Everything You Need To Know About Car Rental In The Azores, Driving, & How To Have A Smooth Roadtrip

February 25, 2024
car rental azores,car rental in the azores,azores rental car,car rental ponta delgada,car hire azores,ilha verde rental car azores

The Azores Islands are kind of mind-blowing, and they have typically flown under the radar when it comes to U.S. tourists in particular.  But with a host of cheaper direct flights available that’s starting to change, and people are now realizing how epic and easy an Azores roadtrip can be.

So this post provides a detailed guide to driving in the Azores, renting a car, and more Azores island hopping roadtrip tips—because it’s an amazing experience and shouldn’t be scary at all!

Everything to Know About Renting a Car in the Azores & Driving | Portugal's Azores Islands are mind-blowing, & perfect for an epic roadtrip...this is a detailed guide to car rental in the Azores, driving in the Azores, safety, & more!

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Road trips can definitely be more complex to plan, and the rental car aspect also can make them a bit nervewracking.  So we’ll cover a lot of the most common questions and concerns in this post about car hire in the Azores, what to expect, and how to have the smoothest Azores roadtrip experience.

Here are some of the questions this Azores roadtrip tips post will go into:

  • Do I need to rent a car in the Azores?
  • How does island hopping with a car work?
  • Is driving in the Azores safe?
  • Do I need an international driver’s license?
  • How do I navigate?
  • Should I get a manual or automatic?
  • What type of insurance should I get?
  • Plus general info on roads, gas stations, weather, & more
Beautiful scenery & cows on Pico Island...a guide to car rental in the Azores & driving in the Azores
Without a car, you miss gorgeous views & scenic cows 🙂

This post contains some affiliate links. I may earn a small commission from any qualifying purchases through clicks on these links (which I greatly appreciate, and at NO EXTRA COST to you). All opinions are, as always, completely my own. 

Should I rent a car in the Azores?

Yes, in my opinion.  Unless you’re doing a super quick trip, like a long layover in Ponta Delgada, then having a car is a MUST.  The Azores are volcanic islands, filled with lush plant life, gorgeous vistas, cute little towns, and awesome hiking.  Without a car, you won’t be able to really access any of that…so why did you come??  And some of the most amazing places to stay (like my stunning Pico B&B) are only accessible with a car.

Plus, the weather is very mercurial in the Azores, so having a set itinerary is really tough.  You have to keep an eye on the webcams (more on that later) and be ready to change your plans if it’s full cloud cover in one spot on the island, but sunny in another.  That’s harder to do with a guided tour so you may miss out.

I used DiscoverCars to book all three of my rental cars in the Azores, and it could not have gone more smoothly.  I always also check RentalCars.com and AutoEurope, but Discover has been a consistent winner lately on international trips, and they were able to find me an automatic when no one else could (plus the prices were great).  You can also check Zest Car Rental, who I used in the Algarve.

What if I don’t want to rent a car??  Well, then your other main option is to try and get taxis (probably doable in some islands, though expensive and remember that cell service can be spotty), or to book guided tours.  It will be easier to use a tour to see as much as possible on smaller islands vs. one as big as Sao Miguel.

This two-day Sao Miguel tour is one I’d recommend if you are uncomfortable driving (or a private one like this).  Pico Island has even fewer obvious must-sees and is more about nuanced exploration…this small group or this private tour are the way I’d go.  And I strongly considered a tour for my Faial day trip vs. renting a car, and this small group tour or this private tour were the ones I was looking at.

If you don't rent a car on Sao Miguel, you'll miss a lot of the gorgeous scenery...tips for car rental in Ponta Delgada & driving the island

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How does island hopping in the Azores work with rental cars?

You have a couple options…some car rental companies will allow you to take your car on the ferry, but even then you will have to return it to the same island at the end of your rental.  Ferries that allow cars are pretty limited (so it narrows your time options), and except for the 3 central islands of Pico, Faial and São Jorge, the trip would take a long time.  So it’s possible but maybe not as practical.

