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Note to visitors to the U.S. from abroad: Some major airlines offer transatlantic or transpacific passengers special discount tickets under the name Visit USA, which allows mostly one-way travel from one U.S. destination to another at very low prices. Unavailable in the U.S., these discount tickets must be purchased abroad in conjunction with your international fare. This system is the easiest, fastest, cheapest way to see the country. Inquire with your air carrier.

By Car

Traffic can be a nightmare in Atlanta, and the region's leaders are working hard to figure out what to do about it. Rush hours -- roughly 6:30 to 9am and 3:30 to 6:30 or 7pm -- can be vicious, especially when traveling into town in the morning or out of town in the afternoon on any of the interstates. The Downtown Connector (where I-75 and I-85 become one) is almost always congested, even during nonrush times, mostly because travelers on their way to points north, south, east, and west join the locals trying to make their way through the city. The area looks a lot like a pig trying to pass through a python. Atlanta drivers are generally courteous, but they tend to travel at breakneck speeds well above the posted limit, so it's wise to stay off the interstates during peak hours. I-285, which circles the city and supports a lot of truck traffic, should be avoided if at all possible. It's possible to reach most major Atlanta sights via the transit system (MARTA); public transportation is usually the best bet during sporting and entertainment events and conventions.

Even if you're here for just a few days, you'll get a pretty good feel for the layout of the city. Just remember that the main drag is Peachtree Street (becoming Peachtree Rd. to the north), and use it to get your bearings. Just don't fall prey to the confusion created by dozens of streets with "Peachtree" in their name.

Georgia law requires the driver and front-seat passengers to wear seat belts while the car is in motion. Children 4 and under must be buckled into safety seats in the rear; those 5 to 12 must sit in the rear seat if the car is equipped with air bags.

Gas stations and public parking lots are plentiful and toll roads are nearly nonexistent. That being said, while parking isn't a problem in Atlanta's outlying areas, it's getting to be a headache downtown and in some commercial areas of Midtown and Buckhead. It can be especially scarce and expensive downtown during conventions and other major events. If you can't find a spot close to your destination, there's often parking available a block or two away, and it's likely to be cheaper.

If you're visiting from abroad and plan to rent a car in the United States, keep in mind that foreign driver's licenses are usually recognized in the U.S., but you should get an international one if your home license is not in English.

Check out Breezenet.com, which offers domestic car-rental discounts with some of the most competitive rates around. Also worth visiting are Orbitz, Hotwire, Travelocity, and Priceline, all of which offer competitive online car-rental rates.

International visitors should note that insurance and taxes are almost never included in quoted rental-car rates in the U.S. Be sure to ask your rental agency about additional fees for these. They can add a significant cost to your car rental.

At press time, the cost of gasoline (also known as gas, but never petrol) in the U.S. averaged $2.65 a gallon for unleaded at most Atlanta stations. Taxes are already included in the printed price. One U.S. gallon equals 3.8 liters or .85 imperial gallons. Fill-up locations are known as gas or service stations.

Renting a Car

Renting a car in Atlanta is not a problem. All of the major rental agencies maintain branch offices in the city. In addition, Atlanta Rent-A-Car (tel. 800/542-8278; www.atlantarac.com), a local independently owned company, has been serving the area for more than 25 years and its rates are often lower than most. It has 20 metro locations, including one close to the airport, and provides free courtesy pickup anywhere in metro Atlanta.

If you pick up your rental car at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport, expect to pay a 10% government tax (which includes a 7% local sales tax) and a 10% airport tax. Elsewhere in the metro area, car rentals incur only the local sales tax, which can range from 5% to 7%.

Saving Money -- Car-rental rates vary even more than airline fares. The price you pay will depend on the size of the car, where and when you pick it up and drop it off, the length of the rental period, where and how far you drive it, whether you purchase insurance, and a host of other factors. A few key questions could save you hundreds of dollars. Here are some things to ask:

  • Are weekend rates lower than weekday rates? Ask if the rate is the same for pickup Friday morning, for instance, as it is for Thursday night.
  • Is a weekly rate cheaper than the daily rate? Even if you need the car for only 4 days, it may be cheaper to keep it for 5.
  • Does the agency assess a drop-off charge if you don't return the car to the same location where you picked it up? Is it cheaper to pick up the car at the airport compared to a downtown location?
  • Are special promotional rates available? If you see an advertised price in your local newspaper, be sure to ask for that specific rate; otherwise, you may be charged the standard cost. Terms change constantly.
  • Are discounts available for members of AARP, AAA, frequent-flier programs, or trade unions? If you belong to any of these organizations, you may be entitled to discounts of up to 30%.
  • How much tax will be added to the rental bill? Local tax? State-use tax?
  • What is the cost of adding an additional driver's name to the contract?
  • How many free miles are included in the price? Free mileage is often negotiable, depending on the length of your rental.
  • How much does the rental company charge to refill your gas tank if you return with the tank less than full? Though most agencies claim these prices are "competitive," fuel is almost always cheaper in town. Try to allow enough time to refuel the car yourself before returning it. Some companies offer "refueling packages," in which you pay for an entire tank of gas upfront. The price is usually fairly competitive with local gas prices, but you don't get credit for any gas remaining in the tank. If a stop at a gas station on the way to the airport will make you miss your plane, then by all means take advantage of the fuel purchase option. Otherwise, skip it.

