We just got back from our Europe 2016 trip – Portugal and Malta exactly one week ago! It will take me time to go through the photos, edit them, and then write the trip reports so bare with me 🙂 But I know many of you have been desperately waiting (just kidding) for the latest of my travel adventure so let me start with an intro of Portugal and then followed by Malta. After our last successful trial of just bringing one camera for a short weekend trip, we just brought one camera and two lens (the Canon 24-70 f/2.8 and the wide angle 16-35 f/4); my shoulder felt so much better so can walk longer distance lol! So first of all, why Portugal? I have heard for many years that Portugal is the cheapest and lesser known than the rest of Western Europe (I totally agreed after the trip). So before it gets crowded and more expensive like others, we decided it was time for Portugal.
The downside is because Portugal is not as much visited as other Western European countries, lesser information/resource online is available beyond its major cities. Also, transportation is often not designed for tourists thus even well known sights might not be as convenient to get to as you would expected. If you have been following my blog, you know that I planned down to the very detail like exactly which bus number and where to catch the bus, the frequency of the bus, etc. In this trip, Jason asked me many times where to catch the bus, my answers were I have no idea! We had to get there and ask around LOL! There’s no detailed information on the web period! Do not let it scare you though, we do not speak Portuguese and almost everyone we had asked a question to spoke decent English to give clear instruction 🙂
Our annual summer trip to Europe mostly 2 weeks so my first step was to determine how to allocate each day to where. At first, I was planning a 2 weeks trip around Portugal covering almost the main places of the entire country from the south – Algarve known for beaches and caves to the northern wine region of Porto. However, due to transportation challenge (continue reading to find out why), I decided to drop the southern coastal towns. After allocating the days, we have around 6 days left which we can visit another small European country to check off the list, I’ll explain on another post on why Malta.
Since we are flying into Portugal and then to Malta (Malta being a small country made up of 3 islands, limited airlines fly there), it’s outrageously expensive to do a routing like that under one booking. As you frequent travelers know that many airlines price a one way almost the same as a round trip, fortunately SATA (now Azore) Airlines is not one of them! I was lucky enough to get a $50 discount off any flight during the Super Bowl promotion that Vayama was running for the first x number of customers. The one way nonstop from Boston to Lisbon ended up to be $314.90 per person. The flight from Porto to Malta was $215 with Vueling via Barcelona. The headache was how to get home from Malta. I did a lot of combinations and found the cheapest by booking an Air Malta flight from Malta to Paris CDG for $92 and then a separate booking from CDG to Boston via Iceland with Iceland Air for $381.
Here is how I divide up the days: 3 nights in Lisbon, 3 nights in Sintra (if you never heard of Sintra, go google it, you’ll see why I choose 3 nights there), 4 nights in Porto, and 6 nights in Malta. I found it more convenient and less troublesome to stay in one place as a base for few nights and make day trips instead of having switch hotel every night…..it always annoy me that hotel check in time is 2 pm or even later! Hotel prices in Portugal is very affordable, even 5 stars hotel is not too bad with coupon with my favorite booking sites Cheaptickets (at least 18% off) and Orbitz (15% off) excluding major hotel chains. You can check out my post on tips on how to save on flights and on hotels here: https://missvacation.wordpress.com/travel-tips/ I always keep checking price after I booked and most of the time I was able to find cheaper prices so I book and cancel the other.
Hotel – Lisbon: like other capital cities, it’s huge but there are few districts where tourists stay the most – in proximity to main sights. Baixa being the downtown, Chiado adjacent to Baixa, Alfama the old area up on the hill filled with maze like narrow streets, and Bairro Alto where it comes alive at night. All those areas can reach most of the attractions by foot but be warned that Lisbon is very hilly so even places looked close to either other in Google maps, it might not be the case 🙂 My preference is to stay near the main metro/train station for convenience of making day trips so I chose Baixa area where the beautiful Rossio station is located. I love to stay in castles and palaces whenever budget allows and in Portugal is where I stayed the most! I booked Avenida Palace Hotel for 3 nights when it was on sale in Cheaptickets plus the additional 18% off coupon, I got it down to $522 for 3 nights, deal scored!