So I went with the other option and did three separate rentals, one on each island I visited.  It was a little bit of a hassle since I had to then pick up and return the car in each place, but actually went pretty smoothly.

Plus, I ended up with Ilha Verde, a local company, on two of the islands, and so they let me keep my deposit on the card which simplified some paperwork until I “closed out” at the end.  Kind of like keeping a bar tab open 🙂  Ilha Verde and ANC (my Sao Miguel company) both had good reviews on DiscoverCars.

Do I need an international driver’s license in the Azores?

You may need an IDP (international driving permit) in the Azores depending on what country you come from, and the rental car company’s rules.

I had never needed one before on any international trip (though did just get one for an upcoming South Africa one), and so when I read my Ilha Verde terms and it said I needed one, I immediately contacted the company.  They assured me that I did not as long as I had my US driver’s license.  So always read the terms and conditions carefully, and contact the company if in doubt!

Tips for car rental Azores Portugal...you'll miss views like this one on Sao Miguel if you don't have a car
Having a car lets you find viewpoints you’d never see otherwise!

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A few other tips for renting a car in the Azores

When comparing different rental car companies and options, one big thing to think about is whether to have something “in terminal” (at the airport), “at the airport” (e.g. the company’s desk is out in a parking lot somewhere), or “off airport”.  Off airport with a shuttle is almost always cheaper, but you have to factor in the time it takes to get there each way, especially when returning the car before a flight.

  • In Sao Miguel I had booked one of the off-airport rental car companies, ANC (which I slightly regret in hindsight).  I had to wait for a shuttle for about 15 minutes to come pick me up and then a 10 minute drive to their office (then they only had one person working the desk so had to wait in line).  It was still pretty smooth though and didn’t take a crazy amount of time.  No real complaints.
  • In Pico I had booked Ilha Verde and they seem to be pretty much the only game in town.  It was in the airport lobby and the line took quite a while as there was only one person working and they were doing both pickups and returns.  Budget a bit of extra time when returning your car, just in case.
  • In Faial I picked up at the ferry pier (Ilha Verde again) and dropped off at the airport.  This car was so much nicer and had A/C.

One other major thing to consider is what rental car specs are most important for you, and I used DiscoverCars filters to get to what I needed.  First, for me was automatic transmission as I don’t drive manual.  That automatically narrows down options on tiny islands.  Then one thing I wish I’d thought to check was air conditioning.  A lot of cars in the Azores (and rentals) don’t have it and it was grossly humid and warm when I was there.

I booked late—about a month out, in what I’d consider shoulder season—and spent about $885 USD total for a week’s worth of rentals on three different islands.  The late booking and my need for an automatic drove the cost up considerably.  And that’s without paying extra rental car insurance.

The other thing is to make sure you get what you booked.  In Sao Miguel they tried to give me like…a giant station wagon/minivan type thing.  I said absolutely not, I booked a small car and I knew that the roads are super narrow and winding in a lot of places, that parking would be hard, etc.  I was very nice but firm in telling them that’s not what I booked and I wasn’t comfortable driving a big vehicle.  They finally gave me a nice newer upgraded car instead, as it was the only other automatic they had.  If they hadn’t had it, I would have been out of luck and had to take the big vehicle.

When you’re picking up your car, make sure to carefully document any imperfections, dings, scratches, or windshield cracks.  Pay careful attention to the windshield and tires.  I always recommend taking both photos and a video around the car in case you need to prove something later.

Before driving off with your car, make sure you know where to return it, and what kind of gas your car takes.  That latter point is CRITICAL.  And don’t just automatically trust the color coding at the gas station (black vs. green)…they’re often different from what we have in the U.S., or even at different stations.

