Portugal: a high value vacation for the budget traveler

Portugal once was a great naval power and later one of the poorest countries in Europe. Joining the European Union has brought the country great prosperity, but it still is one of the least expensive countries in Europe for a vacation. Its mountainous countryside has helped to isolate it from its neighbor to the east, Spain, and this has given rise to a unique culture with fantastic architecture and numerous sites and activities for travelers.


Getting in, out, and about Portugal


A US traveler only needs a passport that will remain valid for at least three months beyond the planned duration of your stay. As a party to the Schengen Agreement, Portugal allows visa-free entry for up to 90 days within any country in the Schengen area for any period within six months. This also allows you to travel across borders into any other Schengen country with only your passport.


If you enter Portugal through another European country, you may have to register your presence with the local officials within 72 hours of your entry. This law is spotty and not enforced for everyone. If your travel plans include travel to Portugal from another European country, consult with a local Portuguese consulate or the US State Department travel website for additional information: http://travel.state.gov/content/passports/english/country/Portugal.html.


For LGBT travelers, Portugal has a progressive attitude and has recently legalized same-sex marriage. However, outside of the larger cities, you may encounter intolerance. The Portuguese tend to be extremely welcoming to travelers, and outside of the typical instances of petty theft and pickpocketing, Portugal has a low instance of crime. Since austerity measures were introduced in 2012, there are instances of public protests. These tend to be non-violent, but travelers should steer clear just in case. Terrorist activity is uncommon, but the open borders provided by the Schengen Agreement make it possible for terrorists to get in easily. Always remain aware of your surroundings and exercise a modicum of common sense and your vacation should remain safe.


In the event of an emergency, Portugal uses the 112 phone code as their equivalent to the US 911. The health care inside of urban areas is generally excellent, although this may not be the case in more rural locations. Stay up to date on your routine vaccinations. Although there are no required vaccinations for entry into Portugal, some travelers find it expedient to get additional vaccinations against Hepatitis A and B and rabies. In the case of the latter, dogs and other pets are rarely carriers, and the danger of infection tends to come more from bats. If you plan on engaging in adventure activities such as cave exploration, this might be an appropriate vaccination. Always consult with your local physician about your travel plans to determine if any vaccinations are appropriate for you.

Highlights of a Portuguese vacation

  • Tee up. Golfing is one of the more popular activities in Portugal, and its golf courses are world-renowned. It’s not uncommon to find courses offered by pro players at various resorts. Monte Rei in northern Portugal is considered one of the world’s best golfing destinations. Other first-rate courses include Oitavos Dunes, Praia d’el Rey, and in southern Portugal, Quinta do Lago.  
  • Wander the streets of Lisbon. Not only does Portugal’s capital city boast beautiful churches and other buildings, but a hopping nightlife, and a wealth of history. One must see is the Castelo de São Jorge, a Moorish castle that overlooks the city.  
  • Enjoy the sun, sand, and surf in the Algarve region. Portugal has numerous fine beaches, but the ones at the southern tip are some of the best in the world. You’ll find numerous coves and caves that are accessible only through the water.  
  • Tour the Mosteiro de Santa Maria d’Alcobaça. The largest Cistercian abbey in the world, this 12th Century site features gorgeous Gothic architecture and information about the site’s history. It has been listed as a UNESCO World Heritage site since 1989.  
  • Sample the vinho verde. This dry, white (green) wine goes great with Portugal’s many fine seafood dishes, and it’s unique to the country. Port wine is another Portuguese specialty that works great as a dessert wine. True port wine comes from the town of Porto, which features a wide range of activities, including a vibrant night life, and the arts district, the Mercado Ferreira Borges.  
  • White water raft through the Douro River. This is a favorite of adventure travelers. The Douro valley is also a great place to tour the Portuguese wineries or hike through the rugged and gorgeous countryside.  
  • Revel in the Paredes de Coura festival in northern Portugal. This annual summer rock festival is rated by Rolling Stone magazine as one of the top European festivals to catch live music, usually of the alternative and indie rock variety.  
  • Discover the mysteries of the Knights Templar. The 12th Century castle in the town of Tomar was the headquarters of this mysterious order of warrior monks.  
  • Listen to the wonderful fado music. This mournful music is unique to Portuguese culture and you can find authentic performances throughout the country.  
  • Visit the village of Sintra. This tiny town just north of Lisbon is the location of the Palacio Nacional da Pena, once the home of the Portuguese royal family. The poet Lord Byron wrote of Sintra that it was one of the most delightful towns in all of Europe, and this holds true today. Another fabulous palace and gardens that is a must-see is the Quinta da Regaleira and get your camera ready for the breathtaking view of Cabo da Roca, the westernmost point of the European mainland.


Portugal features many more sites and activities in addition to these. As one of the more inexpensive destinations in Europe, its value as a vacation spot far exceeds its price.

The traveler’s tongue


The official language in Portugal is Portuguese. While many words and phrases are similar to Spanish, and Portuguese speakers can generally understand Spanish, it is considered an insult to speak Spanish to the Portuguese if you are not a native Spanish speaker. You’re better off speaking English. That said, the Portuguese are not as persnickety about their language as you’ll find in some European countries. Any attempt to speak basic Portuguese will put you in good stead with the locals, who enjoy meeting and engaging with foreign travelers on their own terms. If you are familiar with Portuguese as spoken in Brazil, bear in mind that the accent in Portugal is quite different. You may be understood quite readily, but understanding native Portuguese speakers in Portugal may pose some issues.


English is widely spoken in tourist areas, being a requirement for employment in the hotel and hospitality industries. Keep in mind, however, that English speaking Portuguese might only have a basic understanding of that language. Fluency in English is less common.


Money matters in Portugal


Budget travelers will find much to like about Portugal’s expenses. Hostel accommodations are widely available and range from $10-$20 USD a night. If you are on a budget, using taxis to get around can get expensive fast. Most cities are compact enough that walking around them is not a problem, or you can get a public transportation pass for relatively cheap (often less for a full day pass than a single taxi ride would cost). Travel outside the cities is best done through buses. The rail system is limited, and hitchhiking, while legal and safe, is not a viable option due to low traffic in some of the more out of the way places. Sit down meals tend to start at $20, although if you buy your own groceries and prepare your own meals, you can get by on around $40 a week.


For travelers with a larger budget, you can expect to get by on around €100 to €300 a day depending on your choices. Decent three and four star hotels can range from $50 USD a night to $150 a night in Lisbon. Outside of the major cities, costs tend to be lower.


Tipping is not necessary in Portugal for restaurant services, although for exceptionally good service rounding your bill up to the nearest full euro is highly appreciated. Even at higher end restaurants, a €2 to €3 tip would be considered extravagant. Tips for taxi drivers or hotel staff are not common.


Haggling is not commonly practiced, but it is something you can try at smaller shops, particularly if you buy more than one item. Carry small bills with you because shop owners tend not to be able to break larger bills, or will claim this to be the case in order to get more out of you. Purchases with credit cards are typically done without you losing sight of your credit card, reducing instances of fraud. You may be asked to enter a PIN. Whenever you travel to a foreign country, it is a good idea to contact your credit card company in advance. They can issue you a PIN if you don’t already have one.

About the Author

C.W. Garay is an alumnus from the University of North Texas, where he received both his BA in psychology and an MA in English, specializing in creative writing, fiction. When not traveling he resides in Denton, TX, rated as the number one small town in which to live in the US according to Business Insider’s 2013 survey. In addition to writing articles on traveling, he also writes fiction under a pseudonym. He can be reached via email at cwgaray@gmail.com.