living in Portugal

I’ve sung the praises of traveling for cheap in Portugal before after being impressed by how reasonably priced it was when I visited last year. But what does it cost to actually live there as an expat? Here’s an excerpt from A Better Life for Half the Price with the scoop from some people who have made the move.

When Susan Korthase and her husband were looking to move abroad from Milwaukee, Wisconsin, they had already lived abroad and moved 17 times. They started diving into the options and considered all the usual “retire abroad” suspects. They decided to go traveling around and check out different options, but they started in Europe, with plans to begin on the Atlantic coast and make their way east.

“The first place we started with was Portugal, but we went to the Algarve and really disliked it quite a bit. We went to Lisbon, and that was better, but at the very end of our two-week trip we got on a train and went to Cascais and said, “Wow, this is it!” We had planned to move on and check out other places, but we never did. We just stayed. We rented out our condo back home and eventually took a trip back to get new visas, but we have been here since January of 2011.”

Unless you’re loaded, it’s hard to imagine moving to Western Europe unless you’re working for a big company that’s posting you there on a job transfer.

Portugal is the odd man out though. Even before the recent economic debt crisis, it was a country that was drastically less expensive to travel in than its other euro-using counterparts. Since the crisis started, prices have flatlined for anything not imported.

Reasonable Housing Costs

With the economic crisis in Europe still hitting Portugal hard, it’s a buyer’s market for real estate and a renter’s market for apartments—at least outside the university towns. Many Portuguese people will tell you that €750/$1,000 is a pretty common amount for locals to live on. Sure, several family members will generally pool resources in one home, but still, if you move here as a couple that can bring in $3,000 a month, you’re going to be considered very well-off by local standards.

Julie Dawn Fox had been teaching English as a second language for 12 years, mostly for the British Council. After living in Spain, Tanzania, and Venezuela, she was getting tired of the transient lifestyle and wanted to settle down somewhere in Europe. “I missed the boat on buying a house in the UK; had an opportunity when I was younger but passed on it to go traveling instead,” she says. “While I was gone, prices skyrocketed and there was no way I could afford it. I looked at Portugal and the prices were much more affordable. I knew I could buy a house there on my own. I got a job teaching, but then I met my husband (also English) there. We only pay a couple hundred euros a month for his place. The drawback of that is we need two cars. We’re about 35 kilometers from Coimbra city where we work. We spend €200-250 a month on petrol. It’s usually more than our mortgage”

Julie and her husband regularly put €1,200 a month (around $1,620) from their teachers’ salaries into a joint account and that covers all their expenses. “If you aren’t extravagant, you can live well on a decent wage. Occasionally there’s enough left over for eating out and a bit of travel. We could probably could do it on €1,000 a month if we had to.” They are living in a modest three-bedroom house, but the low mortgage cost definitely helps. “This house would probably be 700 – 800 pounds a month in the UK,” she estimates. “We wouldn’t be able to afford it.”

Gail Aguiar has plenty of places to compare with her new home in northern Portugal. She was born in the Philippines but moved as a toddler with her family to Canada. “I grew up in several regions of Canada, where she spent time in Saskatchewan, Winnipeg, Vancouver, Toronto, and Banff. In between there was time in Australia, the UK, and the semi-rural northeastern U.S. This is it, though,” she says. “I have no plans to move anywhere else unless my Portuguese husband suddenly decides he wants to try expat life for himself, in which case I would join him.”

Alentejo region

Gail lives about 10 miles from the center of Porto and while her husband already owned a place, she says rental for a two-bedroom apartment like she’s in starts at around 400 euros per month ($540). In the center of Porto prices would be similar, but the apartment might be older and smaller.

Prices are similar in Lisbon, where a one-bedroom flat in a prime area can be found for under $600 a month and if you’re willing to expand your zone of possibilities, you could get more space or a lower price.

Buying a place is very reasonable by European standards throughout the country. “In Coimbra, for a reasonable apartment you would pay 150,000 to 200,000 euros for a nice two- or three-bedroom place. In rural areas, it’s easy to find a place that size for 100,000 euros or less,” says Julie. “There are lots of repossessions and bank sales going on right now. Banks sometimes offer 100 percent mortgages on these so you don’t need a big down payment, but restrictions are rather strict. When I was looking into it, they wanted an additional guarantor for the mortgage. They also wanted us to buy life insurance that would cover the amount in case something happened to us.”

