Several major international car-rental companies operate in Jamaica, along with dozens of local firms. Car-rental agencies are listed in the local yellow pages.
High-season rates begin at about US$45 per day and can run as high as US$125, depending on the vehicle. Cheaper rates apply in the low season. Some companies include unlimited distance, while some set a limit and charge a fee for excess kilometers driven. Most firms require a deposit of at least US$500, but accept a credit-card imprint. Keep copies of all your paperwork. Renters must be 21 years old (some companies will rent only to people aged 25 or older).
You can reserve a car upon arrival, but in the high season be sure to make your reservation in advance. Reconfirm before your arrival.
Before signing, go over the vehicle with a fine-tooth comb to identify any dents and scratches. Make a note of each one before you drive away. You’re likely to be charged for the slightest mark that wasn’t noted before. Don’t forget to check the cigarette lighter and interior switches, which are often missing.
Most of the companies rent out modern Japanese sedans. A big car can be a liability on Jamaica’s narrow, winding roads. Some companies also rent 4WD vehicles, which are highly recommended if you intend to do any driving away from main roads.
Stick shift is preferable because frequent and sudden gear changes are required when potholes and kamikaze chickens appear out of nowhere. Remember that you’ll be changing gears with your left hand. If this is new to you, you’ll soon get the hang of it.
Jamaica’s largest and most reputable car-rental company is Island Car Rentals (www.islandcarrentals.com); Donald Sangster International Airport (952-7225); Kingston (926-8012; 17 Antigua Ave); Norman Manley International Airport (924-8075); North America (800-892-4581); Ocho Rios (974-2666). Eleven categories of cars cost US$44 to $99 daily.
Major international companies, with rates comparable to those of Island Car Rentals, are represented by these offices in Jamaica:
Avis (www.avis.com); Donald Sangster International Airport (952-0762); Norman Manley International Airport (924-8293)
Hertz (www.hertz.com); Donald Sangster International Airport (979-0438) Norman Manley International Airport (924-8028)
Thrifty (www.thrifty.com; Donald Sangster International Airport 952-5825)
Local rental agencies often provide better daily rates than the international chains, but the cars are sometimes road-worn. Reputable agencies include these ones:
Check in advance whether your current insurance or credit card covers you for driving while abroad. All rental companies will recommend damage-waiver insurance, which limits your liability in the event of an accident or damage. This costs about US$12 to US$40 per day and is a valuable investment.
Traveling by public transportation could be the best – or worst! – adventure of your trip to Jamaica. An extensive transportation network links virtually every village and comprises several options that range from standard public buses to private taxis, with minibuses and route taxis in between.
For the adventurous traveler who doesn’t mind getting up close and personal with fellow passengers without the comfort of air-conditioning and is unfazed by the wild and often dangerous maneuverings of the drivers, this is the cheapest way to get around Jamaica. There is usually no set timetable – buses leave when the driver considers them full – and passengers are crammed in with little regard for comfort. Guard your luggage carefully against theft.
Public buses, minibuses and route taxis depart from and arrive at each town’s transportation station, which is usually near the main market. Locals can direct you to the appropriate vehicle, which should have its destination marked above the front window (for buses) or on its side.
Don’t expect drivers to be able to make change for large bills. Carry a supply of Jamaican coins and bills in denominations of J$50 and J$100.
Private minibuses, also known as ‘coasters, ’ have traditionally been the workhorses of Jamaica’s regional public transportation system. All major towns and virtually every village in the country are served.
Licensed minibuses display red license plates with the initials PPV (public passenger vehicle) or have a Jamaican Union of Travelers Association (JUTA) insignia. JUTA buses are exclusively for tourists. They usually depart their point of origin when they’re full; they’re often overflowing, with people hanging from the open doors.
These communal taxis are the most universal mode of public transportation, reaching every part of the country. They operate like minibuses, picking up as many people as they can squeeze in along their specified routes.
Most route taxis are white Toyota Corolla station wagons marked by their red license plates. They should have ‘Route Taxi’ marked on the front door, and they are not to be confused with similar licensed taxis, which charge more. A rule of thumb: avoid any taxi that lacks the red license plate.
Taking public transportation is terrifically inexpensive. Buses and minibuses charge in the neighborhood of US$1 per 50km, and route taxis charge about US$2 to US$3 per 50km.
Although Jamaica was the proud home to the first railway lines outside Europe and North America, those railway tracks marked on the maps are all that’s left of them. The railway system was shut down in 1992. Talks of putting the trains back into operation have come to naught.
Licensed taxis – called ‘contract carriages’ – have red PPV license plates (those without such plates are unlicensed). They’re expensive, but affordable if you share the cost with other passengers.
Jamaica Union of Travelers Association (JUTA; firstname.lastname@example.org; Kingston 926-1537; Montego Bay 952-0813; Negril 957-9197) operates islandwide and is geared almost exclusively to the tourist business. Other taxicab companies are listed in the yellow pages.
The Transport Authority has established fixed rates according to distance (different rates apply for locals and tourists, who pay more). Licensed cabs should have these posted inside. Taxis are also supposed to have meters, but many don’t use them.
The following were typical fares in 2007, based on up to four people per taxi:
Around Montego BayUS$15-20
Norman Manley International
Airport-Kingston (Uptown) US$25
Donald Sangster International
Airport-Montego Bay US$8
Montego Bay’s Donald Sangster International Airport has a domestic terminal adjacent to the international terminal. It’s a bit of a walk – Air Jamaica Express provides a shuttle.
In Kingston, most domestic flights use Tinson Pen, 3km west of downtown, but it’s a 40-minute ride to the domestic airstrip from Norman Manley International Airport.
Air Jamaica (Jamaica 800-359-2475; North America & the Caribbean 800-523-5585; UK 20-8570-7999; www.airjamaica.com) offers a daily service between Kingston and Montego Bay, and between Montego Bay and Ocho Rios through its domestic air service, Air Jamaica Express.
TimAir (952-2516, 979-1114; www.timair.net; domestic terminal, Donald Sangster International Airport) has charter flights between its hub in Montego Bay and Kingston (US$205), Mandeville (US$175), Negril (US$179), Ocho Rios (US$362) and Port Antonio (US$599). Rates are for two passengers; fares go up or down for fewer or more passengers.
You can charter a four-passenger Bell Jetranger helicopter for transportation to any airport or for personalized tours from Island Hoppers (974-1285; www.jamaicahelicoptertours.com; 120 Main St, Ocho Rios; tours per person 20-/30-/60-minutes US$360/520/1000, minimum 3 paid seats). Tours depart from Montego Bay and Ocho Rios.
Bicycle rentals are commonly available in resort towns (US$15 to US$30 per day) but the frenetic nature of Jamaican traffic may preclude you from having the pleasant experience that you had in mind.
If you want to do any serious riding, consider bringing your own bike. However, you need to be prepared to fix your own flats and broken chains. Bike shops are virtually nonexistent.
Mountain bikes and ‘beach cruisers’ (bikes with fat tires, suitable for riding on sand) can be rented at most major resorts (US$15 to US$30 per day). However, road conditions are hazardous and Jamaican drivers are not very considerate to bicyclists. For serious touring, bring your own mountain or multipurpose bike. You’ll need sturdy wheels to handle the potholed roads.