Written by Don
When we decided we wanted to scuba dive in some cenotes, visit Mayan ruins and tour the Yucatan Peninsula, renting a car seemed the obvious choice. We really enjoy road trips and try to incorporate them into most of our travels, but this is Mexico. We’ve long heard the stories of crime, scams and corruption so what were we letting ourselves in for by heading off on our own? As it turns out, the trip was very successful but there are some legitimate reasons to be cautious.
Insurance and Choosing a Rental Agency
First, be aware that a lot of the cost of car rental in Mexico is insurance. Many people, like us, usually depend on the coverage offered by our credit cards but many of those plans exclude Mexican rentals. Even if they cover you, if you have an accident and don’t have insurance through the rental agency you’ll need to settle up and pay all claims before you can leave the country. The uncertainty, which the rental agencies really play up, and the downside risk of something not working make buying the agency’s insurance a pretty simple decision.
Most of the big international agencies operate in Mexico but through independent franchises. There are a couple of nationwide Mexican agencies and lots of local city-based ones. We ended up doing two separate rentals, one on Cozumel and one which we picked up in Playa del Carmen and dropped at the Cancun airport. We ended up using two Mexican agencies (ISIS and America) that had gotten good reviews and chose them based on their approach to insurance. Both offered internet quotes that included all insurance, with the only optional coverage being windshield and tire protection. The international firms, like Avis, offered good online rates but would only quote insurance when you showed up at the office to pick up the car. At this point you have no leverage and the agencies specialize in pushing very overpriced coverage.
The Cozumel rental was complicated by the fact that only two agencies, Thrifty and Avis, have operations at the airport and neither would quote insurance in advance. We opted to take a taxi from the airport to the ISIS office. Once we got there everything went smoothly with no surprises.
Our other rental from Playa del Carmen, with America, was more problematic. We had originally planned to pick up the car at 9:30 AM but decided to take a later ferry from Cozumel to Playa del Carmen. The day before we were to pick up the car I called to let them know that we still wanted it but would be arriving a couple of hours later. There were two phone numbers on the reservation email, one of which was out of service and one which was never answered. There was also a reservation email address which I used to tell them of our change of plans. The morning we were to pick up the car they called to confirm that we still wanted it and I told them we were on our way.
When we arrived the agent told us that since we were late the car we had reserved, a stick shift Jetta, had been rented to someone else and the car they had for us, while the same class, was an automatic. The upgrade to an automatic would cost us an additional $28 USD per day.
When we explained that we had called but no one answered he shrugged and said that, yes, it happens. We then reminded him that we had spoken earlier that morning and also showed him the email we had sent the prior day he again shrugged and said, here’s the price, take it or leave it.
Luckily, around that time the manager came by and after significant protest by us we got the rate we had reserved. Not wanting anymore problems we asked for a working number or other reliable way to contact them in case something came up. They essentially said there wasn’t one and referred us to the number we were to call in case of an accident.
This was clearly an attempt to squeeze money out of tourists who were stuck at the office with luggage and limited options, but we got the feeling that it was a problem just with the Playa del Carmen office since when we returned the car to Cancun airport they were very professional and efficient.
Gas Station Scams
Once you’ve negotiated the rental car hurdles the gas stations come next. There are plenty of large, modern stations, with Pemex being the most common but BP and other known brands showing up as well. We also didn’t see much variation in prices with the exception of one in-city station that was considerably more expensive.
The issue is scams. There’s a long history of problems at these stations and as a result the first thing the attendant does when fueling your car is point out that, unlike in the bad old days, he really has zeroed out the pump. As far as we know we weren’t victims of any other tricks but there were two incidents, one with a mysterious pump reading that was corrected when we asked about it and one with a possible bill switch, that kept us on edge. In both cases the attendant maintained plausible deniability and we were admittedly paranoid going into the situation, but just be aware and pay attention.
On the Road
Despite hearing stories of having to pay “fines” for dubious traffic infractions we had no problems with police and got waved through every checkpoint without much scrutiny. We were careful to observe speed limits and drive conservatively, and at least on the peninsula I don’t think tourists are a big target of the police, especially outside the Cancun to Tulum corridor.
In general the roads were in very good shape, the traffic was light and the drivers were sane. If it wasn’t for the nagging suspicion that people are trying to take advantage of you because you’re a tourist I’d recommend the adventure to everyone. As it is, we had a great time but can’t say our paranoia wasn’t a little bit justified.
December 3-18, 2019
For links to all the posts in this series see the Yucatan Peninsula page.