Car Travel

DESTINATIONS portland car-travel-34


Car Travel

Portland is a fairly easy city to navigate by car, and if you’re planning to explore neighboring regions—such as the coast, Willamette Wine Country, and Columbia Gorge—it’s best to do so by car, as public transportation options to these areas, especially the coast, is limited. That said, parking downtown can get expensive and a car isn’t necessary for getting around the city itself. One practical strategy is going without a car during the days you plan to spend in the city center, and then renting a car just for those days when you’re venturing outside of the city or exploring some of the East Side neighborhoods, which have ample free parking. Most major rental agencies have downtown offices, and renting downtown can save you plenty of money, as you avoid paying the hefty taxes and surcharges that airport agencies charge.

Portland is easily reached via the West Coast’s major interstate highway, Interstate 5, which connects Portland to Seattle (which is three hours’ drive north) and Eugene (a little over two hours’ drive south). Interstate 84 begins in downtown Portland and runs east into the Columbia Gorge and eventually to Idaho. U.S. 26 is the main route to the Oregon Coast west from downtown, and to Mt. Hood going east. Bypass freeways are Interstate 205, which links Interstate 5 and Interstate 84 before crossing the Columbia River north into Washington, and Interstate 405, which arcs around western downtown. Most city-center streets are one way, and some downtown streets—including 5th and 6th avenues—are limited primarily to bus and MAX traffic (with just one lane for cars, and limited turns).

From the airport to downtown, take Interstate 205 south to westbound Interstate 84. Traffic on Interstate 5 north and south of downtown and on Interstate 84 and Interstate 205 east of downtown is often heavy between 6 am and 9 am and between 4 and 8 pm. Four-lane U.S. 26 west of downtown can be bumper-to-bumper any time of the day going to or from downtown.


Gas stations are plentiful in Portland and on all major highways in and out of the city; they can be surprisingly sparse, however, once you venture into some of the rural regions just outside the metro area, and Oregon does not have automated pumps. It’s advisable to fill up before you attempt any road trips into the mountains, wine country, or coastal areas. Most gas stations stay open late or 24 hours, again except in rural areas. In Oregon, customers are not permitted to pump their own gas—just remain in your car, and an attendant will do this for you (tipping isn’t necessary or expected). Gas prices in Oregon are about 20 to 30 cents per gallon higher than the national average.


Compared with other major U.S. cities, Portland has ample parking, even downtown, both metered and in garages. The most affordable and accessible option is to park in one of several city-owned "Smart Park" lots. Rates start at $1.60 per hour (short-term parking, four hours or less) to $5 per hour (long-term parking, weekdays 5 am–6 pm), with a $15 daily maximum; weekends and evenings have lower rates. The best part about Smart Park is that hundreds of participating merchants validate tickets, covering the first two hours of parking when you spend at least $25 in their establishments.

There are numerous privately owned lots around the city as well; fees for these vary and can be quite pricey, and downtown hotels also charge significantly (as much as $30 to $40 nightly).

Downtown street parking is metered only, and enforcement is vigilant. You can use cash or a credit card to pay ($1.60 per hour) at machines located on each block; display your receipt on the inside of your curbside window. Metered spaces are mostly available for one to three hours, with a few longer-term spaces available on certain streets.

Outside of the downtown core, you’ll find plenty of free street parking, although time limits (usually an hour to three hours) are enforced in some busier, commercial parts of town. You can find a number of streets with unmetered parking relatively close to downtown, by heading west of the Pearl District and north of Burnside Street, in Nob Hill and environs. On the east side of the river, unmetered parking is the norm.

Rental Cars

Rental-car rates in Portland typically begin around $30 a day and $150 a week, not including the 17% Multnomah County tax and, if you rent at the airport, a number of additional taxes.

All the major agencies are represented in the region. If you're planning to cross the U.S.–Canadian border with your rental car, discuss it with the agency—most of them allow you to do so, but they may ask you to fill out some additional paperwork.

