Cheap car rental: NYC (it can be done!)

If you live in New York City, you probably don’t have a car. And if you’re just visiting the city, you might ask: is it worth getting a car in New York City? The answer is NO! There’s no reason to rent a car in NYC. Because really, having a car in NYC is a nightmare. If you can’t find street parking, which you probably can’t, then parking in a garage is *hilariously* expensive (think $30+ per hour, or $500-1000 per month). Uh what? Yes, it’s bonkers. Also, the average speed of traffic in Manhattan is is under 5 mph, which is only slightly faster than the average New Yorker walks. So if you thought for even one second about renting a car on your trip to the city, drop that idea RIGHT NOW.

But, if you’re planning on exploring upstate New York, which you should, a car is probably necessary. Because unfortunately, public transit basically ends at the city limits. Once you’re out of NYC proper, you’re back in normal America, the land of the car.

So you’ll need to rent a car. And surely you’ll want a cheap car rental. NYC, however, is not known for being cheap – so where is the cheapest place to rent a car in NYC? Are there car rental deals to be found? The answer is yes – if you follow a few guidelines!

Don’t rent a car in Manhattan

You might be tempted to – there are tons of car rental locations all over Manhattan. Or at JFK international airport, or at LaGuardia Airport. Don’t rent at any of these places. Why not, you ask?

Well, let me tell you.

First, most of the car rental locations in Manhattan or at the airports are EXPENSIVE! Like outrageously so. It’s pretty common to see compact cars running $500 – $700 per week, even if you’re booking months in advance. That’s CRAZY, don’t do it! And if you’re trying to rent a car bigger than a compact, it’s even worse.

And if you do get one of these cars, you have to drive it out of the city. There are tolls on most of the bridges and tunnels in the NYC area – these will run you $10 – $15! Also crazy. Only the Brooklyn, Manhattan, Williamsburg, and Queensboro bridges are toll-free, but these are probably not very helpful if you’re trying to drive north out of the city (which you probably are).

Taxis in NYC - get your rental car out of the city and avoid them
Want to race?

Also, driving out of the city means that you have to drive inside of the city! This may be a nightmare, depending on what you’re used to. Because driving in NYC is quite different than basically anywhere else in the US, as far as I can tell (I would say it’s similar to driving in Sicily). If you do it, just honk your horn every second or two, whether there’s a reason to or not. And make sure to accelerate as fast as possible, while remembering to swerve around the massive potholes which for some reason are everywhere. (Seriously, the potholes will destroy your car. I warned you.)

So where should you rent a car in NYC?

Easy: not in NYC. Fortunately, you can quickly and easily take the train out of the city, where you can find much cheaper and more convenient car rentals. There are two train lines that may help you do this: Metro North, which goes (surprise) north from NYC towards Connecticut, and New Jersey Transit which can take you all the way to Philadelphia.

Which train line you should take depends on where you want to drive to: if you’re going into upstate New York, Connecticut, or other directions northeast of the city, take Metro North. If you’re going to New Jersey, Pennsylvania, or anywhere else west of the city, take NJ Transit.

Option 1: Metro North to Stamford, CT. From Grand Central station or Harlem-125th Street, take the Metro North New Haven Line. Some of these trains are non-stop from Harlem, which takes about 50 minutes; others make a couple stops along the way and take about 1 hour 15 minutes. Not too bad either way. At the Stamford train station you can find Avis, Hertz, and Budget, all of which are basically the same and will happily rent you a car.

Option 2: Metro North to New Haven, CT. Again, you can start from Grand Central or from Harlem-125th Street. The journey will take around 2 hours either way (but that’s less than it would usually take to drive to New Haven!). At the New Haven train station you can rent from Budget, and there is a Hertz about half a mile away. Note: some rental car search engines show a Hertz at New Haven station – this is wrong! The only Hertz is at 1 George St, New Haven, CT, which is a 10-15 minute walk down the road from the station itself. Keep this in mind if you have tons of bags!

Note: on Metro North, you have the option of purchasing a peak or an off-peak ticket. Make sure you buy the right one! If you don’t, you’ll have to pay the difference on the train when they collect your ticket. Here are the peak and off-peak times, straight from the source:

Peak fares are charged for travel to and from Grand Central Terminal (GCT) or Harlem-125th Street Station. Peak fares apply to weekday trains that arrive in GCT between 6 AM and 10 AM or that depart GCT between 4 PM and 8 PM. Peak fares are also charged for travel on any weekday train that leaves GCT between 6 AM and 9 AM.

Off-peak fares are charged at all other times during weekdays and all day Saturdays, Sundays, and holidays.

From https://new.mta.info/schedules

Option 3: New Jersey Transit to points south and west of the city. It’s less likely that this option would make sense for many people, as there are just fewer things to drive to west of NYC. But maybe you’ve found something worth trekking to. NJ Transit trains will take you all the way down NJ to Philadelphia. You can also get to Jersey City from Manhattan either via NJ Transit or a Path train. But unfortunately, there are very few rental car locations near the train stations. If you’re headed this way, your best bet is to take NJ Transit to Newark Liberty International Airport (EWR), just a few stops from New York’s Penn Station. From there you can rent a car, although it may be more expensive than from an off-airport location.

Which rental car company should I choose?

There are only a handful of major rental car companies: Hertz Car Rental, Avis Car Rental, National, Enterprise Rent a Car, Budget Car Rental, Dollar, Alamo, and perhaps Sixt depending on where you are. In my experience, they’re all the same. That is, they’re fine unless something goes wrong – they have poor customer service and if you’re unlucky you might get charged for damages that you weren’t responsible for (this happened to us in Croatia!).

Accordingly, I’d pick the cheapest company, and I would always rent the smallest car (compact, economy, etc). Why? Well, you have a fair chance of actually getting an upgrade, not because the companies are nice, but because they run out of these popular cheap cars. It’s happened to me several times recently – I rented the cheapest compact, but received a luxury car for the same price. BUT – before I was given this upgrade, the agent always asked me if I wanted to pay for a bigger car – say no! I got the bigger car anyway.

What about insurance for my rental?

You need it! But before you agree to buy it from the company for $20-30/per day, make sure you don’t have insurance already. I always use the primary rental car insurance available through my Chase Sapphire Reserve credit card. This insurance provides up to $75,000 in coverage for any reason – I had to use it when I was charged about $500 in Croatia for some scratches that we didn’t cause. Chase paid the claim with no problems! Many other cards also offer similar insurance, but check that the insurance is primary, not secondary. A secondary insurance plan will cover what is left over of a claim after your primary insurance pays. But if you don’t have primary insurance, you’re out of luck!

So that’s it! If you’re planning on renting a car to check out upstate New York or other great parts of the Northeast like Mount Washington or Freeport, Maine, take the train out of the city first! You’ll save money, time, and won’t be stuck in a massive line of taxis like you might be if you made the terrible decision of trying to rent a car near Times Square. Happy driving!

A fine rental car
Maybe you’ll rent this beauty!

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