Argentina's long highways and fabulous scenery make it a great place for road trips. However, if you're only going to be staying in Buenos Aires and other big cities, parking limitations and downright crazy traffic make renting a car more trouble than it’s worth. Stick with public transportation, including taxis, or hire a remis (car and driver), which can take you around the countryside, too.
Gas stations (estaciones de servicio) are in and near most towns and along major highways. Most are open 24 hours and include full service, convenience stores, and sometimes ATMs. In rural areas, stations have small shops and toilets; however, they are few and far between and have reduced hours.
On long trips, fill your tank whenever you can, even if you've still got gas left, as the next station could be a long way away (signs at stations often tell you how far). Attendants always pump the gas and don't expect a tip, though most locals add a few pesos for a full tank. Credit cards often aren't accepted—look for signs reading "Tarjetas de crédito suspendidas" ("No credit cards") or "Solo efectivo" ("Cash only").
The major service stations are YPF, Shell, Petrobras, and Esso. Locals say that YPF gas is the highest quality; it is also the cheapest. Prices are often higher in the north of Argentina. South of an imaginary line between Bariloche and Puerto Madryn, gas is heavily subsidized and costs roughly half what it does elsewhere. There are three grades of unleaded fuels, as well as diesel and biodiesel. GNC is compressed natural gas, an alternative fuel. Stations with GNC signs may sell only this, or both this and regular gas.
On-street parking is limited in big cities. Some have meter systems or tickets that you buy from kiosks and display on the dashboard. In meter-free spots there's often an informal "caretaker" who guides you into your spot and charges 2–5 pesos to watch your car, which you pay when you leave.
Car theft is common, so many agencies insist that you park rental cars in a guarded lot. Many hotels have their own lots, and there are plenty in major cities: look for a circular blue sign with a white "E" for estacionamiento (parking). In downtown Buenos Aires, expect to pay 25–30 pesos per hour, or 70–120 pesos for 12 hours. Rates are much lower elsewhere. Illegally parked cars are towed only from restricted parking areas in city centers. Getting your car back is a bureaucratic nightmare and costs around 450 pesos.
The streets of many Argentine cities are notorious for potholes, uneven surfaces, and poorly marked intersections. Most major cities have a one-way system whereby parallel streets run in opposite directions: never going the wrong way along a street is one of the few rules that Argentineans abide by. Where there are no traffic lights at an intersection, you give way to drivers coming from the right, but have priority over those coming from the left.
Two kinds of roads connect major cities: autopistas (two- or three-lane freeways) and rutas (single or dual carriageways) or rutas nacionales (main "national routes," usually indicated with an "RN" before the route number). Both types of roads are subject to regular tolls. Autopistas are well maintained, but the state of rutas varies hugely. In more remote locations even rutas that look like major highways on maps may be narrow roads with no central division. Always travel with a map, as signposts for turnoffs are scarce.
Night driving can be hazardous: some highways and routes are poorly lighted, routes sometimes cut through the center of towns, cattle often get onto the roads, and in rural areas farm trucks and old cars seldom have all their lights working. Outside of the city of Buenos Aires, be especially watchful at traffic lights, as crossing on red lights at night is common practice. A useful road-trip website is www.ruta0.com , which calculates distances and tolls between places and offers several route options.
All rental-car agencies have an emergency help line in case of breakdowns or accidents—some services take longer than others to arrive. The best roadside assistance is usually that of the Automóvil Club Argentina (ACA), which sends mechanics and tow trucks to members traveling anywhere in the country. The ACA also offers free roadside assistance to members of North American clubs and automobile associations. However, bear in mind when you call for assistance that most operators speak only Spanish.
If you have an accident on the highway, stay by your vehicle until the police arrive, which could take a while, depending on where you are. If your car is stolen, you should report it to the closest police station.
American Automobile Association. 800/564–6222; www.aaa.com.
