Despite plenty of bus links and several cab companies, we couldn’t imagine a Florida holiday without hiring a car. It’s true, it can be done without a car, but you’re sacrificing a lot without probably even realising it if you’re not driving in Florida.
The first objective we hear to driving in Florida, or the states altogether for that matter, is fear. Yes, they drive on the other side of the wrong, yes the motorway lanes are huge, and the cars are even bigger, but trust us when we say the thought of all of those things is so much worse than the reality.
We hope you’re reading this post having already made your mind up about using a car, and just want some practical advice. However, if you’re still unsure, hopefully this knowledge will help you feel more comfortable and inclined to take the plunge.
Choosing Your Hire Car
Depending on your car hire company, you’ll get a choice of several cars that fall within a certain category. Every experience of this will be different, but we’ve actually always found the companies to be quite flexible. We’ve booked what’s been described as a Nissan Micra online, but been told to take a pick from any car on a certain side of the forecourt when we arrived, and this has happened more than once.
Don’t get us wrong, you’re not going to pay for a Micra and drive away in a Mustang, but you may just find a couple of better cars up for grabs. Our preference is a cross-over sized car, and a Nissan Qashqai had been our car of choice on our last few Florida trips.
Imagine a large motorway, with large lanes, much larger than the UK. In anything smaller than a cross-over it would be easy to feel swallowed up in the flow of traffic, particularly when you see the sheer size of some American cars. It’s much more comfortable and better for your visibility to drive something a little higher, without feeling like you’re driving a monster truck.
Driving on the Right Hand Side of the Road
It all starts when you climb in to the left hand side of the car, and your passenger is on your right, there’s a bit of a ‘wow, this is weird’ moment – so get to grips with that first.
When you hit the road, you will be surprised at how quickly you adapt to the opposite side. It’s difficult to go wrong when everybody else is doing the same thing, and driving on the right doesn’t take long to become the norm. Turning right is a strange experience, as you don’t have to pass any lanes or traffic, and suddenly the left turns become the annoying ones where you’re waiting longer than you would like.
The absolute strangest part of driving in Florida is entering motorways to the left and exiting to the right. The exiting always feels pretty easy, but trying to join to the left takes some getting used to. The good news is that it’s still technically the ‘slow’ lane, and Americans can normally spot a tourist a mile off and tend to give a wide birth where they can.
In a nutshell, once you’ve got over the first shock to the system that is the wrong side of the car and the opposite side of the road, you adapt pretty quickly – follow the flow of traffic and you should avoid taking any wrong turns.
Turning Right on a Red Light
In Florida it is legal to, and in fact you’re expected to turn right on a red light unless there’s specifically a sign saying otherwise. As always, you will just need to be diligent, as there is oncoming traffic from the left going the same direction.
It’s an easy one to forget when you first start driving in Florida, but don’t worry about that, the locals won’t let you forget. Patience is a virtue that those waiting at a red light don’t seem to have, and you have a few seconds before you get a polite reminder horn to go through the light and turn right.
It actually makes perfect sense, and it’s great for traffic flow. We’ve often wondered how easily it could be adapted in the UK, because it’s very likely to also have a positive impact on congestion.
How to Use Tolls in Florida
Toll roads are far more common in the USA than here in the UK, and you’ll do well to avoid them if you’re going on a lengthy journey. There’s actually a toll road on the way from Orlando International Airport to the I-Drive/Universal Studios area, so you’ll become familiar fairly quickly.
They’re pretty straight forward in Florida. You’ll see signs warning you that a toll road is coming up and to get in lane, and this is the important part. There are lanes for cars that have prepaid chips and those that are paying in cash, and you have to exit pretty quickly onto the toll road and get in lane. The last thing you want is to be 4 lanes away from where you need to be, so be sure to keep an eye out for the road signs as the toll road is coming up as they will tell you which lane to get in.
After you have passed the booth, the traffic funnels with very little order and no road markings, but thankfully it’s usually only a handful of cars at a time, so relatively easy to navigate, but it’s something to be aware of. Also note that most tolls do not give change and so you must have exact cash.
Florida Tolls: Is it Worth Getting a Sun Pass?
Sun Passes, or similar, are a prepaid option for toll roads. Nearly every car hire company will try to up-sell this to you. Do not accept a Sun Pass unless you plan on doing an awful lot of driving. Tolls range from 50c to $2 in Florida, and unless you’re driving a long way everyday, you will never use as much in cash as you will pay for a Sun Pass (despite what the Agent tells you). We recommend changing a $20 into coins on the day of arrival and paying as you go.
Florida Driving Laws & The Police
As with anywhere in the world, stay within the speed limit and be sensible and safe, and there should be no issues or run-ins with the police.
Little confession of ours. The first time we arrived in Florida and got behind the wheel, we must have looked like a drunk driver as we got pulled over just 10 minutes after leaving the airport. The Police Officer was very friendly, understood we were tourists, gave us some instructions and let us be on our way. I’d like to say it would always be this way, but just remember to keep your whits about you and don’t give the police any reason to issue any tickets.
An important law to be aware of when driving in Florida is that when you’re in the lane next to the hard shoulder, if there’s a police car in the hard shoulder, you must move in to the next lane. In other words, you need to give a police car, or a broken down vehicle, plenty of space and move out of the nearby lane. Failure to do so is breaking the law.
The Price of Fuel in Florida
If you’re from the UK, you’re going to be very pleasantly surprised by the price of fuel (gas) in Florida. We won’t quote exact prices per gallon, as obviously it can fluctuate, but we’ll use our experience as an example.
On 3 separate trips to Florida, driving a cross-over sized car, we never paid more than $25 to fill the tank. We drive around 800-1,000 miles every time we visit, and we only have to fill the car twice for a grand total of $50. It’s very, very cheap, and this should be factored into the argument of whether it’s cheaper to hire a car or pay for cabs.
When using a gas station, you pull up at your spot and you go inside to pay for your gas before you pump it. You won’t be able to go over, so if you pay $20, the pump will stop at $20. If you use less than what you’ve paid, you will get a refund.
You’re Ready to Go
That concludes our guide to driving and car hire in Florida. Of course, this is a brief overview of the roads and rules in Florida, and there’s more to it. We’ve highlighted some of the quickest, easiest and most convenient points.
We recommend that you do more research into the rules of the road in Florida so that you feel comfortable enough to get behind the wheel by the time you arrive.