Driving in the Dominican Republic can be a harrowing and expensive experience, and the typical vacationer will not want to rent a car. We especially caution tourists against driving outside the major cities at night. Watch out for pedestrians, stray cows, goats, or horses, bicycles, and motorcycles. Some vehicles will not have headlights, and others will be riding on the shoulders, often against oncoming traffic.
If you limit your driving to a daylong excursion, you can probably manage in the Southeast and in Punta Cana. Similarly, on the North Coast villa renters (especially those in the Cabrera area) may need to rent a car if their villa manager does not offer a good shuttle service. If you're traveling to the Southwest, you will probably need a car if you plan to do extensive independent exploring, and you may also need a four-wheel-drive vehicle (which must usually be rented in Santo Domingo or at Las Américas Airport). Prices and service may both be lower if you rent from a local company. Local car-rental companies do not always maintain their vehicles, although some are reputable. For a day's car rental you can almost certainly go with a local. However, if you need a car for a full week, it's best to go with a major company, especially one that offers 24-hour roadside assistance.
Most major companies have outlets at Las Américas Airport outside Santo Domingo and at Gregorio Luperón International Airport in Puerto Plata, the airports of choice for most independent travelers who are likely to rent cars.
To rent a car in the Dominican Republic, you will need a valid driver's license, passport, and credit card; you must be between the ages of 25 and 80. In season you can expect to pay between $45 and $83 (Kia Picanto) for an automatic with insurance from a major company like Budget, which is one of the more reasonably priced companies. SUVs can cost as much as US$160 daily (about $130 in low season) including insurance.
Take advantage of corporate rates, advance booking discounts, or a hotel discounts. Also, inquire whether you can rent a car that takes diesel, which is generally cheaper than gasoline. If you want to rent a car for a day, you can often do so at a car-rental desk at your resort and have it delivered.
Fill up—and watch—the gas tank; stations are few and far between in rural areas. Prices are usually a couple of dollars more expensive than those in the United States. Make certain that attendants don't reach for the super pump, which is even costlier. Also, watch as the attendant starts the pump to see that it reads 000; when he is finished make certain it matches the amount you are supposed to pay. (Certain stations plan to inaugurate self-service soon, as they are aware of the abuses.)
Although some roads are still full of potholes, the route between Santo Domingo and Santiago is a modern, four-lane, divided highway, and the road between Santiago and Puerto Plata is a smooth blacktop. The highway from Santo Domingo to Casa de Campo, and from there to Punta Cana, is also a fairly smooth ride. A new highway between Santo Domingo and the Samaná Peninsula has been completed, cutting the driving time there in half, to about two and a half hours. Surprisingly, many of the scenic secondary roads, such as the "high road" between Playa Dorada and Santiago, are in good shape. Conversely, some in more remote areas are not only unlighted but have no lines.
It's particularly important to rent from an agency that offers emergency roadside assistance. For car theft, you can call 911 for the national police. For a simple flat tire, which is a common occurrence, you can have the tire repaired at almost every bomba (gas station) until around 7 pm, but it's best to look for a gomero (tire shop), which will give you the best service.
Rules of the Road
Driving is on the right, the 80-kph (50-mph) speed limit is strictly enforced, seat belts are mandatory. Otherwise, driving rules are similar to those in most of the United States. Right turns are allowed on red after you stop.
There are certain issues with driving in the Dominican Republic. Drunk driving is a problem, and the laws are not well enforced. The allowable blood alcohol level of 0.10 is higher than in most other countries, but it's particularly unwise to drink and drive in an unfamiliar place. You'll need to have all your wits when those around you don't.
Dominicans can be reckless drivers. They do not always stop at red lights, they often pass in a no-passing zone, and they don't always use their headlights at night.
Police corruption can also be a problem. You may see police officers standing on the side of the road, waving you down. You should always stop. One officer may smile and tell you that you were speeding or have made some other small violation, even if you have not. Always be polite, and speak as much Spanish as you can muster. He will do the same in his limited English. You can say something like: "Que puedo hacer?" (What can I do?). He may tell you that you can pay the fine directly to him; if he agrees, discreetly pull out RD$150 (less than five bucks). Hopefully, he isn't too greedy. Otherwise, offer more in small increments, about RD$50 at a time, and work it out. Unfortunately, that's the way these things are done here.
Under no circumstances should you drive across the Dominican border into Haiti.
At the major agencies you'll have a choice of compact, midsize, and large vehicles (including minivans and quite a few SUVs). They're usually all automatics with air-conditioning. The condition of these vehicles can vary greatly, but they may not be of the same quality as cars you would rent in the United States. You'll need a four-wheel-drive SUV to reach more remote areas, like the hills west of Barahona or the mountainous regions beyond Jarabacoa. The Hotel El Quemaito, in Juan Estaban, 15 minutes from Barahona, has a few cars, trucks, and 4x4s, but they are in high demand. Reserve ahead of time, or rent at Las Américas or in Santo Domingo.
The week between Christmas and New Year's and Easter Week are typically the busiest times of the year for car-rental companies, so make your reservations far in advance.
A U.S. driver's license is sufficient to rent a car in the Dominican Republic. Renters must be between the ages of 25 and 80. Infant car seats are difficult to get and can be expensive (as much as a car during busy periods). You'll be better off if you bring your own. Laws are similar to those in the United States, though they are not well enforced. If you need a car seat, always reserve it with your car.
Allow plenty of time to drop off your rental car at any airport. It may be a breeze to drop off a car at a small airport such as La Romana, but at Las Américas you must allow 45 minutes to an hour, 30 minutes in Punta Cana. The agency will tell you how far in advance to arrive at the airport, and follow those estimates, since things rarely move as quickly in the Dominican Republic as in the United States.
Budget (800/472–3325. www.budget.com. Las Américas Airport, Santo Domingo. 809/480–8121, 809/480–8120, or 800/527–0700. www.budget.com. Gregorio Luperón International Airport, Puerto Plata. 809/586–0413. www.budget.com.)
Europcar (Las Américas Airport, Santo Domingo. 809/549–0942 in the D.R. www.europcar.com. Punta Cana International Airport, Bavaro, Punta Cana. 809/959–0177.)
Rental Car Insurance
Unless you have a separate car-rental insurance policy, you should buy the collision damage waiver (CDW) or loss/damage waiver (LDW) from your agency in the Dominican Republic. These two waivers, essentially the same, prevent a car-rental company from suing you should the rental be damaged. Generally, the cost of a CDW or LDW is not included in the quoted price, and it will add substantially to your costs. For example, Budget rents an intermediate-size car for $41.58 per day during shoulder season, but CDW will cost an additional $21.95 per day, but this is not significantly different from the cost of insurance in the United States and also covers you for theft. You can often get insurance through your credit card—or even through a separate car-rental insurance policy—for significantly less. Most U.S. car-insurance policies that cover you for rentals do not cover you in the Dominican Republic; if you are unsure what your own policy covers, be sure to call and ask before your trip.
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