Automóvil Club Argentino. 11/4808–4000; 800/777–2894; www.aca.org.ar.
Rules of the Road
You drive on the right in Argentina, as in the United States. Seatbelts are required by law for front-seat passengers. You must use your headlights on highways at all times. The use of cellular phones while driving is forbidden, and turning left on two-way avenues is prohibited unless there's a left-turn signal; there are no right turns on red. Traffic lights turn yellow before they turn red, but also before turning green, which is interpreted by drivers as an extra margin to get through the intersection, so take precautions.
The legal blood-alcohol limit is 500 mg of alcohol per liter of blood, but in practice breathalyzing is common only in Buenos Aires and along the highways of the Atlantic coast during January and February. In towns and cities a 40-kph (25-mph) speed limit applies on streets and a 60-kph (37-mph) limit is in effect on avenues. On autopistas the limit is 130 kph (80 mph), and on rutas it ranges between 100 kph (62 mph) and 120 kph (75 mph). On smaller roads and highways out of town it's 80 kph (50 mph). Locals take speed-limit signs, the ban on driving with cell phones, and drunk driving lightly, so drive very defensively.
Police tend to be forgiving of foreigners' driving faults and often waive tickets and fines when they see your passport. If you do get a traffic ticket, don't argue. Most tickets aren't payable on the spot, but some police officers offer "reduced" on-the-spot fines in lieu of a ticket: it's bribery, and you'd do best to insist on receiving the proper ticket.
In Buenos Aires, buses and taxis have exclusive lanes on major avenues. On other streets they often drive as though they have priority, and it's good to defer to them for your own safety.
If you experience a small accident, jot down the other driver's information (full name, license number, insurance provider, and policy number) and supply your own. In cities, the standard procedure is to call the police and wait for them at the site of the accident. Otherwise, go to the nearest police station in the area to file a report. Contact your rental agency immediately.
Paved highways run from Argentina to the Chilean, Bolivian, Paraguayan, and Brazilian borders. If you do cross the border by land, you'll be required to present your passport, documentation of car ownership, and insurance paperwork at immigration and customs checkpoints. It's also common for cars and bags to be searched for contraband, such as food, livestock, and drugs.
Daily rates range from 430 pesos to 1,550 pesos, depending on the type of car and the distance you plan to travel. This generally includes tax and 200 free km (125 free miles) daily. Note that most cars have manual transmissions; if you need an automatic, request one in advance and be prepared to pay extra—usually only the more expensive vehicle categories have them.
Reputable firms don't rent to drivers under 21, and drivers under 23 often have to pay a daily surcharge. Children's car seats are not compulsory, but are available for about 35 to 50 pesos per day. Some agencies charge a 10% surcharge for picking up a car from the airport.
A collision damage waiver (CDW) is mandatory and is usually included in standard rental prices. However, you may still be responsible for a deductible fee (known locally as a franquicia or deducible)—a maximum amount that you'll have to pay if damage occurs. It ranges from 3,000 to 6,000 pesos for a car and can be much higher for a four-wheel-drive vehicle. You can reduce the figure substantially or altogether by paying an insurance premium (anywhere from 40 to 1,000 pesos per day); some companies have lower deductibles than others.
In general, you cannot cross the border in a rental car. Many rental companies don't insure you on unpaved roads and have special insurance clauses that make you responsible for most of the value of the car if it flips over in an accident, which is commonplace on unpaved roads in Patagonia. Discuss your itinerary with the agent to be certain you're always covered.
Alamo. 810/999–25266; 11/4811–5903; www.alamo.com.
Avis. 810/9991–2847; 11/4326–5542; www.avis.com.ar.
Budget. 810/999–2834; 11/4326–3825; www.budget.com.ar.
Dollar. 800/555–3655; 11/4315–1670; www.dollar.com.ar.
Hertz. 810/222–43789; 11/4816–8001; www.hertzargentina.com.ar.