Disclaimer: This trip was sponsored by Portugal by Van. However, my thoughts and opinions are my own.
I recently went on a one week road trip to the Algarve in a 3-seater campervan with Portugal by Van, and I’m convinced that renting a van is the best way to see that region of Portugal! Especially if you happen to do so during the off season, like we did – we really enjoyed being there in October and November. Here’s why:
WHY TRAVEL IN A CAMPERVAN?
I’m honestly quite obsessed with van life at this point! Here’s why I loved exploring the Algarve with a Campervan:
- Save Money – Since you’re not paying for accommodation AND a rental car/taxis, you save some money. Two in one!
- Flexible Itinerary – Since you don’t have to book accommodation in advance, you can go wherever you’d like and stay as long or as short as you want. Love a place more than expected? Great, stay there the whole trip! Hate it even though you thought you’d love it? Leave early! I loved having that flexibility.
- Visit More Desintations – We were able to see several spots in one day, as we weren’t at the mercy of public transportation, didn’t have to plan for time to find and check in to our hotel, and we didn’t have to go out of our way to search for lunch. We usually just cooked in the van wherever we happened to be at the moment!
- Portable Kitchen (!!!) – Always hungry for snacks? Want to make food on the go? Well, you have your own kitchen at your disposal, where you can do either of those anytime! This also really helped us save even more money (refer to point #1), as we weren’t constantly eating out. We also loved that we could always choose to have a pretty view while we ate if we so desired.
- Get Closer to the Outdoors + Off the Beaten Path – I love being outside and in nature as much as possible, and having a van made it much easier to access! It was especially nice to just hang out in our van with the back doors open to a beautiful view. Having higher clearance was nice too, and we were able to drive down dirt roads with ease.
- Less Packing/Unpacking – Having a van means that you have your belongings with you all of the time, so you spend less time packing and unpacking as you would if you were moving to different hotels each night. I personally hate this part of travel (chronic overpacker = lots of sitting on and swearing at my suitcase to make everything fit each time), so I really enjoyed that it cut this out completely! Our van had lots of storage space and cubbies so we could settle in and store everyday items with ease.
I’m kinda in love with van life at this point, to be honest. And I kinda sorta maybe want to buy my own now??
WHY TRAVEL TO THE ALGARVE IN OCTOBER & NOVEMBER?
LESS PEOPLEWe still encountered quite a few tourists in the Algarve, even at the end of October and beginning of November when we visited. Parking was a bit difficult to find at times as some of the lots are quite small, so I can’t even imagine what it would be like during the summer!
This also made it much easier to find camping spots (and much more likely that we’d be alone without noisy neighbors!).
DISCOUNTED PRICESThis is on both things like guided tours and the actual campervan rental itself. Prices are much cheaper in the off-season! The one downside to this is that some things are closed, but we still saw plenty of boat tours and guided tours, especially in more traditionally touristy areas like Lagos.
THE WEATHER SHOULD STILL BE WARMThe weather in the Algarve region is quite mild, even in the colder months, so you’ll most likely get pretty decent weather. We did have a couple of rainy days at the beginning of our trip, but it wasn’t ever too cold, even at night. We slept just fine! After the rain passed, we had lots of sunshine and warm weather during the rest of our one week vacation. I think this is pretty standard in southern Portugal, and when it did rain, it was usually only for a short period.
FLAMINGOS!!!Yes, this did require a category all its own! Did you know that you can find WILD FLAMINGOS in the Algarve? Yeah, neither did I. But apparently, November-March is the best time of the year to spot them. We went to the Ludo Trail in Faro (more on that below), and it was amazing to see them in the wild.
TIPS FOR WORKING ON THE ROADA campervan trip will work for digital nomads, too! Most van companies offer a WiFi package that you can book (we had to do this since we purchased the cheapest phone plan without hot spot capabilities – that’s usually how I work from the road back in the US!). It’s helpful to bring a portable charger so that you can take the WiFi box with you and work outside if you please. We booked the WiFi package with Portugal by Van (such a steal, as it’s unlimited and data typically isn’t cheap in Portugal! For example, we bought a Portuguese SIM card from Lycamobile, and it was €10 for 4GB of data). We typically charged our WiFi box in the van, and didn’t have any issues with it taking up too much of the van’s battery, especially since we were driving at least an hour a day and this charged the battery.
Want to travel while you work? Learn how to become a digital nomad here!
We found the service to be quite good in the Algarve region – we didn’t have any issues finding good coverage, and were able to work in 95% of the places we visited.
You do need to be hooked up to an electrical outlet to charge your laptop in the van, or anything requiring a plug. These are usually found at paid campsites or RV parks, which you can find on Park4Night (more on that below), but we mostly used free campsites and chose to go to cafes to charge instead. However, anything that can be charged via USB (like your phone or portable charger) can be done right in the campervan, whether hooked up to electricity or not. Our battery charged every time we drove, as well as from the solar power, and there’s even a handy button that tells you the percentage the battery is at! We never had issues or got low on our battery, even on cloudier days.
