Updated on October 7, 2015.
Image: Clark County Department of Aviation
Before I get into all the great things you can do away from the strip in Las Vegas, it might help if you had a way of getting to them. Locals and those who drive themselves to Las Vegas are lucky. Keep reading anyway – some of these tips apply no matter where you travel.
Most of the travel guides that I have seen recommend that you don’t rent a car in Las Vegas. The bright lights and spectacles of Las Vegas are distracting. Las Vegas Blvd is often gridlocked. You can get everywhere you want to using shuttles, cabs, limos, buses, and your own two feet. Renting a car is a liability. You could get lost, waste time in traffic, or worse.
For the typical tourist to Las Vegas, staying in a mega resort on the strip, uninterested in anything beyond that 4.2 mile stretch of asphalt and neon – this is probably good advice. However, if you want to experience all that Las Vegas has to offer, and most of what this site is about; you’ll need your own transportation.
Renting a Car from McCarran Airport:
There are no “on airport” car rentals at McCarran. The major car rental companies all share an off-site car rental center at 7135 Gilespie Street, about 5-10 minutes from the airport itself. When you arrive at the airport, follow the signs for ground transportation. Look for the car rental shuttle pickup area and board the next shuttle. Once you arrive at the rental center go inside and find your car rental company. From there it works like any other airport. When you return the car, set your GPS for 7135 Gilespie Street.
Here’s my first money-saving tip: There is a gas station at the corner of Gilespie Street and East Warm Springs Road. Don’t prepay for your gas and don’t let the rental company get you for not returning the car full. Grab gas here right before you return the car. Make sure you get a receipt – you can use it to prove that you filled the car immediately before returning it. Some rental companies will automatically charge for gas even if the gauge reads FULL unless you produce a receipt.
I recommend sticking with one of the major agencies for your rental – Avis, National, Dollar, Enterprise, Alamo, Budget, Thrifty, or Hertz. Some of the lesser known agencies are off-site, requiring another shuttle to and from the rental center – wasting your valuable vacation time. The cars at these locations are not generally as nice, or as new. Besides, with a little research you can usually get a better price booking with a bigger national agency.
Getting the best rate:
This advice applies anywhere you travel, but maybe more so in Las Vegas – book early and book often. Car rental rates change with the wind. Start with an aggregator site like Kayak.com which will give you a baseline of available rates from most car rental agencies. Then go to each agency’s web site and look for deals. Try codes from any affiliations that you qualify for. Costco members get a healthy discount at a few agencies, check CostcoTravel.com. AAA members check AAA.com. Entertainment books and the American Casino Guide offer discounts. Check your credit card companies and airlines for discount codes as well. Once you’ve found the best rate (except prepaid) that you can, book it. Then, keep checking for lower rates as your travel dates approach. If you find something better, book it and cancel the first. As long as you don’t prepay you can cancel and re-book as often as you want with no penalty – even at the same agency. Keep checking rates. I once cut my rental rate in half by re-booking on the night before I left.
Bonus Tip: You can use this same strategy for hotel bookings as well. Just watch for cancellation fees as you approach your check-in date.
Unless you have a need for a specific type of vehicle, book the cheapest car class you can find. Often upgrading is cheaper at the counter, and if they are out of your car class when you arrive you can often get an upgrade for free. Even when you get out to the garage, if you don’t like your car you can ask an agent if it’s okay to pick a different one. I’ve scored a couple interesting rides this way – a brand new Toyota Prius when they first came out, and more recently I chose a Fiat 500 over the Chevy Aveo I was assigned. Of course if you have your heart set on something specific, then pony up the cash and special order it in advance. I did this for the Pontiac Solstice above – well worth it. Just make sure your insurance will cover it.
Las Vegas car rental agencies are famous for the hard-sell on insurance. If you don’t already have insurance, or if your insurance at home won’t cover the car you are renting, then it’s probably a good idea to get some insurance to cover yourself, but you don’t have to get it from the rental agency. I use and recommend AMEX Premium Car Rental Insurance (this is not a paid endorsement, I am just a satisfied customer). They provide Primary insurance to cover your liability to the rental car agency for a flat fee per rental period. This is almost always cheaper than the Collision Damage Waiver (CDW) offered by the rental agency.
All you have to do is sign up for the service and then charge the full amount of the rental on your AMEX card, then decline all of the optional insurance from the rental agency. Beware: This, like the rental agency’s CDW, will only cover the rental car itself. You will still need additional insurance to cover any damage or injuries to others. Check with your personal auto insurance agent if you have one – you might already have the coverage you need.
Getting around Las Vegas
Las Vegas, like most major American cities is essentially a grid. Streets run East and West of Las Vegas Blvd, and North and South of Fremont Street. While it is often fairly easy to navigate the city using this information and a decent sense of direction, it’s the 21st century – use a GPS. Set your destination while parked, use voice guidance and do not fiddle with your GPS while driving – even stopped at a traffic light. If you have a passenger, let them handle the GPS. Nevada Police can and will site people for distracted driving if they are seen operating electronics while at the wheel. That’s not the fine you’re looking for.
Lanes in Las Vegas are divided using small round white bumps. Hitting a lot of them is a pretty strong indication that you shouldn’t be driving – hence the term “drunk bumps.” If you can’t avoid these bumps, park the car and call a cab. You do not want to get a DUI in Sin City.
Single drunk bumps separate lanes of travel, double drunk bumps indicate a “turn-only” lane. If there are double drunk bumps on one side of your car and a shoulder on the other side, your lane is disappearing. Merge over the double drunk bumps unless you are planning to take the next turn/exit.
Look for signs that say “self-parking.” I would never hand over the keys to my rental car to a valet. Remember “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off”? The valet is not an authorized driver of your rental car, and they do not take responsibility for any damage to your car. So, if there’s damage, your insurance won’t pay it because the driver wasn’t authorized, and the valet won’t take responsibility either. I’m not chancing it. Self-parking in most places in Las Vegas is free. Downtown, near Fremont Street there may be a nominal charge for parking. See if you can get your parking ticket validated at the hotel, casino and/or restaurant whose garage you are using. In large lots or garages it’s a good idea to take a picture of your car in the spot. You can use it to help find the car later.
- You’re a traveler, not a tourist. Get a rental car so you can get around.
- Book early and book often for the best price.
- Try to score a free upgrade at the rental center.
- Let the drunk bumps (and a GPS) be your guide.
- If you park at a garage that charges, try to get your ticket validated.
- A rental car is your ticket to the best of Las Vegas, Off Strip. Enjoy the ride!
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