Like other Sunbelt cities, San Antonio has a relatively compact downtown nucleus, encircled by old neighborhoods and commercial areas, which then give way to wide stretches of suburbia. Most visitors will have an easy time finding their way around the downtown area. For the rest of the city, they need only a general understanding of the freeway system and the locations of the major attractions that lie outside the center of town. The rest can be gleaned upon arrival. North of downtown, and not very far away, are the airport, several museums, and many of the best dining spots. To the southeast are the old Spanish missions. SeaWorld is on the far west side, and Six Flags Fiesta Texas theme park is in the far northwest.
I find that the freeways are laid out in a fairly reasonable pattern, and they're easy to use so long as you have a map. But you can avoid the freeways by using the main avenues and streets that crisscross the area. A map would be absolutely essential for this, and you should be aware that there are a few large, enclosed areas of town occupied by military installations, which you have to drive around. San Antonio and the military have a long relationship. Among members of the Army and Air Force, San Antonio is often referred to as Military City, and it is a favorite location for retired military personnel.
If you're staying in central San Antonio you can get by without a car if you're confining your activity to the amusements of the central city. You can take a bus or a taxi to the museums in north-central San Antonio. A car saves time and taxi fares when you want to stay or travel farther afield to such attractions as the theme parks and shopping districts in the suburbs. In downtown San Antonio, the pattern of one-way streets is a bit confusing and slow going. It's more enjoyable to park your car and walk or take the bus, which is easy to use in the downtown area.
As for highway driving, pay attention. Because of the many convergences of major freeways in the area -- described in the "Main Arteries & Streets" section, below -- you can find yourself in an express lane headed somewhere you really don't want to go. Don't let your mind wander; watch signs carefully, and be prepared to make quick lane changes.
Rush hour lasts from about 7:30 to 9am and 4:30 to 6pm Monday through Friday. The crush may not be bad compared with that of Houston or Dallas, but it's getting worse all the time. Because of San Antonio's rapid growth, you can also expect to find major highway construction or repairs going on somewhere in the city at any given time. For more info, log on to the Texas Department of Transportation's website at www.dot.state.tx.us.
Renting -- San Antonio is a convention town. You need to reserve a rental car ahead of your visit. Nothing really above the usual requirements is necessary. When choosing a rental that fits your budget, don't forget to take taxes into account. In San Antonio, the tax for rentals at the airport is 16%, elsewhere in town 11%.
Here's a quick list of the rental agencies in San Antonio: Advantage (tel. 800/777-5500; www.advantagerentacar.com), Alamo (tel. 800/327-9633; www.alamo.com), Avis (tel. 800/331-1212; www.avis.com), Budget (tel. 800/527-0700; www.budget.com), Dollar (tel. 800/800-4000; www.dollarcar.com), Enterprise (tel. 800/325-8007; www.enterprise.com), Hertz (tel. 800/654-3131; www.hertz.com), National (tel. 800/CAR-RENT [227-7368]; www.nationalcar.com), and Thrifty (tel. 800/367-2277; www.thrifty.com) all have desks at both of the airport terminals. Hertz is also represented downtown at the Marriott Rivercenter at Bowie and Commerce (tel. 210/225-3676).
Almost all the major car-rental companies have their own discount programs. Your rate will often depend on the organizations to which you belong, the dates of travel, and the length of your stay. Some companies give discounts to AAA members, for example, and some have special deals in conjunction with various airlines or telephone companies. Prices are sometimes reduced on weekends (or midweek). Call as far in advance as possible to book a car, and always ask about specials.
The basic insurance coverage offered by most car-rental companies, 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. You will probably be covered in case of theft as well. 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. 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.
The car-rental companies also offer additional liability insurance (if you harm others in an accident), personal accident insurance (if you harm yourself or your passengers), and personal effects insurance (if your luggage is stolen from your car). If you have insurance on your car at home, you are probably covered for most of these "unlikelihoods." If your own insurance doesn't cover rentals, or if you don't have auto insurance, you should consider the additional coverage (keeping in mind that the car-rental companies are liable for certain base amounts).
Check out Breezenet.com, which offers domestic car-rental discounts with some of the most competitive rates around. Also worth visiting are Orbitz, Hotwire.com, 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.
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.
Most rental agencies will give you a small map of San Antonio that's good only for general orientation. For anything more than that, you'll need to get a city map. Both Rand McNally and Gousha's maps of San Antonio are reliable; you'll find one or the other at most gas stations, convenience stores, drugstores, bookstores, and newsstands.
San Antonio lies at the southern edge of the Texas Hill Country and is mostly flat. Streets, especially those in the old parts of town, are jumbled, while a number of the thoroughfares leading in and out of town follow old Spanish trails or 19th-century wagon trails.
