While many people traveling to New York won’t need to pick up a rental car, there are times when it’s a great idea to rent a car in NYC. Here’s what you need to know to decide if this is a good idea for your trip, plus everything you need to know about renting a car in New York City before your trip.
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Things to Know Before You Rent a Car in NYC
I’ve tried to list these in a (somewhat) logical order. Each of these points is something you should be aware of before you rent a vehicle in NYC for your trip.
When should you rent a car in New York City?
This is the big one – when does it make sense to rent a car in New York and when should you rely on public transportation?
If your plans are to stick to Manhattan, Brooklyn, and the Bronx, just use public transportation. For most travelers to NYC whose itineraries are just seeing the biggest sites in New York, there’s no need to get a car. Public transportation will more than cover your needs, and be far less hassle.
Anyone using NYC as a base to fly into and then moving on to Upstate New York or eastern Long Island (think Montauk and the Hamptons) should think about renting a car. The public transportation to these areas (where it exists) can be extremely time consuming and eat up a large part of your trip. Plus once you get to your final destination, there may be no public transportation at all.
I know I always prefer to have a car when I visit Hudson Valley and the Hamptons. Many people who commute from NYC have cars waiting for them when they arrive, but you will need to rent one if you want access to a car while you’re here.
In addition, if your plan is to head to western Connecticut or northern New Jersey, you might find having a rental car to be much easier than relying on public transit.
But how about if you’re going to be staying in NYC? When should you rent a car?
If you’re traveling for business and need to cover a large territory or if you have tons of equipment you need to move around the city, you might be happier with a car rental even if you’re just staying in the city. Rental cars in NYC are also good for people who need to move (between places in the city or out of the city).
Finally, if money is no object and you have ample access to parking, you might also want to hire a car in NYC just to experience what driving here is like.
How to get a car rental in New York?
If you’ll be flying into NYC, the easiest thing to do is to rent a car in the airport and pick it up when you get here. I would not want to have to go back to the airport to get your car later, and airport rental cars tend to be the best priced rental cars.
Many people find that you can save a lot of money by flying into NYC and then driving on to your final destination, whether it’s Upstate New York, Long Island, New Jersey, or Connecticut. In these situations, getting your car and driving from the airport will save you a ton of time and hassle.
If you plan to explore the city and then pick up a rental car, make sure you have all the details about the pickup location ahead of time. Getting to the airport in NYC is an awful experience, even in the best of circumstances, so I wouldn’t put yourself in the situation of having to make an extra trip unless it really made sense to do so.
Whatever you decide, just make sure to book a car rental as early as you can, as prices go up at the last minute. I’ve seen prices go up three or four times my original quote when I waited until the day before to book it!
What kind of car should you get?
What kind of car you hire depends entirely on your itinerary and how many people are with you. For city driving, think compact. You want something that will be small so that you can park in most available spots.
If your plan is to move furniture or equipment, get a car big enough to handle the job. However, you still want something that you can park in a reasonable garage space.
If you will head straight to the beach or to the woods, get a car that you will enjoy driving at your final destination (think beach convertible or four-wheel drive if you’ll be out in the woods). Since most of your driving won’t be in the city, you don’t need to worry about getting a city car.
Finally, make sure you have enough room for all your passengers and luggage! Last summer, we rented a car for five people to go to the beach, and we forgot to factor in the additional space for luggage for five people. That was a cramped road trip!
What documentation do you need to show?
For most Americans, all you need to rent a car in NYC is a valid driver’s license from any state. The minimum age to rent a car in the US is typically twenty-five, though I’ve seen people pay an underage driver fee to rent earlier than this. Even with this fee, the typical absolute minimum age is usually twenty-one.
For foreign drivers, you only need to show your home driver’s license and a passport. You do not typically need an International Driver’s License to drive in New York as a visitor. However, you may still want to consider getting one. According to New York State:
If you have a driver license from another country you do not need to have an International Driving Permit, but it is helpful. The permit verifies in several languages that you have a valid driver license. Police officers who can’t read the language on your foreign driver license will be able to read the permit. Contact the authorities in your home country to get an International Driving Permit.
If you’ll be driving the car to another state, it’s possible you may need one since the rule varies from state to state. Check the rules for each state you plan to visit on your trip.
How do you get rental car insurance?
I’ve rented enough cars in enough countries to know that you ALWAYS need to have car rental insurance. Things happen!
You can be covered in different ways, so triple-check exactly how your coverage works. Sometimes I’m covered by the credit card I use to rent the car, sometimes I use my travel insurance coverage, and sometimes I add the coverage from my rental car company. I compare the costs and coverage of the different options I have before picking which I want for that trip.