Alicia and her husband paid cash for their home from a sale in England and had enough left over for a fixer-upper project on top. They live near the Silver Coast in Central Portugal, half an hour from the ocean and an hour from Lisbon and the airport. “We have a pool and an olive grove, and gorgeous views. We also bought an incredibly cheap village house in Castelo Branco which is a stunning area,” she says. “We get to experience real village life and the neighbors are very friendly. We are renovating the house and its slow going as we don’t live there now but we plan to rent it out for holidays.

Property prices are incredibly low,” she adds. “For the price of a tiny terrace or flat in, for example, The Midlands area of the UK you can get a lovely three-bedroom house with a garden near the coast or a two-bedroom flat a stop or two away from the center of Lisbon. We viewed a three-bedroom flat with a view of the sea for €35,000 just a ten-minute drive away from the city of Lisbon and only a 5 minute walk to the metro.

They don’t have rent or a mortgage since they own the house outright, but Alicia says, “You can get something decent from about €350 a month in Central Portugal and on the Silver Coast.” For their five-bedroom house near Lisbon they pay €890 per annum in property taxes. For the two-bedroom house in the countryside it’s only €100.

Living in Lisbon

Foreigners can own real estate outright in Portugal, but closing costs can be high: figure on 7-8 percent.

Author Alicia Sunday grew up in the Leicestershire countryside in England, moved to London for fifteen years, then to Cambridgeshire for twelve years. “We were attracted to the warmer weather in Portugal and being able to lose the mortgage and buy something with the equity from the house yet have more space and land,” she says. “We also liked the fact we could still afford to be less than an hour away from a fabulous capital city. Since coming here we have also discovered that expats are being encouraged here by lower taxes via the non-habitual residency scheme.

Good Infrastructure, Drinkable Water

This being Western Europe, infrastructure is good as well. “You can usually get broadband or Wi-Fi anywhere so if you can work on the internet then Portugal is a great place to be,” says Alicia. “You can realistically ‘live the dream’ here, be working on your laptop under a palm tree and then a quick dip in the pool in a property that can cost a lot less than 100,000 euros.”

You can drink the water, crime is low, and infrastructure is very good. The World Economic Forum ranks countries by how developed its infrastructure is and Portugal comes in at a very high #14, easing out Japan at #15 and just behind Canada at #13. (The UK, USA, and Australia aren’t in the top-20.)

There’s another place where Portugal is at the top of the list: liberal drug laws. Holland may get all the attention, but Portugal quietly dropped penalties for purchase and possession of any drug and has stuck with it. Despite the conservatives’ fears, crime hasn’t gone up and cities haven’t turned squalid. What’s defined as enough for “personal use?” That would be a 10-day supply. If you want to cut your costs while living in a liberal country with real democracy and no harsh winters, here’s your spot.

This is a good country for families, with a safe climate and good schooling options, at least in the cities. “The main reason why we decided I would move to Portugal was because we want to raise children here,” says Gail. “Portugal is much more child-friendly than Canada.”

Lisbon tram

Transportation Costs

The cost of getting around in Portugal has a lot to do with whether you’re driving a car on the highways or not.

Gail says in Porto a monthly public transit pass for their (outer) zone is €36, with individual trips as needed into the city being €1.50 each. One subway, bus, or tram ride in Lisbon ranges from €1.40 to €2.85, but an all-day unlimited pass is €6 and a whole month is the same as in Porto: €36.

A taxi in Lisbon for two people is officially €2.25 to start, then €1.60 per km. This can vary a lot across the country though. When I was in Evora it was €3.25 to go two blocks, but only €0.80 per km after that.

Bus routes in rural zones are not very frequent, but between the larger towns and cities it’s a different story. The 1.5 hour bus ride from Lisbon to Evora is €12.50 one-way. A 2.5 hour bus ride (Lisbon-Western Algarve towns for example) will run around €20 one-way, while the three-hour one between Lisbon and Porto is €24 to €42 depending on how luxurious it is.

What can really kill your budget in a hurry here though are the tolls on the expressways. “The highway tolls can really have a big impact on the cost of your trip,” says Julie. “Below Lisbon to Algarve, there’s a short stretch of road that’s 20 euros, for example. But it saves loads of time, so people pay it if they can afford it. The good thing is, the motorways are pretty empty when you’re on them because of the high cost.”

“Motorway tolls are a definite minus,” agrees Alicia. “They are far too expensive and thus not well used.”

