Days before driving into Portugal on a three week whirlwind tour that took us from Salamanca, Spain to Porto in the north down the coast to the Algarve region in the south, Micki and I were busy reading up on everything we could about the country.
We thought we knew everything we needed before entering Portugal. However, as we frantically searched around for a post office to pay some tolls we knew nothing about on the last day of our trip, we knew we obviously missed something important along the way. It seems, like countless others before us, we had misunderstood how the toll roads worked in Portugal…
One of the biggest complaints from tourists entering Portugal these days revolves around Portugal’s new toll roads. Toll roads have existed in Portugal for years, but up until late 2012, they were all manned and drivers always had the option of paying the tolls as they went.
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In the past years, electronic toll roads have sprung up everywhere in Portugal. Unlike the old tolls, simply paying the toll as you go isn’t an option. These new unmanned tolls are completely electronic and if you don’t pay up, the fines can add up quickly.
As of right now, there are two main types of toll collection for roads in Portugal. Via Verde lanes on the traditional toll roads and Electronic Toll roads.
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The older, traditional toll roads, chiefly encountered around the bigger centers has what is called a Via Verde (Green Lane). These toll lanes are well marked with large green slanted V signs. The ones we drove through were always on the left however that might not be the case for all of them.
Currently, any place you see a Via Verde lane, you can pay in the other lanes as you go (using bills, coins, credit cards or prepaid cards) for each leg you travel.
In order for you to use a Via Verde lane, you must buy or temporarily rent an electronic transponder that is prepaid and gets debited every time you drive through the Via Verde toll lane.
Do not use this lane unless you have a Via Verde Transponder.
The new toll road system is known simply as Electronic Tolls. These toll roads aren’t as well marked and many people won’t even realize they are driving on them until they pass underneath a huge array of cameras.
The sign for the Electronic Tolls is a dark car with three circular beams expanding toward it. Practically every new major highway in Portugal is now an electronic toll road and though you can still bypass nearly all of them, it’s getting harder to get around the country without driving on one.
These toll roads do not have any toll booths and can’t be paid for as you go.
Problems with Electronic Tolls
As soon as these new electronic toll roads were introduced, they quickly became the bane of the tourist industry in Portugal and various political groups are trying to to get them removed. We met a lot of people from around the country that blame the new tolls for the steady decline of people driving into Portugal. With not a lot of information available, I can understand a dislike of the tolls.
If you’re are feeling reluctant to drive into Portugal or are flying in and want to rent a vehicle, know this: It’s not really that huge of a cost or hassle, assuming you understand the system.
Our final tally of Electronic Tolls after three weeks of driving from one end of the country to the other in a rental car only came to 30 Euro. We paid nearly that much in one stretch of Spain so the cost is not that bad considering the quality of the roads you get to drive on and the speed in which you can get around the country. The biggest problem is that there are a few things you need to know before going there.
There are two great resources on the web in regards to the tolls. I won’t rewrite everything since they provide lots of useful information and I’ll list them both at the end of this post. The problem with them is that neither list the following notes. These can save you a headache and after all that deliciously sweet Port wine, it would be a shame to leave the country on a sour note.
Note! For some reason, the main Portugal Tolls site (http://www.portugaltolls.com/en) seems to be intermittently oneline and offline. I’m not sure if it’s a permanent thing or server problems, however it was the primary source of legitimate government run info regarding Portugal Tolls on the internet. I’m leaving the links up with hope that the site comes back online for everyone.
What You Need To Know About Portugal’s Electronic Toll Roads:
Electronic Toll roads and traditional Via Verde lanes are separate systems.
Via Verde devices will work on Electronic Toll Roads however the EASYToll, TOLLCard and TOLLService will not work in Via Verde lanes. I repeat, EASYToll, TOLLCard and TOLLService will not work in Via Verde lanes. They’re completely independent systems. This is the one that slipped us up since we thought we could use our EASYTolls prepaid receipt in the Via Verde lanes. Turns out you can’t.
