I write this while I know (or hope) that soon nobody will ask me again if traveling to Portugal is safe. But many of you have asked me how it is to travel in Portugal now and how to get ready for a trip while COVID is still the main theme at newspaper specials and I decided to tell you what I’ve experienced at the center of Portugal.
I’ve been roadtripping through the World Heritage sites of Coimbra, Batalha, Tomar and Alcobaça and then added some “holidays from the holidays” at the Aguieira reservoir and at Vista Alegre (Aveiro). And this is my experience by type of place:
While many travelers re-planned to house rentals when the government opened the skies, hotels are also a safe option. At least that is my experience traveling Portugal with the pandemic. But how do they do it?
Each place has a different approach to what is considered safe for travel but I chose to visit all hotels with the certification Clean & Safe (if you check hotels.com they say it at the bottom list of additional information, together with breakfast prices and transport options) which meant they all had in common:
- Check-in an check-out with minimal contact, with partitions that separate the hotelstaff from you. They will touch your passport (sometimes with a paper) but they will try to have as little contact as possible and their hands are continuously sanitized. Just remind to take your own pen as in many of them you still have to sign (they will lend you one if needed). And in hotels as Montebelo Vista Alegre they will also measure your temperature at check-in (they don’t store temperatures unless you are over 38 degrees celsius, but in that case they will take you to a designated room so you can wait comfortably for the Portuguese authorities to do the tests and checks they need to).
- Cleaning is carried out with a disinfectant, including the most common contact surfaces in the room before you arrive, sheets and towels are washed at 60ºC or higher (this is part of the Clean & Safe program). Which means that some cleaning staff looks like they are in a hospital. What’s more, in hotels like the Vista Alegre that I mentioned before, they also seal the room once it is cleaned to ensure that no one enters afeter it has been cleaned, except for you. Also in all of them, you can ask your room not to be cleaned until you leave.
- Access from outsiders has been banned. No Spa treatments, no restaurant reservations and all other hotel equipment is restricted to use of guests (which is a shame as there are great restaurants and treatments at the Montebelo hotels that you usually can book when you are not sleeping there).
- Each room stays empty at least 24 hours between guests. So, if you are leaving today morning, they will clean it and wait at least until tomorrow evening to host someone else. This was one of the recommendations for travelers from Mayo Clinic and since the hotel does it per se, you save that hustle.
- Breakfast is on appointment which you must do at check-in or at least on the day before. This guarantees that there is enough distance between guests and that they can serve you better. Why? Because they have to serve you everything at the buffet (or you can get your breakfast through the room service). I’ve found different approaches as to how the breakfast is served:
- In Coimbra, we stayed at Vila Galé hotel, there were a few things you could take yourself but they were in portions (a small glass with fruit or yogurt for example) but the main buffet things as scrambled eggs or juices and bread you had to ask for them to the hotel staff (they were in some sort of a bar and you could just point at what you wanted or request a custom order.)
- At Montebelo resorts, both Vista Alegre (Aveiro) and Aguieira Lake (near Coimbra), they serve you all, without no options to take yourself, but it feels that they have a broader list of options to choose from (and some amazing small natas.)
- In Tomar, we stayed at Thomar Boutique and instead of a served buffet, they gave us a list of options at check-in (you can change them each day) that you would choose from the night before while booking your preferred breakfast time.
- You will find hand sanitizers in different places of the hotels, mostly next to lifts and entry areas, so you don’t have to carry yours around. Masks you cannot forget, as they are mandatory inside all the time (some hotels as the Thomar one had some for guests, but all others didn’t).
- As for common areas and restaurants, they have all reduced the occupation and placed the tables apart (with a minimum distance of 1.5-2 meters), will tell you more about restaurants below. You will find posters reminding you of the general rules and specific ones as only using the lift with people you share your room with (people do follow them.)
- As for swimming pools, they also have a booking system that you choose while checking-in (and can change later if there is availability) with a max. time of use per day so everyone can enjoy them while keeping the distance. They clean everything between booking times (including chairs and tables). And if you are planning to use indoor swimming pools and spas, there are even tougher conditions at booking. For example, Spas can only be used if you book it with your room (not exactly with your room, but before you arrive, which is how they do it at the Aguieira Lake Resort) and they wear masks and use had sanitizers before applying the treatment of your choice (not all of them are available).
How does it look? Safe? Well, Portuguese hotels have always been clean and safe but now they take an extra step to show you what they are doing to increase your safety. I had never imagined seeing a bin of cleaning products at a buffet table but it proves they bid hard on clean.
And, since there are a few big offers now that allow you to enjoy some amazing hotels like the ones I mentioned above, it makes a great opportunity for those willing to explore more.
