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If you’re planning to rent a car in the Azores, it’s actually quite simple and without a doubt one of the best ways to get around these islands.
Now, keep in mind that I’ve only been to São Miguel in the Azores thus far (and am plotting my return to visit even more islands as I type…) so my advice is mostly applicable to São Miguel. But since most travelers will visit São Miguel, and maybe add on another island or two, I think most of these tips for driving in the Azores will be universally useful.
Top Things to Know When Renting a Car in the Azores
People drive on the right in the Azores
Take a deep breath out, my fellow Americans: you’ll be delighted to know that in the Azores, they drive on the right side of the road. This can be one of the toughest things to get used to when driving in a foreign country.
Brits, Irish, Australians, Maltese, and anyone else used to driving on the left side of the road, be honest with yourself whether you think you can handle the difference.
Personally, I’ve always been too scared to rent a car anywhere where I’m required to drive on the opposite side of the road. That said, it definitely is doable (and I’ve heard it’s much easier to make that switch in an automatic car, as you don’t have to contend with the gearbox being switched, too!). I’ve had American friends drive just fine in Ireland and Irish friends drive just fine in America, and those are two countries whose rules of the road are quite intimidating to me!
Driving in the Azores is pretty relaxed because there’s very little traffic and people generally don’t drive like maniacs. As someone who’s lived and driven in California, NYC, and the Balkans, this is something I appreciate greatly. So if you’re not familiar with driving on the right, but you’re up to the challenge, the Azores is a pretty friendly place to get used to the switch-up.
Book early if you want to rent an automatic car in the Azores!
Like many places in Europe, manual cars dominate the roads, and the Azores is no exception. Add that to the fact that its an isolated island 1,000 kilometers off the coast of Portugal, and you’re dealing with a pretty finite pool of rental cars available.
If you’ve never learned to drive a manual car, like I haven’t, you’ll want to book your car way in advance. I was traveling in the off-season and I booked about two months ahead, as soon as I knew I wanted to make my trip. I’d recommend reserving your car rental in the Azores as close as possible to booking your tickets. If you are planning a last minute trip to the Azores and you can’t drive a manual car, I’d check to ensure that automatics are available.
Keep in mind that automatic cars usually cost 2-3 times the price of their manual counterparts. For reference, I paid $68 for a 3 day car rental of their smallest, cheapest automatic car. I booked using RentalCars.com as they had cheaper options than the other two sites I used to look, Kayak and AutoEurope. The company I ended up using was Way2Azores and I had no complaints – they were quite easy to deal with.
Be sure to have plenty of credit available on your credit card!
It may just be the company that I used, Way2Azores, but I had to pay a pretty sizable deposit – I believe it was 1,200 euros! I was lucky that I have a high credit limit (god bless American credit cards and their insanely generous/insanely tempting credit limits) and was able to put it on my card quite easily, but I know that people from other countries don’t quite have the same luxury.
I once was renting a car in Bologna, and the couple in front of me weren’t able to rent the car they wanted because they were from a Nordic country where everyone uses debit cards because credit culture isn’t so much of a thing there (probably because of, y’know, living wages). They were there for their honeymoon and had picked out a pretty baller car, but because of the situation with the lack of credit card, they got knocked down to a crappy little Ford Fiesta – much to the couple’s (very loud) dismay.
Every rental car company’s policy is different, especially with respect to deposits. I’ve paid everywhere from 200 euros to 2,000 as a deposit on a rental car! So, if credit limits are a concern for you, I’d reach out to the Azores car rental company you’re looking at before you book, just to be sure you won’t have any unpleasant surprises at the station.
Get insurance, unless your credit card will cover it
Driving in the Azores is not particularly hard but it’s not super easy either – the roads in Ponta Delgada are quite narrow, making dinged mirrors a definite possibility, and the weather is extremely mercurial.
I highly recommend selecting the insurance that your Azores car rental company offers, unless you have a credit card that covers your insurance if you deny the rental company’s. I used my Citi Prestige card and was able to waive the insurance, as I was covered under their policy. Having that option usually saves me $50-100 per road trip, so it’s definitely a good reason to keep a higher-tier credit card, even with fees!
Don’t push it with the weather when driving in the Azores
Be extremely cautious when dealing with inclement weather in the Azores, especially if you’re not a hyper-confident driver. Fog, especially, is a menace in these parts due to the island’s Atlantic position.
We made it about halfway to Miradouro do Pico da Barrosa to see the beautiful Lagoa do Fogo… only to hit what was basically a brick wall of fog halfway up. We turned back as the visibility was nearly zero and we were happy we did, as we drove around in much clearer coastal areas and could still see the giant wall of fog sitting like a hat on top of the mountain – no thanks!
Heavy rain is also a definite possibility in the Azores and can create hazardous conditions, especially on unpaved roads like you’ll find on the way to Lagoa do Congro. When in doubt, take it easy and pull over for a bit and wait it out. The weather changes rapidly for good and bad, meaning that squalls and storms often pass rather quickly.
Not every Azores car rental company has a stand at the airport
When I arrived in Ponta Delgada, I went looking for my rental car company’s kiosk at the front. I knew I was booked with Way2Azores, but I didn’t see them listed.
Eventually, I found a company called Wayzor and just assumed they had changed their name (I TOOK AN EARLY MORNING FLIGHT, OKAY?)… waited in line, all to realize that I was in the wrong line and that there had been a delegate waiting for me with my name on a sign in the departure area all along. Oops.
So, that’s to say, if you don’t see your company at the stands near the exit of the airport, someone is probably waiting for you with documents in hand and will help you out!
