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Many travelers who are planning a trip to St. Lucia, especially those who are interested in independent travel, wonder about driving conditions on the island. There are a number of questions that come to mind: Is it safe to drive on the island? What are road conditions like? Are rental cars readily available and are they costly? Is it better to take taxis vs. drive yourself?; Are the roads marked and easy to navigate? Is gas easily available and is it expensive? Can you just rent a vehicle for a day? Are there special requirements that must be met in order to rent a vehicle and drive?
If you are an independent traveller, renting a vehicle and driving around the island is a good way to really explore the island on your own, visit areas you might not typically get to encounter on a packaged tour and really get a chance to experience what island life is like on St. Lucia. But there are also challenges with renting a vehicle and driving so it does help to do a little homework in advance so that you are better prepared for the driving experience. This will also help you decide if renting a car and driving it yourself is right for you or if you’d be better off hiring a driver, using taxis, or simply taking packaged tours to explore the island.
First, let’s get the basic requirements out of the way. The minimum age to rent a car with most rental companies on the island is 25. This age requirement is typically set for insurance reasons. Before reserving a car with any of the rental companies on the island, it is wise to first check to ensure that they don’t have any unique requirements that might keep you from renting a vehicle.
To operate a vehicle on the island as a visitor, you must obtain a temporary permit. As of 2014, the cost of the permit is $54(EC) or $20(USD). The permit is good for three months, but keep in mind that even if you rent a vehicle for even just one day you’ll need to obtain a permit. You can obtain your permit at either airport (at the immigration desk, which is easy to find). You can also obtain your permit through the car rental company you use or at a local police station. If you are coming from a country where you already have a current international driving permit, you don’t need to purchase the temporary permit in St. Lucia. But you will need to have your international permit stamped at immigration at either airport.
The roads are safe to drive but are mountainous with a bit of back and forth elevation gain and loss as you travel around the island. Driving is on the left side as you would encounter in the U.K. The two main roads that cover the island (one on the east or Atlantic side and the other on the west or Caribbean side) are paved two lane roads. The west coast road is more adventurous and scenic. The basic conditions of these two roads are adequate for the level of tourism on the island; however the more significant storms over the past years (such as Hurricane Thomas and the Christmas Eve storm in 2013) have impacted the roads so you do want to exercise caution as you drive. For example, expect to see an ample amount of pot holes on the roads, especially closer to the shoulder area of the roads. Hitting one of these potholes while driving at too high a speed is a good way to end up with an unexpected flat tire and possibly a slightly beat up rim! In some areas of the island, especially as you travel the west coast road and are near some of the smaller villages such as Canaries and Anse Le Raye, you’ll encounter neighborhood dogs that like to wander and sleep in the shoulder areas of the roads. So do exercise caution and keep your eyes open especially as you drive around the curvy roads.
Outside of the two main highways that circle the island (see below), there are a handful of other roads that you might drive on from time-to-time to take you to some of the resorts, beaches, or other attractions. Some of these roads are paved, in good driving condition, and wide enough for two way traffic, but others such as the Anse Chastanet Road, near the town of Soufriere, that takes you to the resort, are not fully paved or in the best of driving conditions. Another example of this type of unimproved road can be found as you travel from the west coast highway turnoff to the Ti Kaye resort (Anse Cochon). When driving these roads, expect to encounter more potholes, steeper hills, bumpy conditions, and not the best roads for two way traffic. If you plan on driving on roads like these, you should consider renting a 4WD vehicle, such as a jeep, or at least a vehicle that has a higher ground clearance.
Tip: If you are interested in seeing what the actual driving conditions are like before you commit to renting a vehicle for your entire vacation, take a look at the assortment of driving videos that have been posted on Youtube. Simply search for “Driving in St Lucia” and you’ll find some high quality videos that show what some of the popular routes are like such as driving the west coast highway from Soufriere to Hewonarra Airport (UVF), driving the east coast highway from UVF to Castries and Rodney Bay, and driving from Soufriere to Castries.
Starting from the Hewanorra International Airport (UVF), the starting point from which most visitors arrive, you can either take the Vieux Fort-Castries Highway, which takes you on the Atlantic (east coast) side of the island or the St Jude Highway, which takes you on the Caribbean (west coast) side. If your destination is the Soufriere area, you’ll need to take the St. Jude Highway. If you are traveling to Castries or other points north such as Rodney Bay, you’ll likely want to take the Vieux Fort-Castries Highway because it is a faster and easier trip. Once you get going on either of these highways you’ll find that you’re not likely to get lost because each road simply heads north, so just stay on the road and you’ll get to your destination.
Tip: If you plan on doing a bit of driving and exploring it is a good idea to pick up a decent road map before your trip. The basic maps provided by the car rental companies are not very detailed. Although many of the smaller roads and streets in the towns are not well marked with street signs, having a more detailed map can help you navigate. You can find a good travel map of St. Lucia through International Travel Maps (www.itmb.com). These maps are also available through outlets such as Amazon.com.
Getting a Rental
You can rent a vehicle at the airport for your entire trip when you arrive or, depending on which part of the island you are staying on, you can rent a vehicle for a portion of your trip (even as short as a day or two), and pick up the vehicle in town (such as Soufriere, Castries, or Rodney Bay). Some of the rental companies will even deliver the vehicle to your hotel, resort, or villa. Rental costs very depending on how long you rent for and the type of vehicle that you select. Expect to pay a range of $50 to $100/day (exclusive of taxes and insurance) for the basic range of passenger cars or small jeeps that are typically offered. Premium vehicles will obviously cost a bit more. The rental rates run a little lower during the slower (rainy) season, May through October, then they do the rest of the year. Many of the rental companies offer discounts if you rent for longer periods of time (such as a full week) so it pays to shop around.