Main Arteries & Streets -- Most of the major roads in Texas meet in San Antonio, where they form a rough wheel-and-spoke pattern. There are two loops: I-410 circles around the city, coming to within 6 to 7 miles of downtown in the north and east, and as far out as 10 miles in the west and south; and Hwy. 1604 forms an even larger circle with a 13-mile radius. The spokes of the wheel are formed by highways I-35, I-10, I-37, U.S. 281, U.S. 90, and U.S. 87. Occasionally two or three highways will merge onto the same freeway, which will then carry the various designations. For example, U.S. 90, U.S. 87, and I-10 converge for a while in an east-west direction just south of downtown, while U.S. 281, I-35, and I-37 run together on a north-south route to the east; I-10, I-35, and U.S. 87 bond for a bit going north-south to the west of downtown.
Among the most major of the minor spokes are Broadway, McCullough, San Pedro, and Blanco, all of which lead north from the city center into the most popular shopping and restaurant areas of town. Fredericksburg goes out to the Medical Center from just northwest of downtown. You may hear locals referring to something as being "in the Loop." That doesn't mean it's privy to insider information, but rather, that it lies within the circumference of I-410. True, this covers a pretty large area, but with the spreading of the city north and west, it's come to mean central.
Downtown is bounded by I-37 to the east, I-35 to the north and west, and U.S. 90 (which merges with I-10) to the south. Within this area, Durango, Commerce, Market, and Houston are the important east-west streets. Alamo on the east side and Santa Rosa (which turns into S. Laredo) on the west side are the major north-south streets. Note: A lot of the north-south streets change names midstream (or, I should say, mid-macadam). That's another reason, besides the confusing one-way streets, to consult a map carefully before attempting to steer your way around downtown.
Locating an Address -- Few locals are aware that there's any method to the madness of finding downtown addresses, but in fact, directions are based on the layout of the first Spanish settlements -- back when the San Fernando cathedral was at the center of town. Market Street is the north-south divider, and Flores separates east from west. Thus, South St. Mary's becomes North St. Mary's when it crosses Market, with addresses starting from zero at Market going in both directions. North of downtown, San Pedro is the east-west dividing line, although not every street sign reflects this fact.
There are few clear-cut rules like this in Loop land, but on its northernmost stretch, Loop 410 divides into east and west at Broadway, and at Bandera Road, it splits into Loop 410 north and south. Keep going far enough south, and I-35 marks yet another boundary between east and west. Knowing this will help you a little in locating an address, and explains why, when you go in a circle around town, you'll notice that the directions marked on overhead signs have suddenly completely shifted.
Parking -- San Antonio is one of those rare cities that has plenty of parking, even downtown. Within a few blocks of all sites of interest, you'll find open-air parking lots. Most of these work by the hour and the day. There's usually no attendant. You pay at a kiosk (keep on hand plenty of bills of lower denominations and make sure you put your money into the slot that corresponds to your parking space). Rates run from $5 to $10 per day, though the closer you get to the Alamo and the River Walk, the more expensive they become. Prices tend to go up during special events and summer weekends, so a parking lot that ordinarily charges $6 a day is likely to charge $9 or more. Out in suburbia, all parking is free and usually plentiful.
San Antonio's public transportation system is visitor-friendly and fares are inexpensive. VIA Metropolitan Transit Service offers regular bus service for $1.10, with an additional 15¢ charge for transfers. You'll need exact change. Call tel. 210/362-2020 for transit information, check the website at www.viainfo.net, or stop in one of VIA's many service centers, which you can find by checking the website. The most convenient for visitors is the downtown center, 260 E. Houston St. (tel. 210/475-9008), open Monday to Friday 7am to 6pm, Saturday 9am to 2pm. A helpful bus route is the no. 7, which travels from downtown to the San Antonio Museum of Art, Japanese Tea Garden, San Antonio Zoo, Witte Museum, Brackenridge Park, and the Botanical Garden. It is particularly geared toward tourists. Tip: During large festivals, such as Fiesta and the Texas Folklife Festival, VIA offers many Park & Ride lots that allow you to leave your car and bus it downtown.
In addition to its bus lines, VIA offers four convenient downtown streetcar routes that cover all the most popular tourist stops and run with great frequency. Designed to look like the turn-of-the-20th-century trolleys used in San Antonio until 1933, the streetcars cost the same as buses (exact change required; drivers carry none). The trolleys, which have signs color-coded by route, display their destinations.
If you're planning to spend most of the day exploring downtown and other parts of the city, your best option is to buy a day pass for $4. You can by them at the service centers, such as the one mentioned above.
Cabs are available outside the airport, near the Greyhound and Amtrak terminals (only when a train is due, however), and at most major downtown hotels, but they're next to impossible to hail on the street; most of the time, you'll need to phone for one in advance. The best of the taxi companies in town (and also the largest, as it represents the consolidation of two of the majors) is Yellow-Checker Cab (tel. 210/222-2222), which has an excellent record of turning up when promised. The base charge on a taxi is $2; add $2.15 for each mile (plus a fuel charge if gasoline is over $3 per gallon).
Downtown San Antonio is a treat for walkers, who can walk from one tourist attraction to another or stroll along a beautifully landscaped river. Traffic lights have buttons to push to make sure the lights stay green long enough for pedestrians to cross without putting their lives in peril. Jaywalking is a ticketable offense but is rarely enforced.