Hotel – Sintra: if you haven’t Googled Sintra, go do so! The small town is probably the #1 day trip from Lisbon, only 40 minutes by very frequent train directly from Rossio train station. The small town is packed with fairy-tale castles and palaces! Being a real life Disney fairy tale castle chaser, a day trip is certainly not enough to explore all those incredible palaces so I planned 3 nights there and so glad I did so! Accommodation choices are limited in Sintra as majority of tourists visit as day trip only but there’s a 5 stars palace hotel there – Hotel Tivoli Palácio de Seteais. I checked at least weekly and one time I saw 33% off plus the 18% off coupon in Cheaptickets got it down to $507 fo 3 nights, cheapest I have ever seen since then!
Hotel – Porto: Ranked as the #1 hotel in Porto, InterContinental Porto Palacio das Cardosas only cost 30,000 IHG points per night (now raised to 35,000 points per night but still probably the cheapest Intercontinental hotels in Europe in points) while its cash price was nearly $300 per night. It was the best use of my free annual night certificate for this year. It’s also literally right next to the old town’s transportation hub – Sao Bento train station.
Like I mentioned above, I found the transportation system in Portugal are not really designed for mass tourists, although getting better. Another option is by rental car but I was totally discouraged after reading all those negative reviews in TripAdvisor. I have never seen a place with so many “beware of xxx rental company” posts in TripAdvisor to a point that there’s no recommended company at all! Most people complained about rental car company scams: policy of full tank return empty where the company automatically charge ridiculous extra for the tank of gas, hidden charges, extra charges (few hundred Euros) for various reasons that takes a credit card dispute to get the money back. I do not want to go through the headache and stress afterwards so I gave up on the search of a reputable company! Furthermore, it’s so expensive for an automatic transmission car and plus the one way rental (return to a different location), it adds up quickly to hundreds of dollars for a one week rental!
Long distance fast trains can be reserved online 60 days in advanced and you can save up to 40% if book at least 5 days in advanced here: https://www.cp.pt/passageiros/en/. the earlier you book the more availability of those special fares of 40% discount. TripAdvisor has an excellent train travel in Portugal post here: https://www.tripadvisor.com/Travel-g189100-c155341/Portugal:Train.Travel.In.Portugal.html The fastest and most expensive ALFA Pendular trains are very reasonable when purchased in advanced with the 40% discount even in first class! I booked the first class train from Lisbon Orient to Porto for only €25.50 per person, the 4 hours train ride was sure comfortable!
Food and Money
Let me say this, you can’t find anywhere in Western Europe with cheaper seafood than in Portugal! Why I put food and money together? You’ll sure need to bring plenty of cash to go out to eat, not that it’s expensive, but many authentic hidden gems take cash only 😦 I found that out on my first meal in Lisbon! I brought 300 Euros with me, left overs from last trip, and I used them faster than I planned due to cash only restaurants and attractions. I always bring my debit card with me on trips to withdraw money in case I needed cash; I tried to carry as little cash as possible. In no time, I ended up in situation where I need to get cash out and oh boy it was a pain! ATM machines in Portugal have a very low limit of €200 but you can have up to 2 transactions per day to get to daily limit of €400. I am scratching my head why €200 per transaction for max of 2 transactions instead of max 1 transaction of €400? Banks must love Portugal’s policy, at least my Bank of America will, it charges $5 per transaction so I paid BoA $5 extra in fees GRRRR!!!
Food, we both agreed, was the best of all our European trips! Remember this: Arroz de Marisco, once you had it, you’ll forget about seafood paella!!! Arroz de Marisco, the Portuguese seafood stew with rice and unlike seafood paella that both of us found too salty for our Asian taste buds, Arroz de Marisco was just perfect! Usually by the 5th day of our 2 weeks European trip, we will be craving for rice that I had to look for an Asian restaurant to relief our craving and this time, we did not have that craving in Portugal because of the delicious Arroz de Marisco!
I am already hungry looking at those pics!
Like I said, it’ll take me a while to process the pics and write up the trip reports but here are a few pics to get you excited 🙂