembered that CARP has a travel department well advertised the CARPNews FiftyPlus magazine and in the Travel section of My wife and I are both CARP members, so we called.

Over the phone we met Jennifer Guay, a very pleasant and helpful CARP travel agent who in less than 24 hours had not only arranged our trip to the Algarve according to the same requirements given to the first agency, but provided us with valuable first hand information about traveling in that country.

The lesson learned is not to take no for an answer. Not only are there a lot of easily accessible agencies, but the availability of packages change from moment to moment. So explore all resources.

Getting to your destination:
With the exception of a minor delay at the Pearson International airport, the trip to Faro went off without a hitch. We arrived in Portugal only a half-hour later than scheduled. This worked to our advantage because we could avoid the very hyper and hazardous Faro morning traffic.

This also helped to ease some of our anxiety about driving in a foreign country for the first time after a seven-hour flight. Feeling the numbing symptoms of minor sleep deprivation, we made our way to the car rental service desk. 

Be prepared, English is not the second language even if the British have been traveling to this spot for centuries.  Patience, sign language, brochures, and maps are very useful aids in finding your way around the Algarve.

It’s relatively easy to get to any city or town close to the major highway. However, if your hotel is off the beaten track, you may encounter difficulty.  The byways are not as well marked as we’re accustomed to.

We recommend you encourage your travel agent to obtain exact directions to your accommodation before you leave home. Our destination was in the west end of the Portimao area.

Lo and behold we made it without incident in our Fiat Pinto (read small box with wheels, engine and a standard gearshift). Joking aside, his car well suited our needs and had plenty of legroom for the average height.

Once in Portimao, we had no idea where to find our accommodation and neither did the locals. Luckily, it was the only apartment complex with the name up on the roof so it could be seen from a distance.

Getting around the Algarve:
Different sources provide differing opinions on the quality of driving in the Algarve ranging from “it’s easy to get around by car” to “be very cautious of erratic and emotional drivers”.

The latter opinion must have originated with someone who has not traveled Ontario’s 401, because we found the former opinion to be true. Be forewarned however; experience with the 401 is no guarantee of success on Portuguese roadways.

With the exception of speed, most Portuguese drivers adhere to the strict letter of the law.   They actually STOP to give the right of way at yield signs. What a concept and this is done in the absence of a visible police force. The only times we saw a police officer or a cruiser was at a police station and at the scene of a minor collision.

Obeying traffic laws is necessary to avoid chaos at the traffic circles. These are directional nightmares in every community in the Algarve if you don’t know exactly where you are going. The circles bring order every so often to the winding sometimes helter skelter narrow roads. The roads would appear to be the product of inebriated sailors making their way home many centuries ago rather than good city planning.

Of course navigating the cliffs and hills from the sea likely dictated some of the traffic designs. Most circles will have five streets converging. Speeds range anywhere from donkey pace to jet propulsion, at least that’s the way it seemed to us.

Driving on the roads:
The posted limit on the primary four-lane highway was 120 kilometres. We traveled at 140 and were at the low end of the speed scale. High-end vehicles such as Mercedes and Porches sizzled past us as if we were standing still, yet at no time did we feel unsafe.

There is little need for posted limits on secondary roads because natural speed governors such as steep cliffs and winding roads combine with apparently mad human design. All this negates any need for speed and cautionary signs. You are not likely to travel fast on winding roads that come within inches of a cliff with little shoulder space for safety.

An interesting but workable custom on the road is the faster vehicle’s right to pass. If you see a car approaching from the rear with its left signal on, you are required to pull over to the right as far as you can. We saw some spectacular passes being made when the slower vehicle didn’t pull over.

Finding road maps, gas:
The best road maps are found in local travel newspapers and travel bureaus. Most official maps include Spain with Portugal relegated to a minor overview of the main roads.

The secondary roads themselves carry few signs. So make sure you know not only your destination, but also the names of all of the villages along the way. This is necessary for navigating through the traffic circles in small villages, which may or may not have the name of the next village posted at the circle exits.

Large communities are reasonably well marked, albeit with small signs. But in very small villages, you may find yourself in circular limbo as you attempt to find your way out. You will be too busy watching out for other vehicles, including those pulled by donkeys or mules, to attempt navigation by stars or the sun. Neither will the residents of small villages be able to discuss your needs in English. So again, pictures, sign language and a rudimentary map are essential travel tools.

Some of the printed material advises to keep your vehicle filled with gas because it is not always available in the Algarve. That was not our experience. We traveled all over the Algarve’s secondary roads and never had a sense that we would not be able to purchase fuel from the many modern service stations that accept major credit and ATM cards.

Driving permits, rules:
If you intend on spending at least one day in Spain and driving there, you may need an International Driving Permit. If you stay in the Algarve you won’t need one. Permits are available from the Canadian Automobile Association.

If you are only going to Spain for a day (which is easily done), we suggest you buy a tour package and travel in the comfort of an air-conditioned bus. Not only will you arrive refreshed, the tour guide will take you to places of interest in the shortest time. If you plan to drive, you must purchase added vehicle insurance at approximately $60 Canadian.

Getting cash:
We were advised to take sufficient Canadian money with us to get through the first day. The idea is to change your money at the Algarve airport to obtain the best rate. From there on, use ATM machines.

These are readily available and can be found in nooks and crannies, even in small villages. However, if you are one of many who have converted PIN numbers to letters in family or pet names, and so have lost familiarity with the numerical equivalent, you will run into difficulty. The PIN pads in the Algarve do not have letters.

Don’t expect to obtain help from a bank or other providers of ATMs because they don’t understand the concept of the alphanumerically system. I thought that a telephone number pad would help, but they don’t have letters either.

We were not the only Canadians standing in line at a local bank with the same unanswerable question. “How can we access our accounts?” So to save a long distance call home or to your bank, learn the numerical value of your PIN before you leave. 

If you use travellers’ cheques, expect to pay a sometimes stiff service charge with each cheque cashed.

The bottom line-if you’re looking for large scenic clean beaches, beautiful countryside, modern facilities and good food at a reasonable price, check out the Algarve.

Gene and Diane Black are members of CARP, Canada’s Association for the 50Plus. To comment on this article, or other travel destinations, visit the ‘Travel in Europe’ Discussion Forum.