We think the best way to see Mexico especially the Yucatan Peninsula is to drive it yourself. Without a car, you’ll be confined to overpriced, basic package tours with hordes of people.
Follow this guide on how to rent a car in Cancun and other places in the Yucatan Peninsula for the best trip to Mexico of your life. Don’t worry it’s easy and safe – and here’s how to do it and avoid the scams and hassle.
The Complete Guide to Renting a Car in Cancun
The process of renting a car in Cancun can be confusing and that’s why we have put together this guide. We have tried to answer all of the typical questions and gave 1st hand insight on how to avoid all the common pitfalls and scams.
Jump to information:
- Is it safe to rent a car in Cancun?
- Do I need insurance to drive in Mexico?
- What’s the ‘Catch’ about renting a car in Cancun?
- Best rental car companies at the Cancun Airport
- Laws tourists should know when renting a car
- What to do if you get pulled over in Mexico
- What to do in case of an emergency
- Tips on renting a car in Cancun
- Scams to avoid
- Cancun Car Rental FAQ
Is it safe to rent a car in Cancun?
This more depends on your driving ability more than anything else. The first question everyone always has about renting a car in Cancun is ‘Is it safe?’. To rent a car to drive around the tourist destinations in Cancun and the Yucatan is safe.
Whenever we suggest renting a car, there is always someone on Facebook claiming ‘you’re going to get kidnapped by the cartel’ or something crazy, these are the uninformed people that you need to unfriend. This is just not a thing! Unless you are involving yourself in illegal activities, the chances of something like this happening are just ridiculous.
Q: Is it safe to rent a car in Cancun in 2020?
A: Yes, it is safe. We have been renting cars in Cancun and the Riveria Maya since 2013 and have already rented cars from the Cancun airport twice in 2018 and an upcoming trip in March 2020. We have driven well over 10,000 km over more than a dozen trips and have had no problems and never once felt unsafe.
While you should always be prepared and take precautions while driving in Mexico or any foreign country, it is a safe activity for tourists.
Heading to Cozumel? Read our Cozumel Rental Car Guide
Is it safe to drive in Cancun & the Yucatan?
Driving in a foreign country can be overwhelming, but in Mexico, we find it not too difficult. Inside cities like Playa del Carmen and other larger cities the traffic can be a bit busy, but outside the cities, there are surprisingly few cars on the road.
The road signs will be all in Spanish, however, with even a little bit of Spanish knowledge they are pretty easy to figure out. Speed limits are frequently marked and road signage is generally easy to follow, however, it’s a good idea to use GPS or Google Maps if you have cell service, or load them while you are on wifi.
What side of the road do they drive on in Mexico?
In Mexico, they drive on the right side of the road and the steering wheel is on the left side of the car, just like it is in the USA and parts of Europe. This would be the opposite of the United Kingdom or Australia.
Do I need Insurance for renting a car in Mexico?
This is not an easy yes or no question, but here we will try to explain it in detail. Technically, when you rent a car in Mexico it typically includes the legally required liability insurance. Confirm this in the fine print before booking, every company is different. Past that, insurance coverage is at your discretion. If you choose to decline additional coverage at the rental counter a hold will be placed on your credit card.
We ALWAYS recommend having additional insurance whether that is being covered by your credit card travel benefits, outside travel insurance company, or purchasing extra car insurance through the rental company. You never know when you’ll need it.
Don’t forget the insurance! You never know when you’ll need it. We suggest getting travel insurance with World Nomads. Not only will this include car rental insurance but also medical, trip cancellation, your belongings from theft or damage, baggage, car rental coverage, and much more.
The below photo is from Rentalcars.com after you select your car and then hit book on the bottom of that page you should see MEX RENTAL TERMS. Click on this and then the plus symbol for included in the rental price.
Here you will see that primary liability insurance (PLI) is included. PLI covers the driver against third-party claims for bodily injury or property damage that is a result of an accident. If there is any injury or damage to such property or injury caused by an accident this would be the first insurance policy to be called upon.