You need to check the routes you don’t know in advance because you don’t stop at a booth and pay: you get charged automatically via a sticker on your windshield. You could return from a jaunt around the country to find a hefty bill on your account.

Portugal countryside

Health Care

The World Health Organization ranks the effectiveness of care in Portugal at number 12 in the world, well ahead of the United States, England, and Canada. Portugal also has the 10th-highest life expectancy for women in the world, at 84. Pregnant women get 120 days of paid leave at full salary and you won’t get stuck with a hefty bill if an ambulance picks you up at the scene of an accident.

Julie and her husband both have health care through her employer, but says if you’re on the national health scheme, you pay €5 to see the doctor and €10 for emergency care. You pay out of pocket for lab tests and x-rays, but then you can charge them back to insurance and get reimbursed 60 to 80 percent.

In general terms, you will be treated like a local in terms of the health care system. Some costs are free, while others require a token payment. Dental costs are mostly covered by taxes, plus children, pregnant women and pensioners have the right to receive dental care for free.

To choose your own doctor or hospital outside the national health care system, various insurance schemes are available at a reasonable cost. Is Lisbon the care is excellent and if you ask around you’ll easily be able to find an English-speaking doctor. This also applies to tourist zones like the Algarve and larger cities such as Porto. In smaller towns you may just have a local clinic, which is fine for basic problems, but then you’ll likely want to travel to a larger city for surgery or serious tests.

 Visas for Living in Portugal

“For EU residents, the visa situation is quite straightforward,” says Julie. “The most important thing is to be able to prove income, to show that you can support yourself. You need to have ample documentation to show them. Assuming that’s in order, you go to the foreigners service desk and soon you’ll have a residency permit for five years, which you can then renew.”

Evora AlentejoFor those without a local spouse or EU citizenship, it can be much tougher. “Almost all the articles you read about moving to Portugal talk about Brits or other Europeans,” says Susan Korthase. She and her husband spent around $400 in fees to get their residency visa, then another $3,600 for attorney fees. Each time they renew, they have to do it all again, though this last time they got two years instead of one. “There are a set of steps, with very explicit requirements,” she says. “Then you have to overcome the language barrier, which is where the attorney comes in. You quickly forget how painful it was when it’s done, but it was. Start to finish first time was about six months. If we had tried to do it without an attorney it would have taken longer and they treat you differently. You have to accept that bureaucracy will be a lot more complicated than you’re probably used to and people in the offices will be asking for things they don’t really need.” Next year they’ll be at the five-year mark though and can then apply for a five-year residency permit. At that point the big renewal bill they face each year from the attorney will go away.

For new arrivals, it turns out the prevailing assumption that you can only get a three-month visa is not true. Susan and her husband applied for six months at the embassy in Washington, D.C. before they left and after showing the means to support themselves, it was granted easily. In theory anyway, you could return to the USA for a bit and then do it again if you still didn’t have residency sorted out.

Susan writes about living in Portugal for ExpatExchange.com and also does consulting for people considering a move to her adopted country. “I’ve been able to help a few dozen people who are considering Portugal but can’t find a path through the confusing, capacious, and contradictory information about the process, costs, resources, and difficulties. Some of them cross Portugal off the list, opting for a Costa Rica or Belize. But for those of us who seek a first-world, high-culture experience, Portugal is among the most accessible.”

Alicia sums it all up like this: “The health care is good. Foreign investment is going into the area. School fees are reasonable. People are generally friendly and helpful. The scenery is stunning and there is so much beautiful coastline it’s easy to live near the sea and have spectacular views. To know that within half an hour of where we live is the opportunity to go surfing, swimming, sailing, etc. is just wonderful.”

 

This article is a shortened excerpt from A Better Life for Half the Price. For more in-depth information on Portugal and other countries where you can drastically cut your living expenses, get a copy of the book or sign up for an insiders membership program

 

living in Guanajuato

A morning view from my office

“What are you doing down there?” is the first question I get about living in Mexico. (Half the time followed by “Is it safe?”)

“Same thing I was doing in the other places I lived,” is my stock answer. I worked for many years to put myself in a position of being location independent, so all that changes from a work standpoint is how fast my internet connection is and what kind of view I’ve got outside my window.

