Driving in Puerto Rico and San Juan: Should You Rent a Car For San Juan
Wondering how driving in Puerto Rico is like and if you need to rent a car for San Juan? This Puerto Rico driving guide shows you the basics of driving in Puerto Rico to help you decide if you should rent a car in Puerto Rico.
If you are planning your first trip to Puerto Rico, one of the most important questions is how to get around Puerto Rico easily.
There are different ways to get around Puerto Rico, and driving yourself is always the most flexible and versatile way to get around. But, is driving in Puerto Rico for you?
This article will answer all your questions about driving in Puerto Rico, especially driving in San Juan, so you can make an informed decision on whether you should rent a car or just take Uber around Puerto Rico.
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Basics of Driving in Puerto Rico
- Driving in Puerto Rico is similar to driving in the US and Canada. You drive on the same side as the US and Canada (opposite from the UK and Japan).
- You need a valid driver’s license to rent a car in Puerto Rico. US driver’s license work in Puerto Rico or you can get an international driving license.
- Traffic signs in Puerto Rico are in Spanish, so knowing some basic Spanish would be helpful.
- Rental cars in Puerto Rico are automatic transmission, just like in the US.
- Google Maps work well in Puerto Rico, but you should also download offline maps in case you lose reception.
- Make sure your rental car has AutoExpreso for toll roads. Some toll roads also accept cash (US dollars).
- You can make right turns on red in Puerto Rico.
- Seat belts are mandatory and children’s car seats and booster seats are required for those under 9. Children must ride in the back of the car.
Where to Rent a Car in Puerto Rico + Cost of Renting a Car
Airports are always a good place to rent a car, since naturally there are a ton of rental car companies located there with a large selection of cars.
There are multiple airports in Puerto Rico, with the Luis Muñoz Marin International Airport as the main airport, followed by Rafael Hernández International Airport in Aguadilla on the west side of Puerto Rico.
Besides airports, you will also find rental agencies in San Juan and other resort areas like Isla Verde and Condado. You can use Google Maps to find specific car rental agencies in a particular area. Some of these places also rent scooters and even ATVs.
Keep in mind that you should book your rental car early, especially if you are renting from non-airport locations! Cars do run out during peak holiday season even from the airport.
Rental cars in Puerto Rico cost between $50-$150 a day depending on when you visit. As you can imagine it is more expensive during peak tourist season and cheaper during summer and hurricane season.
There are a ton of fees and charges you have to pay when you rent a car in Puerto Rico, these include:
- Energy recovery fee: $0.65 per day
- VLF + Vehicle Excise Tax: $3.75 per day
- 11.11% Concession fee
- Sales Tax: 11.5%
- Airport construction fee: $0.35 per day
- Cust Facility charge: $6.55 per day
Should You Rent a Large Car or Small Car in Puerto Rico?
You may wonder if bigger is better but the answer is no. I know in the US many people prefer SUVs and even trucks but Puerto Rico is not big car friendly.
Do You Need Insurance For Rental Cars in Puerto Rico
As with any rental car, there is associated insurance that you may need to pay for, and Puerto Rico is no exception.
There are several types of insurance when renting a car in Puerto Rico:
- Collision Damage Waiver
- Personal Accident Insurance
- Personal Effects Protection
- Additional Liability Insurance
Your credit card should also come with some insurance coverages but you should check to make sure.
I usually don’t like paying for additional insurance but we read that locals drive pretty crazy in Puerto Rico, so we decided to pay for additional liability insurance but declined everything else.
Ultimately check your credit card insurance coverage and decide for yourself how much additional insurance you want to get.
Common Guidelines and Courtesy When Driving in Puerto Rico
There are some unwritten rules you should follow when driving in Puerto Rico, especially in San Juan touristy areas.
Similar to the US, when there are multi-lane roads, slower cars drive on the right side and faster cars are in the left lane.
You should never pass a car from the right lanes although I know that’s not always the case.
Locals don’t always use blinkers to signal when they turn or switch lanes but as a good driver you should always use blinkers.
There are a lot of speed bumps in the San Juan area, some are actually also served as pedestrian crosswalks. Be sure to slow down and watch out for pedestrians. You will need to stop and let pedestrians cross.
Most roads can be narrow in Puerto Rico, always drive in your lane because you never know when a car will turn. Don’t drive in the middle since you can easily cause an accident like that.
Always drive defensively in Puerto Rico. There are many expected lane changes and lane merges!
Basic Puerto Rico Traffic Sign Translations
Since the traffic signs in Puerto Rico are in Spanish, it would be helpful to know some basic Spanish.
However if you drive in the US, you can probably guess what some of the signs mean. For example, stop signs look the same and have the same color.
But it doesn’t hurt to know some basic translations if you plan to drive in Puerto Rico:
- Pare: Stop (you will see this on red stop signs)
- Este: East
- Oeste: West
- Norte: North
- Sur: South
- Tránsito: one way
- Solo: only
- Salida: Exit
- Solo Salida: Exit Only
- No Entre: No enter
- No Estacione: No parking
- Ceda: Yield
- Peaje: Toll
Paying for Toll Roads in Puerto Rico
There are several highways that have tolls in Puerto Rico. As you drive on the road you will see toll signs. There are usually alternatives if you don’t want to pay for toll roads, but they generally take longer.
