Lisbon Stories and Tips

Underground, overground, Public Transport.

The machine for loading credit on your card Photo, Lisbon, Portugal

Before going to Lisbon for our recent holiday, I had a half plan to not bother too much with public transport. I go to the city often and have always found the local taxis to be great value so I had in mind that we might just jump in a cab every time we needed to get anywhere. After a couple of dodgy drivers on our first evening – one who drove like a lunatic, the other who invented the longest possible path between two points – I decided I'd had enough and we would try to use the Metro and trams as much as possible. Our hotel – Hotel DAH – was located between two Metro stations, Olaias and Alameda. Alameda is a junction station, one where the green and red lines cross, so it proved to be particularly useful.

On our first morning in the city we set off down the hill to Alameda station. I had thought before we went that I'd used the Lisbon Metro before but once I actually got into the station I realised that I had Lisbon muddled up with Madrid and if I had ever used it, it was a very long time ago. I hadn't done my homework about how the system worked so I asked the man in the ticket office for four tickets to Oriente station, the station closest to the city's Oceanario aquarium.

The ticket man waved a green card at me and asked if we had them. I replied we didn't and asked what they were. He didn't actually answer me but happily sold me four green cards each loaded with one journey's worth of cash. We were charged 50 c for the card and €1.40 for each journey. We took the cards, waved them over the contactless 'validators' (that's what the Metro website calls them) and the gates opened to allow us through. Whilst we were riding to the station, I got out my guide book and we worked out what was going on.

The green card is called the Viva Viagem card and is designed for occasional or tourist use. There are season tickets for locals which represent better value but they are unlikely to be of much use or interest to the average tourist.

We bought ours from the ticket seller but soon realised that we could have got them directly from the machine in the station. We also soon learned that we could add more credit onto the cards using these same machines. Not all of the Metro stations have ticket offices but the charging machines should be present in them all. However, we didn't see any ticket machines at the tram or bus stops which we used so I would recommend to load up more credit when you are getting low, just in case you find yourself out of credit when you want to take a tram and can't find a credit loading machine.

On arriving at our first destination, Oriente Station, we decided to go and investigate the machines and load some more credit. The machines offer all the information in English if you click the Union Flag symbol on the touch screen. Americans, Australians et al will just have to accept that England and Portugal have ancient treaties and alliances that date back to before the times when those young countries existed. Hence, we get the UK flag ahead of any others as a symbol of the English language.

Touch the screen and confirm whether you already have a card to load or whether you need to buy the card. We confirmed we had cards and entered the first one into the machine. Next the screen asks what you want to load onto the card – either just enough money for one journey, or 5 euros or 10 euros. If you add 5 euros the system gives you an extra 15c worth of credit or if you load 10 euros, it gives an extra 75c. Once you've chosen what to add, the screen asks if you want to pay by cash or card and if you're paying cash, there's a slot to feed in bank notes or a slot to feed in coins.

I believe it's also possible to load some special deals such as the one day travelcard for €6 which is worth doing if you'll take 5 or more journeys in one day. However, I couldn't work out how to do this so we stuck to the simple system of adding credits. Whilst you get a slightly better deal if you add more credit, I would not advise to get too carried away the first time you load credit, just in case you find that you really don't use the system as much as you expected.

If you buy your journeys from the machines, each trip will cost just €1.25. I suspect we were charged more when we bought our first tickets because we used the services of a real live human being. Differential pricing for buying from real people versus machines is not unusual in many European countries.

Once you have credit on your Viva Viagem cards, you can use them on the city's Metro, bus services, and trams. I don't think they work on the ferries but you may need to check that. Of particular use to tourists is the fact that they work on the city's historic old trams such as the famous number 28 which winds up through the steep streets in the centre of town, heading up to the Castle. Do not mistake the yellow trams which are included for one of the much more expensive red trams which are special tourist trams. When you get onto a bus or a tram, you just need to validate your ticket by holding the pass against the sensor. It's not necessary to do this again when you leave the vehicle.

We were in Lisbon for five nights and four days and spent one day outside the city with a driver and vehicle so we used our cards for three days. We took the Metro to and from the Parque dos Nacoes to see the aquarium on our first day, then went to the old part of the city and back again on our third day, before using a mix of Metro, trams and buses to visit Belem on our final day. In total we each spent €11.90 on our cards and my husband and I each had less than 50c left when we finished. My sister and her partner had maybe one and a half euros credit left at the end. This is why I suggest not to get too excited an overload your card as you may not finish all the credit.

The card is valid for up to one year and can be reloaded as often as you like. I was impressed that it cost so little – just 50c – as I also have a similar card for Amsterdam and the Dutch railways which costs €7.50 just for the card and demands a minimum credit of something like €20 whilst the Lisbon card won't allow you to put more than €20 credit onto it.

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