All travellers that have been in the Azores will strongly recommend you to get your own car. Ideally, you should rent your car as soon as you book your flights to avoid ending up without a transportation mode. But whether it is because car rentals are sold out, or because you don’t have a driving license or even because your budget is limited, with the right organization and the right itinerary, you will be able to survive there without a car.
If you are in this situation, there are several alternatives to cars:
- Taking the bus:
Buses in the Azores are impractical. Public transportation is exclusively set up for locals who need to go to and from work every day and are not practical for tourists (last buses back to the main settlements are usually around 4-5pm). But some islands are better served than others. São Miguel has good bus services to most parts of the island. For the rest of the archipelago, it is best to rely on other options. If public transport is your only choice, it is best to stay in Ponta Delgada. You will need to plan your journey well in advance and be ready to wake up super early to fit the bus schedule. You can pick up the bus schedule from the tourism office or take a look at the timetable here (Horários). There are 3 lines operated by 3 different companies. The buses are fairly old, but since distances are short, rides are rarely longer than 90 minutes.
2. Getting around by taxi:
There are a few taxis on each island and they are usually queuing in front of the Arrivals at the airport. You can also ask your accommodation to call one for you. Taxis are centrally regulated throughout the islands and you pay the same rate with everyone. About 10€ between the two ends of Ponta Delgada, out of town trips are 20-30€ or 40-50€ to the farthest parts of the island. If you want to hire a taxi with a driver for a day, it will generally cost you around 100€. But make sure you bargain before accepting any offer. Prices are relatively similar on all the islands.
3. Booking a private tour:
Many sights are only reachable/enjoyable through the use of private companies, whether that's canyoning, whale watching or something else. Their half-day excursions tend to start at 50-60€ and can cost upward of 100€. They are usually of high quality but aren't for the budget traveler. Look at https://www.viator.com/Azores/d22379-ttd for some ideas.
4. Renting a bike and cycling around the island:
Can you cycle in the Azores? Although very economical, you might struggle as the islands are all very hilly. You will need to cycle in a lot of steep uphill places. Electric bikes could ease your pain but they might not be powerful enough to take you anywhere given the islands' size and terrain.
This is the best option for budget travellers. Locals are really friendly and crime-related fears are very low. From experience, the first passing car with enough space will usually be happy to give you a lift. Everybody understands that public transport is limited on the islands so hitchhiking is relatively easy. The only downside is that some areas have very little traffic and you might need to wait. You can also combine bus with hitch-hiking: for example take one of the rare bus rides out of town and return by hitchhiking.
6. Doing everything by walk:
If you are a hiker, and not afraid of carrying all your luggage with you, you can consider taking tents and doing multi-day hikes. This option works better on smaller islands (like São Jorge or Santa Maria) and in the summer. Rainy weather and slippery trails can make hiking dangerous and little enjoyable.
Visiting the Azores without a car is not an easy thing but it is not impossible. Consider where to stay according to places you can reach by bus. Ponta Delgada has certainly the most connections by bus. Be ready to spend on cabs or private excursions to reach sights that are outside towns.
Consider as well combining bus with hitch-hiking, which works incredibly well in the Azores.
As usual, remember to give yourself a day or so leeway at the end of your holiday to make sure you can get back to the main airport island, just in case things did not go as planned.