There are a variety of rental car companies to choose from. Some are based at the UVF airport, a few in Soufriere, and the majority of them can be found in and around Castries and other touristy areas such as Rodney Bay. Keep in mind that many of the rental companies can deliver a car to you (often at no extra charge). This means that, for example, if you find a rental company that is based in Castries and offers the right vehicle at the best price for your needs but you are staying in Soufriere, you still could likely use them. They may be able to meet you at the UVF airport when you arrive to drop off the vehicle. When your trip is over, you can then drop off the vehicle at the airport.
One of the more common questions that many travelers have is do I need to rent a jeep (4WD) vehicle or will a passenger car be sufficient? Having a 4WD vehicle is not necessary if you plan on driving on the two main roads that circle the island and you are staying at the more popular hotels and resorts around Soufriere or Castries. After all, the majority of St Lucians drive passenger cars and they get along just fine. If, on the other hand, your goal is to really explore the island and you want to travel to locations such as out of the way beaches, rainforest hiking areas, or lodging (such as a private villa) that is located on an unpaved or very hilly terrain, you should consider renting a 4WD vehicle.
Tips on Selecting a Rental Company and Costs
There are a number of rental car companies on the island to select from. As mentioned, some of the larger operators have stands at the Hewanorra International Airport (UVF) and at the Vigie Airport near Castries. Other operators are based in towns including Soufriere and Vieux Fort (the south) and Castries, Rodney Bay, and Gros Islet (the north). If you do a Google search for car rental companies, you’ll find that there are a number of local companies, as well as a few well-known brands such as Avis, Hertz, and Budget. Keep in mind that working with a named brand operator might be quite different than what you might come to expect with the named brand company off island. These companies typically are owned or managed locally and don’t necessarily offer the same level of service, maintenance, or newer, high quality vehicles that you might need. So before you select a company, don’t simply be influenced by brand names. Do your research by shopping online, asking the operator specific questions that you might have, and asking other travelers for recommendations.
Most of the rental companies have websites so you can look up the models they offer, rates, and pick-up/drop off locations. You can also get information concerning specials, off season rates, and discounts for longer term rentals. When comparing companies and rates, it helps to email or call a few of the companies that you are considering to see if they have any special rates.
Rentals from most of the major providers range from $50(USD) to $75(USD) per day for passenger type cars during the high season. (During the low season you can expect to see a discount of about 20% off the high season rates.) Small jeeps or sport-utility vehicles with four wheel drive are available at several of the local rental companies where rates start at $65(USD) to $100(USD) per day during the high season, depending on the size of the vehicle. Usually vehicles are rented with unlimited mileage. Some of the local operators offer free add-ons such as baby seats so it helps to inquire.
Renting a vehicle by the week (or longer) can help you save money. For example, some local companies offer programs such as if you rent a car for 7 days you only have to pay for 6. Some rental companies even give discounts for reservations of three days or more. Again, it helps to shop around.
Do You Need Extra Insurance?
Determining if you need extra insurance for a vehicle in a international country such as St. Lucia can seem a little tricky but once you know how the basics work you can make an informed decision concerning your needs. There are basically two levels of insurance that you want to be aware of: liability--the coverage that you would have, if, while driving, you did damage to someone else’s property or bodily harm, and direct vehicle coverage--the risk of damage or theft of the rental vehicle itself.
If you are traveling from a country such as the U.S. and you already have car insurance with one of the larger insurance companies it’s likely that your policy will not cover you for any liability when you are renting and driving a vehicle outside of the U.S. and Canada. Of course, before you travel it’s always wise to first check on this. Fortunately, when you rent a vehicle in a country like St. Lucia it’s typical that the rental agency would provide some level of acceptable liability coverage for the vehicle and the driver who would be using the vehicle. Thus, there usually isn’t a need to purchase extra liability insurance unless you have some special need because the vehicle should already be covered for liability by the agency that rents the vehicle.
For coverage of the actual rental vehicle itself, you have three options: you can purchase a “collision damage waiver” (CDW) from the rental agency, you can use the coverage that comes with your credit card, or you can obtain a short-term policy with a third-party insurance provider. Rental car companies love to offer the CDW option because it is very profitable for them. Here you typically pay a fee of $12 to $20 per day as a “waiver” so that your responsibility is limited if the rental vehicle is damaged or stolen. Its important to keep in mind that when you sign up for this option and pay this fee, you are not actually purchasing any type of insurance; instead you are purchasing a waiver. These waivers that are offered by the rental companies vary but typically they involve some type of deductible. This means that if you sign up and pay for the CDW and the vehicle is damaged or stolen during the rental period, you are still responsible for paying any amount up to the deductible.
For many renters a better coverage, instead of paying from the CDW, involves simply using a major credit card to rent the vehicle. Most credit card companies offer coverage (for free even) so that if your rental car is damaged or stolen your credit card company will cover you. Often, these programs involve no or very low deductible so it’s wise to check with your credit card company before you rent a vehicle. In order for this type of coverage to be available, you must decline the CDW that the rental car company offers. By doing some upfront research you may be able to avoid paying for a service that actual provides you with less coverage.