All You Need to Know About Your Car Rental In San Juan, Greater Puerto Rico, and Isla Vieques

Who to Rent a Car From for your Trip to Puerto Rico

View from the rental car in San Juan, Puerto RicoI’m a pretty good budget-traveler, but I where I diverge from other backpackers is that I often end up getting rental cars when I travel. Not that I always think it’s a great thing to do – I just end up going a lot of places that don’t have good public transportation options. Puerto Rico is one of those places – if you’re just staying in San Juan then busses, taxis and walking will be fine, but a rental car is a must if you’re going to explore the island.

Whenever you rent a car on vacation, the usual suspects always jump to mind – Hertz, Dollar, Thrifty, etc., but I have found that the best deals come with a little bit of searching. The reason for this is because local car companies, and even local version of the big car companies, often have much better prices – this will definitely be the case when looking for your rental car in San Juan, Puerto Rico and Vieques.

As an example, on our Mexican odyssey we found a great bargain by using the Mexican website of Thrifty (http://www.thrifty.com.mx). And on our trip to Puerto Rico, my lovely fiancée Becki found an awesome little local place to rent from, Charlie’s Car Rental, where our rental was $26/day. Charlie’s is a great place to get a cheap economy car for a few days. They have fancier digs too, but I like to travel on the cheap so I can travel more often. They have a shuttle to pick you up from the airport – just call ahead and tell them when you’re landing and they’ll pick you up, and when you drop off your car they’ll take you back as well.

What to Expect While Driving Around San Juan and Puerto Rico

Jeep Rental Car on Vieques, Puerto RicoDriving in Puerto Rico is a little more unpredictable and aggressive than most of the USA. If you’ve never seen how people drive outside of the US it will probably be a shock, but it is much more calm and predictable than when I was driving in Mexico or Namibia. As long as you watch the locals and do as they do, you’ll be fine. One word of warning though, they are pretty care-free with the definitions of red-lights and green-lights. Don’t play any music the first day or two, or do anything else that could take your focus away from driving and you’ll be fine.

San Juan is a bustling Capital City and has the traffic to go along with it. Gridlock from the workforce is extensive heading into the city weekday mornings and back out weekday afternoons, and try to find out if there are any festivals going on around the capitol building or Old San Juan as these can really mess with traffic. Plan your day-trips accordingly. There are plenty of people biking, walking and skateboarding around the roads in any of the beach and tourist areas, so take it slow and enjoy the drive.

Outside of San Juan there is a perimeter toll-way (more on the tolls to follow) that is high-speed and easy to navigate. Next there are the Main Roads, then local highways and local roads. Keep in mind, a road that looks more direct than a Main road might not be a short-cut at all cause Puerto Rico is seriously mountainous, and the interior roads are serious mountain roads. If you don’t like roller coasters, take your anti-anxiety meds and let someone else drive. You have been warned ;)

Pretty much all roads are paved in Puerto Rico so a Jeep is overkill unless you just want it. We got everywhere just fine in our little Hyundai Brio, and in fact I recommend a smaller car since the mountain highways are very narrow, tight and twisty. Having a small car made it much easier to squeeze around trucks coming at us around blind turns without having our tires go off the edge of a precipitous drop – a feature not worth overlooking.

The Accursed Tolls of Puerto Rico

Okay, this is going to be a bit of a rant: Puerto Rico, you need a better toll system. Seriously.

I’d recommend that anyone planning to drive outside of San Juan get the AutoExpresso pass (similar to an I-Pass – it lets you pay your toll without stopping, and gets debited from your account) from your car-rental company. It’s a $10 option and then you just put some money on the account. I didn’t think I’d need it – I thought I would simply pay cash (identified by a “c” over the lane, not a “$” dollar sign) at the toll booth and save myself $10, but that is a bad idea and I’ll tell you why.