Everything to Know About Renting a Car in the Azores & Driving - beautiful view on Pico Island

Other Azores adventures to help plan your trip:

A Super Detailed Road Trip Guide For Sao Miguel Island

Exploring the Vibrant, Medieval City of Ponta Delgada, Sao Miguel

Sao Miguel’s Glorious Sete Cidades: Miradouro Vista do Rei & More

Steeped In Tradition: Visiting A Tea Plantation In The Azores

Where To Stay On Pico Island: The Unique, Beautiful, & Historic Casas de Incensos

How To Make The Most of a Day on Faial Island

Let’s talk rental car insurance…

The Azores are definitely a place where you want the maximum amount of insurance, including glass and tires (which are typically separate).  That’s usually a Super CDW or something like that with the rental car company.

However, I’ve always used my Chase Sapphire credit card’s car rental insurance benefit and been very happy with it (I also have a Capital One Venture X with the same benefits).  So I always decline all of the rental car’s insurance and use that instead.

But you need to know exactly what you’re getting into with credit card rental insurance.  I have a full post on credit card travel benefits you should check out.

  • Some credit cards/travel insurance companies explicitly EXCLUDE certain places in their coverage and some rental car companies need a confirmation from your credit card/travel insurance company about coverage there.  I didn’t run into this with the Azores but make sure you read your benefits guide carefully.
  • You must BOOK the car with that credit card and also make sure to have it with you when picking up the rental, for the insurance to be valid.
  • Make sure you read through the whole credit card benefits details, all the terms and conditions, to make sure you know what you can and can’t do under their coverage.  Do your research.

A beautiful miradouro view from Pico Island - why you should rent a car in the Azores

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Tips for driving in the Azores for a smooth roadtrip

Road trips in other countries are interesting for me, because I see so much amazing stuff and I want to pull over and capture it in photos, but I can’t find a good pull-out and then I get frustrated.  My first day on Sao Miguel really gave me a reality check on what I could see here despite the fairly compact island size.  Don’t just take Google Maps times as reality.

Driving in the Azores is much like driving anywhere else.  They drive on the right-hand side like most of the world, and the main roads are fine.  The islands are hilly and roads are winding and steep at times.  In the towns, the roads are often VERY narrow and that was the most stressful driving for me personally.

Also sometimes roads down to towns or up to lookouts are CRAZY steep…if there’s any chance of slippery conditions, be careful about going down super steep hills and make sure you’ll be able to get back up.

A flat tire might be your most likely issue, and cell signal is not always guaranteed, so make sure before leaving the car rental company that you have a spare tire in good condition, and the tools needed to change it.

One thing to watch for is that speed limits change a LOT (I found that especially in Pico for some reason).  I didn’t necessarily see cops sitting around trying to catch people, but can’t say it doesn’t happen.  Just pay attention (and my Google Maps did a fairly good job of keeping me apprised of the speed limit).

As with most places in Europe, make sure you understand etiquette for roundabouts.  When approaching the roundabout, slow down but think of it as a yield vs. a stop.  There are nuances to inside vs. outside lane, but for more nervous tourist drivers it’s probably a bit safer (if a little rude) to stay to the outside lane.  Signal when exiting, and change lanes carefully.

Driving is pretty courteous and drivers have to work together.  Many of the roads or bridges are narrow and so there’s a careful dance between two drivers approaching each other in finding the closest pull-out to let each other by.  Also, if someone is clearly wanting to go faster than you on a road, it’s polite to just pull over briefly and let them past.  Stay to the right on multi-lane roads unless passing.

Gas stations are not open 24/7.  They often open around 7 a.m. and close sometime between 9 and 10 p.m.  They also usually only accept credit cards that are issued in Portugal.  I was able to use my card in São Miguel twice, but every other time I had to pay with cash. So make sure you always have cash (euros) on you.