One of the things that caught my attention at Portuguese restaurants this time is that tables came undressed even at top tier restaurants. They also apply this concept of not only having things clean but showing that they do clean, so when you arrive they clean everything again in front of you (they clean when you leave, leaving the table empty and then again when you arrive so you see that they apply all the right products) and set the table. At most, you will find a paper pack with your knife and fork and a paper napkin (no cloth at most restaurants, as the disposable ones seem to be safer for them). And they never touch your cutlery, if they have to, they change them with another pack.
As with the hotels, they have reduced occupancy, put tables far from each other and set time slots, so booking is not always needed, but will help you a lot (at least a lot more than before). My friend Tere and I tried to dine at one of the most recommended spots in Coimbra mid-week and couldn’t get a spot (they don’t have an online booking system and there was a long line outside waiting) so we had to look for another option. We went to hotel restaurants, regular restaurants, posh spots and even to a dramatized dinner and the dynamics were almost the same in all of them.
Menus, by the way, are either on a QR code, so you can see them on your phone, or on a laminated cardboard that can be cleaned each time you use it. Prices are the same as before the lockdown (we checked on Google pics) and orders are share-size (lots of food and great taste.)
Museums, concerts and guided visits
Also museums, concerts and guided visits have reduced the numbers of people joining in, so booking in advance is highly recommended if not mandatory (you can sometimes book when you get there at the museum / castle / cathedral / monument or contact the local tourism office for help if they don’t have the service available online). If you book a guided visit with an official guide, they get your tickets for you, so it might be a top option as not many spots in the area have an online tickets office (check below at the checklist some nice options for that).
On the other side, some types of visits and activities have been cancelled (for example, some rooms at the Coimbra Library are currently closed and family activities at Museo Vista Alegre have been postponed for August to be redesigned according to the current needs of families.)
As for safety, which is what you have asked me more about:
- Masks are mandatory even when you are in open spaces and guards will remind you to wear them all the time (including at cloisters, patios, gardens, rooftops and such).
- There are hand sanitizers all around. At Coimbra University, for example, there is one at each room you enter. We didn’t see them at Coz convent, but since you are not supposed to be touching anything it made sense not to have them (it is truly worth a visit and they are free, booking mandatory).
- As you move on through your visit, the cleaning team follows sanitizing every surface you might have touched (sometimes it is more evident than others).
- All touchable items are blocked unless you are on an special visit (for example, there are some items for deaf people at the Museum of Batalha that allow you to do a signed language guided visit, those are available as well as the items for people with visual difficulties.)
Pros? Some visits have become free at the moment as they try to attract more visitors and you won’t find crowds so you can enjoy each place more comfortably and less crowded. Cons? Those who photobomb you will appear with a mask (the pic is from Alcobaça Monastery).
And as for the concerts, there is no dancing or moving around and masks are also mandatory in open spaces.
Take into account that they might ask you for a phone and/or email contact. They might re-request it again on arrival to make sure they can trace all groups in case of emergency in the following weeks.
Parks and open spaces
At parks and open spaces, the Portuguese rule (now) is to keep a minimum distance and wear a mask when you can’t. This made it necessary mostly at city centers as in Coimbra or the historical center of Tomar at night. But at natural parks as Pía do Urso or the Matas from Tomar, there were only a few here and there so it was enough to have it with you just in case.
I must recommend carrying your hand sanitizer with you in case you want to use railings or touch anything, you won’t find many in these.
I’ve already updated my post on Highways and tolls in Portugal, but you will want to know that all speedways/highways are working just as before. The main difference is that you don’t have to press a button to get your entry ticket or a receipt. And, yes, most machines don’t have contactless payment options (they do have pin-less options but you still have to put the card in.)
Gas stations are also working just the same at both cities and highways (small road ones too in most cases). And you still have to serve yourself at most of them. Yes, still as expensive as always (at least more expensive than the Spanish ones.)
Main difference I’ve seen here is that many travelers have chosen to take their own portable fridge with food and drinks so they can stop on their way and instead of going to gas station cafes, they can use the outdoor tables most highway gas stations have. Local gas stations don’t have that, but there are many parks all across Portugal where you can find something alike (or you can go to a restaurant that follows all of the above, there are plenty and Portuguese food is amazing).
Checklist to travel in times of COVID:
1. Plan ahead the different parts of your trip.
The worst part of wearing the mask all the time is heat. Add to that, that there won’t be as many opportunities to fill in the blanks as before, so trying to find the right balance inside and outside will help you a lot now. Knowing when it will be a nice time to enjoy the hotel’s swimming pool or the best timing for breakfast or dinner is more important and you can book your time slots before you arrive (and rebook if you change your mind).