It was pretty easy to work while on the road – the only issue was finding the motivation to work while there were so many pretty spots to visit!
WHAT YOU NEED TO KNOW ABOUT VAN LIFE IN THE ALGARVEWe rented a van from Portugal by Van, and had a wonderful experience. They were so helpful (especially Teresa, who was there when we picked up and dropped our van – she was amazing!), and very quick to communicate and answer any questions we had. We loved that we could stand up in the van, which is crucial if you’re going on a longer trip, trust me. We were a little nervous driving a bigger vehicle, especially in a foreign country, but we didn’t end up having any issues with either. It was especially helpful that our campervan made a beeping noise whenever it got too close to something, which really helped us to avoid any potential crashes.
The Park4Night app is your BFF forever and ever. It’s similar to iOverlander (although you can certainly also use iOverlander), and shows you where you can camp (both paid and for free), dump your wastewater, fill up your water tank, do laundry, and more. I’d also recommend making a free account, as you can’t see all of the available sites without one. Definitely download it before you go – our trip would’ve been so much more difficult without it!
All campervan rentals are manual (that I came across anyway), so be prepared for that. If renting a van in Portugal is on your bucket list, definitely try and practice back home before coming here if you’re from the United States like me and manual cars aren’t the norm!
Toll roads in Portugal are so expensive (for example, we accidentally took a toll road when we were coming back to Lisbon from the Algarve and had to pay €12), so set Google Maps to “Avoid Tolls” and you should be golden. “A” roads are highways, and they’re the ones with tolls. “N” roads never had tolls so we just stuck to those. Sometimes Google Maps took us on an “A” highway, but would always route us to exit before we actually hit the toll.
Like the rest of Europe, Portugal has no shortage of roundabouts! You also drive on the right and overtake on the left. Stop signs also seem to be a suggestion rather than a law. You can’t turn right on red like you can in the US – don’t space out and do this by accident or you’ll be met with angry honks from locals. Other than that and the plethora of toll roads, driving in Portugal felt pretty similar to driving in the US. Check out this article to learn more about driving in Portugal.
Yes, there is a shower attached to the van, and you can rent a chemical toilet if you want, too (the question I’ve been asked the most, ha!). However, we really didn’t shower that much if I’m being honest. Spending time exploring is way more fun than finding a spot to shower (it’s just a shower head, so you probably want to go to a more private spot or plan to shower in your bathing suit), and showering in the dark isn’t much fun, so…We just didn’t do it? Definitely plan to bring some flip flops or hiking sandals to shower in, too!
We chose not to rent the chemical toilet, since it takes up space and we didn’t want to do deal with emptying it. We were fine finding bathrooms in cafes, restaurants, on beaches (most of them had free public restrooms to use), and in nature. If going in nature, just be sure to throw away your toilet paper after – we saw so much strewn all over the place, and it was quite disappointing (and one of the reasons Portugal decided to outlaw wild camping…). If you happen to need to go, well, #2, be sure to dig a deep enough hole (6 inches is standard) and bury it, please!If you want to swim or learn to surf, the waves can be a little bit rougher and/or bigger in winter. However, we saw a TON of people learning to surf on the coast of Costa Vicentina at Arrifana Beach (Praia de Arrifana), so this might be a great place to start if that’s what you want to do. Although the water is cold (average is about 16.5°C, or about 62°F; max in summer is 23°C, or 73°F), it’s cold all year round and you’ll have a wetsuit – so might as well try it out in the winter!
Most restaurants and cafes were still open, but we certainly went to a couple that said “Open”on Google Maps, but were actually closed. I’d expect that things are mostly open around Christmas, and then shut back down again until the warmer months.
For 7 days of travel, we spent €130 (about $150 USD) on gas.
WHAT TO DO IN ALGARVE IN FALL (OUR ITINERARY)We began in Lisbon, since we picked up our van from the Lisbon depot (although they also have pickups in Porto and Faro). We drove to the eastern side of the Algarve first, since the weather wasn’t going to be so great, and most of what we wanted good weather for was on the western side of the Algarve.
We began our trip in Faro, as we wanted to see the Pousada Palácio de Estoi (The Palace of Estoi) as well as the Capela de Ossos (Chapel of Bones). Since we were there during Halloween, we figured a bone church was the best spooky thing to do to celebrate! We also wanted to see wild Flamingos, and did so on the Ludo Trail at Ria Formosa Reserve. Check out this article for more details about where exactly to find them on the Ludo Trail, as well as other places you can spot flamingos in the Algarve!From there, we went to Albufeira to see some beaches, as it stopped raining (for the most part – we still got sprinkled on here and there, but it was nothing a rain jacket or umbrella couldn’t handle!). Here are our favorites:
- Praia da Falésia (Falésia Beach)
- Walk from Praia dos Arrifes to Praia da Coelha (about 30 minutes). Honestly, all of the beaches look gorgeous! There’s no road that you can drive next to the ocean (we would have loved that), so we just walked along the cliffs instead for the views. We had lunch and drinks at Restaurante Praia de São Rafael – I’d highly recommend as it was delicious!