Online Rentals -- Internet resources make comparison shopping easier. Expedia (www.expedia.com) and Travelocity (www.travelocity.com) can help you compare prices and locate car-rental bargains from various companies nationwide. They will even make the reservation for you once you've found the best deal.

Package Deals -- Many packages are available that include airfare, accommodations, and a rental car with unlimited mileage. Compare the price of the package with the cost of booking airline tickets and renting a car separately to see if the offer is a good deal.

Demystifying Renters Insurance- Before you drive off in a rental car, be sure you're insured. Hasty assumptions about your personal auto insurance or a rental agency's additional coverage could end up costing you tens of thousands of dollars -- even if you are involved in an accident that was clearly the fault of another driver.

If you already hold a private auto insurance policy, you are most likely covered in the United States for loss of or damage to a rental car, and liability in case of injury to any other party involved in an accident. Be sure to find out whether you are covered in the area you are visiting, whether your policy extends to all persons who will be driving the rental car, how much liability is covered in case an outside party is injured in an accident, and whether the type of vehicle you are renting is included under your contract. (Rental trucks, SUVs, and luxury vehicles such as Jaguars may not be covered.)

Most major credit cards provide some degree of coverage as well -- provided they were used to pay for the rental. Terms vary widely, however, so be sure to call your credit card company directly before you rent. Most American Express Optima cards, for instance, do not provide any insurance. In addition, American Express does not cover vehicles valued at more than $50,000 when new, or luxury vehicles such as Porsches, or vehicles built on a truck chassis. MasterCard does not provide coverage for loss, theft, or fire damage, and only covers collision if the rental period does not exceed 15 days. Call ahead of time for details; you may also be able to purchase additional coverage from your credit card company.

If you are uninsured, your credit card may provide primary coverage as long as you decline the rental agency's insurance. This means that the credit card will cover damage or theft of a rental car for the full cost of the vehicle. If you already have insurance, your credit card will provide secondary coverage -- which basically covers your deductible. Credit cards will not cover liability, or the cost of injury to an outside party and/or damage to an outside party's vehicle. If you do not hold an insurance policy, you may seriously want to consider purchasing additional liability insurance from your rental company. Be sure to check the terms: Some rental agencies cover liability only if the renter is not at fault, and even then, the rental company's obligation varies from state to state.

The basic insurance coverage offered by most car-rental agencies, known as the Loss/Damage Waiver (LDW) or Collision Damage Waiver (CDW), can cost as much as $20 per day. It usually covers the full value of the vehicle with no deductible if an outside party causes an accident or other damage to the rental car. In all states but California, you will probably be covered in case of theft as well. Liability coverage varies according to company policy and state law, but the minimum is usually at least $15,000. If you are at fault in an accident, however, you will be covered for the full replacement value of the car but not for liability. Some states allow you to buy additional liability coverage in case of such accidents. Most rental companies will require a police report in order to process any claims you file, but your private insurer will not be notified of the accident.

Question your rental agency about personal safety and ask for a traveler-safety brochure when you pick up your car. Obtain written directions -- or a map with the route clearly marked -- from the agency showing how to get to your destination. (Many agencies now offer the option of renting a cellphone for the duration of your car rental; check with the rental agent when you pick up the car.)

Recently, more and more crime has involved cars and drivers. If you drive off a highway into a doubtful neighborhood, leave the area as quickly as possible. If you have an accident, even on the highway, stay in your car with the doors locked until you assess the situation or until the police arrive. If you're bumped from behind on the street or are involved in a minor accident with no injuries and the situation appears to be suspicious, motion to the other driver to follow you. Never get out of your car in such situations. Go directly to the nearest police precinct, well-lit service station, or 24-hour store.

Always try to park in well-lit and well-traveled areas if possible. Never leave any packages or valuables in sight. If someone attempts to rob you or steal your car, don't try to resist the thief/carjacker, but immediately report the incident to the police department by calling tel. 911.

By Taxi

Atlanta is not New York. It's not possible to step outside and hail a cab at all times, though there are always cabs waiting outside the airport, major hotels, Underground Atlanta, and most MARTA stations, except those found downtown. If a cab is not waiting at your MARTA rail stop, use the white assistance phone in the station and MARTA will call one for you.

Taxi fares are a bit complicated in Atlanta. Within the Downtown Zone, you pay a flat rate of $5 for one passenger, $1 for each additional rider. That's fine if you're going from one end of this extensive zone to the other; unfortunately, though, you pay the same rate even if you go just a block. Rates and rules are the same in Buckhead.