In general, you will need an AutoExpreso (similar to EZPass) to pay for tolls automatically. If you are renting a car in Puerto Rico, most likely they will have this already on your windshield. But you should always ask just to make sure.
Having the AutoExpreso makes it easy to pay for the toll, since you don’t even need to stop to pay for the toll. The rental car company will then send you a bill a month later with the toll charges (and probably convenience fee).
Some toll booths may accept cash but when I was in Puerto Rico I did not see any manned booth that takes cash.
Road Conditions in Puerto Rico
To put it bluntly, the road conditions are not the best in Puerto Rico. There are a lot of random potholes on the road, so you need to be alert to avoid them, otherwise they can send you flying!
Besides the potholes, you may also see random debris like tires and other things on the highway when driving in Puerto Rico. Again, be vigilant and avoid them when you see them coming up.
Lastly, I noticed that the merge lanes are super short (almost nonexistent) in Puerto Rico. If you are used to a very long on-ramp like in Los Angeles, you will need to adjust your expectations. Therefore, when going on the highway in Puerto Rico, you will need to check your mirror to make sure no cars are coming.
In addition, lanes on the highways also randomly merge together, so if you are driving in the right lane (and sometimes left lanes), be sure to watch out for your lane merging with another lane.
Parking in San Juan (and Puerto Rico)
Parking, everyone’s favorite topic! For the purpose of this article, I am going to assume you are a tourist and intend to visit San Juan, El Yunque and maybe some beaches in Puerto Rico.
The bad news is that street parking is difficult to find in touristy areas like San Juan. The good news is that there are many parking lots that generally cost $3-5 an hour.
Most hotels in Puerto Rico also have a parking lot that you need to pay ($20-25 a day), and if you are a non-guest you can park in them as well since you just take a ticket from the machine and pay by the hour.
You can easily find parking on Google Maps. Just type in “parking” in the search bar or zoom in on the areas you want to go and look for the P sign.
Some popular restaurants and bakeries in San Juan (not Old San Juan, but in Condado and Isla Verde) have their own parking lot for free. But these parking lots are never super big and can just fit 10-15 cars total.
If you are going to Old San Juan, there are a couple of parking structures/ parking lots you can park in, so you don’t need to stress about street parking (or having to drive on the narrow cobblestone streets).
One thing I observed is that 80% of the cars in parking lots back in! Perhaps because space is limited or maybe people are just that skilled but I was surprised that everyone backs in.
Navigating When Driving in Puerto Rico
Your rental car may come with navigation but I find that using Google Maps is sufficient to get around Puerto Rico.
The two difficult parts is that the streets and highways are in Spanish and that sometimes there are multiple lanes when you exit and you will need to look at the map and lanes to figure out the right lane to be in.
In fact, navigating in Puerto Rico reminds me a lot of driving in New York City, when the GPS says “exit xxxx, take the XYZ exit, go slightly left and stay in the middle lane”.
Getting Gas in Puerto Rico
Unless you choose the option to pre-purchase gas at the rental car counter, you will need to get gas at least once (before you return the car).
There are plenty of gas stations in Puerto Rico and you will see them as you drive on the highway. Or you can always use Google Maps to search for gas stations nearby.
Gas is sold by liters and you need to fill your own gas. You will need to go inside and pre-authorize a certain amount before you put gas in.
So pull up your car to a specific machine, remember the number of the machine, go inside and mention what number you are.
The worker will then ask you how much you want to pay. Well since you don’t know how much exactly your gas will be before filling, you will have to make an educated guess. You definitely don’t want to say too little and then realize you did not fill the tank full before returning the car. But if you authorized an amount more than the actual cost, you should go back inside and ask them to charge the correct amount.
How Hard is it to Drive in Puerto Rico and San Juan
So after all that I mentioned above, you may be wondering just exactly how difficult it is driving in Puerto Rico and especially in San Juan.
Well the answer is it depends! If you are used to driving in hectic places like New York or London, I think driving in Puerto Rico is not any harder.
Streets (even highway lanes) in Puerto Rico can be narrow, cars can be aggressive, and roads are not always well marked. But these are similar problems that we have in New York, San Francisco and even London.
If you are not good at driving or you come from places where lanes are wide, there are only two main highways in your town and parking spots are plenty, then you might find driving in Puerto Rico more challenging.
Driving in Puerto Rico, especially San Juan, requires that you are comfortable driving when there are a lot going on, together with the signs in Spanish and highway lanes suddenly merge.
Ultimately if you are a confident driver, you should have no issues driving in Puerto Rico. If you are a new driver or you don’t drive much, you are better off getting taxis and Ubers instead to avoid the hassle and stress.
