Lisbon isn't as expensive as most other international capitals, but it's not the extraordinary bargain it used to be. The coastal resort areas from Cascais and Estoril down to the Algarve can be expensive, though there are lower-priced hotels and restaurants catering mainly to the package-tour trade. If you head off the beaten track, you'll find substantially cheaper food and lodging.
Transportation is still cheap in Portugal when compared with the rest of Europe. Gas prices are controlled by the government, and train and bus travel are inexpensive. Highway tolls are steep but may be worth the cost if you want to bypass the small towns and villages. Flights within the country can be a good bargain if you use the low-cost airlines.
Museums that are part of the Directorate General for Cultural Heritage (DGPC) are free the first Sunday of the month. Lisbon and Porto sell cost-saving passes that cover city transport and entry to museums and other sights; their respective tourist offices can fill you in. You can often also save as much as 50% on accommodations if you visit Portugal out of season.
If you're undeterred by potentially wet weather, consider traveling November to March, when many hotels discount their rates by up to 20%. In Lisbon and Porto, check with the tourist office about discount cards offering travel deals on public transport, reduced or free entrance to certain museums, and discounts in some shops and restaurants.
Prices throughout are given for adults. Substantially reduced fees are almost always available for children, students, and senior citizens.
Banks never have every foreign currency on hand, and it may take as long as a week to order. If you're planning to exchange funds before leaving home, don't wait until the last minute.
ATMs and Banks
ATMs are ubiquitous. The Multibanco, or MB, system is state-of-the-art and reliable. The cards most frequently accepted are Visa, MasterCard, American Express, Eurocheque, Eurocard, Cirrus, and Electron. You need a four-digit PIN to use ATMs in Portugal.
Always be sure, when using an ATM machine, that nobody is looking over your shoulder. Similarly, if the machine appears tampered with, stay away. There is a scam throughout Europe whereupon a dummy cover is placed over the machine and/or a tiny camera notes your PIN number. There is usually a limit of €200 per withdrawal.
It's a good idea to inform your credit-card company before you travel, especially if you're going abroad and don't travel internationally very often. Otherwise, the credit-card company might put a hold on your card owing to unusual activity—not a good thing halfway through your trip.
Although it's usually cheaper (and safer) to use a credit card abroad for large purchases (so you can cancel payments or be reimbursed if there's a problem), note that some credit-card companies and the banks that issue them add substantial percentages to all foreign transactions, whether they're in a foreign currency or not. Check on these fees before leaving home, so there won't be any surprises when you get the bill.
Before you charge something, ask the merchant whether he or she plans to do a dynamic currency conversion (DCC). In such a transaction the credit-card processor (shop, restaurant, or hotel, not Visa or MasterCard) converts the currency and charges you in dollars. In most cases you'll pay the merchant a 3% fee for this service in addition to any credit-card-company and issuing-bank foreign-transaction surcharges.
Merchants who participate in dynamic currency conversion programs are supposed to ask whether you want to be charged in dollars or the local currency, but they don't always do so. And even if they do offer you a choice, they may well avoid mentioning the additional surcharges. The good news is that you do have a choice—always opt to pay in the local currency. And if this practice really gets your goat, you can avoid it entirely thanks to American Express; with its cards, DCC simply isn't an option.
Currency and Exchange
Portugal is one of the 28 European Union countries, and it's also one of the 19 eurozone countries to use a single currency—the euro (€). Coins are issued in denominations of 1, 2, 5, 10, 20, and 50 euro cents, as well as in denominations of €1 and €2. Notes are issued in denominations of €5, 10, 20, 50, 100, 200, and 500. At this writing, the exchange rate was US$1 to €0.89.
Even if a currency-exchange booth has a sign promising no commission, rest assured that there's some kind of huge, hidden fee. (Oh … that's right: the sign didn't say "no fee.") And as for rates, you're almost always better off getting foreign currency at an ATM or exchanging money at a bank.