Driving in Mexico - renting a car in Mexico

Last Updated on July 17, 2021

Considering renting a car and driving in Mexico on your vacation? Depending on where you visit, it can be a lot like driving in the U.S. In other parts of Mexico, there’s much more to consider. Read on for my best tips on renting a car and driving in Mexico, and decide if it’s for you!

I’ve rented a car many times (often solo) for road trips in the Yucatan Peninsula, Baja California Sur and the Oaxaca coast. I’ve lost track of my trips from Cancun to Tulum and points in between. These are all regions where I feel most people can navigate driving in Mexico.

In other areas, such as Chiapas, road conditions as well as the political situation and crime in the region make it safer to travel by bus. But for adventurous travelers, especially those fluent in Spanish, I understand the appeal of a Mexico road trip to see to less-visited towns, beaches, and sights.

In this guide, I’ll share my best tips for driving in Mexico: renting a car, insurance and driver’s license requirements, and tips from my own experience. Plus I’ve got a bonus list of road sign translations at the end of the post – and you can join my mailing list to get your own printable version!

Pin these tips on driving in Mexico for later!

Is it Safe to Drive in Mexico?

Yes – and no! In everything we do as travelers, there is always a certain amount of risk. When I rent a car on a trip in the U.S., it’s always a little more stressful than if I had my own car: an unfamiliar vehicle on unfamiliar roads. I consciously make decisions like not driving at night and planning my routes ahead of time.

If you have driven in large cities in the U.S. and other countries, you might find that driving in Mexico is very similar. Especially if you follow my Mexico driving tips later in this guide, it doesn’t have to be a stressful experience.

photo of an old building in Valladolid Mexico
Colors and textures in Valladolid, Mexico

I would say that you need to weigh all the pros and cons and make a decision for yourself. You need to consider your destination(s) and itinerary, and if renting a car will add to your overall experience. Or, rather, if the worry and stress would take too much away from your enjoyment.

There are certain areas of Mexico where I would advise against renting a car – for example, a car is not needed at all in Mexico City and it’s easy to use Uber and public transit or book a tour to take day trips.

If you end up deciding that renting a car is not for you, but you want to experience more of Mexico, check out my post on small group adventure tours.

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FYI, this post contains affiliate links, which means I might earn a small commission if you purchase from them, at no additional cost to you.  Visit my Disclosure Policy for more info.

Driving in Mexico with a U.S. or Other Driver’s License

In Mexico, American and Canadian citizens, as well as many other countries, can drive in Mexico as tourists using their home country license. It’s impossible to find this anywhere on an official website, but I checked about 20 resources for this article and all agreed.

However, if your license is not in English or the Latin alphabet, you should get an International Driving Permit. Basically, this is a translation of your existing home country license and identification information into 10 languages. You can also order an international driver’s permit online here, even if you’re already traveling (although you’ll have to find a print shop to print it in a booklet for you).

Check the requirements of your car company when making your booking to see if they have any additional restrictions based on your particular details (home country, age, how long you’ve been a licensed driver, etc.).

Driving in Mexico
The beach road in Tulum

Basic Driving in Mexico Tips

Before my first solo road trip around the Yucatan Peninsula, I did a lot of research and planning so that I felt confident I could drive in Mexico alone.

The basic plan that I put together was:

  1. Never drive on highways at night and take toll (“cuota”) roads as much as possible.  I planned my itinerary so that I reached my next town before sunset each day. From there, I was able to walk to get to dinner, etc.
  2. No speeding and, of course, no drinking and driving.
  3. Have a GPS and smartphone app available for navigation.
  4. Preview destinations and routes on Google and Google Street View.  I even looked up my hotels and Airbnbs so that I knew nearby landmarks.
  5. Always have cash and change in small bills for toll booths and emergencies.
  6. Have emergency and the Green Angels roadside assistance numbers programmed into my phone (with international roaming on).

I’ll go into these tips more in detail, but I think laying out the basics early on will help you start thinking about your own itinerary.

colorful buildings in Campeche reflected in rain on the street
Colorful buildings in Campeche after a rain

Renting a Car in Mexico & Insurance Requirements

Car rental deals in Mexico seem amazing online!  $5 a day?  Don’t mind me over here, upgrading to the convertible!   But what you don’t realize right away is that this doesn’t include any insurance or fees, and that those can amount to several hundred dollars for a weekly rental.

