If you’re not sure whether or not to rent a car in Nicaragua, see “What it’s like to drive in Nicaragua” first. You might find that it is better to arrange a driver with a private vehicle, take taxis, or arrange for shuttles.
Public buses are also a good alternative for some visitors to Nicaragua.
This post assumes that you have already decided that renting a car is the right decision for you. Even if you are set on driving yourself, please read my Four Essential Nicaraguan Driving Tips to make sure you are prepared!
One: Understand how the insurance works and what is the actual daily or weekly cost of the vehicle.
There is a mandatory collision damage / insurance that you cannot avoid, and there is “extra” insurance that may or may not be worthwhile to take. There is 100% coverage, for example. The mandatory is 80% coverage. Most of the big rental car companies also offer roadside assistance and even hospitalization insurance. The smaller companies usually offer only the full coverage.
Here’s an example of some of the acronyms that might be used in this discussion. (Thanks to centralamerica.com, all rights go to them.)
Renting for a week gives you a better deal than a daily rate, but don’t get fooled by looking at a website for a rental car company and thinking that it truly costs less than $20 to rent a car! The websites typically don’t show the cost of insurance online, and you will be surprised that the car now costs $40 something dollars a day. Getting the full insurance more than doubles the daily rate of the vehicle, in my experience.
Just to get a feel for the insurance and collision options, check out the Alamo Nicaragua information here: http://nicaraguaairportcarrental.com/alamo_nicaragua_nicaragua_airport_brand_info.html
Two: Make a good decision on the rental car company you choose.
There are better deals to be had by renting from one of the smaller, Nicaraguan-based companies, but they tend to not have the level of customer support available. That is something that if you need it, you really need it! For example, there is a local company that offers a nice small sedan vehicles, year 2014 model of a Nissan Tilda, for $35 including everything. A comparable vehicle offered by an international rental car company will be a bit more, about $45 dollars per day once you buy your collision and insurance.
My recommendation would be that it works out better for most visitors to select one of the international companies just in case your car breaks down somewhere you will have a better chance to get rescued. Also, with an international company they might respond a bit better to consumer complaints and such things?
With a small local company, you will be very much on your own and especially if you don’t have decent Spanish skills, a roadside breakdown could be a stressful situation. We want to avoid those, right? You’re on vacation after all!
Three: Make a good decision on the type of vehicle you will need.
Some people visiting Nicaragua who are looking to rent a car will want a four-wheel drive vehicle thinking that the roads are very bad and 4WD will be necessary. I’m here to tell you that it isn’t so! For the majority of visitors looking to rent a car, a small sedan will be perfectly fine. If you are planning on going to the major tourist attractions in Nicaragua, you will be okay with a regular 2WD vehicle.
If you are a real beach goer, and especially a surfer who is traveling to Nicaragua during the rainy season and you want to be able to check out a variety of beaches, then get a Toyota HiLux, Prado, or another 4WD vehicle.
As far as the exact type of vehicle, you will have to do some research for yourself on what is available and what works best for you. On the extremes for example, there is a small car called the Suzuki Alto, which to me is a “clown car” as it is so tiny with miniscule sized tires that it might not be too comfortable for more than two people, especially if you have a few suitcases. A large vehicle here would be a mini-van for a small group or a Toyota Prado, which is a luxury SUV (think Lexus) that will have a very smooth ride and you will feel great cruising around in that.
But, of course you pay for the privilege of having the luxury vehicle.
Four: Document the condition of the vehicle as it is received.
This is something different from how one would rent a vehicle in North America, for example. When you get your car, a guy with a clipboard holding a line drawing of a vehicle will appear. He will want to show you all of the little scratches on the vehicle. Every small dent, every abrasion, every little ding should be marked down on his little piece of paper.
What I recommend is that you use your smart phone or camera to take photos of every little thing the rental car employee will show you, including the little piece of paper at the end! Also, make sure he checks the underbody of the vehicle, as sometimes they will not note that someone tried to jack up the vehicle in an incorrect spot without the proper support, causing a buckle or indent.
The whole point of this exercise is that you and the car company have documented the current state of the vehicle. If you bring it back and they discover an extra dent or scratch, they will attempt to charge you for a “repair” that may or not actually be fixed. It appears to me that this can easily be a scam sort of setup, so renter beware. I do believe that if you appear to be paying attention to all of this process that the rental car company will be less likely to attempt any funny business, but of course your mileage may vary!
Five: Bring or rent some navigation and communication technologies to make your trip more relaxing.
This tip is about having a local phone and/or SIM card/chip in a phone you brought from home. It is also about whether or not paying extra for a GPS system is worthwhile.
Best is to bring an old phone with you from back home, and buy a chip from either Claro or Movistar (the two phone companies) so you can be in communication. Likewise, if you have a GPS device or your smartphone has that feature, it doesn’t hurt to have that along with you too.
The rental car companies do offer both phones and GPS, and they almost always will charge you for the rental of the GPS and some charge for the phone too. Either way, its best to bring your own device, or if you will be here for a couple of weeks or more, it might be worthwhile to buy a cheap cell phone, which should set you back no more than $30, as, for example, Alamo charges $3 per day to rent a phone.
Special Bonus Tips:
- You might go to all the trouble to decide, yes, I’ll go ahead and rent a car, and then you get to the rental car counter and they don’t have any vehicles for you! This just recently happened to Farmstay visitors.
- Don’t be thrown off when you sign the rental contract that they run your credit card right then and there, and ask you to sign a blank credit card receipt! The point of this is to put a hold on your card at an amount somewhat in excess of the expected charges for the rental. This is a normal way of doing business here and they will just tear it up when you return the vehicle and pay the total amount at the end of your rental period.
- If you are going to be visiting the Farmstay and arriving at nighttime, let me pick you up, then the next morning you can pick up your car at a location not far from the Farmstay. If staying with us on your first and last nights in Nicaragua, you can turn in the vehicle the day before, saving you one full day of rental car costs!
Okay, I hope this helps. As always, we encourage your comments and corrections. If you have a good story about your rental car experience in Nicaragua, let us know that too!