New York has a bit of a Jekyll-and-Hyde complex when it comes to car travel. You need a car to explore the upper reaches of the state, where driving is generally painless, but a car can be more hindrance than help in New York City, and even on parts of Long Island. Just north of the city in Westchester County can be just as frustrating owing to traffic-choked highways that seem forever plagued by construction projects, and to the complex and confusing network of interstates and parkways enveloping New York City.
Morning and evening rush-hour traffic ranges from ugly to catastrophic on the highways leading in and out of every decent-size city in New York. Also, most bridges and tunnels in and out of New York City charge significant tolls (as high as $6 each way for any of the six major bridge and tunnel crossings between New York City and New Jersey), as do those stretches of New York's interstate system that fall under the auspices of the New York Thruway (Interstate 90 from the New York–Pennsylvania border east to the New York–Massachusetts border, and Interstate 87 from Albany south to New York City). Toll booths in New York State all accept E-ZPass, an automated electronic toll pass used by many residents and frequent travelers; if you don't have the pass, be careful not to pull into one of the E-ZPass-only lanes when you approach a toll.
Despite the congested city areas, the state has quite a few scenic drives, even along certain spans of interstate (notably Interstate 87 north of Albany to the Canadian border and parts of Interstate 90 across the center of the state). The suburbs outside Manhattan are traversed by a series of narrow, twisting, and in many places beautiful parkways, mostly consisting of limited-access roads often bordered by verdant landscaping. (Note that although these parkways often make for pleasant drives, some of the twists and turns can be tricky in snow or rain.) New York also has hundreds of miles of U.S. and state highways that pass through dense forests, open farmland, and pastoral historic hamlets. When time permits, it's worth venturing off the interstate system to behold some of the delightful scenery fringing the state's country roads.
Gas stations are common along major highways and in most communities throughout the state, the exception being New York City, where they can be hard to come by. Try to fill up at stations outside of New York City, where prices can be anywhere from 10¢ to 50¢ less expensive per gallon. At this writing, the average price of a gallon of regular unleaded gas was just under $2 throughout much of New York State; Manhattan and Long Island consistently register the highest prices, whereas western and upstate New York are typically a bit less expensive. Most stations stay open late (24 hours along large highways and in big cities), except in rural areas, where Sunday hours are limited and where you may drive long stretches without a refueling opportunity.
www.NewYorkGasPrices.com provides sample gas prices (within the past 84 hours) at a wide selection of stations throughout the state; you can also search specifically for stations with the lowest gas prices in a particular region.
In most of New York State parking is not a serious problem—this is true even for larger cities, with the exception of New York City, which has arguably the most expensive and hard-to-find parking of any U.S. city. The state's more touristy communities also suffer from limited or expensive visitor parking, including the Hamptons and some of the suburbs in Nassau, Westchester, and Rockland counties.
Choosing the right car-rental strategy depends significantly on whether you intend to spend any time in New York City, which has exorbitant rental rates and myriad driving obstacles, from expensive off-street parking to heavy traffic. It's best to tackle New York City, with its excellent public transportation, without a vehicle and rent a car only to explore the rest of the state.
Rates at New York City airports, as well as at Long Island's Macarthur airport, begin at around $70 a day and $240 a week for an economy car with air-conditioning, automatic transmission, and unlimited mileage; in Manhattan itself, rates begin at around $60 a day but increase to about $325 a week and up. These rates do not include state tax on car rentals, which is 5% in addition to the local sales tax rate. The New York City Yellow Pages list countless local car-rental agencies, some renting secondhand vehicles, in addition to the national chains.
If you're traveling during a holiday period, make sure that a confirmed reservation guarantees you a car; if in doubt, call the local branch of the car-rental agency. Remember to allow plenty of time to return your car—upward of an hour to be safe—especially at airports in the immediate vicinity of New York City.
Also, check out local car-rental companies—whose prices may be lower still, although their service and maintenance may not be as good as those of major rental agencies—and research rates on the Internet. Remember to ask about required deposits, cancellation penalties, and drop-off charges if you're planning to pick up the car in one city and leave it in another.
You can save money and avoid New York City's traffic by taking a bus or train to a suburban station near car-rental agencies, such as Hoboken (in New Jersey), North White Plains, Poughkeepsie, or even Stamford, Connecticut, which borders New York's Westchester County. In North White Plains, for example, expect prices to start at $34 per day and $180 per week. As you travel farther upstate, rates continue to decrease, meaning that if you're spending part of your time in the northern or western parts of the state, it may make sense to fly or take a train or bus to Albany, Rochester, Buffalo, or elsewhere upstate and rent a car once you arrive there. Rates at these destinations usually begin at around $30 per day and $175 per week.
In New York you must be 18 to rent a car. Although rental agencies based in New York are technically required to rent to qualified drivers under 25, hefty surcharges of as much as $115 a day effectively remove this option. Surcharges in New Jersey tend to be lower.
Surcharges may apply if you're under 25 or if you take the car outside the area approved by the rental agency. You'll pay extra for child seats (about $8 a day), which are compulsory for children under five, and usually for additional drivers ($3 a day).
Some states, including New York, have capped the price of the collision- or loss-damage waiver (CDW or LDW), which eliminates your liability for damage to the car. New York State law limits car rental agencies to charging no more than $9–$12 per day, depending upon the value of car. If you're renting a vehicle in New York State for more than 48 hours, you may choose to cancel the LDW coverage within 24 hours of signing the rental agreement. (To do so you must bring the car, which is subject to inspection, to one of the rental company's branches.)
For the most part, driving challenges in New York exist in and around the major cities, due not only to rush-hour traffic conditions but also to the overall attitude of the drivers. New York City, especially Manhattan, seems always to be in a rush-hour frame of mind; you drive against a backdrop of horns, taxi cabs, bike messengers, pedestrians, and endless scenes of interest that compete for your attention. Watch out for aggressive drivers who seem to possess an attitude of entitlement. Other urban areas, though not as extreme as New York City, can be congested at all hours, especially during the morning and evening commutes.
In the event of a driving incident, whether an accident or a medical emergency, make sure to pull off to the side of the road as far away from the flow of traffic as possible, turn on the car's hazard signals, and call 911 to request assistance.
Rules of the Road
On city streets the speed limit is 30 mph unless otherwise posted; on rural roads, the speed limit is 55 mph unless otherwise posted. Interstate speeds range from 50 to 65 mph. Within New York City limits you may not turn right on a red light; you're permitted to do so elsewhere in the state unless signs indicate otherwise. Be alert for one-way streets and "no left turn" intersections. State law requires that front-seat passengers wear seat belts at all times. Children under 16 must wear seat belts in both the front and back seats. Always strap children under age five into approved child-safety seats. It is illegal to use a handheld cell phone while driving in New York State or New Jersey (good to know if you’re renting a car from Newark). Police will immediately seize the car of any DWI (driving while intoxicated, defined as having a blood alcohol count of .08 or higher) offenders in New York. First-time offenders might face a minimum fine of $500, loss of license for six months, and one year in jail.