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Having a car in Boston may be convenient if you're planning day trips outside the city limits, but driving within the city should be avoided, as it's often confusing and stressful. Roads are congested, traffic makes maneuvering difficult, and signage is cryptic (or nonexistent). Parking spaces are often hard to come by, especially during major events like the Boston Marathon and Red Sox games.
If you must drive and you’re unfamiliar with the city, it's important to plan your route in advance. Traveling with a GPS unit or smartphone, or renting one with your car rental agency, can be a real help.
Boston motorists are notorious for driving aggressively. Pay extra attention to other drivers, and watch out for those using the emergency breakdown lanes (illegal unless posted otherwise), passing on the right, failing to yield, or turning from the wrong lane.
Unlike the rest of the country, the Boston area has many traffic circles, also known as roundabouts. Follow one simple courteous rule, and you'll be fine: cars entering traffic circles must yield to cars already in the circle.
There aren't that many gas stations in Downtown. Try Cambridge Street (behind Beacon Hill, near Massachusetts General Hospital), near the airport in East Boston, along Commonwealth Avenue or Cambridge Street in Allston/Brighton, or off the Southeast Expressway just south of Downtown Boston.
Cambridge service stations can be found along Memorial Drive, Massachusetts Avenue, and Broadway. In Brookline, try Commonwealth Avenue or Boylston Street. Gas stations with 24-hour service can be found at many exits off Route 3 to Cape Cod, suburban Route 128 and Interstate 95, and at service plazas on the Massachusetts Turnpike (Interstate 90). Many offer both full- and self-service.
Parking on Boston streets is tricky. Some neighborhoods have strictly enforced residents-only rules, with just a handful of two-hour visitors' spaces; others have meters, which usually cost 25¢ for 15 minutes, with a one- or two-hour maximum. Keep a few quarters handy, as some city meters take nothing else. Newer meters, strategically placed, accept credit cards and issue receipts that you should leave on your dashboard, on the side nearest the street.
The parking police are ruthless—it's not unusual to find a ticket on your windshield five minutes after your meter expires. However, most on-street parking is free after 8 pm in the city and on Sunday. Repeat offenders who don't pay fines may find the "boot" (an immovable steel clamp) secured to one of their wheels.
Major public lots are at Government Center, Quincy Market, beneath Boston Common (entrance on Charles Street), beneath Post Office Square, at Prudential Center, at Copley Place, and off Clarendon Street near the John Hancock Tower. Smaller lots and garages are scattered throughout Downtown, especially around the Theater District and off Atlantic Avenue in the North End. Most are expensive; expect to pay up to $10 an hour or $24 to park all day. The few city garages are a bargain, at about $7–$11 per day. Theaters, restaurants, stores, and tourist attractions often provide customers with one or two hours of free parking (always ask if the establishment validates receipts). Most Downtown restaurants offer valet parking.
Bostonians are notorious for driving erratically and aggressively. These habits, coupled with inconsistent street and traffic signs, one-way streets, and heavy congestion, make it a nerve-wracking city to navigate. Many urban roadways are under construction or are roughly surfaced. Potholes and aboveground manhole covers are common hazards. In general, err on the side of caution, and give yourself a few extra minutes travel time when driving in the city.
Dial 911 in an emergency to reach police, fire, or ambulance services. If you're a member of the AAA auto club, call its 24-hour help bureau.
AAA (800/222–4357. aaa.com.)
Rates in Boston begin at about $20 a day for an economy car with air-conditioning, automatic transmission, and unlimited mileage. This doesn't include gas, insurance charges, or the 6.25% tax and $10 surcharge. All major agencies listed have branches at Logan International Airport. Zipcar also has many cars available in the Boston area for its members.
Alamo (877/222–9075. www.alamo.com.)
Avis (800/331–1212. www.avis.com.)
Budget (800/527–0700. www.budget.com.)
Hertz (800/654–3131. www.hertz.com.)
National Car Rental (877/222–9058. www.nationalcar.com.)
Zipcar (866/494–7227. www.zipcar.com.)