When I first suggested to Matt that we rent a car in Mexico, he was a bit skeptical to say the least. The idea of driving in a foreign country is scary enough, without adding in the uncertain element of driving in a country like Mexico. We had flashbacks to our taxi driver in Puerto Vallarta, veering off the road and driving on the shoulder to get around traffic.
But after a little research online, there seemed to be a general concensus that driving in Mexico was not nearly as scary as it seemed. The horror stories of being pulled over by police looking for bribes did not come to fruition for us. And overall, despite a little extra anxiety, our Mexican road trip from Cancun to Tulum and back was largely uneventful.
There are a few things to know before you go, mostly so you aren’t taken advantage of as a tourist. Here’s what we learned:
Get an International Driving Permit
Ok, an international driving permit is not required in Mexico, but we chose to get one anyway. Basically, it’s used to supplement your state driver’s license and translates the information into 10 different languages; helpful in case you were to be pulled over, leaving the police to decipher your Nebraska driver’s license. For us, it was worth the extra peace of mind.
The easiest way to get an international driving permit in the US is by stopping at almost any AAA location. It costs $20 (plus the cost of two passport pictures) and takes about 10 minutes to get. The permit is good for one year and recognized globally.
I highly suggest booking your rental car online before you arrive in Mexico. The Hertz rental counter at the Cancun Airport was insanity, but having a reservation already in place allowed us to skip most of the waiting time and get right into a car. Also, make sure you are quoted your rate in pesos (so the amount you pay will not be affected by a fluctuating exchange rate) and bring your contract to confirm the details.
Review the Contract Carefully
You’ll notice when looking up rental rates online that you can score a rental car in Mexico for a fantastic deal. That’s because rental companies largely make up their profit in extra fees and services. Be sure to look over the contract very carefully and decline anything unnecessary (which for us, was pretty much everything extra). And after signing the contract, look over the car very carefully, noting any dings, scratches, or other damages.
Tip: There is one big extra charge that’s unavoidable: the 19% Mexican national tax. It may not be included on your quote and likely won’t be until you return your car, so keep that in mind for your budgeting.
Know Your Options on Car Insurance
Here’s the deal about rental car insurance in Mexico: only basic liability insurance is required. What they won’t tell you at the rental counter is that this basic liability insurance has already been included in the cost of the rental. By law, they have to provide this.
But instead, what you’ll hear at the counter is that liability insurance is required, and then they’ll sell you on a big supplemental liability policy. It’s not a total scam: the basic liability insurance covers up to around $3500, so while it’s good, it won’t cover you completely in the case of a major accident that is your fault. But ultimately it’s up to you to decide whether or not you truly want the added liability coverage (we chose to decline). Bear in mind that adding the supplemental liability will likely double (or in some cases, even triple) the cost of your rental.
Tip: Also check if your credit card offers any collision coverage, and if so, if that coverage also applies to international travel.
There’s no need to rent GPS from the rental company. So long as you have a smart phone, you can use the app Maps.me instead. You can download the region’s map in advance and use it offline for turn-by-turn directions (no wi-fi or international data plan required)!
Consider Prepaid Gas
This is another add-on service by the rental companies, and to be honest I was seriously skeptical of it myself. Our rental agent encouraged us “return the car empty”, saying they’d charge us 3 pesos/liter less for gas than the gas stations! This sounded way too good to be true, and I was certain there had to be a catch.
Well, there was, but it wasn’t as bad as I thought. And after leaving Playa del Carmen with not a peso to our name, we decided to take the chance and go with the “prepaid gas” instead of filling up. The way this works out well for the rental company is they charge you for a full tank of gas at that discounted price, regardless of how much gas is left. So while you’ll probably pay more than filling up yourself (unless you literally return the car on empty), it was nice to not deal with with the hassle of filling up. (read on…)
Pay Attention When Filling Up
In all of my reading up on driving in Mexico, I came across the same advice over and over again about how to avoid getting scammed when filling up. And while we never went to the pump ourselves, this is what I learned:
All gas stations in Mexico are full service, meaning someone else will be pumping your gas for you. You should always pay in cash and show the exact amount you want in pesos beforehand (as in, showing a 200 peso bill to the pump attendant). Also watch the attendant to be sure they reset the meter before filling your tank (sneaky, sneaky!). As long as you’re attentive and prepared, you should have no issues.
Beware of Topes
What’s a tope? It’s like a speed bump from hell. These suckers can wreak havoc on your rental car, and many-a-times we would come up on ones that were hardly even marked. They’re all a little different too, so what might be a gentle rumble one time could be a death ramp the next. The key is low and slow, always keeping an eye out for these nasty buggers, which usually pop up when you’re approaching cities and in high traffic tourist zones.
Avoid Driving at Night
Unless you’re driving on a major highway or toll road, there’s a good chance the road you’re driving on will not be lit up – at all. Remember those topes? Yeah, you’re not going to see them. Not to mention any wildlife that might be out roaming around. Keep your driving to daylight hours only.
Watch Your Speed
Though no one seems to go the speed limit, don’t follow suit, lest you want to risk getting pulled over in your blantantly obvious rental car. On major highways, it’s easy to stick to the right lane and let cars pass, but on narrower two lane roads it’s a little tricker. You’ll find people will try to pass you even if there are cars coming the other way! It’s common courtesy as the slower vehicle to drive onto the shoulder as much as posssible to let them pass you. You can also flash your left blinker to indicate it is safe to pass.
Have you ever driven in a foreign country? What was the scariest (or funnest) part?
PS. a travel guide to Tulum for families
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