11 Dec How to Get Around in Jamaica: A Guide to Public Transit vs. Rental Cars
Traveling in Jamaica can be a unique and sometimes daunting experience. For those who have never been to the island before, you really want to think about both your comfort level and what you want out of your visit before deciding what kind of transportation to use.
We’ve now spent 4+ years traveling on the Jamaican public transit system as Peace Corps Volunteers and as returned visitors and also have a couple weeks under our belts driving rental cars. We’ve traveled through most major cities and towns on the island, as well as many remote locations in the “bush.” These are some of our recommendations, based on our experience with Jamaican transportation…
Public Transit vs. Rental Cars vs. Charters
Use public transit if…
- You’re adventurous and want to really get a taste of every-day Jamaican life
- You know what you’re doing and how to get where you need to go (looking helpless and lost makes you a good target for crime)
- Your luggage is small and compact-able OR you’re just taking a day trip without luggage
- You have Jamaican cash in small bills (Jamaican $50’s and $100’s)
- You are patient and not pressed for time
Use rental cars if…
- You’re not an anxious driver
- You can respond quickly to various obstacles on the road, including but not limited to: pot holes, goats, dogs, large semi-trucks, and pedestrians
- You want to make multiple stops in your trip- whether it be staying in three different towns within the span of a week, or seeing several different sights in one day
- You don’t mind driving on the left side of the road
- You’re flexible and laid back (GPS may not always work and paper maps have their limits as well)
Use charter vehicles or tours if…
- You don’t want the stress or responsibility of finding your way around
- You don’t mind paying a premium (public transit can often get you the same distance for 1/10 of the cost)
- You’re traveling after dark
A Few Tips for Driving in Jamaica
Driving on the left side!!!
The most important thing to be aware of (unless your from a country that drives on the left anyway). If you’ve never driven on the left side of the road, don’t be over confident in your skills. Be very intentional and even more aware of what you are doing. This is especially the case as you make turns or turning onto a road. Stay to the left!!! You’ll get used to it pretty quickly, but just one lapse in concentration can make a huge difference.
The best paved roads are found on the North Coast highway and Highway 2000 (a south coast toll road from Kingston to May Pen). Other parts of the South Coast highway are in varying states of repair. Roads going to smaller communities out in the bush or up in the hills may not always be paved or suffer from numerous pot holes.
Honking the horn
At home, honking the horn usually means something is going wrong- you’re about to get hit or someone is upset. In Jamaica, the horn is just one more tool to communicate from your vehicle. Because of the many obstacles on the road, it is common practice to honk before overtaking a car or swerving around a pedestrian. This helps make the other party aware of where you are and ensure that they don’t make a sudden move into your way. It is also wise to honk the horn before going around sharp turns where your visibility is limited. Apart from these precautionary measures, it is also common to use the horn to say hello, goodbye, or politely acknowledge people on the road.
Rules of the road
In Jamaica, rules of the road may seem non-existent at times, but it’s just a different way of doing things. Due to poor road conditions, it is always more important to steer clear of pot holes and other obstacles than it is to stay within your designated lane. When in doubt, give right of way to the biggest vehicle. Traffic may seem chaotic and the drivers reckless, but in actuality, most Jamaican drivers are highly aware and anticipate the moves of the other vehicles around them.
Tips for Using Public Transportation in Jamaica
In Jamaica you’ll generally find that each major town has a main taxi and bus park that gets people to and from that town. For smaller towns there will be unofficial spots that everyone knows that is the place to get a taxi to go to a specific area.
Because each town is different you’ll have to seek out a local to get some help. We generally suggest someone older who knows the area well. Here’s what to ask:
1) How do I get to (destination)?
2) Should I take a taxi or bus and where do I catch it?
3) What’s the fare?
Here are more tips and things to consider when using public transit around Jamaica.
Understand the route system
Most of Jamaica’s public taxis and buses run a specific, out-and-back route. The start and end destinations of that route are usually labelled on the side of the vehicle (although it’s always worth confirming with the driver). Passengers can flag down the taxis or bus at any point along the route and fares are loosely based on the distance traveled.
→Take an Airport/Bus Park taxi to the Montego Bay bus park downtown ~$100J ($1US)
→Take a Montego Bay/Negril bus (or taxi) to the Negril bus park ~$250J
→Take a Negril/West End taxi and exit at your hotel ~$130J
Use registered vehicles
Drivers that are officially registered (and, therefore, insured) have a red license plate, a blue collared shirt, and should have some official form of identification displayed inside the vehicle. There are also officially registered tourism vehicles, which will say JUTA (Jamaica Union of Travelers Association) which your hotel is likely to arrange for you- these do not run on a route system but can be “chartered” to take you directly to your destination.
Carry small change
It’s always best to know the fare for your destination and have exact change to avoid getting overcharged as a “foreigner.” Either ask someone before you travel or question your fellow passengers when you get in the vehicle. Taxi drivers cannot always break big bills and will often use that as an excuse to collect more money than is due. Change your $500J’s and $1000J’s at gas stations or shops.
Jamaicans will typically watch out for guests to their country, however, crime is a reality in Jamaica; and most are “crimes of opportunity.” By taking a few precautions, you can drastically reduce your chance of becoming a target for theft and robbery: Avoid getting into isolated situations by only riding in route taxis that already have other passengers. Avoid using public transit after dark when possible. Avoid carrying or displaying any valuables while you’re traveling, or keep valuables in a small bag that you can hold on your lap. Stay alert about your surroundings and walk with a purpose.
We don’t have too many tips for chartering vehicles as these will typically be arranged for you by a tour company or hotel. Costs are often much higher for this option but in return, you have the convenience of being driven directly from place to place.
Kingston is the only place we know of with taxi options more like we’re used to in the States. For example, you can call On Time Taxi, tell the operator your location and destination, and a driver will pick you up 5-15 minutes later (or at a future time you arrange with the company). You can ask the phone operator for an estimate of the fare as well. At the time of this writing, travel across the city averaged at $600J ($6US).
Rental Cars in Jamaica
We’ve experienced independent Jamaican rentals as well as big name American rental companies. We do like to support local business but for convenience and customer service, your best bet is Avis, Hertz, etc., located right at the airport. We typically waive the insurance and pay with a no-foreign-transaction-fee credit card that comes with a rental insurance benefit. The only thing this doesn’t cover is tire replacement, which is a major possibility due to all the pot holes on the roads- so drive cautiously!
Have you driven in Jamaica? What tips would you add to our list? If you’re planning to visit the country and drive for the first time, we’d be happy to help answer any questions or concerns. Just share your thoughts in the comments below…
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