The main highways, about 175 miles (280 km) of well-paved and well-marked roads, are excellent, but only in a few areas are they lighted at night. Many hotels are on roads that are barely passable, so get wherever you're going by nightfall or you could lose your way. Then tell a stranger, "Je suis perdu!" ("I am lost!"). It elicits sympathy. If they say, "Suivez-moi!"—that's "Follow me!"—stay glued to their bumper. Finally, drive defensively; although Martinicans are polite and lovely people, they drive with aggressive abandon.
Martinique, especially Fort-de-France and environs, is plagued with heavy traffic; if you must drive into Fort-de-France, do it on a weekend. Absolutely avoid the Lamentin Airport area and Fort-de-France during weekday rush hours, roughly 7 to 10 am and 4 to 7:30 pm, and on Sunday night going in the direction of Fort-de-France. That's when everyone comes off the beaches and heads back to the city. Even smaller towns such as La Trinité have rush hours. Watch, too, for dos d'ânes (literally, donkey backs), speed bumps that are hard to spot—particularly at night. Gas is costly, at about triple U.S. prices. Diesel is somewhat cheaper, but if you rent an economy car for a full week, you should budget a sufficient amount for fuel.
Be aware that the French gendarmes set up roadblocks, often on Sunday, to stop speeders and drunk drivers, and just to check papers. Now they even have video cameras on the highways. Visitors are not absolved from speeding tickets, because you can be tracked down through the rental car's license plate.
Renting a Car: It's worth the hassle to rent a car—if only for a day or two—so that you can explore more of this beautiful island. Just be prepared for a manual shift, steep mountainous roads, and heavy traffic. Prices are expensive, "in season" about €80 per day or €450 per week (unlimited mileage) for a manual shift, perhaps more for an automatic, which must be ordered in advance (and not all agencies have them). You may save money by waiting to book your car rental on the island for a reduced weekly rate from a local agency. Some of the latter, though, make up their own rules, and they will not be in your favor. There's an extra charge (about $20) if you drop the car off at the airport after having rented it somewhere else on the island. A valid U.S. driver's license or International Driver's Permit is needed to rent a car for up to 20 days. Often, the airline you fly in with will have a discount coupon for a rental car, right on the ticket, or in their in-flight magazine. Also, local publications have ads with discounts that can be as much as 40% off (in low season). You can find these at the Tourism Information counter in the airport.
Avis. This is one of the agencies that will have an automatic; reserve it as far in advance as possible. 0596/42–11–00; www.avis-antilles.fr.
Budget. A presence on-island for 20 years, Budget has three locations; the airport location is the one that is open the latest. Martinique Aimé Césaire Airport, Le Lamentin, n/a Martinique, 97232. 0596/42–04–04; www.budget-martinique.com.
Europcar. Europcar will sometimes deliver the car to you and pick it up when finished, and its rates are usually among the lowest. The downside is that employees don't usually speak English. That said, at its location near the airport, which is behind a gas station on the national road, there are several English-speaking employees who are particularly helpful. If you go first to the Europcar counter at the airport, a shuttle will transport you to the site. With advance notice, you can get an automatic. 97232. 0596/42–42–42; www.europcar-martinique.com.
Hertz. Hertz has the advantage of three locations, more multilingual staffers, and the assurance that you are dealing with a U.S. franchise. Like in the states, it's more expensive than most, but they have some automatics including BMWs, as well as French cars, both economy and higher-end models. Martinique Aime Cesare Airport, Le Lamentin, n/a Martinique, 97232. 0596/51–01–01; 0810/32–31–13; www.hertzantilles.com.
JumboCar. Of the many agencies, JumboCar is the most likely to cut a deal (but few of its staffers speak English). The airport location is open until 10 pm. There are other island locations. They have a large selection of cars, more standard and economy models, but they do have some convertibles; automatics may be possible with advance reservations. Martinique Aimé Césaire Aéroport, Le Lamentin, n/a Martinique, 97232. 0596/42–17–01; 0820/22–02–30; www.jumbocar.com.
Sixt. This well-oiled operation is the agency most likely to have automatics and higher-end cars, notably BMWs, as well as more affordable options, at its airport location. Martinique Aimé Césaire Airport, Le Lamentin, n/a Martinique, 97232. 0596/60--14--16; www.sixt.fr.