The easiest option for foreign visitors driving into the country from Spain is the EASYToll option. If you’re driving in via highway A-25 (E-80) from Salamanca, just keep driving as you cross the border into Portugal. About five kilometers in (we thought we must have missed it) and well past the little border town there are huge signs and directions to the EASYToll dispenser (it looks a little like a vending machine) just off the highway (close to a gas station). After pulling into the station we turned around and drove up to the EASYToll booth. We dropped in our credit card and the ticket instantly popped out with our license plate already on the ticket. It was incredibly easy to do, it lasts for 30 days and can be cancelled via their site as you leave the country.
If you’re only driving in Portugal for the weekend or for three days, then the €20 unlimited use TOLLService is a decent deal. With it you can drive on any of the Electronic Toll highways (excluding the Via Verde toll roads) for the set price. You can also buy the card with cash at numerous locations around the country.
The TOLLCard is a great way to purchase credits using cash for the Electronic Toll roads without having to use a credit card. The only real drawbacks to the TOLLCard is that you might leave the country with unused credit (which would be a waste of money) or you might need to top it up as you go. You also need to text (sms) the card number and the license plate with a cellphone to the Portuguese number on the toll card. This requires a cellphone that works in Portugal and perhaps the additional cost of a text to Portugal.
If you haven’t prepaid on the Electronic Toll highways and don’t have a Via Verde transponder, you might get stopped and either get fined or have to instantly pay for a toll ticket. The highways are aggressively monitored and we’ve already heard lots of stories (like this account from our friends at Wagoner’s Abroad) of these drive by ticketers (not police officers but they can issue tickets). They’re especially common on Highway A-22 in the southern Algarve region and Highway A-25 in the north coming in from Salamanca. Both highways are the main entrances/exits to Spain and where the greatest amount of visitors enter the country.
Via Verde devices can be bought or rented at any CTT Post Office in the country as well as all Via Verdes stores and many service areas. The service centers are usually contained within a toll route and allow you to rent the device with cash. There’s a weekly rental cost (currently 6 Euro the first week and 1.5 Euro each week after plus a refundable deposit). The rental is only valid for 90 days unless recharged before that time.
Via Verde devices can also be used to pay at certain gas stations, on Atlantic Ferries and certain car parks throughout Portugal.
Prepayment isn’t the only way you can pay for driving on an Electronic Tolls highway. If you haven’t bought a ticket you can pay at any CTT post office in the country after the fact. The problem is that sometimes it takes a few days for the bill to show up (it will be linked to the car’s license plate) and also that nearly every post office in Portugal is closed on Sundays. This means that if you’re driving out of the country on a Sunday and haven’t prepaid, you’re still not going to be able to pay. You also only have five business days to make the payment before it turns into a fine. There’s also a small administrative fee for each leg traveled if you pay this way. Supposedly it’s only allowed for Portuguese registered cars, however we’ve seen numerous posts saying otherwise. Probably not the best choice and I only include it here as a last resort if you’ve mistakenly driven one of the roads and didn’t pre-purchase a ticket. They now also offer an online purchase system via the CTT website.
Fines are currently 10 times the amount of the toll if you don’t pay up. Since every Electronic Toll highway is outfitted with dozens of cameras, the chance of them not noticing you is about zero. That being said, we’ve read more than a few accounts boldly stating that if you have a license plate from another country they can’t make you pay. This is completely word of mouth and could change any day so I personally wouldn’t risk it. If you rented a vehicle in Portugal, you’re flat out of luck. The ticket will just get sent to the rental office and they will charge your credit card accordingly.
Toll Roads displaying the Via Verde sign still have manned booths where you can pay per leg, but a lot of people we talked to have said that Portugal plans on going cashless everywhere eventually. How this system will work is still up for debate, but they will probably follow the electronic toll example. It’s also still unclear when, if ever, the two toll systems will totally merge. At this point, it’s being handled by two different divisions in the government so it might never happen.
Many rental car companies in Portugal have Via Verde transponders pre-installed in their cars and many even have deals in place with the Electronic Toll routes. Make sure you ask the company you’re renting with how their systems work with both toll systems in Portugal. You definitely don’t want to be paying double if you’re already being charged by the rental company!
As far as we could find, no rental car companies outside of Portugal have any deals with Portugal Toll payments. This means that if you don’t pay your toll you could be charged the fine via the credit card linked with your car rental. This is very common with Spain rentals and speed violations while in Spain however I’ve never heard of a toll charged for outside the country. This could change any time so you have been warned.