After a few hours journey you finally arrive in Lisbon. In all likelihood the sun will be shining, but beware because in case you have to take a cab your first contact with the city may not be the most pleasant.
This is common knowledge among people who live in Lisbon: the taxi rank at the airport is infamous for the fluctuating fares cab drivers charge their foreign customers. If the Portuguese are in general spared this type of scam, unwary foreigners arriving at Lisbon Airport on the other hand are usually made to open their wallets and cough up an amount well above the standard fare.
Taking advantage of a foreigner’s lack of knowledge, it is not rare for a taxi driver to make a 30-minute detour when all it should take is a 10 minute drive to go from the airport to a hotel in the city centre, charging them well above what they would charge a Portuguese. Aware of such scams, we at PDV decided to look into these practices and, with a suitcase filled with old clothes and a conspicuous check-in sticker from a previous trip, and armed with my best English accent, I headed out to Lisbon Airport by bus (the return trip cost €3) with the aim of catching a cab into the city. I repeated this journey a few times.
Taxi fares according to the driver’s whim
Outside the Arrivals hall, two policemen seemed only concerned with keeping the people queuing up for taxis in order. I joined the queue and a few moments later a taxi pulled up driven by a middle-aged man. I placed my bag in the boot and, after getting in, I simply showed the cabbie a piece of paper with ‘Hotel Fénix, Marquês de Pombal‘ scribbled on it, without saying a word – and the cab took off in the direction of one of Lisbon’s busiest central squares, which sees hundreds of tourists arrive every day.
The route he took was regular enough, considering the final destination: Avenida dos Estados Unidos da América, followed by Avenida da República, and then Avenida Fontes Pereira de Melo which ends in Marquês de Pombal square. Not a single world was exchanged between us in the course of the ride. I saw the driver glance suspiciously towards the back seat several times during the ride, while I tried my best to look curious about what I saw of the city. The taximeter was never switched on during our ride, which would never happen if the cabbie had known I was Portuguese.
As we approached the city centre, the driver asked me in Portuguese: “Hotel Fénix Garden or Hotel Fénix Lisboa?”. I tried to bluff my way out by simply saying “sorry?”, in English. We finally arrived at the destination and the cabbie charged me (speaking in English) €13 for the taxi ride. Not bad for the route he took, but still somewhat above the normal fare, which should come to around €8, plus a few extras: there is a €2 fixed tariff you must pay upfront, plus a €1,60 surcharge for luggage. I payed what he charged me and then asked him for a receipt in Portuguese. The driver winced but (at least here) followed the law: asking for a receipt is in accordance with the law, with the vehicle’s registration plate clearly printed on the heading.
Exemplary service…with an attempted scam in the end
Sometime later I made my way back to the airport. I caught the same bus, using the same ticket, and in 15 minutes it was stopping outside the Departures hall. In the taxi rank outside the Arrivals hall, the two policemen were still busy chatting away, distractedly keeping the people in the queue in line. Once again I got into a cab, this time driven by a woman and, with my best English accent, asked to be taken to Largo do Chiado, a square located between two of Lisbon’s most iconic neighbourhoods: the shopping district of Chiado, and the alternative nightlife district of Bairro Alto.
This time, after making a bit of small talk (“Is it your first time in Lisbon?”, and “Are you here for work?”, she asked), we drove off, leaving the airport behind. Surprisingly, the taximeter was switched on. The route she took was choked with traffic, but it was still an acceptable alternative to take.
After a few minutes trying to avoid answering her insistent questions in broken English, the taxi approached the final destination with the taximeter reading €10. I thought that, this time over, I had finally found a decent professional. But lo and behold, as I was getting ready to congratulate the cabbie for her exemplary service, she switched off the taximeter and took out a price list and proceeded to charge me €24 for the ride. This was highway robbery and the driver was committing a crime by switching off the meter. I then confronted her with the situation – in Portuguese – and demanded to pay what was on the taximeter.
After seeing her jump in her seat, I told the cabbie who I was and what I was doing – to her great relief. The conversation rolled on and she herself told me all the tricks of the trade and even a few stories of far serious scams. Amid the short rides that become extremely long and over-inflated fares, one story has become almost a legend among cabbies: that of the tourist who wanted to be taken to the Algarve and who was dropped off in Setúbal (a city to the south of Lisbon, some 40 minutes’ drive from the city centre), convincing him he had reached his destination.
A few tips to help you catch a cab in Lisbon
To avoid these and other scams, PDV has outlined a few tips that will help make your taxi ride a more peaceful, albeit certainly less memorable, affair, and help you reach you destination with a few euros left in your wallet.
- Maps: Get help from apps such as Google Maps – if you have a smartphone – to understand if you are being strung along with a 5km trip when your destination lies a mere 500m away. If you don’t have a smartphone, take an ordinary map, or check out the journey at home.
- Taximeter: Always check it has been switched on as soon as the journey begins, and don’t take a taxi that does not have a taximeter.
- Receipt: In case you ask for an invoice, make sure it has the taxi’s registration plate on it. Those without it are useless in case you should want to lodge a complaint.
- Police: In case you run into trouble or suspect some scam with the fare, don’t hesitate to call the police by dialling (+351) 21 POLICIA – the number of the PSP police Metropolitan Command – or contact the Tourist Police station through the number (+351) 21 342 16 23, or going to the station itself, located in Palácio Foz, at Praça dos Restauradores, in the city centre.
- Fares: Don’t forget the surcharges: there is a nation-wide €2 fixed tariff as soon as you get in a taxi or call for one, which goes up to €2,50 during the night. There is also a single €1,60 surcharge for luggage.
An ordinary taxi ride during the day to Marquês de Pombal from Lisbon Airport, including luggage, will cost you some €8 on average, while a journey to Chiado in similar conditions will cost around €9,50. A ride to the Oriente train station and bus depot, one of Lisbon’s main transport hubs, will cost you some €5,40 with luggage, according to the simulator on the website of the Portuguese association of taxi drivers (ANTRAL).