Most of the roads in the Azores are good - tips for driving in the Azores & renting a car

A very steep road on Sao Miguel - tips for driving in the Azores & renting a car in Ponta Delgada
This pic doesn’t capture how insanely steep this road was…

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How to navigate around the Azores

You have a couple options here.  Certainly a physical map isn’t a terrible idea to have, but I haven’t done that in over a decade.  I used Google Maps for my entire trip, plus paying attention to road signs.  Obviously make sure you have a local SIM card or the ability to use your data internationally.

To avoid using tons of roaming data and going over my daily limit, I’ll briefly turn on my data/roaming, search for where I’m going on Google Maps, hit “Go”, and then turn my data back off.  The app will have already remembered the route and will take you there (if you get lost and have to re-route, you’ll have to turn your data back on briefly).  You can also download offline maps for an area when you’re on wifi.

BUT…the driving is not necessarily always simple and easy, and you cannot always rely on Google Maps for accuracy.  In the Azores, several times when it insisted something was a road when it was not.  Or it tried to take me down a one-way the wrong way.  Pay attention to road signs and don’t take roads that feel iffy.

With that said, brush up on Portuguese road signs before you go, to make sure you understand the important ones like one-way, no entry, no parking, no passing zone, etc.  Try downloading offline maps (this has not always helped me, but sometimes can be useful).

One thing I am always reminded of when I roadtrip somewhere like this is that I still have no idea what meters are…Google Maps will be like “in 600 meters turn right” and…I either think that’s way longer or way shorter!

Tips for driving in the Azores & renting a car in Pico

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Is driving in the Azores safe?

Generally speaking, yes.  There are a few things to be careful of, all of which ultimately come down to paying attention and being cautious.  Driving in Azores is the definition of defensive driving!

First, be aware that many of the roads around the island are narrow and winding roads (as I spoke to above) and there aren’t nearly as many guardrails as we’d have in the U.S.  Mostly this means not to go too fast but sometimes the weather can complicate things.

For instance, in Pico, I took the path up to the Lagoas.  If it had rained recently I probably wouldn’t have done it, as mud would have made them hard to navigate.  Parts of the roads were pretty bad and rutted out, so I had to be very careful of my tires and not to bottom out.

On top of that, the weather was gorgeous and clear.  Until in the space of about 10 minutes, a complete cloud came in and covered everything, I couldn’t see more than a few feet in front of me.  Honestly it was a bit nervewracking until I could get out (thankfully I could use Google Maps to generally see where the road was going).  I have two pics below taken only about 15 minutes apart, to give you an idea.  This is why the webcams are critical to use when possible, to see what conditions may be (more on that in this Sao Miguel post).

I finally learned how to use those giant bulbous mirror things that they post to help you see if cars are coming either direction.  I’d never really used them before but it was the only way I could avoid pulling out into an oncoming car (in towns especially).

You’ll often run into roads that are really only a wide one-car road vs. a true two-way.  See my notes above about carefully seeing if other cars are coming and the etiquette for getting past each other.

Tips for driving in the Azores & renting a car in the Azores

Very fast fog on Pico Island - tips for safely driving in the Azores

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So that should be pretty much everything you need to know for Azores car rental, driving in the Azores islands, and how to have a smooth roadtrip experience!  These islands are absolutely amazing and deserve to be explored this way, and I hope you have an awesome time.

Other car rental and driving guides to help you plan:

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Everything to Know About Renting a Car in the Azores & Driving | Portugal's Azores Islands are mind-blowing, & perfect for an epic roadtrip...this is a detailed guide to car rental in the Azores, driving in the Azores, safety, & more! Car rental in Ponta Delgada, Pico, Faial, which Azores car rental companies, Azores Island itineraries. #azores #portugal #carrental

Comments (2)

  • Elise

    March 18, 2024 at 9:35 am

    Hi! With your chase sapphire did you decline the extra insurance while in the Azores? I usually don’t get insurance because i have my card but keep seeing it recommended. Thanks!

    1. Jessica

      March 19, 2024 at 7:26 am

      Hi Elise! Yes, I declined the extra insurance but confirmed with my Chase Sapphire that it covers the Azores.

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