Though the DR’s bus and guagua system is excellent, having your own car is invariably faster and more convenient. Even if renting a car isn’t in your budget for the entire trip, consider renting one for a select couple of days, to reach sights that are isolated or not well served by public transportation; pretty much a necessity for the southwest.
For travelers from most countries, your home country driver’s license allows you to drive in the DR. Be sure it’s valid.
Most towns have at least one gas station, typically right along the highway on the outskirts of town. There are a couple of different companies, but prices are essentially the same for all. At the time of research, gas prices were around RD$212 per gallon. Many gas stations accept credit cards and many also have ATMs – all are full service.
With the cost of gas so high, a growing percentage of vehicles have been jerry-rigged to run on much cheaper propane gas (RD$100 per gallon) – you'll usually see a station (Unigas, Propagas or Tropigas) at the exit and entrance of any good-sized town.
Play it safe and always keep your gas tank at least half full. Many bombas (gas stations) in the DR close by 7pm, and even when they are open they don’t always have gas. If you’re traveling on back roads or in a remote part of the country, your best bet is to buy gas from people selling it from their front porch. Look for the large pink jugs sitting on tables on the side of the road.
The most common car trouble is to end up with a punctured or damaged tire caused by potholes, speed bumps and rocks or other debris in the road. The word for tire is goma (literally ‘rubber’) and a tire shop is called a gomero. If you can make it to one on your busted tire, the guys there can patch a flat, replace a damaged tire, or just put the spare on.
The multinational car-rental agencies typically offer comprehensive, nondeductible collision and liability insurance for fairly small daily fees. Smaller agencies usually offer partial coverage, with a deductible ranging from US$100 to US$2000. Several credit-card companies, including Amex, offer comprehensive coverage for rentals, but you should check your own insurance policy before declining the rental company’s.
If you rent a car, it’s worth buying a good map to the area you’ll be driving in. In Santo Domingo, Mapas GAAR publishes and sells the most comprehensive maps of cities and towns in the DR. Both the National Geographic Adventure Map and Boch maps of the Dominican Republic can be recommended.
Familiar multinational agencies like Hertz, Avis, Europcar, Alamo and Dollar have offices at the major international airports (or pickup service like at Punta Cana), as well as in Santo Domingo and other cities. Not only are their online rates sometimes much less than those of local or national agencies, but their vehicles are of better quality and they provide reliable and mostly comprehensive service and insurance (it should be noted that an additional 'airport terminal charge', around 8%, is tacked on to the bill). If you plan to do any driving on secondary roads along the coast or in the mountains, a 4WD is recommended. Rates typically cost US$30 (for a standard car) to US$120 (for a 4WD) per day. Motorcycles can also be rented, but only experienced riders should do so because of poor road conditions.
Roads in the DR range from excellent to awful, sometimes along the same highway over a very short distance. The autopista (freeway) between Santo Domingo and Santiago has as many as eight lanes, is fast moving and is generally in good condition. However, even here, always be alert for potholes, speed bumps and people walking along the roadside, especially near populated areas. On all roads, large or small, watch for slow-moving cars and especially motorcycles. Be particularly careful when driving at night. Better yet, never drive at night. Even the most skilled person with the reflexes of a superhero will probably end up in a ditch by the side of the road.
Some of the highways, including Hwy 3 heading out of Santo Domingo to the east and Hwy 2 leaving the city to the west, have toll fees of fairly nominal amounts (RD$35), while the Santo Domingo–Samaná highway (DR-7) is a relatively whopping RD$412. For the former it’s best to have exact change that you can simply toss into the basket and quickly move on.
The first rule is there are none. In theory, road rules in the DR are the same as for most countries in the Americas, and the lights and signs are the same shape and color you find in the US or Canada (speed limit signs are in kilometers per hour). Driving is on the right and seat belts are required. That said, driving is pretty much a free-for-all. In fact, in 2013, the World Health Organization (WHO) ranked the DR as the world's most dangerous country for drivers, just ahead of Thailand. Pedestrians, equally indifferent to common sense safety precautions, are also frequently victims. The combination of powerful public transport unions and the general public's opposition to education and licensing regulations are continuing obstacles to improving safety standards.
In small towns, nay in all towns, traffic lights – when working – are frequently ignored, though you should plan to stop at them. Watch what other drivers are doing – if everyone is going through, you probably should, too, as it can be even more dangerous to stop if the cars behind you aren’t expecting it. Many city streets are one way and often poorly marked, creating yet another hazard. Often, in lieu of stop signs, culverts (basically, the opposite of speed bumps), deep enough to damage the undersides of low clearance vehicles unless taken at the slowest of speeds, signal stops. Prohibitions against drinking and driving are widely flouted and it's not uncommon to spot a speeding motorcyclist sipping rum.