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Driving Guide: UK To Portugal By Car

Last updated: October 2019* | 58 Comments

Every year, hundreds and sometimes thousands of people drive from the UK to Portugal and back again.

It’s obviously cheaper to fly, but there are a lot of benefits to driving to Portugal. You save money on car hire, you can bring a lot of your possessions over, and it’s also a good way to bring the dog to Portugal. These benefits are even more useful to expats or to anyone who’s planning to spend several months living in Portugal.

Unfortunately, there isn’t a direct ferry between the UK and Portugal. This means that there are two ways that you can get from the UK to Portugal by car.

Either:

Option #1: Go through France

Take the channel tunnel or a ferry to France. The ferries between France and the UK are usually considerably cheaper than those between Spain and the UK, however, you do need to factor in the cost of driving through France: petrol, tolls, and maybe an overnight or two in a hotel.

Click here to see information about driving through France

Option #2: Take a ferry to Spain

This way you get to avoid a day or two driving through France, but you do miss out on eating all those lovely baguettes and other French delicacies.

Although the ferries between the UK and France often only take a couple of hours, these ferries take between 20 and 30 hours. You can sleep for 8 of those, but you need to keep yourself entertained for the rest.

The UK-Spain ferries are a lot smaller than the UK-France ferries, and don’t have the child-friendly facilities that some of the larger boats have. If you have kids, you’ll need to bring a lot of movies to keep them entertained.

Click here to see information about taking the ferry to Spain

Driving from Ireland to Portugal? Some people go via the UK, in which case you have the two choices above, but you can also take a ferry directly from Ireland to France. You can view an up-to-date list of Ireland-France ferry routes on directferries.ie.

Driving through France

Taking the ferry/chunnel to France

There are two ways to get to France, either via the Dover-Calais channel tunnel or via a ferry.

Option #1: Channel Tunnel (Eurotunnel)

Taking just 35 minutes, the channel tunnel is quicker than getting a ferry. If you live near Dover it could be a good option, but otherwise a ferry is probably a better option: Calais is very far over on the Eastern side of France,  meaning a longer drive across the North of France than if you took a ferry.

Option #2: UK-France Ferry

There are numerous ferry routes between the UK and France, and the best one for you depends on a few factors like which UK ferry port is nearest to you, how long it takes, what time of day you arrive in France, and where in France you arrive.

DirectFerries.co.uk has a map of ferry routes between England and France, which will show you what options are available. It’s a great website for comparing ferry prices, as is aFerry.com. It’s worth using both Direct Ferries and aFerry when searching for ferries as one will sometimes have a cheaper price than the other.

Where you land in France  makes a difference to how much driving you have to do through France. The following is an approximation of the amount of time it takes to drive from each ferry port to San Sebastián in Northern Spain.

St Malo – 7 hr 30 min
Caen – 8 hr
Le Harve – 8 hr 50 min
Cherbourg – 9 hr
Dieppe – 9 hr 10 min
Roscoff – 9 hr 15 min
Calais – 10 hr 40
Dunkirk – 11 hr

Driving from France to Spain

Depending on which ferry you took, you will now have arrived somewhere in Northern France like Dunkirk, Dieppe, St. Malo, or Cherbourg. Your route now will take you down through France, towards Bordeaux and Biarritz before crossing into Spain near San Sebastián.

It’s possible to drive from St. Malo to Northern Spain in a day, but for most routes you will want at least one overnight in France.

Most people stop somewhere between Niort in the Poitou-Charentes region of France and Bordeaux in the Aquitaine region. It’s usually best to stop at one of the towns or villages off the motorway, rather than going into a big city like Bordeaux as this always seems to add on extra time. Hotels in cities are also less likely to have car parking, where as hotels near small towns often have space for parking.

Some South-Western French towns to consider include:

  • Niort
  • La Rochelle (off the route)
  • Cognac (slightly offer the route)
  • Bordeaux (involves going into a city)
  • Dax
  • Bayonne
  • Biarritz
  • Saint Jean-de-Luz

Next: see the section on driving from Northern Spain to Portugal.

Going straight to Spain

Taking the ferry to Spain

The ferry routes between the UK and Spain change frequently, as operators take up new routes and drop old ones. Directferries.co.uk always has an up-to-date list of the ferries that go from England to Spain, and they’re good for comparing prices as well. I also use aFerry.com for price comparison, and recommend using both sites to see which offers the better deal.