There's also a flat rate for rides between downtown and the airport: $30 for one passenger, plus $2 for each additional passenger. Between the airport and Midtown, the rate is $32 for one passenger, $2 for each additional. Between the airport and Buckhead, the rate is $38 for one, $2 for each additional.

Outside these specified zones, Atlanta cabs charge a minimum $1.50 for the meter drop and first 1/6 mile, 20¢ for each additional 1/6 mile for the first passenger, and a flat rate of $1 for each additional passenger, adult or child. Waiting time is $15 per hour.

There are many taxi companies in town. If you need to call a taxi, try Atlanta Lenox Taxi (tel. 404/872-2600), Yellow Cabs (tel. 404/521-0200), Checker Cabs (tel. 404/351-1111), or Buckhead Safety Cab (tel. 404/875-3777). If your destination lies outside of the zone system (which applies flat rates to trips within each zone), the meter won't start running until you get into the cab. Some of these companies accept credit cards.

If you have a complaint about taxi service, call the Taxi Bureau (tel. 404/658-7600).

By Public Transportation

The Metropolitan Atlanta Rapid Transit Authority (MARTA) operates a rail (subway) and bus network, making it possible, though not always convenient, to reach just about any part of town by public transportation. While the system is fairly extensive within the city limits, outside the city (except for areas in DeKalb, Fulton, and Clayton counties) the service is quite limited. Even in some areas served by bus and rail lines, it's often necessary to walk a bit to a station or stop.

Cobb County, a suburban county that includes the city of Marietta, operates a bus system separate from MARTA. Cobb Community Transit (CCT) has five local routes and express routes that operate between Cobb and the Arts Center, Dunwoody, and H. E. Holmes MARTA stations. Transfers are free between CCT and MARTA. Call tel. 770/427-4444 for information.

The Buckhead Area Transportation Management Association (BATMA) operates "the buc," free shuttle buses that run every 8 to 15 minutes between the two MARTA rail stations in the area -- Lenox and Buckhead -- and the hotels, malls, and other businesses along Piedmont and Peachtree roads. The buses operate Monday through Friday from 7am to 7pm, Saturday from 10am to 9pm. For more information, inquire at your hotel, or go to www.bucride.com.

MARTA Rapid Rail

MARTA's rapid-rail (subway) system has been running since 1979. The stations are clean and modern, and the service is reliable. Although MARTA has a good safety record, there is the perception here -- as in many big cities -- that subway travel is unsafe. MARTA moves more than half a million people every day, and regular riders seem to have more confidence in the security of the trains and stations than infrequent riders do. Visitors should find the subway most pleasant during the day and during early-evening hours, when usage is heavy.

The major problem with MARTA is that not enough parts of the city are served by rail (which is much faster overall than the bus). MARTA will eventually have 45 stations, but the system currently includes only 40 stations. There are two lines: south-north trains (orange lines on the MARTA maps) that travel between the airport and Doraville and North Springs; and east-west trains (blue lines on the maps) that travel between Indian Creek (east of Decatur) and Hamilton E. Holmes. They intersect at Five Points Station in downtown Atlanta, where you can transfer to another train for free. The system's two newest station additions -- Sandy Springs and North Springs -- were added in late 2000 to the north line that parallels Georgia Hwy. 400.

The fare is $2 for any ride, and passengers must purchase the new Breeze Card from the station vending machines to ride. Multitrip passes, as well as 7- and 30-day passes, are also available.

MARTA trains generally arrive and depart every 8 to 10 minutes, 7 days a week, from 5am to 1am. Free transfers between bus and rail are available when you board a bus or enter a rail station. Parking is free but limited at about half the rail stations. If you wish to park overnight, you must use the long-term secured parking available at the stations of Doraville, Dunwoody, Medical Center, Lenox, Brookhaven, Lindbergh, North Springs, Sandy Springs, and College Park. Cost is $3 per day.

For MARTA schedule and route information, go to www.itsmarta.com, or call tel. 404/848-4711 Monday through Friday from 6am to midnight, Saturday and Sunday from 8am to 10pm. Printed schedules are available from racks at Five Points and several other stations; instructions are printed in English, French, Japanese, German, and Spanish. All stations and rail cars are fully accessible to passengers with disabilities.

MARTA Buses

It's possible, but not always efficient, to get anywhere within the city limits by bus. The routes will deliver you to most major attractions and sightseeing stops, but travel can be slow, with long wait times between buses. MARTA buses operate on a 1,550-mile network of 150 routes, and the fare system is the same as described above for rail service. To find out what bus to take, call tel. 404/848-4711 for route information (same hours as listed above for rail information). You must have exact change ($1.75) or a Breeze Card. Special shuttle buses operate from downtown in conjunction with major stadium sports events and conventions; call the above number for details.

Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.