Renting a car in Latin America

Renting a car in Latin America

April 22, 2009

Ah, the lure of the open road.  America’s love affair with the automobile is long and well-documented.  But, does it make sense to continue it overseas?  Does it make sense to rent a car in Latin America?

There is no one right answer to that question.  There are pros and cons to be weighed out before you decide whether or not to rent a car during your trip.

The reasons in favor of it are familiar ones – you have complete freedom to go where you want, when you want.  Public transportation in Latin America can be unpredictable – the train that usually goes on Wednesday just may have left on Tuesday this week.  Public transportation can also be inconvenient – there may not be a direct bus to Chugchilan today, you may have to go to Sigchos and wait for a connecting bus.  By renting a car, you may avoid a fair amount of inconvenience and discomfort.   Often, this may be enough of a plus to outweigh all the arguments against it.

There are, however, a number of problems with renting a car to consider, before you take the plunge.

The first consideration is, once you have rented a car, you then have a very expensive thing that you are responsible for.  You will have to be careful of where you park, and what hotels you stay in – you will generally need to stay at hotels that offer secure parking.  The responsibility of a car will certainly affect your trip – you must be comfortable with the trade-offs you may have to make in order to look after the car.

Secondly, a car isolates you.  Yes, you have the convenience of going where you want, when you want, but you no longer have the possibility of human interactions and connections that you have on public transportation.  You will not make any new friends or learn new things in the isolation of your own car.

Third, if you rent a car, you then have to drive in Latin America.  This may or may not be a disadvantage to you, depending on your experience and comfort level.  While driving in Latin America is nowhere near as bad as people try to tell you, it’s certainly a lot more anarchic than driving in the US.  If driving on a busy freeway in the US makes you nervous, you might not feel comfortable driving in Mexico City.  And if you do get into trouble, you will have to deal with the authorities of that country.  If you have an accident in Mexico, you have to deal with the Mexican authorities.  An encounter of this kind can be anything from confusing to downright frightening.  (Don’t get too freaked out by this, though – I have dealt with police in a number of different countries, and have lived to tell the tale).

Finally, it’s often expensive.  The basic rental may not be particularly costly, but many countries in Latin American require mandatory insurance.  In the US, car rental insurance is often covered either by your own auto insurance or by your credit card company.  In Latin America, often neither of those apply.  You may be required to purchase a collision damage waiver that can add another 50% on to the cost of your rental.

Before making the decision of whether to rent a car or not, it often makes sense to investigate alternatives.  In Latin America, many people do not own cars, so there are more different options available than there might be in the US.

Public buses and trains are, of course, always an option.  There are a wide variety of public buses in Latin America, from the famed third-class chicken buses to quite elegant first-class buses with movies and stewardesses.  Trains are less common, but can be an interesting alternative.

Taxis are also a great option.  In Latin America, it’s not unusual to hire a taxi for a day, to take you around while you shop or sightsee.  Negotiate the fare in advance with the driver, and you then have a private car for the day.  Actually, it’s better than a private car – you never have to hunt for a parking space.  Your hotel can often help you arrange this, and can give you an idea of the price.

Private transfers can also be a good compromise.  Even remote hotels usually work with someone to provide transfers, often to a city or airport many hours away.  While it may seem expensive for one day, if it saves you a week of car rental, it may work out to be the most economical option.  Ask your hotel if they can arrange transfers for you.

Having said all this, there are still times when renting a car makes sense.  You can stop in that cute little town, buy bulky souveniers, and have some privacy while traveling.

If you do decide to rent a car, here are a few tips:

1.  Get an International Driver’s Permit.  This is essentially a translation of your driver’s license into 10 different languages.  While these are not strictly required in most places, they can save time – all your information is already listed in Spanish and Portuguese.

2.  Check the fine print with your credit card company before you go.  Yes, many credit card companies do provide insurance for car rentals, but there are often many exclusions for Latin America. Check before you go.

3.  Find out the requirements for insurance coverage for the country you will be visiting.  Some countries will not accept credit card coverage as sufficient insurance.  Research this before you go, so you don’t have to figure it out while standing at the rental car counter.

4.  Rent with a company that has offices in the US.  If you do end up having a problem, it is much easier if there is a US office you can work with after your return home.  It is worth spending a bit more money on your rental to have some recourse later on with any problems that might arise.

Finally, if you do rent a car – don’t stress too much about it.  With a good map and a sense of adventure, you can have a wonderful trip to remember for years afterward.


risang damar April 28, 2009 at 12:43 am

great information…thanks

Insurance Maniac July 21, 2009 at 5:15 am

Great info, I’ll be sure to take it to heart when I travel again!

dubai car hire July 25, 2009 at 1:47 pm

Waiting for a connecting bus ain’t nice, having a rented vehicle is great in that perspective. Another con is, well… getting lost a few times before finding the spot. I’m noticing that more rental services are offering GPS as an add-on.

Bob Black

Chauffeur Car Hire June 23, 2010 at 11:58 pm

You have mention here lot of information. It’s good but hard to read. It’s most good, if you can post some summery of this. Thanks.

Horizon Pacific June 30, 2010 at 11:28 pm

You are complete right, renting a car in Latin America/central America is more complicated than it looks. Because most countries are still 3rd world the road signage is poor and the condition of the roads is also very poor. Most roads which aren’t highways are dirt roads. All I have to say is insurance is a MUST if you decide to rent.

casa October 28, 2010 at 5:16 pm


gogogogo October 28, 2010 at 5:18 pm


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