Bonus: Driving to El Yunque, What Should You Know
If you are a first time tourist to Puerto Rico, you probably want to visit El Yunque National Forest, the famous rainforest up in the mountains in eastern Puerto Rico.
Since the rain forest is up in the mountains, you will need to drive on some windy narrow mountain roads to get there.
If you are driving from San Juan, you will be driving on toll roads (maybe sure you have the AutoEpreso on your car). The highway exit to El Yunque has a very small sign and you will be driving in a small residential neighborhood area before going up the mountains.
Since the road is windy and narrow, always be sure to stay in your lane and go slow during a turn. What I hate the most is when cars drive super fast during these turns when it’s narrow, potentially causing accidents and injuries.
There are no more reservation systems at El Yunque, so everything is based on first come first serve. Therefore, you will need to either go really early or go later in the afternoon. You will not be able to go in between 9:30am to 11am for sure (we tried and failed).
Even when you get into El Yunque, there are very limited parking spots at each hike and attraction. You may need to go to other attractions in the rainforest first or you will have to wait for a car to leave.
Bonus: Should you drive to the Old San Juan or Take an Uber
One of our main questions when renting a car in Puerto Rico is whether we should Uber to Old San Juan or drive there ourselves. I mean how bad can it be right?.
Before our trip, I did a lot of research online and most people say it’s better to Uber since the streets are so narrow in Old San Juan and there is a ton of traffic.
We ended up driving to Old San Juan multiple times early in the morning and had no issues whatsoever.
There are two large parking lots/ parking structures that are well reviewed on Google:
- Multipiso Doña Fela: multi level parking structure in Old San Juan. $5 minimum (2 hours) required to exit if you pay with credit card
- La Puntilla Parking: outdoor parking lot that is $3 all day
There are also other smaller parking structures but they have bad reviews so we didn’t bother with them.
Since we arrived before 9:30am on the days we visited Old San Juan, there was no traffic and it was so easy to park.
But usually around 10am or later, cars start coming in and all the streets are full of cars and traffic. Parking lots do fill up (especially the $3 all day one).
So if you are planning to visit Old San Juan in the morning, I highly encourage you to drive as there is no traffic and parking is easy.
But if you are visiting Old San Juan later in the day or at night for dinner, it may be better to take an Uber so you don’t have to deal with traffic and parking.
I do not recommend doing street parking in Old San Juan since the streets are narrow and there’s so many people around. There are also many one way streets in Old San Juan and it is surprisingly hilly. You will also need superb parallel parking skill to do street parking (assuming there’s even a spot).
Alternatives to Driving in Puerto Rico: What to do if You Don’t Want to Drive
After reading all this, I wouldn’t blame you if you decide that driving in Puerto Rico is not worth the hassle. Don’t worry, there are ways to get around Puerto Rico (especially San Juan) without driving.
- Uber works well in Puerto Rico and you can easily get one in San Juan. From the airport to Old San Juan, Uber costs $30-40 USD one way.
- If you are adventurous and on a budget, then you can always take a local bus to get around San Juan. I didn’t take the bus so can’t speak to how to take them, but Google maps does give you bus directions
- Taking a taxi: you will find taxis in front of hotels and major tourist attractions like the Old San Juan. There are also taxi services you can call (or ask your hotel to help you)
Other Observations About Driving in Puerto Rico
- Highways have very short on/off ramps. This came as a surprise since I always thought the ramps in New York City were short, but Puerto Rico was even shorter! You need to check your mirror and potentially stop to avoid a collision when getting on the highway.
- Lack of signs on the road. When we were driving from Isla Verde to Old San Juan, we followed Google Maps closely to get on the highway. But there was literally no sign to indicate the on ramp. In fact the off ramp and on ramp were almost together so you could easily get on the wrong road (major risk of head on collision).
- Locals are not the best drivers. I’m sure local drivers know the roads well but I can’t say they follow rules that closely. I saw drivers on their phone while driving, resulting in them getting into other lanes constantly. Most drivers do not signal when changing lanes and they can suddenly speed up for no reason. Drive defensively.
- Learn to back into parking spots. Locals always back into spots when parking their car so you should try too. It makes getting out of spots so much easier but be aware that parking spots are pretty tight.
- Learn to parallel park. If you plan to park on the streets in Puerto Rico, especially in San Juan, you will need to parallel park your car.
- Don’t leave things in your car. It’s always good practice to exercise caution and not leave anything visible in your car. You don’t want your windows smashed on vacation.
- Download offline map. If you are planning to go to El Yunque, you should always download an offline map from Google Maps. There is no reception in El Yunque National Forest, so you don’t want to get stranded or get lost.
- Don’t park where you are not supposed to park. Even though local drivers may not always follow traffic laws, parking enforcement is in full force in Puerto Rico. I read about people getting hefty parking fines and I actually saw a police officer giving tickets in El Yunque for illegally parking cars outside of designated spots.
- Potholes are everywhere. There are so many potholes on the road in Puerto Rico. You should always reduce speed when driving through them unless you want your head to hit the top of your car.
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