Collision Damage Waiver (CDW)

If you rent a car in Mexico, you’re required to have Collision Damage Waiver (CDW) and Third-Party Liability insurance.  The good news is that your credit card might provide CDW… the bad news is if there’s a problem, the rental company will charge your card for the damage and let you sort it out later with your credit card company. 

If you opt to use your credit car’s CDW, a hold of several thousand dollars will be placed on your card when you pick up the vehcle. The hold will be released after you return the vehicle, but it could take several days – ask at the time of rental or when you book, so you know what to expect.

Including CDW insurance at the time of your booking, or shopping around for a reputable Mexican insurance company may save you money. 

photo of street in Merida Mexico
View of a street in Merida, Mexico

Contacting Your Credit Card Company

Check with your credit card company or read your guide to benefits to see if CDW is included in car rentals in Mexico. If so (and this is important), you will need use the same card to both reserve and pay for the car. PLUS, you must waive the CDW coverage offered by the rental car company. The guys at the rental counter will try to talk you into it, but you must stay firm in your resolve! Don’t fall for “half coverage” or partial coverage plans – you must waive CDW entirely.

I recommend calling your credit card company to ask about any included insurance coverage benefits.  On the trips where I did mostly highway driving between Cancun and Tulum, I waived CDW coverage and used a credit card that included insurance. 

If you have an American Express card, you can actually get AMEX Premium coverage for your entire rental for $20-25 by enrolling in their program and using your Amex to book and pay for your rental.

When I drove more extensively on one Yucatan trip which included a backroads lost cenote quest, I opted for Hertz’s insurance.  

Third Party Liability Insurance

Third-party liability insurance, on the other hand, CANNOT be waived.  Be sure your reservation fee includes it, or plan to pay extra for this coverage. It is usually only a few dollars a day.  

Deciding If Waiving CDW Is Right for You

Because everyone has their own level of comfort with insurance coverage, I’m going to include some more links to help you make a decision that best fits your situation:

Renting a Car in Mexico

There are many TripAdvisor threads dedicated each year to renting a car in Mexico and which agencies people had a good or bad experience with. Check there for the most up-to-date information before you book. I usually rent with Hertz or Alamo, but have also used Easy Way with no problems.

I always book online ahead of time – especially if you need an automatic vehicle, it’s best to have a reservation. Many car rental places have a counter at the airport and/or a shuttle pickup outside the airport exit.

In Cancun and Cabo, there was usually someone in the agency that spoke English; in smaller or less touristy areas, you might need to break out the Google Translate.

Checking Your Vehicle Before You Leave

When you pick up your vehicle, be sure to check the car thoroughly and take photos or videos of any scratches, dents, dings or missing equipment. I’ve caught things that they didn’t mark on their list many times and asked to include them.

Also check under the car for prior damage from topes. Once my car had a plastic trim panel underneath that was barely hanging on. I discovered this when it started dragging on the highway, and I had to find zip ties to reattach it. I think the guys at the Pemex station were amused by my “I can do it myself” American attitude.

Elite Status with Rental Companies

If you have elite status with any car rental brands, consider renting with that company. I have status with Hertz because of my United Gold elite status, and never get hassled when I want to use my credit card’s insurance there. I think it’s because I’m seen as a “preferred” customer.

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GPS and Directions

Unless you plan to use your phone’s data plan and navigation, I recommend either renting a GPS with your vehicle, updating an old one to be sure it has all North America maps, or consider buying one if it makes sense for you.  Expect a daily GPS rental cost to be around $10.

I have used Google Maps to navigate around La Paz and Todos Santos in Baja California and throughout the Yucatan with no problems. If you can get a per day unlimited use plan with your cell phone, this is probably your easiest option. Remember to grab your cell phone holder from your car at home and throw it in your luggage.

A Special Note On Topes

Topes (pronounced “toe-pays”) are speed bumps.  Not regular ones, but the world’s most evil ones lying in wait to rip your muffler off.  Topes come in different sizes and materials, from small metal bumps to large concrete speed tables (sometimes labeled reductor de velocidad).  They generally have a sign like this below, unless kids have spray-painted over it (true story!).  They should be bright yellow, but the paint could be old and faded. 