You should have insurance in addition to the legally required and included insurance because if you are involved in an accident you may be responsible for damages.
You do not need to take a policy from the rental agency, you may be able to use rental coverage from a credit card or other source. This will be explained further below.
Will my auto insurance cover me in Mexico?
Most US-based auto insurance plans do not cover you in Mexico, but you would need to check with your provider before renting a car in Mexico. If not, your credit card may cover you or you can purchase additional coverage through the rental agency.
Two of our travel credit cards include $75,000 car rental coverage for car rental damage and auto theft (no personal belongings). We recommend Chase Sapphire Rewards card and our Barclay World Elite also has the same coverage.
‘The Catch’ about renting a car in Cancun
When you go to book a rental car at the Cancun airport, or even in Tulum or Playa del Carmen, you’ll likely find that you can get a full-sized car or even an SUV for just a few dollars per day, so what’s the catch?
There are a few ‘catches’ but if you prepare for them you can actually rent a car for that cheap. Our last rental car we rented from the Cancun Airport we paid $5.97 for an 8-day rental, not $5.97 a day, $5.97 total including all taxes and fees for our entire trip.
Prices fluctuate depending on the season, currently in winter the prices are a bit higher, but still, a rental will probably cost you less for your whole trip than an airport transport one way. While we appreciate all the comments, we can’t control the prices of rental cars.
Below is a screenshot of rental prices for high season in Mexico and just 3 weeks away in February 2019.
Renting a car in Cancun can be a ‘bait and switch’ situation. When you get to the counter there are many ways they will try to upsell you or use other tactics to raise the price of your rental. I am convinced this is part of their job and they know you are eager to start your vacation and you’re more willing to pay extra charges at this point.
Here are the catches, and how not to get caught by them.
#1 – The first catch is insurance. When you get to the counter the first thing they will tell you is that you need to have insurance, this is most often not true. Every car we have rented in Mexico through comes with the legally required liability insurance coverage. (see picture above) While the limits and coverage are pretty minimal, and you may want more, you do not need to purchase additional insurance to rent the car.
We are not advocating you to drive around Mexico uninsured, it would be irresponsible not to have more coverage than the basic liability the rental car comes with. However, if you have coverage from a credit card or other source this will be significantly cheaper. Even if your only option is to take the insurance through the rental car company, the rental plus the insurance is still very affordable and in our opinion the best way to get around the Riviera Maya and the Yucatan.
When booking your booking on RentalCars.com you can add on Collision Damage Waiver (CDW) & Theft coverage for $12 a day. To us that’s totally worth it not to worry about what if something does happen, you know you’re covered by insurance.
#2 – Credit Card Hold – Catch #2 is related to #1, if you choose to decline additional coverage you will need to put a rather large hold on your credit card. For most companies to decline all additional insurances this is a $2,500 USD or the equivalent in Mexican Pesos. This may sound scary, but as long as you don’t get in any accidents it is a non-event.
We have never had an issue with being charged for damages to cars. It’s common for rental cars in Mexico to have plenty of dings and dents in them, just make sure the rental agent marks them all on your checkout form before leaving the rental lot when picking up your car.
Just note you will need to have a credit card with at least $2,500 USD of available credit to rent a car and decline all insurance, also some company’s holds can be higher depending on car class.
#3 – Car and Car Type are not guaranteed with a booking agent – When renting a car online through a booking agent like RentalCars.com any other major agent if you choose to pay when you pick up the car they don’t guarantee the car class you will receive.
While it is possible to get a larger vehicle reserving this way, during high season it is hard to get larger vehicles. Full-Size cars aren’t generally an issue, but they aren’t really very large cars. Our last ‘full-sized’ car was a Hyundai Elantra, which was comfortable enough for four people but can be tough with luggage.
If you are renting smaller cars this is generally not a concern. It seems to be very common practice to over rent larger cars and have them not be available, at least at the Cancun airport. If you prepay your car rental online the car companies usually see this and you’re more likely to get your car class.