Which is the best route? There are a couple of things to consider like cost, journey time, and what time you will arrive in Spain/England.

If you’re driving from Portugal to England, you may want an overnight in the Spanish port city. Of all the different port cities in Spain, Bilbao tends to be the most recommended.

Driving from Northern Spain to Portugal

If you’re driving to Lisbon, or anywhere in the Algarve, Google Maps will try to get you to do as much as your route in Spain. If you’re driving to the Algarve, it’ll probably encourage you to enter at the Spanish-Portuguese border near Faro.

Now there are a lot of reasons to drive through Spain instead of Portugal, not least because you get to avoid the Portuguese tolls, but doing this you miss out on seeing so many great places in Portugal.

Guimarães, Porto, Coimbra, Ericeira, Sintra, and Lisbon – these are all places that should be on your itinerary.

The distance from Bilbao to Chaves on the Portuguese border is a little over 5 hours, or 4 and-a-half from Santander. From San Sebastián, it’s a little over 5 and-a-half hours. You could skip Northern Spain entirely and either spend the night in Chaves or head onto Guimarães.

If you want to stop in Northern Spain however, some recommended places to stop include:

  • Bilbao
  • Oviedo
  • Urederra park in Navarre
  • Picos de Europa

And, if you’re willing to go out of your way:

  • San Sebastian
  • Santiago de Compostella (and anywhere in Galicia)
  • La Rioja region

Otherwise, skip through to Portugal. Be sure to fill up your car in Spain first, though, as both petrol and diesel are typically cheaper there.

Driving through Portugal

The following are just a few places that you could consider stopping off in on your way through Portugal.

Lisbon: Portugal’s capital city, and a great destination to stop off at.

Guimarães

Guimarães is a small city and UNESCO World Heritage site, and one of the first places that you’ll come to in Northern Portugal. It is considered the birthplace of Portugal, and is home to several important architectural sites including Guimarães Castle and the Palace of the Dukes of Braganza (Paço dos Duques de Bragança).

Porto

Porto is Portugal’s second city, and the favourite of the two cities amongst the Portuguese. It’s easy to spend a couple of days here viewing the sites and visiting the various different Port houses. The nearby Douro Valley is incredibly beautiful, and also worth spending time in.

Aveiro

Aveiro is a small town situated between Porto and Coimbra. It’s often referred to as the Venice of Portugal, and its beautiful canals and colourful boats are definitely worth stopping to get a picture of.

Coimbra

Coimbra is a small city, and it’s possible to see all of the main sights in a day. It’s much smaller than either Lisbon or Porto, and also a lot less touristy.

Sintra

Sintra is just a short 30 minute drive from Lisbon, and most of the sites can be seen in a day. Most people stay in Lisbon, and then drive around Sintra for the day before coming back to Lisbon.

Lisbon

Portugal’s capital city, Lisbon, is a city that’s definitely worth spending at least one night in. There’s plenty to see and do here: from Castelo de São Jorge in the city centre, to attractions like the Mosteiro dos Jerónimos, Torre de Belém , and the Padrão dos Descobrimentos in Belém.

Then, it’s onto the Algarve or wherever your final destination is. 

Sat Nav, Google Maps, or a roadmap?

It’s definitely worth investing in a Sat Nav or downloading a Sat Nav app like Scout GPS for your smartphone. With Scout GPS, you pay for maps individually or you can download a bundle (e.g. European maps). You don’t need an internet connect to use this app on the road.

Now that roaming is more affordable, you could also use Google Maps on your phone or do things the old fashioned way and purchase a European road atlas.

Tips & rules for driving in Portugal

It’s a good idea to read up on the different rules for driving in Portugal, things that you should have in your car, and tips for staying safe and making the most of your time here. 

Have you driven to Portugal from the UK, Ireland, or anywhere else? Do you have any tips for roads to take or hotels to stay in? Let us, and Portugalist readers, know in the comments below. 

Updates: Some updates are as small as a spelling correction. If you spot a mistake or want to suggest a contribution, leave a comment below.

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58 comments on “Driving Guide: UK To Portugal By Car”

  1. Hi – I’m in central Portugal now but need to drive back to UK – I’m wondering if you know of any websites/groups to find people that might also need to go to UK and prefer to go by car and share costs as the ferry with the cabin is like £300 minimum in December! I’m traveling alone after a house sit went badly wrong. I wouldn’t mind taking a dog/cat as I have a quite big estate car. I thought this would be a good way to share costs and help someone out also. thanks 🙂

    • Hi Ange,

      I’ve had a few housesits go wrong, so I can feel your pain.