Topes: tips for renting a car in Mexico
Can you see where the actual speed bump is in the road? I couldn’t! 🙂

When driving in Mexico, look out for topes:

  • Before police checkpoints on highways
  • Before toll booths on highways
  • As the speed limit lowers, when entering a town; then again as you leave a town before the limit increases
  • Near schools, pedestrian crossings, town squares, etc.
  • In your nightmares (a joke, except it’s kind of true)

Roads In the Yucatan

Federal highways in the Yucatán, Quintana Roo and Baja California Sur states are relatively well-paved. You’ll see highways designated as carreteras (federal highways or primary roads around a city) and autopista or cuota (toll highways).

I found that highways often go straight through towns, rather than around. You’ll be driving along and then hit some topes too hard, and suddenly you’re in the middle of a town square.  Also, when you get to a town, sometimes the road sometimes becomes one-way and you’re going the wrong direction entirely.  Try to stay alert and watch for signs – and what other cars are doing.

photo of street corner in Oaxaca Mexico
Street in Oaxaca City – notice the street signs are placed on the corners of buildings

The great thing about navigating cities like Merida and Valladolid is that the roads are mostly laid out grids, with even numbers running roughly north-south and odd going east-west.   Many of the roads are one-way (UNA VIA!) and the smaller intersections lack stop lights or signs.  In these cases, it seems to be that the busier street continues, while the less-busy cross-street has to stop.  I just was cautious and let people pass if I wasn’t sure.

On highways, it’s normal to see a car drive halfway onto the shoulder as an indicator that others can pass it.  People don’t use their turn signals much, like to signal a lane change.  I also adopted this hopes that it made me look more like a local!  Sometimes, though, people pull all the way over to the right and wait until they can make a U-turn.  Just stay alert.

Check for a list of common road signs at the end of this post!

Getting Gas While Driving in Mexico

Most countries have their tourist scams, and Mexico gas stations have a reputation.  You can’t pump gas yourself in Mexico, so most of the scams relate to being overcharged or short-changed by the attendants.

Basically, one common scam is that the attendant won’t reset the pump from the previous customer, and will pocket your money after only putting a little gas in! The other top scam is saying you still owe them more money. They’ll take the bill you gave them, then quickly switch it out to show you it isn’t enough to cover the amount.

Driving in Mexico - road signs for stop and one way
Stop sign and above it a sign indicating one-way traffic on the cross street.

Tips for Avoiding Problems at Gas Stations

My basic plan for avoiding problems when I buy gas in Mexico:

  1. Arrange to be standing outside the car, by either putting something in the trunk or getting something out.  This annoys them, but I can be sure they reset the pump to zero before they start and that they’re really filling it up.  Then I just hang out there until I pay.
  2. Pay in cash (“efectivo” not “credito”).  Have a bill ready, and show it and say the denomination of the bill to indicate how much gas I want.  For example, five hundred is “quiniento” (kee-nee-en-to).  For the small cars I’ve rented, this almost fills the tank from empty.
  3. Buy “magna” (regular) not “premium.”
  4. Pretend I don’t understand much Spanish (not difficult) in case they try to distract me or offer unnecessary services.  I just say “No, gracias” a lot and use my nice-lady face.
  5. Have a few small coins ready to tip (10 pesos).  I usually let them see that I’m holding coins with the bills, because I figure maybe they’ll be less likely to scam me if they know I’ll tip.

If you get stranded without cash, I would recommend using an ATM if there is one.  Otherwise, if you have no other option, take your card to wherever it is charged and watch the process.  I’ve asked about paying with a card just to see what would happen, but the machines always seemed to be broken.

But honestly, if you get scammed for $20, it won’t be the worst thing in the world.  Don’t stress too much about this one. Most commonly they’ll try to pretend you gave them a much smaller bill than you did, which is why I show it and say the denomination out loud before they pump the gas.

desert road lined with cactus in Baja California
Baja California Sur is definitely a location where I would recommend renting a car to see more sights and the gorgeous desert landscape.

Exits (Salidas) While Driving in Mexico

Mexican roads are not like U.S. highways.  You will not see an exit or gas station every few kilometers, or even every 20 kilometers (1km = .6 miles).  Signs do often list the distance to the next gas station or exit so you can plan your stops.  It’s also common to see pictograph signs indicating ruins, cenotes (swimming holes), churches, restaurants and other points of interest coming up.

