Unless you’re planning extensive or far-flung explorations outside the major tourist zones, you really don’t need to rent a car during your stay in New Orleans. The town is flat, ultra-picturesque, and made for walking; there are plenty of taxis (including Uber and pedicabs) and decent public transportation. Indeed, a streetcar ride is as much entertainment as a practical means of getting around. Meanwhile, driving and parking in the French Quarter bring grief. Many streets are narrow, potholed, crowded, and one-way. Outside the gridded Quarter, streets angle in logic-defying directions in attempt to align around the curvy Mississippi River. Street parking is minimal and lots are fiendishly expensive (hotel lots can be criminally high). If you're in town for a while or visit often, the parkmobile app is worthwhile. Once you complete the annoying set-up, you can conveniently pay for most street meters via smartphone. That said, this book still recommends a few outlying destinations requiring a car.
You’ll pay a premium to pick up a rental at the airport, but it may be worth the convenience. If you’re stay is lengthy, weigh the difference between renting from a lower-cost, in-town location, and paying transportation costs to and from that cheaper locale.
If you’re visiting from abroad and plan to rent a car in the United States, foreign driver’s licenses are usually recognized, but you should get an international one if your home license is not in English.
All the major car-rental agencies have a presence in New Orleans and as usual, rates vary widely according to company, demand, and when you book your reservation. Plan in advance, and shop around.
To rent a car in the United States, you need a valid driver’s license and a major credit card (and a passport for foreign visitors). Some will accept a debit card with a cash deposit. The minimum age is usually 25, but Enterprise and Budget will rent to younger people for an added surcharge; they may also require proof of ability to pay (such as paycheck stubs and utility bills). It’s a good idea to buy insurance coverage unless you’re certain your own auto or credit card insurance is sufficient.
At press time in New Orleans, the cost of gasoline was about $2.50 a gallon including tax, but we all know how that can fluctuate. Generally, gas costs in New Orleans tends to be at or slightly below the U.S. average. Gas stations are readily available on major streets, but none are located within the French Quarter. Most accept credit or debit cards right at the pump or via prepayment to the clerk (clerks will also accept cash, of course). Change is given inside if your tank fills up before you reach your prepaid amount.
When driving in New Orleans, right turns on a red light are legal except where no right turn on red signs are posted, so keep your eyes open for those. Similarly, many major intersections restrict left turns. Drive past the intersection, make a U-turn at the next allowable place, then double back and turn right (a maneuver sometimes called the “Louisiana left”).
Streetcars run down the center of Canal Street and St. Charles, Carrollton, and Loyola avenues, requiring motorists to cross their paths frequently. Look both ways for streetcars, yield the right of way to them, and allow ample time to complete track crossings. They’ll brake between stops if you’re in their way, of course, but it’s best not to get stuck on the tracks and impede their progress.
It is illegal to have an open container of alcohol, including “go cups,” in a moving car, and, of course, driving while under the influence of alcohol is a serious offense.
Keep doors locked and never leave belongings, packages, or gadgets (GPS, iPods, and the like) visible in parked cars.
Taxis are plentiful in New Orleans, and except during the busiest times (looking at you, Mardi Gras and Jazz Fest) they can be hailed easily on the street in the French Quarter and in some parts of the Central Business District. They also usually line up at taxi stands at larger hotels. Otherwise, call and expect a cab to appear in about 15 minutes; much longer during peak times, events, and in residential areas. The rate is $3.50 when you enter the taxi and $2.40 per mile thereafter. During special events, the rate is $5 per person (or the meter rate if it’s greater) to the event site. From the French Quarter to an uptown restaurant or club, expect to spend $15 to $25; cash or credit cards accepted. The fee for transfers between hotels is $10 no matter how short the ride.
The cab behemoth is United Cabs (www.unitedcabs.com; [tel] 504/524-9606). Nawlins Cab (a family breakaway from United) operates by smartphone app (www.nawlinscab.com; [tel] 504/522-9059) as does Carriage Cab, the slightly upscale sister to Checker and Yellow Cabs (www.neworleanscarriagecab.com; [tel] 504/207-7777). You can also hire a taxi for a few hours or day at negotiable hourly rates (usually in the mid-$30/hour rate), a hassle-free way to tour far-flung areas of the city.
Uber (available only by app) began operating in New Orleans in 2015. The usual concerns apply about this much-debated ride-sharing service. So far it gets mixed reports—with the major complaint being that there simply aren’t enough drivers. That should change with time. Expect the fare to be slightly less than standard taxis till the surge prices kick in. Uber cannot pick up at the airport. Lyft is not a presence (yet).
We can’t stress this enough: Walking is by far the best way to see New Orleans (besides, you need to walk off all those calories!). You’ll miss the many unique and sometimes glorious sights if you whiz past them. Slow down, stroll, and take it in. If it’s just too hot, humid, or rainy, there’s always a cab or bus nearby.
