There really isn’t much need in renting a car in Hong Kong. The public transit is good, and taxis are cheap and plentiful. If you are looking for something a bit classier, you can even get a car service to drive you basically all over the island and into nearby Shenzhen China if you want.
But sometimes you might want to drive just for the sake of driving–to bring back a little of that automotive-induced freedom that you had in the USA. Just head out for the weekend listening to some American guitar rock and getting away from the chaos of living in one of the most crowded places on Earth.
Good luck with that.
You’re driving in a city with roads laid down by the British (i.e. redefining stupidity in urban planning) with fellow drivers who, to put it lightly, haven’t been driving all that long, and then having to rent a car from an ‘American’ company run by a bunch of Germans.
First things first: what’s in your passport, and what is in your wallet? If you are a visitor to Hong Kong, you can rent a car on your US drivers license relatively easily. However, if you are a resident, in possession of a Hong Kong ID card, you’re going to need a Hong Kong drivers license.
Renting a car has two familiar options, Hertz and Avis. But while the name and logo looks familiar, under the surface things are quite a bit different from renting in the USA. The forms are different, the concept of “collision damage waiver” non-existant, and the process far more complicated than the rather seamless operation you’ll encounter at even the smallest airport in the USA.
You’ll be asked for a very large deposit, something like $15,000-$60,000HKD ($2,000-$8,000 USD), that will be placed on your credit card at the time of rental. Be sure to tell your credit card company there might be a “hold” like this placed or you won’t even get out the door. There also isn’t really the concept of a “Collision Damage Waiver”–paying a little extra each day to cover the potential for scratches, nicks, and bumps. Instead they have a deductible of about $2,000USD that you are on the hook for right off the bat.
This means when you get your car, and when you return it, give it a thorough review. Looks for scratches, door dings, and other imperfections from the previous renter. Also check the rims as they often get scratched up by folks who are still learning how to park. Unfortunately, given the size of the average parking space in Hong Kong, the chances of you getting a scratch or door ding is actually pretty high.
That’s an interesting point–there aren’t that many places to park on the island. Street parking is comical–essentially non-existant in many of the areas you want to visit, and parking garages, while they do exist, can be expensive and a bit of a maze. If I had to guesstimate, I’d say the average parking space gives you about 6-10 inches on either side of your car to fit in. That means no wildly throwing open the door when you arrive (something you might need to tell the kids about) as chances are you’ll be parking next to some wildly overpriced imported car.
It also means you have to figure out what to do with the car overnight. You can park it in your building, if you have a space, but most of the street parking doesn’t allow overnight parking, or if it does, requires you to be up and moved by 7:00am. Before we found a spot in my building, our rental cars would go back down to Central and stay the night in the IFC building or near the United Centre, where we found overnight spots for a flat “night” rate of about $70HKD. Most places take Octopus (and only Octopus) for parking so before you do a weekend rental you might want to top up your card with a few hundred dollars. You should also put a hundred or so in coins in your car for tolls, especially if you’ll be using the tunnels.
The choice of cars is generally pretty good, with a number of recent model Japanese imports such as Toyota and Honda. There are minivans available that fit upto 7, but if you are thinking of renting one and moving a couch or a bed you’d probably be better off renting a cargo van (the Hiace). If you really are out to impress someone, you can rent some higher end Mercedes and BMWs and the like, but for the price it’s probably easier to just hire a limo / car service for your business meeting / hot date.
Roads in Hong Kong were initially laid down by the British, which means, in short, it’s pretty stupid. They are narrow, poorly marked, and likely to change to one way or two way at the drop of a hat. They also drive on the wrong side, which really isn’t as much of a problem once you get used to it, but you might find yourself thinking a bit backwards when it comes to “going around the block” (a maneuver that is necessitated by dropping off people and picking them up). In the US you have this mental idea of ‘right-right-right’ and I’m back here again. But with the drivers on the wrong side it’s a left-left-left. Often times you can mis-plan things while heading down the road only to get to the end and find there is no way to cross over given the lines.
On the island, there are several routes in which you can get trapped–you’ll have to drive an additional 10-20 blocks just to turn around given the lack of turn lanes and one way streets. While trying to goto Sheung Wan one day I finally found a place to turn around in Kennedy Town. Yea, it can be like that.
One other point, lines. Lane discipline is strictly enforced, not just by the police but by the “rules of the road”. You’ll often see cars stopped on a road waiting to change lanes, despite open roads ahead, because at the point they are stopping it is the ‘last chance’ to change lanes without violating a solid line. While lane discipline and lines exist in the US and most people follow the rules, in big cities it’s a bit more lax than it is here.
Once you do get off the island, it’s probably a good idea to have some idea of where you are going. If you want to head up to Sai Kung for example, take a look at the map and the Google street view of some of the major turns you’ll encounter. Often times the roundabouts and other exits are not marked as well as you might hope, and you’ll be coming on these at a good clip and need to decide “yes/no” in a hurry.
If you do manage to get off the island, don’t forget that many places are a bit restricted for cars. Lantau is basically a no go, and some of the country parks will close off roads on the weekends for hikers. For example Monkey hill in Kowloon is a great day drive during the week, but during the weekend it gets nuts with the tourists illegally feeding the wild monkeys and them jumping all over the road. Probably better just to stay in the parking lot inside than attempt a drive down that path.
Eventually you’ll return the car and go through a bit of an inspection. If they see something they’ll flag it at the return and then call you in a day or so with an (overpriced) estimate for the repair. You’ll then hail a cab that smells like whatever the driver ate for lunch and head back home, remembering you once had a car in this city but are now back in taxi/bus/MTR hell.