Driving in Mexico - road signs
Common road sign in Mexico showing upcoming points of interest

Tolls and Police Checkpoints

Toll booths are pretty much like those in the U.S.  I was able to figure out from signs how much to pay.  Once, though, I handed over too much, and the attendant gave it back.

Police checkpoints in Mexico are common: they’re looking for drugs, though, and not folks on vacation.  There’s one as you head south from the airport in Cancun, and others before and in Tulum.  I also encountered some “pop-up” ones near Merida and Valladolid.  I didn’t have any issues, and I didn’t see anyone get stopped.

photo of the ochre streets of the city of Izamal in Yucatan stata
The yellow town of Izamal between Merida and Valladolid in Yucatan state

Green Angels (Angeles Verdes)

The Green Angels (Angeles Verdes) are a fleet of tourist assistance vehicles whose crew are trained in auto maintenance and first aid.  They patrol federal highways and toll roads to offer assistance in the event of a breakdown, accident, or medical emergency.

Reach the Green Angels by calling “078” 24 hours a day, although the assistance service runs from 8am-6pm. This number typically has operators who speak English. Expect to pay for supplies or parts used, and it’s nice to offer a tip for their assistance.  Find more info here:

colorful painted colonial buildings in the town of San Cristobal de las Casas in Chiapas state
Colorful streets and architecture in Campeche

Driving in Mexico Beyond Yucatán and Baja California Sur

My driving adventures are limited to the Yucatán, Quintana Roo, Oaxaca and Baja California Sur states of Mexico.  I have visited Campeche and Chiapas on public and private transit, and although I loved my travels, I would not feel comfortable driving there.  

While in Chiapas on a group your, we met other travelers whose overnight public bus was robbed en route to San Cristobal.  We had ended up in a road block along the same route.  A town had effectively stopped all through traffic as a protest for not getting investment and funding from the government.  After talking with some of the residents for a few minutes, our group leader expertly offered a donation for their schools.  We paid the equivalent of about $20 US and passed without incident.

photo of streets of san Cristobal de las Casas
Street in San Cristobal de las Casas in Chiapas state

Renting a Car in Mexico City or Other Major Cities

You won’t need a car in Mexico City, since taxis are readily available. Don’t do this! (You won’t do this, right?) If you’ll be staying in one city, it’s easier to use taxis. Even then, it’s safer and easier to use daytime public transport or book a day trip to see sights outside the city.

aerial view of a street in Mexico City

The End of the Road

Driving in Mexico or in any foreign country is a risk and can be stressful.  Honestly, I don’t recommend it for everyone – but it doesn’t have to be a stressful experience! I’m giving you my best personal tips, so please don’t come and sue me if the undercarriage of your car gets left behind when you hit some topes too hard.

I drive when I visit some areas of Mexico because I want the flexibility of being able to stop at more off-the-beaten track destinations and make the most efficient use of my time.

If you decide to rent a car for your Mexico vacation, be sure to sign up for my mailing list below to get the downloadable road signs feature!

Driving in Mexico Bonus Feature

Road Signs in Mexico

Plenty of gringos (including yours truly) survive their Yucatán car rental experience with limited Spanish. Here are some of the most common signs I saw and their translations:
RETORNO: Return; a lane to make a U-turn on the highway
CARRIL IZQUIERDO SOLO PARA REBASAR: Left lane only for passing
CUOTA: Toll (road)
LIBRE: Free (road)
UNA VIA: One way
OBEDEZCA LAS SEÑALES: Obey traffic signals
NO REBASE: Do not pass
MANAJE CON PRECAUCIÓN: Drive with caution
RUTA FLAMINGO: This way to ridiculous pink birds

Check out some of my other Mexico travel guides!

Planning a trip to Tulum? Don’t miss all my Tulum travel tips including best Tulum beach hotels, Tulum packing list, and how to visit Tulum on a budget.

If you’re traveling to Baja California, be sure to check out my guides to visiting La Paz and Todos Santos!

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Save for later or share with a friend! 515 shares Last Updated on July 17, 2021 Baja California gets a …

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Renting a car in Mexico? Pin this guide for later!

Tips for Renting and Driving a Car in Mexico

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Adrienne, The Haphazard Traveler

I used to be a hot travel mess, but I got better! I kept the name and now blog my best tips for culture and adventure travel from around the globe. Follow along for travel advice, destination info, and photography from faraway lands - and at home in Washington, D.C.

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