All told, it took about 30 minutes to sign the papers and be taken to our car.
You may be asked for an international driver’s permit when renting a car in the Azores
Technically speaking, Portugal does require that you have an international driver’s permit unless you have a license from another EU country… which is something I didn’t research until anxiety kicked in the night before my trip. Oops again. I typically rent cars in the Balkans where I never need an international driver’s permit.
Then I figured out that according to the U.S. State Department, Americans are permitted to use their driver’s license in Portugal for up to six months. Whew. I was never asked for an international driver’s permit, but it’s definitely possible depending on your country of origin, so do the research on whether or not this is required.
However, Americans and EU member state citizens are covered without an IDP. If you’re American and it’s easy for you to get an IDP from your local AAA, I’d recommend doing it anyway as it’s just $20 and will cover your butt in case you have someone at the rental agency who is unfamiliar with the State Department regulations, and it’ll be useful in other countries (my friend was asked for hers when we rented a car in Spain).
Be sure to fill up with the right kind of gas!
This is more for Americans and Canadians to be aware of, since Europeans likely already know this, but European cars use diesel a lot more commonly than North American cars do. In fact, I’d venture to say that about 80% of the cars I’ve rented in countries around the world use diesel fuel, not standard gasoline.
When renting a car in the Azores, be sure to inquire about what type of gas it uses and be extra cautious when filling up as mixing up diesel and gasoline could lead to a very expensive mistake!
Signage and Google Maps coverage is generally great
I had zero problems with using Google Maps during my time in Azores (as opposed to that time in Azerbaijan when Google Maps literally showed NOTHING at all) and found it really easy to navigate.
And because São Miguel is a small island, relatively speaking, it’s really quite easy to go basically anywhere just using the road signs. Miradouros and popular touristic sights are often marked well and I often found myself disregarding Google Maps voice directions and just using the road signage.
Oh, and side note, if you speak a bit of Portuguese, you’ll find the Google Maps voice hilarious because it has zero concept of the language and says everything delightfully incorrectly.
Having an unlocked phone with a local SIM is great, but you can live without it
Since I was traveling in Portugal for about two weeks before I headed to the Azores, I had them put a local SIM in my unlocked smartphone so that I could use Google Maps and access the internet for questions on the go easily during my time in Portugal.
I went with a 10 euro Vodafone package that was basically just data, and I’m happy to report that my data package worked perfectly in the Azores, although there were a few times I didn’t have coverage (especially as I got away from Ponta Delgada and towards the Nordeste). If you aren’t in mainland Portugal first and your first stop in Portuguese territory is the Azores, you can pick up a local SIM at the Vodafone at the Ponta Delgada airport. MEO also operates there, but it’s not available at the airport. You would have to find a shop in Ponta Delgada, Ribeira Grande, or Lagoa.
As I said above, the signage was pretty good, so I think I would have felt pretty comfortable navigating without data most of the time with the exception of Ponta Delgada and finding my hotel. However, if you don’t have an unlocked smartphone and don’t want to pay exorbitant roaming rates, I recommend downloading the Google Maps offline (here’s how) and switching your phone to airplane mode.
There are a @(*$load of roundabouts in the Azores
One thing I’ve never gotten used to about driving in Europe is the sheer number of roundabouts there are – and how many lanes some of them have! I’m fine with a roundabout with one or two lanes, but plop me in a roundabout with three or even four lanes and I immediately want to cry.
Just be aware of them, stay in your lane, drive slowly, yield whenever necessary, and remember that there may be some pedestrians in the mix to because roundabouts are scary and terrifying like the boss level of a video game.
There are no toll roads, and gas and parking are pretty affordable!
I didn’t encounter a single toll road during my entire time in São Miguel, which was fantastic as I’ve found they can really add up in mainland Portugal. I’m not sure about other islands, but I highly doubt they have toll roads either.
Gas is pretty much your standard European price, which is nice as sometimes there is a big upcharge when driving on islands (cough Iceland I’ll never forgive you cough). I believe we paid about €1.10 per liter for diesel, which is about $5 USD per gallon. But we didn’t use much gasoline, even though we drove all around the island (like… literally circumnavigated it). I think we ended up paying €40 for 3 days of tons of driving – not bad!
Parking is free outside of Ponta Delgada, and in Ponta Delgada the prices aren’t too bad. Street parking is about €0.60 cents per hour, for up to 4 hours, and stops at 7 PM on weekdays, so you don’t have to worry about parking overnight.
But parking in Ponta Delgada is confusing and at times frustrating
Unlike your standard parking meter, the ones in Ponta Delgada look kind of like old-school computers and can be a bit confusing to use especially if you don’t understand Portuguese.
Basically, you have to start by entering your license plate number. Then hit the checkmark to enter. Then you’ll select how long you want to stay (up to 4 hours) and enter the coins and press the green checkmark again. Be sure to put the ticket back on the dashboard of your car!
It’s a little different than most systems, but we figured it out pretty easily and managed to survive our 3 days in the Azores without a parking ticket (not a fate I avoid easily in other parts of the world…)
My beef with the parking meter was the least of my troubles driving in Ponta Delgada, though. The streets are extremely narrow and if you’re not a confident parallel parker you will struggle. There is a conveniently located parking lot across from Casa Ataneu, which is a good place to park if you’re having trouble finding a spot in Ponta Delgada or just hate parallel parking like I do. However, I’m not sure if it’s open 24/7, so be sure to check the operating hours and that it makes sense with your schedule before parking there.
Alternately, you could just opt for a hotel with free parking!