Many of the tolls won’t take your cash. There are no lanes marked “c”, and even though you go to a lane where someone is working they still won’t take it. Instead, they’ll tell you sign up for a Móvilcash (R+ lane) card. This is also a debit system, where the minimum they let you put on the card is $20 – way more than needed for someone only in town for a few days. Of course they give it to you while you are on the road, so there is no way to go online put money on it (only can be done online) before you hit the next toll. It is a card you have to swipe to use (looks just like a credit card) so there is always a huge, slow moving line for the R+ lane.

Here’s a breakdown of your options for the tolls on the expressway:

AutoExpresso

  • Pros
    • You don’t have to stop or wait in line
    • Minimum of $5 put on the system better for tourists
    • Accepted at all tolls
  • Cons
    • $10 Fee to use

Móvilcash

  • Pros
    • No fee to use
    • Accepted at all tolls
  • Cons
    • Stop and wait in long line at the toll-booth
    • Can only put money on it online (not great if you don’t have a computer)
    • Minimum of $20 is more than most tourists will use on tolls while in PR

Cash

  • Pros
    • No fee to use
    • Where accepted, not too long of a line
  • Cons
    • Only accepted at a few tolls (seriously)

Also, if you happen to screw up and drive through an AutoExpresso lane without having signed up for it, they take a picture of your plate and you’ll have to pay a $25 ticket anyways. Trust me, pay the $10, sign up for the AutoExpresso and enjoy your trip a whole lot more.

Renting a Car on Isla Vieques

On the road to Green Beach, Vieques, Puerto RicoOkay, now we’re talking about some serious driving conditions. The roads on Vieques are paved, but some have massive potholes, the island is extremely hilly and and grade-changes alone will cause many cars to bottom-out. Couple this with the fact that the roads to the beaches (probably the reason you came to Vieques, right?) are unpaved, often muddy/sandy and full of water crossings, and you’ll want to skip the cheap economy car, pull out the big guns, and get a Jeep.

Oh, and in case you’re wondering there isn’t much public transportation on Vieques either, but it does have Publico’s and a taxi. This was good enough for us on most days – especially if you have specific destinations in mind –  but we wanted one day to really explore around. To do that, you’ll definitely want to go with a rental car.

We rented a giant  4-Door Wrangler Unlimited – okay maybe it’s not that giant but on the narrow roads of Vieques it was pretty huge. It was definitely more expensive than the Hyundai at $70/day but worth it to explore the island. We got it from Maritza’s Car Rental and this was definitely a better price than some of the other places on the island.

As far as driving around the island, there isn’t much traffic to worry about outside of Isabel and Esperanza. Take blind turns carefully, especially since the roads are narrow and there seems to be a wild horse around every corner. Other than that, renting a car on Isla Vieques is all about enjoying the ride.

Comments

  1. This is all really, helpful, thank you! Especially the bit about the tolls, which I hadn’t read anywhere else. Much appreciated.

  2. Hey Matt, glad you found it helpful. If you have any questions, don’t hesitate to contact me :)

  3. Thanks for the info. We’re headed to Puerto Rico in a few months. Just wanted to confirm that a 4wd is not necessary on the main island. I’ve been to other countries where a 4wd was necessary to access certain areas that I’m glad I didn’t miss out on. I want to ensure I don’t miss any opportunities in Puerto Rico.

    • As far as I know, you don’t need a 4wd for driving in Puerto Rico. Granted, we didn’t go everywhere on the island, but when we were looking into it we emailed a local car rental place, and the simple response we got back from them was, “All roads in Puerto Rico are paved”.

  4. An outstanding share! I’ve just forwarded this onto a friend who had been doing a little homework on this. And he in fact bought me lunch because I stumbled upon it for him… lol. So let me reword this…. Thank YOU for the meal!! But yeah, thanx for spending the time to talk about this topic here on your web site.

  5. Paul Raymond says:

    Unless it’s changed in the last few months, I was able to pay cash on all the tolls on the Autopista from San Juan to Arecibo (where it terminates). Maybe it’s worse going east or south to Ponce, but I wouldn’t pay $10. Just get a lot of quarters before you go and watch what lane you get in.

    • You’re right, we had no problems with tolls from San Juan to the Rio Camuy Caves, very close to Arecibo. It was heading towards Fajardo (going East then South from San Juan) where the toll situation turned to crap. If you’re going that way, I’d say the Auto Expresso is well worth it.