There are lots of people in my position though. Graphic artists, translators, online professors, marketing consultants, sales reps, technical writers, systems analysts, and on the list goes for at least a hundred jobs. Then there’s the big one: entrepreneur. Create your own job and say adios to the cubicle forever. You can then cut your expenses in half (and lengthen your start-up runway) by moving somewhere cheaper. That’s what I talked about with Jen Leo, Gary Arndt, and Chris Christensen on the This Week in Travel podcast. You can get it on iTunes or click on the pic below to stream it:

This week in travel podcast

OK, first we talked about fights over reclining airport seats and a public statue you can get sued for publishing a photo of, but after that we get into lots of info about moving abroad. After you’ve listened, go here and you could win a free copy of the book or the Committed package: This Week in Travel promo.

Sabbaticals and Long-term Travel

But what if you only want to take off for a while, not permanently? That’s fine too. I’ve done it many times. Here’s a great BootsnAll article from a year ago that I and lots of other people were quoted in with their experiences. It’s called Why a Travel Break Can Be the Best Career Move You Ever Made and it dispels some of those myths about how your career will take a nosedive if you go traveling for more than two weeks.

A gap on the resumé? Better to have actually done something during that gap than to have been one of the millions who sat around waiting for the phone to ring. If you spin it right, that trip or living abroad experience can set you apart from the pack also. For many it’s more of a positive than a negative when they go back to the grind.

Where to travel for cheap? You’ll have to close the “50 Hottest Sex Tips” pop-up ad to get to this Men’s Health slideshow article, but there are some good ideas on bargain destinations from yours truly. (They decided I knew more about that than how to pick up women or get six-pack abs.)

You need to hold onto your money though and keep it from prying fingers. I’m quoted in this article from Nora Dunn on 14 Ways Travel Experts Carry Cash While Traveling.

Speaking of safety—and false perceptions—I’ve said before that a lot of people avoid Mexico City for outdated reasons. Here’s an article I wrote for American Airlines’ magazine on how to have a great 48 hours there.

Burma boy monks

Yes, it’s time for a new issue of Perceptive Travel, bringing you interesting travel narratives from wandering book authors since 2006.

This month we visit three continents and explore areas that aren’t usually on the tourist map. Camille Cusumano returns with a recounting of her time teaching tango to disadvantaged youths in a rough part of Kenya’s capital. With the program running on donated funds, it’s not a happy dance when the money starts lining pockets. See Dance of Betrayal in Nairobi.

Michael Shapiro exits the well-worn pagoda trail in Myanmar and visits Kalaw, once a British hill station. He lucks upon a two-day event meant to anoint new monks to be, from ages 4 to 11, before they enter the monastery. With parades, grand costumes, and head shaving, it’s a colorful glimpse into local culture. See Rites of Passage in Myanmar’s Tribal Highlands. Farmer Tom

Becky Garrison goes on a very strange press trip when she hooks up with Kush Tourism for a “Cannabis Grow Tour.” With Washington State being the next in line to legalize marijuana, farmers and vendors are gearing up for a green gold rush. See the full story here.

Every month we feature round-ups of new travel-related books worth checking out and dive into some world music worth downloading to take on the road. William Caverlee reviews a book on riding the seas on a gargantuan warship, going from the top of Everest to the sea by paraglider and kayak, and yet another pictorial list book from Lonely Planet.

Graham Reid does the music honors, spinning a rare union of NYC and Guinea, time-travel in India on a collection from the vaults, classic old soul from Africa, and a surprisingly good compilation of African blues from Rough Guides. See them all here.

better life abroadEach month our newsletter subscribers and Facebook followers have a shot at winning something useful and in August it was Don L. of Alaska. He scored a new pair of Pickpocket Proof nylon business pants, which are my current faves. He’ll be holding onto all his valuables when he heads off to Southeast Asia next month.

This time we’re giving away my new book, A Better Life for Half the Price to one reader, while another will get the Committed package that comes with a lot of extra insider access goodies ($89 value). If you are already on the newsletter list, watch your inbox. If not, pay attention to the Facebook feed. Subtitled “How to prosper on less money in the cheapest places to live,” it’s essential reading for anyone contemplating a life upgrade by moving abroad.

Bulgaria travel

I’ve had two conversations in two weeks about how great Bulgaria is, with other people who have visited. One was a fellow travel writer who has had serious trouble getting editors to take a story about the place. It’s not trendy, not a hotspot, not a place where luxury hotel chains are scampering to open new properties. But that makes it a great place for budget travelers who appreciate a great value.

