If you plan to drive into Manhattan, try to avoid the morning and evening rush hours and lunch hour. Tune in to traffic reports online or on the radio (e.g., WCBS 880 or 1010 WINS on the AM radio dial) before you set off, and don't be surprised if a bridge is partially closed or entirely blocked with traffic.
Driving within Manhattan can be a nightmare of gridlocked streets, obnoxious drivers, and seemingly suicidal jaywalkers and bicyclists. Narrow and one-way streets are common, particularly downtown, and can make driving even more difficult. The most congested streets of the city lie between 14th and 59th streets and 3rd and 8th avenues. In addition, portions of Broadway near Times Square (from 42nd to 47th Street) and Herald Square (33rd to 35th) are closed to motorized traffic. This can create gridlock and confusion in nearby streets.
Gas stations are few and far between in Manhattan. If you can, fill up at stations outside the city, where prices are 10¢ to 50¢ cheaper per gallon. In Manhattan, you can refuel at stations along the West Side Highway and 11th Avenue south of West 57th Street and along East Houston Street. Some gas stations in New York require you to pump your own gas; others provide attendants. Across the river in New Jersey, all gas stations are required to offer full service only; turn off the engine and wait for the attendant to help you.
Free parking is difficult to find in Midtown, and on weekday evenings and weekends in other neighborhoods. If you find a spot on the street, check parking signs carefully, and scour the curb for a faded yellow line, the bane of every driver’s existence. Violators may be towed away or ticketed literally within minutes. If you do drive, use your car sparingly in Manhattan. Instead, park it in a guarded parking garage for at least several hours; hourly rates (which can be $40 or more for just two hours) decrease somewhat if a car is left for a significant amount of time. Best Parking (nyc.bestparking.com) helps you find the cheapest parking-lot options for your visit; search by neighborhood, address, or attraction.
New York City streets are generally in good condition, although there are enough potholes and bad patch jobs to make driving a little rough in some areas, as on Canal Street and parts of the Financial District and the West Village. Road and bridge repair seem to go on constantly, so you may encounter the occasional detour or a bottleneck where a three-lane street narrows to one lane. Many drivers don't slow down for yellow lights here—they speed up to make it through the intersection. Heavy rains can cause street flooding in some areas, most notoriously on the Franklin Delano Roosevelt Drive (known as the FDR and sometimes as East River Drive), where the heavy traffic can grind to a halt when lakes suddenly appear on the road.
Rules of the Road
On city streets the speed limit is 25 mph, unless otherwise posted. No right turns on red are allowed within city limits, unless otherwise posted. Be alert for one-way streets and "no left turn" intersections.
The law requires that front-seat passengers wear seat belts at all times. Children under 16 must wear seat belts in both the front and back seats. Always strap children under age four into approved child-safety seats. It is illegal to use a handheld cell phone while driving in New York State. Police will immediately seize the car of anyone arrested for DWI (driving while intoxicated) in New York City.
When you reserve a car, ask about cancellation penalties, taxes, drop-off charges (if you're planning to pick up the car in one city and leave it in another), and surcharges (for being under or over a certain age, additional drivers, or driving across state or country borders or beyond a specific distance from your point of rental). All these things can add substantially to your costs. Request car seats and extras such as GPS when you book.
Rates are sometimes—but not always—better if you book in advance or reserve through a rental agency's website. There are other reasons to book ahead, though: for popular destinations, during busy times of the year, or to ensure that you get certain types of cars (vans, SUVs, exotic sports cars).
Make sure that a confirmed reservation guarantees you a car. Agencies sometimes overbook, particularly for busy weekends and holiday periods.
Rates in New York City are around $50–$110 a day and $350–$500 a week for an economy car with air-conditioning, automatic transmission, and unlimited mileage. This includes the state tax on car rentals, which is 19.87%. Rental costs are lower outside New York City, specifically in such places like Hoboken, New Jersey, and Yonkers, New York. If you already have a membership with Zipcar or a similar short-term car-rental service, consider using them for your car needs in the city.
If you own a car and carry comprehensive car insurance for both collision and liability, your personal auto insurance probably covers a rental, but read your policy's fine print to be sure. If you don't have auto insurance, you should probably buy the collision- or loss-damage waiver (CDW or LDW) from the rental company. This 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 (again, read the fine print). But no credit-card insurance is valid unless you use that card for all transactions, from reserving to paying the final bill.
Diners Club offers primary CDW coverage on all rentals reserved and paid for with the card. This means that Diners Club's company—not your own car insurance—pays in case of an accident. It doesn't mean that your car-insurance company won't raise your rates once it discovers you had an accident.
You may also be offered supplemental liability coverage. The car-rental company is required to carry a minimal level of liability coverage insuring all renters, but it's rarely enough to cover claims in a really serious accident if you're at fault. Your own auto-insurance policy protects you if you own a car; if you don't, you have to decide whether you are willing to take the risk.
U.S. rental companies sell CDWs and LDWs for about $20–$40 a day; supplemental liability is usually more than $10 a day. The car-rental company may offer you all sorts of other policies, but they're rarely worth the cost. Personal accident insurance, which is basic hospitalization coverage, is an especially egregious rip-off if you already have health insurance.
You can decline insurance from the rental company and purchase it through a third-party provider such as Travel Guard (www.travelguard.com)—$9 per day for $35,000 of coverage. That's sometimes just under half the price of the CDW offered by some car-rental companies.