Who to Rent a Car From for your Trip to Puerto Rico
I’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
Driving 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:
- You don’t have to stop or wait in line
- Minimum of $5 put on the system better for tourists
- Accepted at all tolls
- $10 Fee to use
- No fee to use
- Accepted at all tolls
- 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
- No fee to use
- Where accepted, not too long of a line
- 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
Okay, 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.