- Albufeira is definitely a party town, and going out in Old Town was quite fun as we were there on Halloween! You can either choose to do that or go to ‘The Strip’ if you want to experience some of the famous Albufeira nightlife. Avenida Francisco Sá Carneiro (the street that makes up The Strip) is a long expanse of bars and nightclubs, and is quite popular with tourists and the younger crowd. Old Town also has a plethora of restaurants and bars, but if a night that you’ll never forget (or remember) is on your Algarve bucket list, The Strip might just be for you!
Be aware that there’s no shade on this trail for the most part, so if the weather forecast is looking sunny and hot it’s better to do this hike in the morning or evening.We hung out at Praia de Marinha for sunset, and what a gorgeous sunset it was! We almost didn’t go as it was raining, but decided to try anyway, and it cleared up just in time. We noticed that happening often in the Algarve, so note to you – if it’s raining, go anyway as there’s a good chance it’ll stop!
There are also a ton of really cool seashells at that beach, so we enjoyed walking around and looking for them. The parking lot at this beach was quite large, but even on a Saturday in November it was pretty full. However, people were constantly coming and going, so it was pretty easy to find a spot.
The next day, we drove to Ferragudo to see the Castelo de São João do Arade, a castle on the beach (I’m not gonna lie, this was definitely a highlight for me). We were definitely guilty of indulging in our inner Instagram model and taking a bunch of photos in front of it…You can’t go inside, unfortunately, but I still enjoyed staring at it from afar.
Ferragudo is also a really pretty whitewashed fishing village that’s worth checking out if you have time. To be honest, most of the small villages we drove through looked similar (whitewashed buildings and pretty coastal views), so even if you don’t stop here, you’re guaranteed to find something like it.
As we were leaving Ferragudo, we happened upon the perfect place to stop and have lunch! I’d highly recommend stopping there – it was a dirt road just past the main part of town.Next we went to Praia dos Três Irmãos, a beach known for its giant rock formations. Take the short trail surrounded by large rocks that leads you to another beach as it’s quite pretty. Despite the plentiful seaweed, the rock formations were really awesome to see, along with a couple of natural caves. There was even a cool restaurant you could stop and eat at with a view of the beach! We drove to Ponta da Piedade, which was beautiful but quite touristy. You basically walk down to it, then line up to take your photo. You’d never know that just from looking at the photos that people post. I’d recommend walking about 5 minutes in the other direction to see the view of Praia da Balança in the photo above. We walked from our parking spot at Ponta da Piedade to Praia do Camilo, then to Praia de Dona Ana, which was a really nice 20-minute walk (add a few minutes if you decide to walk down the stairs to the beach at Praia do Camilo). Praia do Camilo was gorgeous, but had a much smaller section of beach to hang out on. Praia de Dona Ana has a vast expanse of beach, and probably a better place to spend the day. From there, we drove to Sagres, the most southwestern part of Europe, and believed by many to be ‘the end of the world’! We tried to see the sunset at Cabo de São Vicente, the famous lighthouse, but it was a little too cloudy. It was still beautiful, though! And a little windy, so be sure to bring warm clothes. It was also interesting to see the fisherman fishing at the top of the extremely steep cliffs!
Since we’d been traveling for almost a week at this point, it was time to do laundry. We stumbled upon The Laundry Lounge, a cafe/laundromat hybrid that clearly caters to van dwellers and surfers (both of are plentiful in Sagres), which was an interesting experience. I’d definitely recommend getting dinner or drinks there, but be prepared to wait as it gets busy!Since the next day was our last, we drove from Sagres up the Costa Vicentina coast before heading back to Lisbon to drop off the van. We stopped at Arrifana Beach (so many surfers!), Monte Clérigo, and Odeceixe. They were all stunning, and there are so many beautiful beaches along the coast that you can ogle. You really can’t go wrong no matter where you choose to go!
WHAT WE MISSED:
- Tavira – A beautiful town with colorful buildings on the coast.
- Olhão Fish Market (Mercados de Olhão) – A huge bustling market selling seafood and lots of other goods. Unfortunately it is closed on Sundays, which is when we were in that area so we were unable to go. It is open Mon-Sat from 7AM to early afternoon.
- Silves – This is an old medeival town! It’s located more inland, but we were sticking to the coast, so we skipped it.
- Monchique – An adorable looking town in the mountains with colorful buildings. It’s also located more inland, so we didn’t have time to see it.
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