You'll probably need a car in Charleston if you plan on visiting destinations outside the city's Historic District or have your heart set on trips to Walterboro, Edisto Island, Beaufort, Bluffton, or Hilton Head.
Although you'll make the best time traveling along the interstates, keep in mind that smaller highways offer some delightful scenery and the opportunity to stumble upon funky roadside diners, leafy state parks, and historic town squares. The area is rural, but it's still populated, so you'll rarely drive for more than 20 or 30 miles without passing roadside services, such as gas stations, restaurants, and ATMs.
Gas stations are not hard to find, either in the city limits or in the outlying areas. Prices are characteristically less expensive than up north. Similarly, outside Charleston, in North Charleston and the suburbs, gas is usually cheaper than at the few gas stations downtown.
Parking within Charleston's Historic District can be difficult. Street parking can be aggravating, as meter readers are among the city's most efficient public servants. Public parking garages are $1 per hour, with a $16 maximum per day. Some private parking garages and lots charge around $2 for the first hour and then $1 for each additional hour; the less expensive ones charge a maximum of $10 to $12 a day if you park overnight. Some private lots charge a flat rate of around $10 per day, so it's the same price whether you're there 45 minutes or six hours. Most of the hotels charge a valet-parking fee.
All of the major car-rental companies are represented in Charleston, either at the airport or in town. Enterprise has both an airport and a downtown location, good prices, and will pick you up.
Rental Car Insurance
Everyone who rents a car wonders whether the insurance that the rental companies offer is worth the expense. No one—including us—has a simple answer. If you own a car, your personal auto insurance may cover a rental to some degree; always read your policy's fine print. If you don't have auto insurance, then seriously consider buying the collision- or loss-damage waiver (CDW or LDW) from the car-rental company, which eliminates your liability for damage to the car. Some credit cards offer CDW coverage, but it's usually supplemental to your own insurance and rarely covers SUVs, minivans, luxury models, and the like. If your coverage is secondary, you may still be liable for loss-of-use costs from the car-rental company. But no credit-card insurance is valid unless you use that card for all transactions, from reserving to paying the final bill. It's sometimes cheaper to buy insurance as part of your general travel insurance policy.
Discuss with the rental agency what to do in the case of an emergency, as this sometimes differs between companies, and make sure you understand what your insurance covers. It’s a good rule of thumb to let someone at your accommodation know where you are heading and when you plan to return. Keep emergency numbers with you, just in case.
Interstate 26 traverses the state from northwest to southeast and terminates at Charleston. U.S. 17, the coastal road, also passes through Charleston. Interstate 526, also called the Mark Clark Expressway, runs primarily east–west, connecting the West Ashley area, North Charleston, Daniel Island, and Mount Pleasant.