On our last visit, we didn’t prepay and they said: “you didn’t pay for the reservation in advance we cannot guarantee that car.” Going forward we will always prepay our reservation.
The Best Rental Car Company in Mexico
We always rent our cars at Cancun airport on RentalCars.com. They have several rental companies to chose from. We generally rent from Mex Rental Cars and have been happy with them.
We recently rented from ‘Fox’ but were not very happy with them. It seems they frequently don’t have the cars they offer online. We rented an SUV for a trip with family and they didn’t have any and replaced our SUV with a compact car and refused to change the price to reflect the smaller car.
We always book here on RentalCars.com because they have free cancelations up to 48 hours before your booking.
Renting Baby Seats & Child Booster Seats
If you prefer to bring your own baby seats & child booster seats to keep your kids safe while driving in Mexico we totally get it but if dragging them from home through the airport sounds like a chore consider renting a baby seat.
On Rentalcars.com you can reserve and add a baby seat or child booster seat to your car rental for $5.99 a day each.
Best Credit Cards for Rental Car Protection in Mexico
Many credit cards have car rental insurance that covers you while driving in Mexico. You will need to check with your credit card company prior to traveling to Mexico. Here are the credit cards we have with car rental coverage:
- Chase Sapphire Reserve
- Barclay World Elite
- Delta SkyMiles (American Express)
- United Mileage Plus (Chase)
How to safely use your credit card rental benefits
- Make sure to read all the fine print regarding coverage.
- Ensure Mexico is an included country in your benefits (Chase Sapphire is covered).
- Have a written letter stating your benefits sent to you physically or electronically.
- Print or make copies of your coverage statement and bring them with you to Mexico.
- Pay for the car rental on the credit card with the coverage you plan to use.
- The driver must be the credit cardholder or the cardholder listed as a driver on the rental agreement.
One Must: If you plan on using your credit card for rental insurance have the credit card company send you your benefits letter in the mail or in an email and bring it with you to the rental counter in Mexico.
If there are any questions or problems this will help, You should have extra copies of this document for all your travels – this is a requirement when renting in Europe. While it’s not required in Mexico it is a good piece of mind to have. Our Chase Sapphire card emails us it within minutes of calling them for it.
Our Favorite Travel Credit Card: If you don’t already have the Chase Sapphire Reserve, you should get one if you travel often. This is by far our favorite card for travel. It comes with one of the best signup bonuses out there, they will pay for your Global Entry & TSA precheck, rental car coverage in just about every county, and you get a Priority Pass which gets you into airport lounges around the world.
Honestly, this card in a lot of ways changed the way we travel and made our travel days much more enjoyable.
Laws tourists should know when renting a car in Mexico
Knowing the law is the first step to having an easy trip to Mexico. While it may not save you from all hassles, it will help you void the easy ones.
- Don’t speed excessively – This should be obvious, but try not to go more than 10kph over the posted limit. You may be able to get away with 20 over, but you run the risk of being pulled over and to pay a ticket or a bribe.
- Don’t use your cell phone while driving, if a police officer sees you doing this they can stop you. Trust me this happened to me.
- Seat belts are required in Mexico.
- Technically it’s illegal to pay a police officer directly, however it is common practice.
Remember, just because you see another driver doing any of these things – you are a visitor and you are an easy target for a ticket or a bribe.
*This does not reflect all Mexican traffic laws. See the Disclaimer below.
What to do if you get pulled over in Mexico while renting a car
We have rented cars in Mexico more than a dozen times and driven at least 10,000 kilometers in the Yucatan and have only had two run-ins with police and to be honest they were justified. We were stopped once in Cozumel for speeding – which we were, and another time we were talking on a cell phone while driving through a Tulum police checkpoint on the highway.
In Cozumel, we paid a 500 Peso bribe and talked our way out of a ticket for the cell phone using some pretty bad Spanish and a lot of patience. Realistically the police in Mexico or at least in the Yucatan are pretty decent, and should not be feared.
