For the most part, bus travel is an ideal way to get around in Mexico, but there are times when driving makes the most sense. If you’re on a tight schedule, you can cover more ground in less time. If you’re not on any schedule, you might want to explore and make up your itinerary as you go. And even the second-class buses don’t always cover every place you want to visit. The Yucatan, for example, is especially suited to driving: Many beaches, barely developed ruins and intriguing villages lie a good distance from the main road. Highways are well-maintained, constantly being improved, and so straight that the slightest curve bristles with warning signs and reflectors.
Arm yourself with some knowledge about prevailing driving habits and road signs, and driving in Mexico is nowhere near as treacherous as its reputation would have you believe. Renting a car is much the same as renting in the United States, and you’ll find most of the major players — Hertz, Avis, Alamo, Budget, Thrifty, et al. — as well as local companies. Similar rules and advice apply: You need a major credit card (or a boatload of cash for deposit), driver’s license and passport; book online at least a week in advance for the best price; drivers under 25 pay more; airport pickups and drop-offs cost about 10 percent more; always inspect the car with the agent to mark every existing ding or scratch so you won’t be charged for it, and check to make sure the headlights and windshield wipers work as well.
Renting a car in Mexico has one big “gotcha,” though, and that is the minefield of the country’s famously mandatory insurance. Mexican car rental rates look wonderfully cheap on comparison websites, but they don’t include insurance, which can easily double, and in some cases triple, the cost. Declining to buy the insurance (some of which is mandatory, anyway) is foolhardy to the extreme, but buying the full package without knowing what you’re buying is only slightly less so.
Mexican car rental companies offer various levels of insurance, and only one is mandatory. Here are the basics (costs listed are typical but variable):
Basic personal liability: Sometimes called third-party liability insurance, this is the one, incontrovertibly mandatory insurance. It covers claims for injury or damage you cause to another driver, car or other property damaged in an accident, but it does not cover injury to you or damage to the rented vehicle. Mexico does not accept liability coverage from U.S. auto policies or credit card insurance. You simply cannot rent a car without buying Mexican liability insurance. But here’s what most renters don’t know: By law, the mandatory liability insurance is already included in the rental price. Cost: Included in rental rate.
Supplemental liability insurance (SAI): Sometimes called additional liability insurance, this is not mandatory, though many rental companies will tell you (or let you assume) it is. Still, it’s worth considering. The basic liability coverage is usually 50,000 pesos, or about $3,800, which won’t go far in anything beyond a fender-bender. Cost: $13 per day.
Loss damage waiver (LDW): Also called collision damage waiver (CDW) or LDW/CDW. This is actually not insurance, but the rental agency’s agreement to waive some of the cost of theft or any damage you inflict on the rental vehicle. This one requires some research and some careful thought. If your own auto policy or credit-card insurance benefits cover collision damage, you can pass on LDW/CDW, but keep some caveats in mind.
You are responsible to the rental company for any loss or damage to the vehicle no matter what the cause is or who is at fault. You will be detained until money matters are settled, and if you lack liability coverage, your most memorable vacation sight could include the inside of a Mexican jail until you pay off your obligation. Before you decline LDW/CDW, verify that your auto policy or credit card insurance is valid for rentals in Mexico, and that it includes loss of use. To collect on your credit-card insurance, you must use that card when you rent the car and when you pay the final bill. Carry proof of coverage with you, though rental companies don’t always require it. You must also explicitly decline the offered insurance, which is not possible with companies such as Avis or National, which include LDW/CDW in their rates or bundle it with the required liability.
Besides saving a bundle, your deductible will be limited to the amount stated in your personal policy — credit card insurance often has no deductible — while the rental agency’s LDW/CDW insurance usually carries a deductible equal to 10 to 20 percent of the vehicle’s value. (Many offer a deductible reduction or complete coverage option, which will add $15 to $35 a day to the cost.) On the down side, some rental companies put a hold on your card for the amount of the deductible. And in case of an accident, you will have to carry the full cost of damages on your credit card until your bank reimburses you, so you will need a hefty credit limit. And your insurance won’t cover every situation; clauses excluding damage to cars driven off-road have been used to deny a claim for a car damaged in a dirt parking lot. Read the exclusions carefully. Read them twice.
It can also take longer to sort things out if you don’t have insurance purchased by the rental car agency. A few years ago, I bought full coverage because I had just changed credit cards and insurance carriers and hadn’t had time to research my coverage in Mexico. My rental car was later smashed to bits by a drunken driver on the street in front of my hotel. I filled out a police report in the morning, called the rental agency, and was on my way in a new car 90 minutes later. It might have been worth a delay and some additional paperwork to save the money if I’d known I was covered, but it’s one factor you have to weigh. Cost: $15 a day.
Personal accident insurance (PAI): Neither the included nor the supplemental liability insurance covers injury to you or your passengers. This optional insurance does, including ambulance, doctors and hospital. This might be covered by your health insurance — again, verify — and it is not required. Cost: $4-$7 a day.
Good to know:
—Mexico’s Secretary of Communication and Transportation offers an excellent online “Point-to-Point Routes” tool that can make the difference between an itinerary that works and one that messes up your entire vacation. Select your starting and ending points, add some intermediate stops if you like, and click “Find Route” at the bottom of the page. The map where your best route appears is a bit clunky; the real payoff is the detailed itinerary showing distances, driving times (evidently Mexican driver times; I always add 10 to 15 percent), toll fees and estimated fuel costs.
—You’ll rarely, if ever, find an owner’s manual in the glove box, so ask the stupid questions before getting behind wheel: What makes the car alarm go off, and how do you stop it? Any tricks to removing the key from the ignition? How do you put the car into reverse if it’s a manual? Add anything else that isn’t obvious from a quick glance at the dashboard.
—Make sure a copy of the insurance policy is in the glove box and is up to date.
—If you book online, print out the confirmation and show it when you pick up your car to be sure they don’t try to charge you a higher rate.
—Try to get your rate quoted in pesos. Prices quoted in dollars will be converted to pesos for payment, usually at more than the going exchange rate.
—The rental agency will give you a 24-hour, toll-free number to call if you need help. U.S. cell phones often can’t dial Mexican toll-free numbers, so if you’re traveling with your own phone be sure you have a local number as well.
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