And, as you plan, search for those providers with the Portugal Safe & Clean seal, which is the touristic certification set up by the Portuguese authorities. Hotels, guides, restaurants and other services that show it have gone through training and tests to check that they are applying the recommended protocols and that they update them as we know more things. All of them listed above have it.
2. If you can, book before arrival
As I told you above, castles, museums, cathedrals, etc. have limited numbers of visitors. But also restaurants, swimming pools, breakfast buffets, etc. Even beaches have limited slots in most popular areas so everyone gets a chance to enjoy while keeping the distance.
Sites as Civitatis, Getyourguide or Viator will allow you to get tickets and book guided tours from your computer or cell phone and you will not have to print them in almost 100% of times. Also, many local operators have been certified. At Tomar area, Caminhos da História is an international expert on Templars, has been certified and can arrange custom visits for you (the website booking engine is not always available but drop them a note, they are awesome!).
3. Take your own safety items.
You will find hand sanitizers almost everywhere (shops, museums, hotels, etc.) each of a different type, viscosity, scent… which is not always nice. So take your own, some are lightweight and nobody will tell you off for using your own (and you might not find any in the middle of a park.)
Plus, take into account sweat when planning the amount or kind of masks you bring. The cotton ones with filter refills are great as you can reuse them and are usually more breathable.
And you can take gloves or sanitizing tissues if you are using public transport or need to clean any surface on your own.
4. Bring insurance.
For European travelers this might not be that mandatory as we share the virtues of the European healthcare system, so if you have your European Health Card they will treat you as they would treat any Portuguese who gets sick (with COVID or else). But if you come from UK or outside the EU, don’t bring the health card or want to access private hospitals, get travel insurance. The Chapka team are offering a discount to our readers and the have set truly clear conditions on how they work with this (and other) sicknesses.
Yes, they do have insurance for non-european citizens, check the Schengen Insurance options
5. Reduce luggage as you can.
This trip was a roadtrip, so I could get in the car as many things as it would fit. All of those “extras” worked well as I had to change clothes twice a day and now it is not enough to wash your clothes at your hotel bathroom (you need steaming hot water to wash clothes and washable masks). So keep the balance between using cleaning services (from the hotel or outside washing machines) or bringing tons of clothes.
6. Remember you will need to eat and drink.
Not joking. You might find yourself on a road with no bar options or at a beach where all the food options seem a bit crowded or forgot to book for the night and there are no available time slots anywhere…
So, in addition to booking in advance if you can (if no online booking is available and you don’t speak any Portuguese try asking for help at your accommodation), bring your water bottle (each for any of you and reusable if you have access to a dishwasher) and something to snack.
Supermarkets and markets are safe and great to shop at, but you won’t have many washing options on the spot, so keep that in mind (some places would wash the fruit for you if requested.)
7. Keep the distance.
You will bring your bookings on your phone and most of your things will have contactless payment available (unfortunately not all), so avoid cash as much as possible. Just remember to check the contactless limits (most make you pay with chip once every number of payments) and that at highway tolls there is no contactless options (nor Revolut valid for payment.)
And keep your “healthy distance” and wear a mask if that’s not possible. We all relax when we are on the beach or hiking and forget that the mask might be needed sometimes there.
8. Stay updated with the safety recommendations
Review the warnings and safety recommendations (set alerts if you can) as it might happen that everything changes overnight:
- European Union has unified the warnings and recommendations by country at https://reopen.europa.eu The site is translated (translations are a bit off in Spanish but English should be just fine) and they update it daily.
- Portugal has published a summary of rules and recommendations for travelers at their site (in different languages too, including English and Spanish). You will find there things I didn’t cover as my trip didn’t take me there, such as how to behave at the beach, among other tips.
- All countries have their own recommendations updated continuously. Check the one from your country as it may limit your insurance coverage or return options when you are already traveling.
And, at last, remember that your consulate can help you with information about the situation but won’t pay for medicines, issue new passports or help you book a plane unless this is a case of extreme emergency (from their point of view).
9. Be cautious
If you are feeling so-so or are a bit scared of traveling now, don’t do it. We will go back to traveling again and while it is safe to travel with precaution as it is safe to go to work, it won’t pay for the anxiety.
If you chose to travel as I did, look for the signs in the following weeks and, if you end up feeling a bit bad, talk to your doctor, tell him/her where you’ve been and they will set the right measures for you and those who traveled with you.
Let me know if you do go to Portugal and if you found any of these useful for you. And sorry for such a long post, I’ve tried to put everything down so it could help you plan ahead. If you need any extra info or I forgot anything, let me know below through the comments or contact me on social media.