Car Hire: Vehicle Choice
A guide to choosing the right rental vehicle in Tobago
A substantial percentage of Tobago’s car rental fleet are actually "roll-on-roll-off" two to three year old vehicles shipped from Japan, Korea or Singapore, where legislation insists that vehicles beyond a certain age must be destroyed or disposed of. Vehicles of far-eastern manufacture therefore totally dominate both the rental and private motoring scene.
Choice of vehicle varies from compact saloons, such as little Kia Prides, through eight-seater Toyota Liteaces. Be warned, however, that most rental fleets are very small and most agencies will have only one or two examples of all but the most popular vehicles. If you want any of the larger or more luxurious vehicles, early booking is vital. You must also be prepared to accept an alternative if the vehicle breaks down (a common occurrence with many/most agencies).
The most popular rental vehicles on Tobago are undoubtedly open-top Suzuki 4x4s and many visitors consider them great fun. I am sorry to show prejudice, but these glorified hairdryers may be adequate for shuttle-service around Crown Point but are totally unsuited to serious travel. Touring Tobago can be immense joy - in the right vehicle!
Apart from cramped accommodation and poor ride quality (much improved on recent models, in fairness) open-top 4x4s have other disadvantages. Security can be a major issue. They are the easiest vehicles in the world to break into. Leaving valuables in the vehicle while you visit a remote beach is an open invitation to theft. On the other hand, carrying your valuables to the beach poses equal risk and limits your ability to swim as a group. Locking valuables in a securely locked conventional boot (trunk) is by far the best solution.
Most, but not all, agencies provide baby/child seats on request, normally at an additional cost of about US$5 per day. It is important to book these well in advance because few agencies have more than one or two child seats. The quality of the seats also varies considerably and be prepared to accept that they may not be up to the standard that you would accept at home.
In Europe and North America, we take it for granted that rentals will be only a few months old. The average age on Tobago, taken across all agencies, is probably well in excess of five years (and this does not take into account the age before shipping). Even the largest agencies with the newest fleets admit to an average age of around two years - almost vintage by some standards.
With less than 150 miles of road, vehicles don't run up huge mileage on Tobago. However, there is a deficit of good servicing facilities and a trip to a franchised dealer invariably means a ferry trip to Trinidad. Consequently, smaller agencies apply extended service intervals or simple don't bother.
In summary: Take a budget car or 4x4; allow a multitude of inexperienced and uncaring drivers to hammer the gearbox over potholed roads for a few years; throw in the occasional service by small workshops of dubious standard; you now have the average Tobago rental vehicle.
Guesthouse owners who say that it is normal for rentals to be changed two or three times a holiday are being truthful, but this is not a good advertisement for Tobago. Why waste valuable holiday time waiting for a replacement vehicle? Worse still, imagine breaking down while touring the isolated northern coast or crossing the rainforest. Public telephones are non-existent and even after making contact with the rental company it could take a couple of hours for them to get to you - assuming you can describe where you’ve actually broken down.
The very best advice I can offer is to bite the bullet and only hire from the most established sources. Car rental is not cheap, but cutting corners can so easily ruin your holiday.