In the Pacific Northwest you must be 21 to rent a car. Car seats are compulsory for children under four years and 40 pounds; older children are required to sit in booster seats until they're eight years old and 80 pounds. In the United States nonresidents need a reservation voucher, passport, driver's license, and insurance for each driver.

When you reserve a car, ask about cancellation penalties, taxes, drop-off charges for one-way rentals, and any other surcharges (for being under or over a certain age, for additional drivers, and so on). All these things can add substantially to your costs. Request car seats and extras such as GPS when you book.

Rates are sometimes—but not always—better if you book in advance or reserve through a rental agency's website. There are other reasons to book ahead, though: in Portland, during the busy summer high season, it may be tough to score a last-minute rental or a certain type of car (vans, SUVs, exotic sports cars).

l Make sure that a confirmed reservation guarantees you a car. Agencies sometimes overbook, particularly for busy weekends and holiday periods.

Rental Car Insurance

Everyone who rents a car wonders whether the insurance that the rental companies offer is worth the expense. No one—including us—has a simple answer. It all depends on how much regular insurance you have, how comfortable you are with risk, and whether or not money is an issue.

If you own a car and carry comprehensive car insurance for both collision and liability, your personal auto insurance will probably cover a rental, but read your policy's fine print to be sure. If you don't have auto insurance, then you should probably buy the collision- or loss-damage waiver (CDW or LDW) from the rental company. This eliminates your liability for damage to the car.

Many credit cards offer CDW coverage, but it's usually supplemental to your own insurance and rarely covers SUVs, minivans, luxury models, and the like. If your coverage is secondary, you may still be liable for loss-of-use costs from the car-rental company (again, read the fine print). But no credit-card insurance is valid unless you use that card for all transactions, from reserving to paying the final bill.

Diners Club offers primary CDW coverage on all rentals reserved and paid for with the card. This means that Diners Club's company—not your own car insurance—pays in case of an accident. It doesn't mean that your car-insurance company won't raise your rates if it discovers you caused an accident.

You may also be offered supplemental liability coverage; the car-rental company is required to carry a minimal level of liability coverage insuring all renters, but it's rarely enough to cover claims in a really serious accident if you're at fault. Your own auto-insurance policy will protect you if you own a car; if you don't, you have to decide whether you are willing to take the risk.

U.S. rental companies sell CDWs and LDWs for about $15 to $25 a day; supplemental liability is usually more than $10 a day. The car-rental company may offer you all sorts of other policies, but they're rarely worth the cost. Personal accident insurance, which is basic hospitalization coverage, is an especially egregious rip-off if you already have health insurance.

You can decline the insurance from the rental company and purchase it through a third-party provider such as Travel Guard (—$9 per day for $35,000 of coverage. That's just under half the price of the CDW offered by some car-rental companies.

Roadside Emergencies

In case of an accident, dial 119. On the major roads and in metro areas, you can call a nearby garage. In rural areas, you'll probably have to rely on the help of locals to get your car up and running as far as one of the larger towns.

To report a car theft, call 119. You also need to call your rental-car agency.

For emergencies and for an ambulance, dial 911.

Emergency Services

Oregon State Police. 503/378–3720; 800/452–7888;

Road Conditions

Winter driving can present challenges. Western Oregon’s mild, damp climate contributes to frequently wet roadways. Snowfalls generally occur only once or twice a year in and around Portland, but when it does fall, traffic grinds to a halt and roadways become treacherous and stay that way until the snow melts. Within an hour’s drive of downtown, however, in the Cascades and to a lesser extent Coast Mountain range, snowfall is common from as early as October through May.

Tire chains, studs, or snow tires are essential equipment for winter travel in mountain areas. If you're planning to drive into high elevations, be sure to check the weather forecast beforehand. Even the main freeway mountain passes can close because of snow conditions. In winter, state and provincial highway departments operate snow advisory telephone lines that give pass conditions.


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