It’s also possible that you would be covered by your own insurance policy if you drive at home. Check with your car insurance company to see if this applies to you.
How do you add extra drivers to your rental?
In New York, you are automatically allowed to add your spouse as a driver for no extra charge, as long as they have their driver’s license with them and are at least eighteen years old. If you want to add additional drivers, make sure the company is aware so that your insurance stays valid.
You also want to make sure that this driver would be covered under whichever insurance policy you are using to cover your rental.
Should you book a car rental ahead of time?
Absolutely! Do not wait until the last minute to rent a car anywhere, but especially not in New York! I’ve had rental quotes go up three or four times what my original quote was when I’ve waited until the last minute.
What is it like driving in NYC?
I lived in Philadelphia for ten years, and I’ve driven all over the world. I don’t think New York traffic is as bad as people think. That being said, it’s still city traffic and can be bumper-to-bumper for long stretches.
If you like driving in cities, you will probably like the challenge. If the thought of driving in a big city gives you hives, maybe you shouldn’t be the driver on this trip.
How do you find parking in New York City?
In Manhattan, I’ve parked in garages and also used my hotel valet parking. If you have some money to burn, you can usually find a pricey garage to park in for the night.
If you attempt to park on the street, triple check the street signs. Honestly, they make zero sense to me. I don’t park on the street in NYC because I figure I’d rather spend money on a garage spot than pay the parking ticket I will inevitably get for not understanding the parking signs.
How do you navigate in New York?
I prefer Google Maps. If you won’t have cell phone service during your trip, download the areas of the map ahead of time so that it’s available to you offline.
What is New York’s Alcohol limit?
Don’t drink and drive ever, but definitely don’t do it in NYC! The legal limit is .08, but keep in mind that if you aren’t used to driving and parking in New York you can still easily cause an accident. Even if you are under the legal limit, you may run into issues using your insurance if you have alcohol in your system.
For more about New York’s alcohol and drug laws for drivers, click here.
Are there toll roads in New York?
Yes, there are tolls in New York. So many of them! The easiest thing to do if you don’t want to worry about paying cash is to get an EZ Pass from your car rental company. Otherwise, you can pay cash as you go.
Extra NYC Driving Tips
Driving in NYC doesn’t have to be scary! Just use common sense and go with the flow of traffic. A few things to keep in mind:
- Unless you see a posted speed limit, assume the speed limit is twenty-five miles per hour.
- Do not drink and drive OR text and drive.
- Always wear a seatbelt.
- There’s no such thing as “Right on Red” in NYC.
- Any children eight years old or younger must be in a car seat.
Can you hire a car in NYC and drive to another state?
Yes, most car rental companies do not require you to keep your car in one state. Make sure to let them know where you’ll be dropping it off if this is different than your pickup place. Dropping a car off in another state is usually more expensive than returning it to the same spot.
Some companies may charge more money for you to take a car to a neighboring state (even if you return it where you picked it up), so it never hurts to double-check when you book!
What should you bring with you?
What you bring with you depends on what kind of itinerary you have planned. If you’ll be spending a lot of time in the city, you can use either my Montreal or Toronto packing lists for a good idea of what to wear in stylish East Coast cities (plus how to dress for winter).
What happens if you get a traffic or parking ticket with your rental car?
If you get a ticket while in your rental car, your rental car company will typically charge the amount to the credit card you used for your trip. This may be after you get your deposit back since they can’t charge you until they actually receive the ticket.
How do you avoid extra charges when you return your car?
Other than for traffic and parking tickets, the most common extra charges on rental cars are for returning the car late and for not filling the gas tank to the agreed point (either a full tank or the place it was at when you picked it up if the tank was less-filled).
If they find damage on the rental car when you return it, follow your insurance policy instructions for making claims so that you get reimbursed.
Read your agreement carefully. If you follow the company guidelines, you shouldn’t find any surprise charges.
More NYC Travel Resources
Finally, Don’t Forget About Travel Insurance!
Before you leave for New York make sure you have a valid Travel Insurance Policy because accidents happen on the road. I pay for World Nomads, and I happily recommend them. It’s especially important to get travel insurance if you’ll be hanging out in NYC where tourists can be the victims of pickpockets.
I have been a paying customer of World Nomads for travel insurance for two years, and I happily recommend them. If you get sick, injured, or have your stuff stolen, you’ll be happy to have the ability to pay for your medical bills or replace what’s stolen or broken.