Though it’s often easy to rely on public transportation and taxis to get around, renting a car on vacation also has its upsides. Ever the devil’s advocate, I thought I’d highlight both the pros and cons of renting a car.
Pro: It can take you places you can’t otherwise get to.
By far, the most convenient thing about renting a car is turning a city vacation into a country vacation. It’s being able to get to that roadside diner that has glowing reviews online or to that remote national park that you can’t take a bus to. It allows you to see whatever you want to see on your own terms. It gives you the opportunity to stop in places you couldn’t reach using public transportation. Or even the places wouldn’t have known to stop at until you drove past it.
Con: It’s more expensive.
No matter how you dice it and no matter where you are, renting a car is usually more expensive than taking public transportation. Don’t be fooled by low advertised daily rates. Once you start to add in things like tolls, which sometimes have to be prepaid, or insurance or car seats, the rate starts to double or triple. That doesn’t account for the cost of gas, which can be extravagantly high in some countries. It also doesn’t account for the premium you’ll pay if you don’t know how to drive stick so you have to pay more for an automatic transmission.
Pro: It saves you time.
What renting a car costs in money, it saves in time. If you do want to explore parts of a place outside the main center of a city and you don’t have a car, you’re tied to the public transportation timetables. You have to plan and wait for the bus, as early or late as it may be scheduled. You also waste more time getting from one place to another because of frequent stops. And worst of all, if you want to stay longer somewhere but the last bus is heading back, you have no choice but to cut your visit short to suffer through a long ride home.
Con: It adds hassle and stress.
One of the biggest downsides of renting a car is having driving-related stresses that you wouldn’t otherwise have. Now you have to worry about getting accommodations that have parking. Or about finding parking in the city. Or avoiding a ticket when you’re not totally familiar with the rules of the road. And if you’ve ever been in another country and you got pulled over by the cops, I’m sure you wished you were sitting comfortably on an air conditioned train speeding through the same countryside. You never have to pull into some tiny isolated town because you got a flat if you are taking the regional bus somewhere.
Pro: It gives you more freedom.
One of the alternatives to renting a car and taking public transportation is to do a guided tour on a giant bus full of other tourists. Then you spend exactly as much time as is scheduled at each stop. Renting a car gives you the freedom to spend your time as you wish, without having to worry about the tour schedule or the public transportation timetable. If you’re hungry or you want to use the restroom, you can stop whenever you want. Having your own car gives you complete control of how you want to spend your vacation.
Con: It can be more dangerous than other alternatives.
Driving is an inherently dangerous activity. But some countries take this to a whole other level. There are some places where the rules of the road are merely suggestions, so getting behind the wheel of a car is completely disorienting. Sometimes you have to share the road with trams that you’re not used to seeing above ground. Sometimes you have to drive up steep hills with no guard rail. Sometimes you’re faced with poor road conditions and bad weather, creating a precariously slippery path. And when you’re not from somewhere, it’s hard to know what to expect. So in many cases, it’s best to leave the driving to professionals, so you can just sit back and read a book on the train.
Pro: It’s more fun.
No matter how well equipped and prepared you are for a 3-hour train ride, it’s never going to be as comfortable or entertaining as taking a short drive on your own or with your travel partners. In a car, you can play whatever music you like and talk or sing as loud as you like without having to worry about anyone else. You don’t have to put up with anyone else’s bullshit. No crying kids, no one to share luggage space with, no cramped seats next to some stranger. By the time you get off the train, you’re exhausted and cranky. But on the open road, you feel intrepid and adventurous, building up excitement for your next destination.