- Stay calm, while the police may occasionally be looking for a bribe they aren’t the bad guys.
- Let the officer know if you speak Spanish and how much Spanish you may know. A common tactical is to intimidate you by speaking very fast with a scary tone.
- They will ask for your driver’s license first
- If they hold on to your license and hesitate to write the ticket while talking to you with the ticket pad in hand they are most likely trying for a bribe.
- The standard procedure is to take your license and hold it until you return the next day to pay your fine at the police station – If whatever you did warrants a ticket to begin with, that’s the hard part.
- The police sometimes use your lack of knowledge to scare you into thinking you did something wrong for a bribe.
Related Article: Xpu Ha Beach Is The Next Tulum
Parking in Playa del Carmen & Tulum
Parking in Playa del Carmen is pretty easy to come by. Just don’t park where the curbs are yellow or otherwise posted no parking. Sometimes the yellow on the curb can be a bit faded so just look when you get out of your car, especially in the evening. The same goes for Tulum Pueblo (town).
If you are staying near the beach in Tulum, that’s when it can get tricky lately. When looking where to stay in Tulum and you choose to stay on the beach make sure they have parking if not there are some lots but they are rather expensive.
If you are just visiting Tulum beaches for the day plan to pay 100-200 pesos to park (which is more than we normally pay for the car). Other than that just use common sense and don’t block driveways (no matter how small).
When visiting Mayan Ruins in Mexico like the Tulum Ruins, Coba Ruins, etc. also expect to pay 50-100 pesos for parking. When visiting cenotes in Mexico the parking is usually free. If you’re planning a day trip to Xpu Ha beach there is a fee for parking but they are a few restaurants that can validate your parking, ask the attendant in advance to make sure you eat/drink at the right one.
If you plan on visiting Isla Holbox you can park right by the ferry for 100 pesos a day, there are several houses/restaurants that offer secure parking. We left our rental car for 4 nights. It was much cheaper to drive ourselves there and pay for parking then take an uncomfortable shuttle jammed packed with tourists plus we could stop along the way and sightsee.
Related Article: Everything You Need To Know Before Taking The Cozumel Ferry
Article 152 & The Mexican Tourist Card
There are still articles floating around talking about Article 152 which was a program where you could give a police officer this ‘Tourist Card’ or ‘Tarjton Turistico’ if you were stopped for a traffic violation.
This was to curb police bribes and you would pay for your ticket at the rental agency. However, it seems this program unsurprisingly never really took off. This program looks to have ended in 2014 or so. Regardless, when renting a car in Cancun in 2018 you will not need to worry about this law/program, you will handle any violations directly with the police.
What to do if you have an emergency or accident
If you have an accident or any other emergency just dial 911 from your cell phone. If you are on a toll road or a major highway contact the Green Angels, which is similar to AAA in the USA. They are a bilingual fleet of green trucks (hence the name). You can contact Green Angels at 01-55-5250-8221.
Related Article: Things to do in Merida
Must follow tips to follow when renting a car in Mexico
- Always have your rental agreement in the car
- Always carry a valid drivers license
- Carry a photocopy of your passport, avoid carrying the real thing – You should not be asked for this and handing over your real passport gives police real power because you can’t leave the country without it.
- Carry a copy of the insurance you have – whether it is through a credit card or a separately purchased policy.
- Don’t use your cell phone while driving, for both safety and the law.
- Avoid excessive speeding, 10kph over the limit is generally tolerated, but a tourist is an easy target to be pulled over for minimal speeding for a bribe.
- Get a data plan for Mexico from your current carrier, or if that is too costly you can pick up a Mexican SIM card and plenty of data for less than $20 USD for a month, we suggest Telcel. This will help using google maps and ever-changing plans while on the road.
Google Maps hack while renting a car in Mexico without data service
If you plan to rent a car in Mexico it is a good idea to use Google Maps to help you get around. However, if you don’t have data you can still use the maps. Before heading out for the day load your map with your destination on google maps using the hotel wifi.
