Renting a Car in Patagonia
In Patagonia, you have two options for transportation: bus or rental car. Choosing a rental car was a clear choice for us given the amount of travel between destinations we had, and our desire for maximum flexibility. Little did I know that renting a car in Patagonia would turn out to be one of the biggest logistical challenges of our trip. It was an absolute nightmare. But it doesn't have to be. If you need a rental car for your Patagonia Trip, my horror story will be your lesson.
Patagonia encompasses destinations in both Chile and Argentina. If you are traveling throughout the region to the different highlights, it is highly likely you will be crossing the border. The first thing to know about renting a vehicle in Patagonia is that a vehicle permit is required to authorize the vehicle to enter and exit each country. Rental car companies have different rules and costs regarding the permit. Some only allow certain classes of vehicles to have this permit, so the cheapest car rental option might not be allowed to cross the border. This information is not clearly stated when you reserve the vehicle online. We, in fact, made a reservation online and learned only after booking that we could not indeed cross the border with that car or that car rental company entirely. Even in the fine print, we could not find any restrictions on our initial reservation. Only after we inquired about the permit was this issue revealed to us.
You need to request the permit directly from the local rental agency at least seven days prior to arrival to prepare the paperwork. Ultimately, we rented through Avis, but the actual agency in Chile is run by a third-party company called EMS. When you reserve the car through Avis’s main reservation site, ask them to give you contact information for the pick-up location so you can call and email yourself to arrange in advance for the permit. The permit is good for as many border crossings as necessary. Getting this right was particularly important since our driving route included several crossings into and out of Argentina from Chile.
Another fact to be aware of is that rental car employees at small airports like Punta Arenas are only present immediately after planes land. Therefore, make sure that you check in to the counter right away and do not dawdle. We learned this the hard way. When we landed we immediately had to deal with a lost baggage issue. By the time we arrived at the car rental counter, the agents were gone and we subsequently had to wait two hours for the agents to return for the next flight arrival.
Waiting two hours for the rental car
Beware of renting a vehicle from a third-party supplier. For international rentals, stick with making the reservation directly from the rental car company, likely Avis or Europcar. This will ensure that you get accurate information and are dealing with the authorizing agency of your vehicle.
Make sure to read all documentation carefully and bring printed confirmation emails with you! When we arrived, the rental car contract claimed that the permit to cross into Argentina was US$50/day. We provided a copy of an email from their manager stating the permit would cost US$110 for the duration of our trip. They easily made the correction, which brought into question the whole process. That printed out email saved us US$740.
Having a rental car adds to your flexibility but also, influenced our itinerary because it restricted us to start and end at the same location. Dropping off a rental vehicle in a different location causes the price to skyrocket.
Request a diesel vehicle. Diesel is the most economical option in Patagonia, providing the best fuel economy for a low cost. A sedan is an adequate car to navigate the region, but try to talk the agents into giving you an upgrade.
Buying fuel in Patagonia is very easy. Each station has attendants who pump the fuel for you and accept payment. All we had to do was stop, ask them for a full tank of diesel and were on our way! One striking note about this region is the lack of any development between the cities. Nothing but grazing sheep and vast landscapes. Be mindful to fill your tank when you have the opportunity because there are no stand-alone gas stations even along the major routes.
Even with all the frustration and hassle that came along with renting our car in Patagonia, it was definitely worth it. We really enjoyed being able to stop when we wanted along the drives to take in the beautiful views, and to have total flexibility of going where we wanted to when.