Is it safe to rent a car in Mexico?

There is little doubt that making the decision to rent a car is the best way to see an area. Especially if you are ready to leave the city centre. But there are articles out there suggesting it is too dangerous to drive in Mexico.

There is no better way to explore than with the freedom created when you are in control of every aspect of your transportation. But you won’t make it happen if you are too scared to hit the road and can’t decide if you should rent a car in Mexico.

So let’s get some more information so you can decide, is it safe to rent a car in Mexico?

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Is it safe to drive in Mexico?

I’m sure you have read or heard a horror story about things going wrong when someone chooses to rent a car in Mexico. And while I’m not saying something couldn’t go wrong, the likelihood has been exaggerated.

But if you remain vigilant, follow the road rules, and use a decent helping of common sense then there is no reason your experience shouldn’t be safe, fun, and fulfilling.

We have made the effort to drive in Mexico a few times and never had any safety concerns even when our daughter was quite young. Our most recent trip was a 5000-kilometre monster road trip from north of Mexico City to Merida on the other side of the country.

Do your research to discover the areas to be avoided, or ask for advice from the staff at the car rental office. If you don’t know where you are going, and end up in a dangerous area, you have nobody to blame but yourself.

We recommend you visit the real experts over at Mexperience and get their free ebook Guide to Driving and Road Trips in Mexico

And your GPS does like to have a bit of fun with you sometimes, so you never know what type of road you might end up driving along. We certainly never expected to be driving on the main road between two towns and having to dodge crater-sized potholes, speeding local buses, and even sections that had been completely washed away. But it’s all part of the adventure.

Follow the road rules and stick to the speed limit. Actually, drive a little under the speed limit just to be sure. There are a few “road rules” in Mexico that are unlike anything I have experienced in other parts of the world. You will pick them up from watching the locals drive and I will give you a few tips later in this post.

If you are speeding and get pulled over be willing to pay the “on-the-spot fine” and move on. Don’t argue the point. We experienced this firsthand on our most recent trip where we had a state cop on a motorbike pull us over for “speeding” through a small town’s school zone. Again, I will tell you how we handled this a little later.

Driving in Mexico, like most other countries, is quite safe if you take care and use common sense.

Reasons to rent a car in Mexico

So many of the highlights of this country are away from the main tourist towns and driving is the perfect way to find them. Sure you could probably find a coach tour to get to many of these places but then you are stuck to a tight schedule.

We actually considered using a combination of intercity buses, local buses, and private drivers for our big trip, but renting a car gave us some extra flexibility on our itinerary and also worked out cheaper.

There is nothing like the freedom to stop on a whim when you spot something amazing. Your freedom is mostly gone if you travel on a bus or in a group.

A great reason to rent a car in Mexico is to use it as transportation for day trips from a central base. During our time in Cancun, we took two day trips and used a different travel style for each.

For our visit to Chichen Itza we decided to use a major organised tour company. It was easy and reasonably priced but we lost an hour of exploration time because some passengers were running late and the driver would not leave base without them.

Great weather means a convertible is ideal as a Mexico rental car

When it came to visiting Xel-Ha Eco Water Park we decided to rent a car and make our own schedule. For us, the experience was so much better than our organised coach day trip to Chitzen Itza, where we wasted over an hour sitting on the coach in the morning waiting for a small group of people who were running late. And then having to leave the ruins before we really felt that we had explored them enough.

We were able to leave our resort when we were ready and arrive at the park hours before the tour groups, which meant we could experience the more popular activities without the crowds. It also gave us a chance to leave when we were done rather than cut our day short sticking to the tour timetable.

Why you wouldn’t rent a car in Mexico

Don’t focus on the over-sensationalized stories of the dangers of driving in Mexico, we almost didn’t do our three-month adventure as a self-drive road trip because of some of the things we read during our research time. As mentioned above common sense goes a long way. But there are legitimate reasons that car rental may not be for you.

