Renting a Car in Mexico is Simply Not Worth It — Here's Why

(Photo: Matthew T. Rader,  Unsplash )

(Photo: Matthew T. Rader, Unsplash)

Renting a car when you travel is obviously the most convenient way of getting around. Unless you go over the allotted number of miles/kilometers, you pay a flat fee, fill the tank once or twice, and you’re all set — no worrying about Uber or Lyft costs, which can add up quickly, or taking the bus, which can add extra travel time when you’d rather get from Point A to Point B as soon as possible.

When traveling internationally, though, the process of renting a car can become a little trickier. One place where this is especially true is in Mexico. If you don’t know what you’re getting into south of the border when renting a car, you could find yourself behind bars after getting into a minor accident.

During the course of planning for a recent trip to Cancún, I was absolutely sure I wanted to rent a car to get around the Yucatan Peninsula. I thought we’d spend a day or two checking out Playa Del Carmen and Tulum, maybe even Chichén Itzá, and if we were going to do those things, I wanted to have access to a car so that we could do it on our own terms. So over to Expedia I went, seeing what kind of vehicle I could find.

The first indication that renting a car in Mexico was a little different than other places was the extremely low rates I was seeing online. $1 per day for a midsize Chevy? Yeah, right. After further research, I found out I was right to be skeptical about this. Because of the way car insurance works in Mexico, that rental is definitely going to cost more than whatever initial rate you find on Expedia or wherever else. As in the U.S., car insurance in Mexico is divided into two kinds of coverage: collision damage and liability. And while you may want to save your pesos, Mexico’s mandatory insurance requirement means declining coverage could potentially come with a lot of headaches.

It’s true that your credit card may provide collision damage coverage for rental cars worldwide; what it won’t do, however, is provide liability coverage, which, again, Mexico requires. If you don’t take care of this beforehand and aren’t able to demonstrate that you have a valid liability policy that provides coverage in Mexico, you’ll definitely be slapped with extra fees for this at the rental counter. You have the option to accept or decline this extra insurance, but opting out of it comes with other potential issues.

If you decline to purchase liability insurance (which will typically run around $15 to $20 per day), the rental agency will likely put a large hold on your credit card during your trip. The amount of that hold may vary in different parts of the country, but you’re likely looking at upwards of $2,500. (It’s possible they will put this hold on your card even if you can prove that you have a valid liability policy, too.)

The other bugaboo that comes with declining liability insurance at the counter is what could happen if you wind up getting in an accident. Uninsured drivers who get into minor accidents may be arrested and held in police custody until the damage is paid for. When it comes to more serious accidents, such as those where someone is injured, it is almost certain that you will be tossed in jail until the cops can sort everything out. What’s more, a renter found to be at fault will not be allowed to leave the country until the injured parties receive a settlement they are satisfied with.

Outside of insurance issues and obtaining the car itself, there are other potential problems you may encounter when you actually get out on the road, one of which is the police’s propensity to pull over tourists. If this occurs, the cops are likely to take your license and say you need to travel to the police station and pay a fine to get it back — or you can pay them directly, in cash, to get everything squared away right there. Paying bribes to the police is illegal, but there are a lot of corrupt cops, especially in touristy areas, and there is a decent chance you will run into one if you rent a car.

One other issue to be on the lookout for is getting scammed at the gas station, which can happen in a couple ways. Attendants pump the gas in Mexico and they have a knack for claiming that the 500 peso note you gave them was only a 50 note or that the 200 note was only a 20. This is why it pays (literally) to pay attention to your money during the entire transaction. Purposely “forgetting” to zero out the pump from the previous transaction is another scam they may try to pull on you. Bottom line: be aware of what’s going on the entire time.

When you take all of these thing together, renting a car in Mexico isn’t really worth the risk. Save yourself the headache and rely on the local bus system to get around (only 12 pesos a ride in Cancún!) or rely on taxis if you absolutely have to. Looking to do a day trip? That’s what those bus tours to Tulum, Chichén Itzá, and elsewhere are for, my friend.