Renting a vehicle and driving yourself is a bad idea in many Mexican cities, but it’s a great idea if you want to go exploring a region on your own schedule, away from the congestion on the open road.
I’ve been traveling to Mexico for about a decade, regularly renting a car to go to a beach house I owned and now picking up one when I go on vacation with my family outside of Guanajuato. I’ve rented multiple times from the local franchises of Hertz and Europcar, with mixed results, but have had mostly good experiences with Alamo, which is part of the Enterprise Rent-a-Car family. Between them and National, they serve 36 cities in Mexico.
Renting a car in Mexico is rather straightforward in terms of online reservations and pricing, with the rates often surprisingly affordable for smaller models. Automobiles do cost about 40% more in Mexico than they do in the USA though (a total mystery since many of them are made here and shipped north), so you’ll encounter a few quirks in the process and will need to allow a lot more time for pick-up. There are three key factors here that you don’t run into so much in the USA or Canada.
A Hefty Deposit
The Mexican car rental company will often put a hold on your credit card if you don’t take the full insurance coverage, an amount that may be 10 or 15% of the value of the car. So have a credit card with a few thousand dollars open balance on it or your card may be declined. You usually can’t use a debit card or pay cash, so be prepared.
A Lengthy Pick-up/Inspection Process
Don’t assume you can be on your way in five minutes just because you’ve reserved your car in advance and given a credit card number. After all the paperwork and insurance discussions (see the next section), you and the counter person will together go over the car panel by panel, looking for nicks, scratches, and dents. Minuscule ones that would be ignored in the USA and worked out in the detailing later will be noted on a form. Pay attention during this part because if anything shows up that’s not there now, you could be charged for it. When in doubt, point it out. When you return the car, you’ll go through all this again, the agent looking for any new scrapes or bumps, including underneath from the (often unmarked) topes—speed bumps.
Insurance Options and Your Credit Card
Basic liability insurance is compulsory by law and is therefore usually included in the total. This only covers the other person in an accident, not you. If you take the full insurance offering the company is selling, it will usually double the price of the rental—or more. I recently reserved a car for $24 per day and the full insurance would have been $40 per day. Lesser options are increased liability (above around $30,000 in case you total someone’s Mercedes and injure the person inside), collision damage, personal accident insurance, theft or vandalism insurance, and more.
It’s best to do your homework and find out a) if your home auto insurance policy covers rental cars in Mexico and b) if your credit card provides insurance for rentals there. In many cases, you can rely on one or both and decline all coverage. Make sure though as it could be a very costly mistake if you just assume and you’re wrong. For each service you decline, you’ll have to initial the contract—which will likely be in Spanish—and assert that you take responsibility for the vehicle.
Other Rules and Guidelines
If you’re under 25, you’re going to have a tough time renting unless you put up a huge deposit and pay extra or you find a local rental agency that really wants your business.
Manual cars are much more common than automatic ones and more than once I’ve reserved an automatic and been forced to take a stick shift car. If this is a deal breaker, stand your ground, but be advised that agencies in Mexico do not have nearly as much inventory as the ones in the rest of North America and you can’t assume they’ll be able to just upgrade you.
Also understand that a “mid-size” up north does not equal a mid-size in Mexico. It’s more like a compact here and their compact is smaller than anything even available stateside. As you can see from this screenshot, a VW Jetta is considered “full size.” Unless you upgrade to a higher-end vehicle, you will probably get a very basic car with manual windows, a simple radio, and limited amenities. If you get a van or SUV, you will pay twice as much but get something more plush.
Mexico is a big country and there are some amazing things to see that are not so easy to get to by public transportation. Roads are generally quite good, as are the road signs, so if you want to see more of the country, rent a car and go exploring.
Disclosure: Enterprise is a supporting partner of Al Centro Media but had no influence on the content of this article.