Portugal Stories and Tips

Ask Not For Whom the Road Tolls

If you have been to Portugal before and have merrily driven up and down the nation’s toll roads, happily throwing your change at the toll collectors or sticking your credit card in the slot every time you’re asked to, then be aware – things have changed. In fact they’ve changed a lot.

Last time I drove in Portugal I wasn’t paying any attention to such things. I was stuck in the north of the country when the European airline industry ground to a halt thanks to the unpronounceable Icelandic volcano. That was only 3 years ago but at that time, tolls were easy. When the machines asked for money, you gave it to them. Simple!

I was already more than a little nervous about turning up at Porto airport to pick up a hire car since I’d never paid much attention to the route to my destination. Normally I’m in the back of the taxi being driven and terrifying speed by a local taxi driver. This time I knew I’d be handicapped by several aspects of the journey. 1. I didn’t know where I was going. 2. I was on the wrong side of the road and 3. It was dark. I was also tired – and when I’m tired it’s the wrong time for someone with patchy English to try to explain something stupidly complicated to me in a rental car office.

"So do you know about the tolls?" asked the rental car lady. I confidently pulled out a pocket full of Euro loose change. "I’m ready to go" said I, with gusto. Then she proceeded to baffle me with a garbled instruction that I needed to rent a small machine in the car which would pay the tolls for me. Did I really need it? That wasn’t so clear. I asked if I could just continue sticking my money in the boxes and skip the toll-buddy machine. She and her colleague were not 100% sure but they thought I couldn’t get to Santo Tirso and Porto without having this machine. Or rather I could but "You will have to go to any post office and pay the fees two days after you use the roads".

I shook my head with disbelief. How the heck was I supposed to do that? Two days after my last usage of the roads I’d be home in the UK. Could I go sooner (not that I thought that was feasible either)? No, I couldn’t. Apparently this amazing technology that can instantly charge your account the moment you pass through a booth can’t tell the post office what you owe them in less than 48 hours.

Faced with confusion and baffled by her incomprehensible explanations, I was battered into submission. Yes, I would accept to pay €1.80 per day to the lovely people at Avis to hire the toll-buddy-box and yes, they would then randomly charge me the costs a few weeks later. If I gave them my email address they could email me an invoice (I did, they didn’t) so I could claim back my expenses. To date – two weeks later, I still have no invoice and the money has not yet disappeared from my credit card.

The box I refer to is called a Via Verde (green road) device and it sits on the inside of your car at the top of the windscreen. It sends a signal to the overhead sensors on the so-called ‘Electronic Toll’ roads. You may not even realise that you’re being charged at some places but sometimes you’ll have to drive through a toll booth and with the Via Verde you can use the special fast lanes – marked with the green logo. It’s actually really easy once you’ve eventually given in to the pressure from the Avis lady. Instead of slowing down, waiting for the cars in front, scrabbling around for change, rolling down the windows, making small talk with the person who collects the cash, and then driving off again, you’ll just sail straight through and avoid all the fuss.

All things considered, the system for rental cars works pretty well. However, what’s more complex is how to make the payments if you take your own car into Portugal. I haven’t done this, I cannot imagine that I ever would, but there are a number of options available to you. I recommend to just google ‘Portugal road tolls’ and have a look at the information on the visitportugal.com website. I could tell you what it says but my info might go out of date so I think you’re safer and wiser to check with the experts.

What happens if you merrily glide along the nations toll roads and don’t pay for the privilege and don’t then take advantage of their gracious offer to part you from your money at the post office 2 to 7 days later? You will get a fine and a whole load of administrative fees on top. I have no idea whether you can be forced to pay when you are back in your own country but I really think you’d be a bit crazy to take the risk. You might get away with it the first time and then return to Portugal many years later and find yourself receiving free accommodation courtesy of the Police or a ‘correctional facility’.

My advice is to read up in advance, choose the option that suits you, and make sure you know what you’re doing. I meanwhile will continue to wait in anticipation to find out just how much Avis charge to my credit card. I hope it’s not too much.

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