Q: We will be going to Loreto, Mexico, and may want to rent a car for a few days. I have been reading about insurance and about being billed for damage that was already done to the car. I’ve read about being pulled over and not having the proper papers, etc. Can you offer a list of what to get or decline or any other advice?
— Susan Osen, Pasadena, Calif.
A: Here’s my best advice on driving in Mexico: Don’t.
I’ve been on three driving adventures south of the border.
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Twice the outcome was good, although the first involved getting lost at night on Yucatecan jungle roads that appeared to be crawling with tarantulas. The second involved wild burros that invaded our campsite.
The third involved an alleged traffic violation just before crossing the border back into the U.S. There was a threat of jail. My quick-thinking driver suggested a donation to the policemen’s fund instead, and we were on our way, wiser and $60 poorer. I was so impressed with the driver I ended up marrying him.
Thousands of travelers drive in Mexico without incident every year, so my experiences may simply be bad karma, cowardice, my hatred of driving automobiles or some combination of the three.
If you do take the wheel, here are some things to know:
The State Department offers information on driving in Mexico (lat.ms/drivinginmexico). (Scroll down to Travel and Transportation.) Among the tidbits: U.S. driver’s licenses are valid there, traffic laws are inconsistently enforced and car wrecks are “the leading cause of death of U.S. citizens in Mexico.”
The State Department’s travel warning on Mexico (lat.ms/mexicowarning), reissued in mid-April, notes that “crime and violence are serious problems and can occur anywhere, and U.S. citizens have fallen victim to criminal activity, including homicide, gun battles, kidnapping, carjacking and highway robbery.”
You can check State’s advice by state. (Loreto is in Baja California Sur.) No red flags on Loreto, but La Paz, it notes, is having its share of narco-violence.
Your best bet, said Marie Montgomery, a representative for the Auto Club of Southern California, is to reserve your rental car before you arrive. You will need liability and collision damage-waiver coverage. You might decline those in the U.S. Take them in Mexico (and, generally, anywhere abroad).
If for some reason you don’t reserve ahead of time, don’t walk up to the counter and rent on the spot. (Don’t do this in the U.S. and don’t do it abroad.) You’ll pay dearly for it (the car will cost more), and you want to have your insurance issues addressed before you sign on the dotted line.
You may be asked whether you would like supplemental liability insurance. It isn’t required, said Ray Crisci, a senior vice president with Chubb Personal Risk Services. But do take it if you don’t have an existing U.S.-based excess liability policy.
Before you go, check with the credit-card issuer you’ll use to rent your car to see whether it may offer some coverage, Montgomery said. Sometimes, rental car companies will bundle the liability and collision damage waiver in one package; you may be able to save money by seeing whether you’re already covered on a credit card and, subsequently, whether the insurance package can be obtained only with liability.
Ask for two copies of all the rental-car paperwork. And carry copies of your driver’s license and passport.
If you get stopped, the copies may suffice. You do not want to lose control over the originals. Montgomery also suggests photographing all of this paperwork, just in case.
Follow the same procedures on picking up or returning a rental car that you do in the United States. Walk around the car. Take pictures. Note damage and make sure it’s recorded on the contract. When you return, also take pictures. I also video the agent saying, “Yes, the car has been returned and it shows no damage.” I make the star of the video say his or her name and the date.
The “damage” discovered after a rental car has been returned is a scam that we used to hear about only on rentals in foreign countries but now hear about in the U.S. as well.
If you are undeterred by my tales of hairy spiders, marauding donkeys and questionable cops, consider what legendary Los Angeles Dodgers manager Tommy Lasorda was quoted as saying: “Baseball is like driving. It’s the one who gets home safely that counts.”