I wrote some blogs posts and this article on Bulgaria that won me a few awards after I was there a few years ago. The country is in my World’s Cheapest Destinations book and it’s also featured in the new one, A Better Life for Half the Price. I’m obviously a fan and it’s a place I definitely want to get back to for a longer period. It’s not the bleak, ex-communist wasteland people probably expect to see, if they expect anything at all.

traveling Bulgaria

Last time I was traveling as a guest of Odysseia-in adventure tour company and I would use them again on my own dime when I go back with the wife or whole family. They have great connections and knowledge for the full country and can enable you to get around that whole language barrier thing, which can be serious in the countryside.

Plovdiv street

Because you really do need to get into the countryside to see what makes Bulgaria so great. Sure, Sofia is pleasant enough, but most backpackers go there by default, even though it’s not that great of a city. You’re better off spending the city time in Plovdiv (pictured above) or the great Veliko Tarnovo (pictured below). The latter is one of those places that should be mobbed with tourists, but thankfully isn’t. It’s right on the main train line between Istanbul and Bucharest, so it’s a great place to start or end.

Veliko Tarnovo

You can do hut to hut hikes here like you would in Switzerland, but for 1/5 the cost. The green mountains are surprisingly well preserved and you get stunning scenery along the way. Round a bend and you may end up an a monastery a few hundred years old, then a small village where you’re sure to get a great meal.

hiking bulgaria

That Perceptive Travel story I linked to earlier was as much about the food as it was about the countryside because one of the greatest draws here is what you sit down and eat each meal. The meals are often organic, slow food, made from scratch. That’s not because they’re being trendy though. It’s just the way they cook. If something is in season, it will be on your plate. If you’re there in winter, you’ll be getting stews, pickled vegetables, and aged cheese. And always great bread, great beer, and great wine. I’m salivating just thinking about it.

If you go an love it so much you’re thinking of putting down some roots, it’s not going to cost you much. Check out these home auction prices.

vacation rental

Sure beats a cheap motel

The first time I went to Salt Lake City for the Outdoor Retailer market convention, I was in a crappy Econolodge motel with stained carpets, intermittent Wi-Fi, barely working heat, lukewarm hot water, and a lumpy bed.

This time I stayed in a pristine room with a heavenly mattress, in a craftsman bungalow house in a quiet location. The Wi-Fi and hot water worked flawlessly and I had a table I could work at.

The interesting thing is, the latter was cheaper.

There are plenty of times a hotel is the best bet for where you’re going and the good ones can be excellent spots to roll into to get some work done or be right in the center of the action. If rates are at their peak though and there are not many empty rooms, you can really pay a premium. That’s how I ended up in someone’s spare bedroom in Salt Lake City two weeks ago: when a big convention comes to that city like the one I was attending, even the crappiest places like Motel 6 and Super 8 will raise their rates to $150, $200 or more per night.

I used AirBnB for that crash pad (with some lovely hosts) and got a beach rental place through them the month before in Puerto Escondido. We paid less than we would have for a very basic hotel, but had two bedrooms and a pool to ourselves.

They’re not the only game around though and when you’re looking outside of the United States, there’s often another dominant player or two you should pull up as well. In some Mexican towns, for instance, you’ll find more listings on the traditional sites like VacationRentals.com. When we still owned our beach house in the Yucatan state, you could rent it for $250 per week through there.

If you’re headed to Europe, HouseTrip has more than 300,000 places to choose from and is active almost anywhere you would want to go. They can save you some big bucks when you’re in an expensive European capital, or just give you some more space and a kitchen if you want to keep your expenses low and have more room to spread out. Unlike some of those rotten chain hotels, the owners aren’t going to charge you to use the internet signal.

Athens rental

Kitchen of a 47 euros per night European apartment for 4

I pulled up their Athens listings because the Travel Bloggers Exchange Europe–where I’m going to be a speaker—is happening there in October. I checked out what’s available for four people and there are some terrific values. Plenty of apartments are under 100 euros a night and there are quite a few that are half that. If you get a larger place for more people the cost per person would be getting a real apartment for less than a hostel dorm bed.

I like hotels a lot and my job has me reviewing a lot of them. When I’m with my family though, it gets old when all of us are sleeping in the same room, sharing the same bathroom. Renting two connected rooms can be inexpensive in some countries, but often not. When we went from a cramped Bangkok hotel room to an apartment we rented on one trip, the price was about the same but we had three times as much space.

How about you? Where have you found terrific vacation rental deals?