“ Transportes de Lisboa „
~The best laid plans~
When I was planning our trip to Lisbon for the week before Easter this year, I pretty much planned not to plan. I knew that getting my sister and her partner to fall in with any strict itinerary was going to be impossible so I decided to just be quite lazy and work out what to do when we got there. In my mind I supposed we'd just wave down a taxi whenever we needed one and, with four of us in the group, it probably would be pretty cheap. I go to Lisbon quite often for work and I've always been pretty impressed with both the honesty of the taxi drivers and the low costs they charge. What I hadn't considered was that they probably weren't ripping me off because I was usually taking them to an out of the city industrial estate where I knew the route better than some of them did, or I was getting taxis that the company had ordered for me. I hadn't realised that I'd been lucky.
On our first evening I realised just how lucky. Our first taxi to the hotel was driven by a guy so short-sighted he held the hotel address up to his nose like Mr Magoo before leaping into the car and driving like he was auditioning for a role as a stunt-car driver. We arrived feeling many years older than when we got into the car. As a result of a mix up with the passports (don't ask, honestly, don't) my husband was arriving about 4 hours after the rest of us so we took a nice honest taxi back to the airport which was ordered by the hotel and then got into a fight with the driver who took us back again which resulted in my calling him a crook and a liar and short paying him by about 20% before stomping off. I pointed out that he'd found the most ridiculous route between the airport and the hotel and we weren't going to pay him for his dishonesty. It was quite a performance and the hotel receptionist clapped her hands with glee when we told her about it. The lesson learnt was that too many Lisbon taxi drivers consider tourists to be wallets with legs and are happy to dip into those wallets and take what they like.
The decision was made - one way or another we were going to figure out how to use public transport.
~Red and Green - What's your line?~
Our hotel - Hotel DAH - was located between two Metro stations, Olaias and Alameda. We were advised to go from Alameda and if possible to come back to Olaias, the reason being that there's a big hill between the hotel and Alameda and it's down hill to the station and uphill back. Since Alameda is actually the more useful station because it's a junction station, one where the green and red lines cross, we used that almost all the time, only trying Olaias when we were travelling on the red line.
On our first morning in the city we set off down the hill to Alameda station. I had thought before we went that I'd used the Lisbon Metro before but once I actually got into the station I realised that I had Lisbon muddled up with Madrid and if I had ever used it, it was a very long time ago. I hadn't done my homework about how the system worked despite there being some info in my guidebook so I just asked the guy in the ticket office for four tickets to Oriente station, the station closest to the city's Oceanario aquarium. He waved a bright green card at me and asked if we had such cards. I said we hadn't and that I had no idea what the card was and he merrily sold us four such cards, each charged with enough credit to take us to the Oriente station. In this case it was a 50c fee for the card and Euro1.40 for the fee. We watched what other people were doing and copied, waving our cards at the so-called 'validators' on the gates which allowed us through and into the station.
Whilst we sat on the train going to the Oriente station, I had a quick read of my guide book to understand that what we'd just bought were 'Viva Viagem' cards which we could put into a machine at any of the stations and charge up with credit to use for further journeys. Using the prepayment machines would make each journey slightly cheaper than paying at the ticket booth and would mean we didn't have to keep searching for change each time we wanted to travel.
~Play your cards right~
The Viva Viagem card is designed for occasional or tourist use. If you are a local, you can get season tickets and various other multi-use cards which represent better value but the average tourist doesn't need or want something quite so permanent. We bought ours from the ticket seller but if you're planning a trip to Lisbon and you want to be smarter than us, just read this review and you'll realise that you can get them directly from the machines in the station and get a better price than buying from a real live human being.
The machines which sell the Viva Viagem are the same ones you use for loading credit onto the cards. Even the unmanned Metro stations seem to have the charging machines and many of the bus and tram stops don't have any place to buy a ticket so for maximum convenience, I recommend to get a card, stick some credit on it and then just run it down during your visit. We didn't see any ticket machines at the tram or bus stops which we used so I would recommend to load up more credit when you are getting low, just in case you find yourself out of credit when you want to take a tram and can't find a credit loading machine.
When we got to Oriente Station we decided to go find the machine and sort out some credit right away. The multi-lingual machines offer all the information in English if you click the Union Flag symbol on the touch screen. Americans, Australians et al will just have to accept that England and Portugal have been friends for over 400 years and our flag gets precedence over the flags that ancient treaties and alliances that date back to before the times when those young countries existed.
Touch the screen and confirm whether you already have a card to load or whether you need to buy the card. We confirmed we had cards and entered the first one into the machine. Next the screen asks what you want to load onto the card - either just enough money for one journey, or 5 euros or 10 euros. If you add 5 euros the system gives you an extra 15c worth of credit or if you load 10 euros, it gives an extra 75c. Once you've chosen what to add, the screen asks if you want to pay by cash or card and if you're paying cash, there's a slot to feed in bank notes or a slot to feed in coins.
I believe it's also possible to load some special deals such as the one day travelcard for Euro6 which is worth doing if you'll take 5 or more journeys in one day. However, I couldn't work out how to do this - and we never did take 5 or more journeys in one day - so we stuck to the simple system of adding credits. Whilst you get a slightly better deal if you add more credit, I would not advise to get too carried away the first time you load credit, just in case you find that you really don't use the system as much as you expected.
If you buy your journeys from the machines, each trip will cost just Euro1.25. I suspect we were charged more when we bought our first tickets because we used the services of a real live human being. Differential pricing for buying from real people versus machines is not unusual in many European countries.
Once you have credit on your Viva Viagem cards, you can use them on the city's Metro, bus services, and trams. I don't think they work on the ferries but you may need to check that. Of particular use to tourists is the fact that they work on the city's historic old trams such as the famous number 28 which winds up through the steep streets in the centre of town, heading up to the Castle. Do not mistake the yellow trams which are included for one of the much more expensive red trams which are special tourist trams. When you get onto a bus or a tram, you just need to validate your ticket by holding the pass against the sensor. It's not necessary to do this again when you leave the vehicle.
We were in Lisbon for five nights and four days and spent one day outside the city with a driver and vehicle so we used our cards for three days. We took the Metro to and from the Parque dos Nacoes to see the aquarium on our first day, then went to the old part of the city and back again on our third day, before using a mix of Metro, trams and buses to visit Belem on our final day. In total we each spent Euro11.90 on our journeys and the card and my husband and I each had less than 50c left when we finished. My sister and her partner had maybe one and a half euros credit left at the end. This is why I suggest not to get too excited an overload your card as you may not finish all the credit.
The card is valid for up to one year and can be reloaded as often as you like. I was impressed that it cost so little - just 50c - as I also have a similar card for Amsterdam and the Dutch railways which costs Euro7.50 just for the card and demands a minimum credit of something like Euro20 whilst the Lisbon card won't allow you to put more than Euro20 credit onto it.
~Give it a go~
Lisbon is a fabulous 'value for money' city and learning how to use the public transport will make a big difference to your stay. My expectation had been that a taxi for four people probably wouldn't cost much more than taking the Metro but I'd not realised how cheap public transport was or how dishonest many of the drivers would be. If you are travelling on your own or in a couple, the savings will be even greater compared to using taxis.
I strongly recommend using the Metro, trams and buses. We found all of them easy to understand, comfortable and safe and would only caution you to keep an eye on your wallet and bags as pickpockets can be a problem, especially in the most touristic areas.