If you are used to driving on the opposite side of the road then having to retrain your brain can be daunting. Consider your level of confidence in handling these changed driving conditions. I have always found that my brain can retrain after just a few intersections and then I am on autopilot when it comes to staying in the correct lanes.

Drivers and driving styles in Mexico, and in many other countries, are quite different from what is considered acceptable or normal at home. How people approach traffic lights, intersections or even general driver etiquette may be very different from the way you are used to. And the way Mexican drivers use their turning signals and hazard lights is very different from how we use them in Australia. But once again I adapted quite easily and quickly.

If you are concerned at all about your ability to adapt your style then driving may be better left to others.

Or the reason may be as simple as you feel that having to drive on vacation is too much like hard work and you want to just sit back and leave the responsibility to someone else.

What type of car to drive in Mexico

The same considerations should be involved regardless of the location of the car rental. Choosing the right vehicle is just as important when you rent a car in Mexico as it is at home.

A couple doing nothing more than taking a day trip that will keep them on major roads can comfortably get away with a cheap and cheerful small car.

While a family looking to explore the Yucatan and find some of the more remote ruins or Cenotes may love the idea of a convertible Jeep.

Some of the beach areas may also have some quirky options which can be a lot of fun under the right circumstances. Try a Dune Buggy rental on the Island of Cozumel, so much fun.

For our epic road trip we chose to rent a compact SUV because it provided the perfect blend of price, luggage space, fuel economy, and comfort. We like the extra height you don’t get with a sedan, and we had no interest in paying more for 4-wheel-drive that we would rarely, if ever, benefit from.

Our Mexico car rental experiences

We had rented cars twice in Mexico for day trips and then recently for an epic 3-month road trip that covered about 5000 kilometres. The first two times we made the arrangements while already there rather than trying to pre-book cars online, but for the longer hire period, we needed to know that a vehicle was available and how much it was going to cost.

It’s not that we have any concerns about booking online those first two times, but more that our decisions were spur-of-the-moment things. And we found the process smooth and easy.

If you are staying in a Resort then you will probably find that they have car rental options on site which make things simple. You can usually have the charge billed to your room account as well.

We were staying at the Moon Palace on the Riviera Maya and were able to arrange a Jeep for the following day with one quick phone call. The vehicle was near new and superbly maintained and the price was quite reasonable. Plus you get to pick up and drop off right there in the Resort.

Our second experience was a little different, actually a lot different. We decided to rent a cool Dune Buggy to drive around Cozumel for an afternoon after seeing them zipping around town.

After trying a couple of car rental shopfronts we found that they were all taken and needed to be booked at least a day in advance. However, we could get a convertible Jeep which seemed a decent fallback position.

We signed the paperwork and paid the seeming bargain price before being led across the road to a dusty carpark. We were then shown our “chariot”.

Sure it was a convertible Jeep but it had been sitting in the open sun for the entire morning and the black seats and metal belt buckles were only just shy of melting point.

Speaking of the seats, somehow the padding had deteriorated completely and you were to sit on nothing more than some black material covering a few metal bars. So blisteringly hot and tragically uncomfortable proving you get what you pay for.

At least the drive around the island was spectacular and there were plenty of secluded beaches to cool your butt.

We recently had our second stay on Cozumel and once again decided to rent a car for the day. This time we booked a day in advance to make sure that we got the buggy we wanted, and even inspected the car at the time of booking.

We strongly recommend booking in advance and checking the car before you pay to make sure you are getting what you are actually expecting.

Our road trip experience in Mexico

Three things come to mind from our Mexico road trip that we feel could be useful information for you while making your decision to rent a car in Mexico or explore other options. Our corrupt cop experience, unusual road rules, and driving conditions all could help you.

Corrupt Cops

We had read many stories about corrupt Mexican cops pulling over drivers with made-up infringements and offering to let you go after you pay an on-the-spot fine. In hindsight, we should have read the tips on handling this situation more carefully.

