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The pleasures and pitfalls of renting a car in Mexico

SmarterTravel

Renting a car is often the best way to explore Mexico beyond the beach resorts and big cities. On a past trip to Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula, I chose to rent car rather than do a tour bus excursion, and it allowed me to see places I wouldn’t have been able to reach otherwise. I visited ancient ruins hidden in the jungle off dirt roads, small artists’ communities, and water-filled cenotes (caves that have an opening at the surface), perfect for swimming during the midday heat. I’ll rent again on future trips to Mexico and I’d recommend rental cars to others looking to experience the “real” Mexico on their vacation.

Most of the big U.S. car rental companies have locations in Mexico, particularly at the airports, so it’s easy to find a trusted, familiar agency. However, renting a car in Mexico can be expensive, and driving there poses some unique problems. First, the lowest-priced rental cars most agencies rent tend to be quite small manual transmission models, often lacking features most Americans view as standard, such as air conditioning and closed-over trunks. Once you start asking for features like automatic transmission or larger-model vehicles, the price can jump substantially.

Second, buying the agency’s Mexican car rental insurance is often an absolute must. Your own U.S. policy and protections offered by many credit cards will not cover you should you damage the car or get into an accident. Buying the rental agency’s insurance will, of course, inflate the final price further. For example, when I did a week-long rental of a compact automatic car from Avis in the Yucatan, I paid about $500, roughly half of which went to insurance.

Third, most rental cars in Mexico have big stickers slapped on their front and back bumpers displaying the rental agency’s name. This advertises your status as a tourist to car thieves and corrupt police officers, groups known to pose problems to drivers in certain parts of the country.

On my Mexico trip, however, I didn’t run into any troubles other than some potholes and speed bumps. Overall, I thought the Mexican drivers were far more polite than the ones I’m used to driving among back home. Obeying the speed limit and other road rules and not driving late at night probably helped me. The website TravelYucatan.com goes in more detail about car rentals and driving in Mexico.

Have a great travel tip you’d like to share? Send your insider travel strategies to editor@smartertravel.com.

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