One of the best ways to see the city is by bike. The terrain is flat, the breeze feels good, there are new bike paths and improved driver awareness, and you can cover ground pretty swiftly on two wheels. But the busy streets can be bumpy and potholed, so experience and comfort with city riding is helpful. Bicycle Michael’s, 622 Frenchmen St. (www.bicyclemichaels.com; [tel] 504/945-9505), is the oldest shop and still has good-quality, multigear hybrids and mountain bikes starting at $25 for a half-day (4 hr.), $35 a day. At the other end of the French Quarter, American Bicycle Rentals, 325 Burgundy St. (www.bikerentalneworleans.com; [tel] 504/324-8257), has super-sturdy, well-maintained, cushy-seated single-speed bikes with coaster brakes for $10 an hour, $25 for a half-day, $40 full day. If you’re staying uptown, Mike the Bike Guy can hook you up, starting at $30 per day (4411 Magazine St.; www.mikethebikeguy.com; [tel] 504/899-1344). Rates cited above usually include a lock; some include a helmet too. All offer longer-term rentals.
Relatively new to the city, these rickshaw-like tricycles will get two people from A to B via pedal power (a driver’s, not yours). They’re easy to hail in the French Quarter and occasionally seen in other tourist parts, or you can call to request one—try Bike Taxi Unlimited ([tel] 504/891-3441) or NOLA Pedicabs ([tel] 504/274-1300). Rates are $5 for the first 5 blocks, $1 per block per person after that. It’s a great option for fatigued feet or short hops; longer jaunts can add up fast so ask for the rate when you board.
The Canal Street/Algiers Ferry is one of the city’s great assets, not just for transportation to the old Algiers Point neighborhood, but to get a view of the city from the Mississippi River. It’s a working ferry, but it’s more than that at night, when the city’s glowing skyline reflects on the water. The 25-minute ride from the foot of Canal Street costs $2 each way. The ferry leaves New Orleans every 30 minutes Monday to Friday from 6:15am to 9:45pm, Saturday 11am to 8pm, and Sunday 11am to 6pm. Check for schedule changes on holidays and during events. Pedestrians and bikes only, no cars. (1 Canal St., across the tracks and up the big stairs; www.nolaferries.com; [tel] 504/309-9789).
By City Bus
New Orleans has a good public bus system that many locals rely on, so chances are there’s a bus that runs exactly where you want to go. The fare is $1.25; transfers are an extra 25 cents. You must have exact change in bills or coins, or you can use a JazzyPass). For route information, contact the RTA (www.norta.com; [tel] 504/248-3900) or pick up one of the excellent city maps at the Visitor Information Center, 529 St. Ann St., in the French Quarter.
Besides being a National Historic Landmark, the St. Charles Avenue streetcar is also a convenient, scenic, and fun way to get from downtown to Uptown and back. The iconic green cars click and clack for 6 1/2 miles 24 hours a day at frequent intervals and get crowded at school and business rush hours. Board at Canal and Carondelet streets (directly across Canal from Bourbon St. in the French Quarter) or anywhere along the line.
The tracks wind beyond the point where St. Charles Avenue bends into Carrollton Avenue, ending at Palmer Park (Claiborne Avenue). The original cars run on the St. Charles line, so it’s not air-conditioned or wheelchair accessible (and it’s a big step up). All other lines have A/C and lifts.
The Riverfront streetcar line runs the length of the French Quarter, from the Old Mint at Esplanade past the Convention Center to the Pontchartrain Expressway, with stops along the way. It runs daily 5:30am to 11:30pm, and is a great foot saver as you explore the riverfront. The spiffy, bright-red cars on the Canal Street line service two destinations. Check the sign on the front of the car: “Cemeteries” goes to several of the older cemeteries and runs daily 5am to 3am; “City Park” goes through Mid-City, to City Park/the New Orleans Museum of Art and Jazz Fest (expect jammed streetcars during Jazz Fest). The City Park route runs between 7am and 1:15am.
The Loyola line runs along Loyola Street, connecting the Union Passenger Terminal (and Amtrak and Greyhound passengers) with the Canal Street line, and continues to the French Market on weekends (Sat–Sun 6:30am–9:30pm).
The fare for any streetcar line is $1.25 each way. Add 25 cents to transfer to or from a city bus. All streetcars take exact change in bills or coins only, or JazzyPasses.
Discounted Rides with the JazzyPass
If you don’t have a car in New Orleans, invest in a JazzyPass, which allows unlimited rides on all streetcar and bus lines. It’s a bargain and a convenience at $3 for 1 day; $9 for 3 days; $15 for 5 days. Single-day passes can be purchased when boarding. Get multiday passes at vending machines at the streetcar stops at Canal and Bourbon streets, or Canal and N. Peters streets. You can order them online, but you'll need to allow a week for the physical card to be mailed to you. More info at Regional Transit Authority (RTA; www.norta.com; [tel] 504/248-3900).
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.