The first 4500 kilometres of the road trip had gone perfectly and we were on the home stretch. We had heard that the state of Quintana Roo was the most notorious for this type of corruption but it was still a shock being pulled over.

Just after driving through a small town in the south of the state a motorbike cop signalled for us to pull over. The four cars immediately behind us and the two in front were allowed to continue. He asked for my driver’s licence and told me I had been speeding through a school zone. I was driving at the same speed as those other cars at about 25 – 30 mph.

I believe I was targeted because I had a licence plate from another state and suitcases in the car, so chances are I was a tourist in his eyes.

He said he was taking my licence and we would have to come back to his station tomorrow to get the ticket. I asked about paying a fine now and he suggested 2000 pesos. But I knew that was too much and so I scrambled around in my wallet and came up with about 1000. It wasn’t all of the money I had on me but I was not going to pay more.

He told me it was not enough and so I offered him the 20 Aussie dollars I also had, which confused him into submission. He agreed to the lesser amount, returned my licence, and sent us on our way.

My tips for you, if you get into a similar situation, are”

  • only carry some of your money in your wallet, maybe between 500 – 600 pesos. This should be enough for a “fine” and you can show the emptied wallet to the cop. Any other money can be kept hidden in the car of your luggage.
  • Also, only keep your essential documents in that wallet. Either a low-limit credit card or debit card and your driver’s licence. Keep everything else safely hidden away.
  • Never argue with the cop, don’t dispute the accusation, be polite, and be willing to pay the fake fine. But only a reasonable amount.
  • Don’t let this incident ruin your trip. It shouldn’t have cost you much money and makes a great story to tell everyone when you get home!

The “road rules” of Mexico

I use quotation marks here because I doubt that the information I am about to share is actually based on any written laws, and is really just the way the locals have decided to operate when behind their wheels. You will pick up on a few unusual things as you drive more in Mexico but these couple of tips will at least get you started.

Turning Signals – are almost never used to indicate that a driver is turning or changing lanes. They are more commonly used to let drivers behind you know if it is safe for them to overtake. So just because the driver in front of you does not indicate a turn does not mean that they are going straight ahead.

Hazard Lights – in Australia it is very rare to see people using hazard lights in anything but the most extreme circumstances. While in Mexico you should expect to see hazard lights blinking away dozens of times per day. There are two main reasons for Mexican drivers to use their hazard lights.

The first use is to indicate that they are slowing down. It seemed that any time a driver was approaching a traffic jam, or even just approaching a red traffic light, on came the hazards. It probably makes good sense and it’s a habit you should take on in Mexico.

While the second use was so common that we gave it a special name… the “park anywhere” signal. It seems to be an unwritten rule that if you activate your hazard lights you are allowed to park almost anywhere that will make your life easier, even if it complicates things for everyone else!

Double parked on a busy road? No problem, just flick on the park anywhere lights. Have to stop and chat with your amigo on a narrow one-way street? That’s OK, use the park anywhere lights. No parking spots available for you to run into a shop? Easy peasy, stop anywhere you want, and set those blinking lights flashing. Problem solved!

The invisible overtaking lane – many of the roads that will take you between towns have just a single lane in each direction, but they have wide shoulders at least half the width of any car. It took us a few times swearing at the chaotic drivers who would whip down the middle of the road, forcing drivers on either side to move halfway onto the shoulder so they could overtake, before we realised this was something every driver in Mexico does.

It actually makes a lot of sense and is a clever way to get maximum usage from the road, but it will take a bit of getting used to before you build up the nerve to try it for yourself.

Driving conditions in Mexico

Mexicans want you to slow down – our 5000 kilometre road trip must have taken us over at least 5000 topes, reductores, and vibradores, which you might know as “speed bumps”. These can be found randomly throughout the Mexican road system, anywhere from the tiniest backstreet to a major highway, and they can range from a barely noticeable lump to something almost the size and shape of a cinderblock.