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  7. san juan city mom says:

    you nail it! i am from Puerto Rico and been doing some research because i want to do some type of informative publication for visitors, which as you may have seen, there is non practically. thanks for all the tips, it is so true, especially driving on roads across mountains

    • Very true, there is no information out there about the tolls and driving conditions in Puerto Rico, we are glad to provide this information to people planning a trip there to save some frustration and money!

  8. Megan MacNee says:

    Thanks for this post! Great infos on the tolls, I’ve been reading a ton of articles and books and somehow that information has been skipped by most of them. Hmm. Glad I’ll be prepared now.

  9. Hi, Are there any cash only rentals, we are travelling without a credit card.

    Thank you
    Lydia

    • Hi Lydia,

      That’s a great question, and one I cannot answer. We have only ever booked and paid for our rental car with a credit card. And I’m sure it is because of insurance purposes. If you are able to, and again I am not sure what type of knowledge is available for this, but look into the publicos (public cars). You might be able to hire someone for the day to drive you to different spots, but it may be come expensive.

  10. Is there a way to buy my own toll pass online prior to my trip? Do I need two types of toll passes for the two systems?

  11. Hi,
    Just wondering what your experience was like with Charlie Car Rental? I was looking to use it because of its affordability, but I had read some scary reviews about it..

  12. We are flying to San Juan in 4 weeks & staying for 5 days. I’ve always rented cars from the major chains when I visitef PR in 1992, 1994 & 1996. But everything seemed much less expensive then and therewas only one toll road on theisland. I drove practically everywhere, too. Driving across the cordilera (the interior’s E-W mountain range) was very much like driving a roller coaster, and the locals were way more familiar with the roads’ twists, turns, & sunnen ups & downs and they were very daring. It sounds as if those characteristics are much the same.

    What concerns me now are the near universal bad user reviews on every car rental operation at San Juan Airport Charlies in Isla Verde get bad teviews for bad service, unreliable reservations, and awfully dinged up cars. Their prices are about the same as Thrifty’s or Dollars but the ladt two have user reviews complaining about SLOW shuttle bus service from baggage claim and about getting scammed into paying $20/day for insurance. Is that actually the rate for the car ins option?

    Any suggestions? I do appreciate the recc a out the toll pass. Sounds logical and I plan on at least one trio to Ponce and another to Luquillo, Fanardo & maybe Ceiba

    Final questions: how’s the drive from Isla Verde to Old San Juan these days. I last remember it being not too difficult. So how’s parking in Old San Juan and around El Morro? In Ponce? And are any roads thrkugh El Ynque open?

    Thanks!

  13. Hi Geo,

    I’ll try to answer all your questions the best I can. Every time we’ve been to Puerto Rico, we have always used Charlie’s Rental (Isla Verde) with no real problems. If I remember correctly, we were a little late arriving to the airport on the shuttle after we dropped off our rental car. The check in/out process seems to be a bit slow with Charlie’s. Other than that, we never had a problem with them, and they do seem to be the cheapest rental company of PR when we were traveling. We also never used the shuttle from the airport, we had always taken a taxi to the Isla Verde Charlie rental place.

    When we book our car rentals we use a credit card, and sometimes with certain cards they will cover the insurance cost of rentals. I would check into that, and check to see if they cover Puerto Rico because some companies will not. Of course, you can always deny the insurance, but it’s a risk you may not want to take.

    I would still recommend getting the toll pass when you pick up your car. It will save you time and frustration at the tolls.

    When we were there last (two years ago) the drive from Isla Verde to Old San Juan was not bad at all. I think at most it was about twenty minutes, depending on traffic. Parking can be really tough. We ended up parking pretty far away from city center and just ended up walking into town. But I do believe you can catch a trolley ride and use that throughout town.

    And I’m not sure about the roads through El Yunque and their condition after the hurricanes. I would keep checking Puerto Rico’s social media sites, and reach out to them to have that question answered.

    Hope this helped, and enjoy your trip! I miss Puerto Rico!

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