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By Paul Brucker
Portugal was a hot destination for frugal travelers in the 1960s and 1970s. Today, it’s still one of the least expensive places to travel in Europe. About the size of Maine and with 586 miles of coastline, Portugal brims with charming old cities and natural beauty. And now is a terrific time to take a trip to Portugal (or other European destinations) because of the value of a euro vs. that of a dollar.
Portugal is one of 19 countries that use the euro as its currency. Euro coins, introduced in January 2002, have experienced a sharp decline in value since 2010. In 2008, a euro was worth $1.60 in American money. On June 4, 2015, the euro was worth $1.12. That means your dollars go a lot further in Europe these days and you enjoy greater buying power.
I traveled through Portugal during the last week of May 2015, starting at Lisbon and heading out to Sintra, Berlenga Island, Coimbra and ending in Porto. It was a wonderful adventure. While there, I gathered some money tips for traveling in Portugal.
For cash, you can get euros via your home bank account from the ATMs (called Multibanco machines) located throughout the cities and even in small towns. You’ll find them in places such as airports, banks and grocery stores. Note: The maximum you can withdraw with one transaction is 200 euros. So if you wanted, say, 350 euros, you’d have to make two transactions to reach that point. (Keep in mind that Multibanco machines only allow you to withdraw a maximum of 400 euros a day.)
How much does a Multibanco charge? That was a mystery to me until I checked my bank statement online. I saw that Multibanco assessed me an international processing fee of $6.72 per transaction, but my bank waived its own $2.50 ATM fee. To avoid the suspense I felt, ask your financial institution how much it charges for international ATM withdrawals – before leaving home. (Note: Visa charges an International Service Assessment fee of 1% of the transaction amount for transactions made with an Alliant Visa debit card. This fee is not eligible for an Alliant ATM rebate.) Plus, in Portugal, you’ll have to pay Multibanco’s own $6.72 international processing fee.)
What about credit cards? I found that credit cards are accepted in most places. Unlike other countries in Europe, you typically don’t need a PIN or EMV in Portugal to make purchases or pay for your hotel and restaurant meals. However, many shops will not accept a card unless your purchase is more than 10 euros and some shops deal only in cash. I also read that many automated gas stations do require a card with the EMV chip.
Book your car ahead of your travel or you risk being stranded without a rental. If you prefer to drive a car with manual transmission, then you’re in luck. You can secure a small car, such as a Peugeot, for around $200 a week. But if you’re like me and need an automatic transmission to feel comfortable driving, then you’ll likely pay around $400 a week for a car, such as a Renault. I picked up a car in downtown Lisbon. The rental agent upgraded me to a new Beamer. I thought, wow, what luck, but the upgrade turned out to be a mixed blessing. The car handled the road well, but was wider than most cars in the country. This made it harder to navigate the narrow roads in Portugal’s medieval cities.
When renting a car, be sure to include “an easy pass” toll scanner. The cost for me was 1.3 euros a day. You’ll be billed later for the cost of the tolls, but with the scanner, you can breeze past toll booths. You’ll also avoid being zapped by the big fines you’ll get when you pass through toll booths that don’t have a cash line. However, those booths do have cameras to record your car and its license plate – and the rental car company will pass the fine along to you.
When driving in Portugal, you’ll be buying gas in liters. If you do the math, you’ll find that the current price is equivalent to $5.58 a gallon. And note that you can’t fully rely on the GPS in the rental cars. Mine gave me several wrong direction doozies.
Guidebooks say that tipping isn’t expected at restaurants, bars and taxis unless you’re impressed with the service you receive. But, if you’re like me and feel uncomfortable unless you tip, then 10% is par for the course for good service in Portugal. At hotels, a tip to the doorman of one euro per bag is standard.
Portugal is famous for its fresh seafood, including sardines. But the national dish is salted codfish (called bacalhau). Ironically, codfish is not native to Portuguese waters and is primarily imported from Norway, Iceland and Newfoundland. Reputedly, here are also at least 365 ways that Portuguese cook the codfish – enough for a different recipe each day of the year. Not a fish eater, I passed on this dish.
Another experience native to Portugal is to hear performances of fado, a musical genre that features love songs with heartbreaking lyrics and mournful melodies. A fado group usually consists of a formidable, evocative singer, plus a classical guitarist, a 12-string Portuguese guitarist and a viola player. There are two basic styles of Portugal fado – one from Lisbon, the other from Coimbra. I was fortunate to hear impressive performances in both places.