In Australia speed bumps are mainly used to slow traffic in residential areas, especially around schools. But in Mexico they are far more random, with no official control over where they can be placed or how large they can be. Even locals with a small food stand can build one to almost stop traffic at their doorstep.

You need to be vigilant wherever you drive because some of these are potential axle breakers, and some of them are pretty well hidden. You will grow to hate them but, even if you choose to travel by bus or private driver, you have to get used to them.

Road conditions can vary wildly – during our research phase we kept seeing reports where people were saying the roads in Mexico are very poorly maintained, with potholes or long unsealed stretches.

We did experience the full range of conditions, from the “death-trap” between the towns of Tetala de Ocampo and Cuetzalan in Puebla State. 64 kilometres in two and a half hours of white-knuckle driving, to the pristine new highways in the Yucatan. But to be honest, the roads are generally no worse than we experience every day in Australia.

I don’t know where the people live who were saying that the roads were terrible, but I would love the chance to drive on the perfect strips they have at home. Don’t believe the overly dramatic reports if you rent a car in Mexico.

What else should you know?

Once again a little common sense goes a long way when picking up your rental car. As you would in any country do a vehicle inspection with the sales agent if possible and make a note of any dents or scratches. Take photos, or even a quick video walkaround, as backup evidence.

Check there is a spare tire and that it is road ready. And make sure there are tools to let you change it if the situation arises. Also, check if the rental comes with roadside assistance and exactly what that will cover.

You will find some seemingly ridiculously cheap car rental prices online, perhaps as low as just a few dollars per day. But be aware that you will be charged additional and compulsory insurance when you arrive to collect your vehicle.

Speaking of insurance, the sales agent will also offer you additional insurance to reduce the excess you will have to pay in the event you are involved in an accident. The chances are that your credit card insurance or your general travel insurance has this coverage already but confirm that before you go to pick up your car.

Rent a car in Mexico and not try to cross the border with one from USA

It is highly unlikely that you will require an International Driver’s Licence. If you have a photo licence from your home country then that should suffice.

You must be over 25 years old to be able to rent a car in Mexico. Be wary of any agencies offering rental if you are younger than that.

Most rental cars in Mexico have an automatic transmission but be sure to confirm this before you sign your final paperwork.

Make sure you understand the terms of the rental agreement. Sometimes you may be limited to a certain number of miles per day before additional fees are added, there may be a surcharge for picking up or dropping off at a “premium” location, or if you return after the agreed time they may add another chunk of financial punishment.

You are much better off renting a car in Mexico rather than trying to do so in the USA and then crossing the border. Many companies do not allow this at all while the extra hassle of border crossings makes this option a poor choice.

Options to rent a car in Mexico

In almost all cases you will find a better price for your car rental by booking online rather than walking up to a counter in an airport or Hotel. If you do so using a reputable company then you can be confident you are getting exactly what you paid for.

Many of the big players in the USA also offer car rental in Mexico like Hertz, Avis, Alamo, Budget, Thrifty, etc but don’t rule out a lesser-known company as an option. Just be sure to check customer reviews online before booking with them.

We always check for pricing and availability with our favourite car rental agency, and usually find they get us the best overall package deal no matter where we are looking to be driving. They will search all of the individual agencies to save you the hassle of searching each site.

Unless you have any of the concerns we mentioned earlier then my opinion is a resounding YES! We love the flexibility car rental gives us to explore and move at our own pace.

Do your research, pick the right vehicle for your needs, and hit the road. But make sure you bring plenty of common sense along for the ride.

For more road trip tips and suggestions try these articles:

We would love to hear about your experiences if you decided to rent a car in Mexico, or why you decided not to, so please leave a comment below.

Dean Williamson
Dean Williamson
Dean is the main creative force behind Reasons to Visit. A road trip veteran with over 35,000 miles of driving in more than a dozen countries. He has also worked in the Australian travel and tourism industry for the past 10 years.

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