      I don’t think there are any specific groups for this, so you would probably need to post a notice in all of the different expat groups. The other thing you could do is register the trips on BlaBlaCar and you might pick up a passenger or two for some of the trip.

      There are websites where you can bid to transport things like Shiply, and it might be worth registering on one or two of them as well as mentioning it in your post. As for dogs and cats, I don’t if there are any websites or groups specifically about transporting them.

  2. Hi! I know you provide information for trips out of the UK to Portugal. But thought the trip "links up" at some point from our departure point Rotterdam. We plan to drive one of our cars from Rotterdam to Portimao first week of December as we are moving there. We want to avoid any mountains so as to avoid any possibility of snow. So does the route outlined via Bordeaux Bilbao down to Valladolid, Salamanca, Badajoz involve any mountains? And does anyone have any experience on driving in December down to Portimao. Just trying to find the most efficient way to get to Portimao. I have been searching including TripAdvisor but could not find any information such as road conditions and any other tips for the journey. We went to the local equivalent of AA but they could not assist with any route planning as where to stop off for the night or the best route to take. We do not want to be in any large towns on the way and we do need secured parking as we will be travelling with some of our personal stuff. We do not expect to drive more than 8-9 hours a day. Would be great to get advice/input from anyone who has actually driven to Portimao and the route they took and where they stopped off for the night and or to take a look around. We are flexible. We planned to take it easy and not get stressed about the trip. Thank you

    • Hi Sultan,

      I drove from the Algarve to Berlin in January/February once and went up the right-hand side of Spain, past Barcelona. I stopped near Girona and also Lyon. I remember there being a lot of snow once I reached Germany, but I don't think I saw it before that.

      Can't really remember the hotels, unfortunately, but the one near Girona might have been there Hotel Costabella. I don't remember it having secure underground parking, but it was a little outside the city centre (but walkable) so reasonably safe.

  3. I would like to bring my son over to our home in the Algarve to but he has been advised not to fly because he is suffering with lung problems caused by chronicle pneumonia. We were thinking about driving to northern Spain to catch the ferry to the UK and bring my son back with us. Is anyone able to advise or recommend the less stressful route to take bearing in mind my son is not in the best of health?

  4. Buenos días, por curiosidad he entrado en tu página para ver cómo desde Inglaterra venís en coche al Algarve. Os recomiendo si venís por España ( autovía de la plata), qué es gratuita, conocer Salamanca, Plasencia, Cáceres o Mérida.

  5. Info on flying if it helps… TAP fly Pets to Faro on a scheduled flight from Heathrow, however this involves 1 stop and a plane change in Lisbon. The charge for a 1 way carriage for a large Dog is 100 euro but you do have to provide your own flight suitable ‘crate’ for the hold. I am just waiting to hear back from them if 1 way means the booking from London to Faro or the stop in Lisbon makes it 2 and hence 200 euro.

  6. I’m just about to drive to castelo branco, from Calais for the second time. It took me about 22 hours, with 6-7 short coffee/toilet breaks.
    I’ve also taken the ferry to Santander, which was 30 hours, of the 2 I preferred driving, although the ferry worked out cheaper.

  7. In October I am takig a ferry from Portsmouth to Santander. I am planning to visit Santiago and drive doen to Porto, then stay a few days there, then drive back to the UK via France. I’ve not planned properly yet but the suggestions above seem great. I am travelling with 2 dogs and one more person. Any advice on taking pets? These are toy breed, very small, and one of them fits in a handbag. I will have all documents for the pets, passports, vaccines, etc, but just want to some advice on places to avoid with pets, where to sleep, any issues with driving with pets in france, spain and Portugal etc. I am planning to spend about 17 days on route using a Peugeot 3008 diesel.

    • Hi Miguel,

      I’d recommend booking a pet-friendly cabin (if you want one) quite far in advance as these sell out quickly on the UK to Spain ferry routes.

      Finding pet-friendly hotels isn’t very difficult, but I will try and do a list of them between now and then. I think in France there is a law where hotels, B&Bs etc all have to accept pets so it’s even easier there.

      Driving with pets usually takes a lot longer than normal driving as you have to stop off quite a bit to walk them and let them go to the toilet. It’s a good idea to factor that into your plans.

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