Saturday, June 22, 2024

Is renting a car in Mexico always a nightmare?

As many travelers have experienced, the initial excitement of arriving on vacation in Mexico is often squashed by a very painful rental car experience. I have rented cars hundreds of times over the years in Mexico, in dozens of different cities, and with pretty much every one of the rental car companies. I can say without exception that there is one common thread with each rental experience – it’s painful!

Perhaps I am not being fair in my assessment. It really is amazingly simple and quite unique that in the U.S. or Canada, in most places the car rental pickup takes minutes and oftentimes the only human interaction involves showing an agent your drivers license as you pull out of the parking lot. At many rental car companies, the keys are actually in the car and you just walk out and get in and drive away. Renting a car in most other parts of the world is not like that, and most certainly not in Mexico.

To begin with, there is usually a long line at the rental car terminal. Not long because there are a lot of people in front of you – long because each transaction can take anywhere between 15-45 minutes.  The typical transaction entails 5 basic steps:

Step 1: Total shock at the actual rental cost

Many people rent through a third party like Orbitz or Travelocity and see a ridiculously low price of something like US $5 per day. Upon arrival at the rental car counter, they realize the quoted price doesn’t include taxes and fees and so the actual price is often times much higher.

Step 2: Total shock at the insurance costs

Most foreigners are surprised to hear that their U.S. car insurance does not work outside of the country and that they need to purchase separate insurance (at a cost that is often times 2-5 times the price of the rental!) This cost is of course not reflected in the initial reservation cost either and results in more anxiety and stress from the renter.

Step 3: Total shock at the paperwork

I have never actually gotten an exact count, but the number of signatures needed to rent a car in Mexico is well into the double digits. The only time in my life I have had to sign my name more times has been upon buying a home. It would take hours to read and understand all of the documents that one is asked to sign, and by this stage of the rental process one is usually so frustrated and anxious to get going and begin the vacation, that they just sign away as quickly as possible.

Step 4: Total shock at car inspection

This is a comically painful process in which you are asked to inspect and document any scratch, any paint chip, any upholstery stain, anything that is not perfect with the car. This step only serves to make you paranoid that – no matter how you return the car – you will be charged for something. As a result, my wife during this step starts to take pictures of every single millimeter sized scratch on the car. She literally takes more pictures in these 5 minutes than she will during the entire vacation!

Step 5: Another signature (or two) and you are good to drive away!

As I said, I find this process extremely painful, frustrating, and a complete buzzkill to the start of any vacation. However, I can say that in all of my years of rentals, I have never once had to pay another peso for any issue with the car. In fact, the rental car return process is usually quite quick and painless. I also have become accustomed to the fact that no matter how cheap my daily rental cost appears to be when I reserve it, a normal rental car costs about US $50 – $70 per day in Mexico with insurance, taxes, and fees included. If you go into it expecting that, the process will be less painful.

My most recent car rental experience, with Budget Rent-A-Car at the San José del Cabo airport this past week, is a story that I think is worth sharing. It provides an illustration of the wonderful people of Mexico who provide a counterbalance to what is often the frustrating and annoying bureaucracy like the typical rental car experience I described previously. I will tell the story in 3 separate mini-chapters:

Chapter 1:  Flat Tire #1

While doing the rental inspection, I noticed that one of the tires seemed flat. I mentioned it to the guy checking me out and he said “no worries, it looks fine”, and so I trusted him and drove away. About an hour later, when driving in Cabo San Lucas, I noticed that I was now driving on the rim of that tire and that it was completely flat as a pancake.

It was 7:45 p.m. and I called the Budget national number. I got an automated message asking for Spanish or English, I clicked Spanish. Someone answered, connected me with the San José office, who then contacted the Cabo San Lucas office and told me that someone would bring me a new car to where I was parked within 15 minutes. Literally within 15 minutes a guy drives up and hands me the keys to an upgraded car and said “go ahead, I will fix the tire and return the car for you”.  Wow moment #1.

Chapter 2:  Flat Tire #2

A few days later, we were taking a day trip up to Todos Santos about an hour away. Upon entering the downtown area, there was a carnival being set up and so we were driving around some detours and I ultimately drove into a broken manhole and completely destroyed the front passenger seat tire – it literally blew up instantly upon hitting the open manhole.

Open manhole vs tire – the manhole won. (Courtesy Travis Bembenek)

We parked the car and went into a place for breakfast and they gave me the name of a tire place in town. I called the guy and told him where I was and he said “I will be there in less than 5 minutes.”  I went to the car and he was there. He removed the tire, threw it in the back of his truck, and said he would be back with a new tire on the rim in less than 10 minutes.

He literally was back within 10 minutes and charged me about US $100 for the new tire and all of the service. I couldn’t believe it. I went from a destroyed tire in a tiny little town, thinking that this could be an all-day nightmare, to having the tire replaced in less than 20 minutes. I happily paid the gentlemen and suggested he look for a job in the pits of a Formula 1 racing team!  Wow moment #2.

Chapter 3: Todos Santos to La Paz

We drove from Todos Santos to La Paz and I noticed that the dashboard indicated that the recently replaced tire was showing that it was low in pressure (which makes sense since the guy did the replacement on the side of the street and not in a shop).

So I pulled into a random tire shop on the side of the highway, pulling straight into an open bay and asked the guy to check the pressure. Without me even getting out of the car, he checked the pressure, filled the tire, and said “ok, you are good” in a total of less than 60 seconds. I tried to pay him something for his help and he refused to take payment. Wow moment #3.

What’s the moral of the story?

Mexico is not like the U.S. and Canada in many ways. Some of these ways are frustrating and painful (like the process of renting a car) and there is no denying that. However, I have found time and time again that the Mexican people are wonderful, friendly and helpful. I always wince a little bit when I hear a story of a gringo talking about “getting completely screwed over by a Mexican” in some transaction because I have personally experienced the exact opposite in 99% of my transactions with Mexicans.

I am sure that speaking the language helps, and I try to be kind, friendly, respectful, and have a sense of humor every chance I get. I also believe in the concept of “treating people as you want to be treated” and that seems to work quite well for me almost every time in Mexico.

It’s so important to embrace all of the good of this country and its people and not just complain about the imperfect parts of the country.  So the next time you are renting a car in Mexico, take a deep breath, be patient, and remember that although the process is painful, it is often not the fault of the people who are helping you.

Travis Bembenek is the CEO of Mexico News Daily and has been living, working or playing in Mexico for over 27 years.

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