Once you leave wifi the map will stay loaded and the navigation will work using your GPS which doesn’t cost anything. The only catch is you can’t get too far off track because the map only loads so far off the main route. Don’t worry if you’re prone to getting off track, if you do make a wrong turn you just need to get yourself back to the blue line and you’re good to go again!
Scams to avoid while renting a car in Cancun
The biggest and most avoidable scams while renting cars in the Riviera Maya come at the gas stations. In Mexico, it is common for the full-service attendants to fill your tank and they are known to scam people, even local Mexicans.
There are two main scams to look out for, but always beware while filling up your rental car because new scams happen all the time.
‘The non-reset scam’ – Watch the gas pump meter closely when the attendant starts filling your tank because they are known for keeping the sale from the last car active and continuing filling your car and charging you for both sales. This is an easy one to avoid, just watch to make sure the meter goes back to zero before they start. This scam has started to fall out of fashion and hasn’t been tried on us recently.
‘The wrong payment scam’ – This scam happens at the end of filling your car and you pay the attendant cash, they will quickly change out one of the larger bills you just gave them claiming you gave them too little money.
For example, if you bill is 520 Pesos and you give the attendant a 500 peso note and a 20 peso note, once you give it to him and turn around to start the car they will come and knock on your window with a 50 note and a 20 note saying you mistakenly gave them the wrong bill. They are praying on the fact that you don’t know the currency well and people’s short memories. They are so fast with this they might actually be believable, but don’t fall for it.
This was tried on us twice on our most recent visit in 2018, to which I responded with every Spanish curse word I could muster. To avoid this, just hand the notes over one by one listing off what you are giving them. If they try this and you call them out they will just walk away, don’t doubt yourself.
Tips for renting a car in the Cancun Airport
- Pick up your rental car at the Cancun Airport. You can also rent cars in other cities like Playa del Carmen and Tulum, but the cost for a taxi to these destinations one-way will cost as much as a rental car for the length of your stay.
- When returning your rental car at the Cancun Airport follow the signs for Terminal 2 & 3. When you get closer to the terminals you will see signs for the individual car rental companies. There are shuttles to take you to your terminal to check-in.
Related Article: Where to Stay in Tulum – Read before booking accommodation
Cancun Car Rental FAQ
Q: Do I need a Jeep or SUV to get around to the tourist destinations of Riviera Maya and the Yucatan?
A: No, the roads are in surprisingly good shape in this part of Mexico. While you might end up on a few dirt roads while heading into Mexican cenotes, just about everything a tourist would regularly visit is accessible by a standard car.
Q: Are rental cars automatic or manual transmission?
A: We have had both automatic and manual transmission rental cars in Mexico. However, every time we rented in 2017 & 2018 our cars have been automatic. Before 2016 we typically had manual transmission cars. When renting make sure the car says automatic and when at the counter confirm the car is automatic. If you cannot drive a manual make sure the car rental company knows this.
Q: What side of the road do they drive on in Mexico?
A: In Mexico, cars drive on the right side of the road, just like the United States.
This article is only an account of our personal experience with rental cars in Cancun, Tulum, and Playa del Carmen. This is not legal advice. Laws may change or other circumstances arise that may make the information contained here incorrect.
We do not make any guarantees of the legal accuracy of any statements made in this article. We take no responsibility for how you use the information in this article. We are in no way liable for your actions or any loss or penalties that result.
Don’t forget to pin me for later!
We want your comments and questions – However, as a warning, fear-mongering and unsubstantiated comments are not welcome. If you are going to claim something, have facts or credible sources to substantiate it. If not, keep your worries to yourself and hold on tight to arms of your couch and stay in your small little ‘safe’ world.
Places in Mexico to Visit Before or After Cancun
If you’ve got more time to explore Mexico there are some amazing places in Mexico nearby you should check out. If you can’t it on this trip consider them on your next trip. Make sure to check out some of our other Mexico articles to fuel your wanderlust.