Mexico Car Travel: Renting Advice and Travel Tips
By Carla Land

Sure, you can always hop a plane to any number of beautiful destinations all across Mexico, But you miss the pristine countrysides, charming villages and unique culture by not driving through it. And perhaps the best way to do that is by renting a car from a Mexico-based rental agency.

Though the process of renting a vehicle may be a little more time consuming and complex than picking up a rental stateside, it is well worth the effort.

Doing leg work, research and asking questions prior to your rental will save you a lot of money and heartache. Unlike the U.S. where rates are within just a few dollars of each other, rates vary widely from city to city and location to location in Mexico, so don't hesitate to do your homework first.

While there are many international companies there like Hertz and Budget, the cheaper rates are often found with smaller local companies. But you will need a good handle on Spanish to make sure your rental agreement is clear, or hire a translator for the transaction.

The smaller the car and the longer the rental period the better your rate is going to be - like at home. You also will get a break by paying at the time of booking, renting by the week,  returning the car to the same location and choosing standard transmissions over automatics.

If  you are planning a touring trip through Mexico (anything over 100 miles), your best bet is to go for a flat, per-day rate with unlimited mileage. You will get your cheapest rates renting Volkswagens, or small Japanese models, most of which are not available in the states. For short term rentals of just a day of two, the best deal may be a flat per-day/per-kilometer rate. Some companies in Mexico will offer a certain number of free kilometers each day, but then you will be charged for mileage above that number.

The actual procedure of renting a car in Mexico is not much different than renting in the U.S. You must have a valid drivers license, a credit card and insurance. Please note there are age limitations in Mexico for acquiring a rental car. You must be a minimum of 21 to 25 years old, and there may also be an upper age limit of 69 to 75 years, especially with local companies. Budget Rental Agency's maximum age is 70; the other larger, international companies don't seem to have an upper limit.

If you decide to rent stateside and drive across the border, make sure your rental can legally leave the country. If you are caught driving a vehicle without this clause in your rental agreement, the car can be impounded by Mexican police. You don't want to have to deal with that nightmare.

Probably the single most important aspect of renting a vehicle in Mexico is auto insurance coverage. Most rental car policies only provide a nominal amount for liability coverage. If an accident occur across the border, Mexican law allows the jailing of drivers until they have met their financial obligations to third parties and to the rental company. Read your contract carefully and purchase additional  liability and comprehensive insurance to put your mind at ease. If you are using your own auto insurance company, make certain they provide full coverage for out of country rentals. There are excellent companies out there who specialize in this service like Sanborns Insurance, who been providing auto and travel insurance to travelers in Mexico for over 55 years.

Now that you've made your reservation and you've arrived to pick up your rental, remember you're on "Mexico time" now and things don't always run as smoothly as they do back home. It isn't unusual to find your reservation not ready, or that the type of car you requested is suddenly unavailable. Remember the trip isn't about the ride, but the journey, so just go with the flow!

Make sure if you are traveling into the interior of Mexico that you have your paperwork and permits in order as well. If you are crossing the border by land, you will need a passport beginning Jan. 1, 2009, and if you are flying to your destination first you will need a passport immediately. In fact things just go a lot smoother if you have a valid U.S. passport. You will also need a tourist card from Mexican officials. These are available at immigration offices/booths at the border, at airports, or other points of entry. If you are a citizen of a country other than the U.S. or Canada, check with a Mexican consulate for regulations, which apply, to you.

To obtain tourist permit immigration form (FMT) you must present a certified copy of your birth certificate or a valid Passport for each individual traveling into the interior of Mexico. The fee is approximately $28.00 USD* (per person), which must paid in pesos.

Before you leave the rental agency with your car,  inspect it yourself. Make certain the tank is full, that there is a spare and jack in the trunk and you have phone contact numbers in case you run into a problem. Needless to say, make yourself aware of the traffic laws, and good advice for anywhere in the world, "don't drink and drive." The margaritas and cervaza can wait until after you reach your destination.

South of the Border Driving Tips

1. Inform multiple parties of your itineracy. Though you are allowed, of course, to explore the region, make sure you tell the rental agency and friends at home of your specific travel plans. It is for your safety that someone has a rough idea of your whereabouts in case an emergency arises.

2. Cross the border at non-peak times. Weekday, early mornings are your best time to cross. Try to avoid crossing on weekends and holidays.

3. Don't drive at night. The reasons are numerous, but suffice it to say most accidents in Mexico occur at night. Livestock roams free, truckers travel in volume at night, a lot of roads have no shoulders, and unfortunately, drunk drivers tend to be out more in the evening hours. Crime rates increase at night as well so NEVER sleep in your vehicle on the side of the road.

4. When it rains -- slow down. Most roads here are highly oiled and mixed with road dust become treacherous.

5. Pack a basic first aid kit, plenty of bottled water and emergency food supplies.

Understanding Driving Signals

Well, your not in Kansas anymore, so listen up.

In Mexico, a blinking left turn signal on the vehicle in front of you could mean that it is clear ahead and you may pass, or it could mean the driver is making a left turn. An outstretched left arm may mean an invitation for you to pass. When in doubt, do not pass.

An oncoming vehicle flashing its headlights is a warning for you to slow down or pull over because you are both approaching a narrow bridge or place in the road. The custom is that the first vehicle to flash has the right of way and the other must yield.

If you see flares on the road it is most likely an accident. Slow way down and prepare to carefully get around the wreck.

Left Turn Signals

On the open road, a left turn signal is an invitation to the person behind you to pass. Trucks and busses frequently turn their left blinker on to guide you around them. They can usually be trusted, but use common sense. Sometimes they have optimistic views of your acceleration capabilities. Don't use your left turn signal on a two lane road when you are about to pass. You might get hit. A few readers have pointed out that on the toll roads, people use turn signals as they do here. Our advice -- use them as you are used to on toll roads, but don't expect the other drivers to do the same.

Left Turns

Left turns are different! When there is a left turn lane, there will usually be a left turn arrow. Look for four lights on the signal. You MUST wait for the arrow.

Right Turns

Right on red is usually not OK, unless there is a sign saying that it is.

If you have an emergency while driving,  first call your rental agency then call the Ministry of Tourism’s hotline or (55) 5250-8221, extension 130/297, to obtain help from the “Green Angels,” a fleet of radio dispatched trucks with bilingual crews. Services include protection, medical first aid, mechanical aid for your car, and basic supplies. You will not be charged for services, only for parts, gas, and oil. The Green Angels patrol daily from dawn until sunset. If you are unable to call them, pull off the road and lift the hood of your car. Chances are good they will find you.

Most of all, enjoy the wide open spaces, the beautiful sunsets, the charming villages and historic places on the many roads of Mexico. Via Con Dios!

(Resources for this article provided by Sanborns Insurance and author Bob Brooke)