Arizona is a big state (the sixth largest), and because many of the state's top attractions are national parks, national monuments, and other natural areas, a car is almost a necessity for getting the most out of a visit to the state. Unfortunately, car-rental rates are surprisingly high, and while gasoline is less expensive than in most parts of the world, the distances that must be covered while exploring Arizona mean that you'll need to factor fuel costs into your vacation budget. At the time of this writing, gasoline was selling for around $3.60 to $3.70 per gallon throughout much of Arizona. For this reason, I tend to rent compact, fuel-efficient cars whenever I explore the state in a rental car. That said, with Arizona's abundant sunshine, convertibles are very popular rental cars, as are SUVs.
Because Phoenix and Tucson are major resort destinations, both have numerous car-rental agencies, including such major rental-car companies as Advantage, Alamo, Avis, Budget, Dollar, Enterprise, Hertz, National, Payless, and Thrifty. Fox Rent a Car (tel. 800/225-4369 or 310/641-3838; www.foxrentacar.com) is a small regional rental-car company that has a rental office at Phoenix Sky Harbor Airport. Rental rates in Tucson are usually lower than in Phoenix, as are the many taxes and surcharges that are tacked onto car-rental rates. In Phoenix, taxes and surcharges add as much as 50% to the price of a rental car if you rent at the airport. In Tucson, expect to pay around 30% in taxes and surcharges for airport rentals.
Rates for rental cars vary considerably among companies and with the model you want to rent, the dates you rent, and your pickup and drop-off points. If you contact the same company three times to check rates on the same model car, you may get three different quotes, depending on current availability of vehicles. It pays to shop early and ask lots of questions. At press time, a compact car with unlimited mileage was renting in Phoenix for $250 to $400 per week ($400-$600 including taxes and surcharges) during the winter high season. In Tucson for the same time period, compact cars were renting for $250 ($325 with taxes and surcharges) per week.
You can sometimes save money by renting at a location away from the airport, though many rental-car companies raise the rates at these off-airport offices effectively negating any potential savings. If you will be staying at a hotel that offers a free airport shuttle, you can check in and then have an off-airport rental-car location pick you up and drive you to its office. However, if you have to pay for a shuttle or taxi to either your hotel or the off-airport rental-car office, you may wipe out any potential savings you might have realized by renting away from the airport. Be sure to weigh all the costs carefully. Also, before making a reservation, be sure to ask about the tax and the loss-damage waiver (LDW) if you want to know what your total rental cost will be.
In the U.S., virtually all rental cars have automatic transmissions. 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 may want to consider obtaining an international driver's license. International visitors should also note that insurance and taxes are generally not 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 gas (petrol) stations, taxes are already included in the printed price. One U.S. gallon equals 3.8 liters or .85 imperial gallons.
In Arizona, a right turn on a red light is permitted after a complete stop. Seat belts are required for the driver and for all passengers. Children 4 and under, or who weigh 40 pounds or less, must be in a child's car seat. General speed limits are 25 to 35 mph in towns and cities, 15 mph in school zones, and 55 to 65 mph on two-lane highways. On rural interstate highways, the speed limit ranges from 65 to 75 mph.
Always be sure to keep your gas tank topped off. In many parts of the state, it's not unusual to drive 60 miles without seeing a gas station. Note: A breakdown in the desert can be more than just an inconvenience -- it can be dangerous. Always carry drinking water with you while driving through the desert, and if you plan to head off on back roads, carry extra water for the car's radiator as well.
Arizona is a big state (the sixth largest), so if your time is short, you may want to consider flying between cities. US Airways (tel. 800/428-4322; www.usairways.com) serves Phoenix, Tucson, Flagstaff, and Yuma. Great Lakes Airlines (tel. 800/554-5111 or 307/433-2899; www.flygreatlakes.com) flies between Page/Lake Powell and Phoenix.
Attention 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.
International visitors can buy a USA Rail Pass, good for 15, 30, or 45 days of unlimited travel on Amtrak (tel. 800/USA-RAIL in the U.S. or Canada; 001/215-856-7953 outside the U.S.; www.amtrak.com). The pass is available online or through many overseas travel agents. See Amtrak's website for the cost of travel within the western, eastern, or northwestern United States. Reservations are generally required and should be made as early as possible. Regional rail passes are also available.
The train is not really a viable way of getting around much of Arizona because there is no north-south Amtrak service between Grand Canyon/Flagstaff and Phoenix or between Tucson and Phoenix. However, Amtrak will sell you a ticket to Phoenix, which includes a shuttle-bus ride from Flagstaff or Tucson. You can also get to the town of Williams, 30 miles west of Flagstaff, on Amtrak, and in Williams transfer to the Grand Canyon Railway excursion train, which runs to Grand Canyon Village at the South Rim of the Grand Canyon. Be aware, however, that the Williams stop is on the outskirts of town; you'll have to arrange in advance to be picked up.
Greyhound (tel. 800/231-2222 in the U.S.; tel. 001/214/849-8100 outside the U.S.; www.greyhound.com) has service to 18 cities across the state. Shuttle bus service between Phoenix, Flagstaff, Williams, and Grand Canyon National Park is available through Arizona Shuttle (tel. 877/226-8060 or 928/226-8060; www.arizonashuttle.com). These shuttles are more useful than Greyhound if you are trying to get around the state without a car.
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.