A car is a necessity in Arizona, as even bigger cities are challenging to get around in using public transportation. Distances are considerable, but you can make excellent time on long stretches of interstate and other four-lane highways with speed limits of up to 75 mph (even rural two-lane highways often have speed limits of 65 mph). In cities, freeway limits are between 55 mph and 65 mph. If you venture off major thoroughfares, slow down. Many rural roadways have no shoulders; on many twisting and turning mountain roads speed limits dip to 25 mph, and police officers often patrol heavily near entrances to small town centers, where speed limits drop precipitously. For the most part, the scenery you'll take in while driving makes road-tripping worth the time and effort.
At some point you’ll probably pass through one or more of the state's 22 Native American reservations. Roads and other areas within reservation boundaries are under the jurisdiction of reservation police and governed by separate rules and regulations. Observe all signs, and respect Native Americans' privacy. Be careful not to hit any animals, which often wander onto the roads; the fines can be very high.
Note that in Phoenix certain lanes on interstates are restricted to carpools and multioccupant vehicles. Seat belts are required at all times. Tickets can be given for failing to comply. Driving with a blood-alcohol level higher than 0.08 will result in arrest and seizure of your driver's license. Fines are severe. Radar detectors are legal in Arizona, as is driving while talking on handheld phones—but note that texting while driving is illegal in Phoenix and Tucson, and state police do pull drivers over for both talking and texting on mobile phones, citing the state law that you are driving at a "speed not reasonable and prudent." Law enforcement argue that any speed is not reasonable and prudent when you’re using a mobile device, because drivers need to pay full attention to their driving.
Always strap children under age five into approved child-safety seats. In Arizona children must wear seat belts regardless of where they're seated. In Arizona you may turn right at a red light after stopping if there's no oncoming traffic.
Arizona Department of Public Safety. 602/223–2000; www.azdps.gov.
Arizona Department of Transportation. 511; 888/411–7623; www.az511.com.
Gas stations, many of them open 24 hours, are widely available in larger towns and cities and along interstates. However, you'll encounter some mighty lonely and long stretches of highway in certain remote sections of Arizona; in these areas it's not uncommon to travel 50 or 60 miles between service stations. It's prudent to play it safe when exploring the far-flung corners of the state and keep your tank at least half full. Gas prices in Arizona are slightly higher than the national average but generally lower than in neighboring Nevada and California.
Parking is plentiful and either free or very inexpensive in most Arizona towns, even Phoenix and Tucson. During very busy times, however, such as holidays, parking in smaller popular places like Sedona, Flagstaff, Scottsdale, and Bisbee can prove a little challenging.
The highways in Arizona are well maintained, but there are some natural conditions to keep in mind.
Desert heat. Vehicles and passengers should be well equipped for searing summer heat in the low desert. If you're planning to drive through the desert, make sure you’re well stocked with radiator coolant, and carry plenty of water, a good spare tire, a jack, a cell phone, and emergency supplies. If you get stranded, stay with your vehicle and wait for help to arrive.
Dust storms. Dust storms are common on the highways and interstates that traverse the open desert (Interstate 10 statewide, and Interstate 8 between Casa Grande and Yuma). These usually occur from May to mid-September, causing extremely low visibility. They also occur occasionally in northeastern Arizona around the Navajo and Hopi regions. If you're on the highway, pull as far off the road as possible, turn on your headlights to stay visible, and wait for the storm to subside.
Flash floods. Warnings about flash floods shouldn’t be taken lightly. Sudden downpours send torrents of water racing into low-lying areas so dry that they’re unable to absorb such a huge quantity of water quickly. The result can be powerful walls of water suddenly descending upon these low-lying areas, devastating anything in their paths. If you see rain clouds or thunderstorms coming, stay away from dry riverbeds (also called arroyos or washes). If you find yourself in one, get out quickly. If you're with a car in a long gully, leave your car and climb out of the gully. You simply won't be able to outdrive a speeding wave—the idea is to get to higher ground immediately when it rains. Major highways are mostly flood-proof, but some smaller roads dip through washes; most roads that traverse these low-lying areas will have flood warning signs, which should be seriously heeded during rainstorms. Washes filled with water shouldn’t be crossed unless you can see the bottom. By all means, don't camp in these areas at any time, interesting as they may seem.
Fragile desert life. The dry and easily desecrated desert floor takes centuries to overcome human damage. Consequently, it's illegal for four-wheel-drive and all-terrain vehicles and motorcycles to travel off established roadways.
Winter snow and ice. First-timers to Arizona sometimes doubt the intensity and prevalence of icy and snowy winter weather in the state's higher elevations: the Interstate 40 corridor, Grand Canyon region, north-central and northeast Arizona, as well as some high-elevation communities in eastern Arizona. It's not uncommon for Phoenix to enjoy dry weather and temperatures in the 50s and 60s, while Flagstaff—just 140 miles north—is getting heavy snow and high winds. Facilities at the North Rim of the Grand Canyon are closed from mid-October through mid-May, and the road to the North Rim usually closes by or before December 1. Always check on weather conditions before planning trips to northern and eastern Arizona from late fall through mid-spring.
In the event of a roadside emergency, call 911. Depending on the location, either the state police or the county sheriff's department will respond. Call the city or village police department if you encounter trouble within the limits of a municipality. Native American reservations have tribal police headquarters, and rangers assist travelers within U.S. Forest Service boundaries.
Automobile Association. 800/222–4357; www.aaa.com.
Car-rental rates in Phoenix typically begin around $40 a day or $200 a week for an economy car with air-conditioning, automatic transmission, and unlimited mileage—rates vary according to supply and demand, tending to be lower in summer and often dramatically higher in winter. This doesn't include taxes and fees on car rentals, which can range from about 15% to 50%, depending on pickup location. The base tax rate at Sky Harbor Airport is about 30%. When you add the daily fees (which are about $6 or more a day), taxes and fees can add up to almost half the cost of the car rental. Taxes at nonairport locations are typically around 25% or less.
Check the Internet or local papers for discounts and deals. Local rental agencies also frequently offer lower rates.
Most agencies in Arizona won't rent to you if you're under the age of 21, and several major agencies won’t rent to anyone under 25.
In Arizona the car-rental agency's insurance is primary; therefore, the company must pay for damage to third parties up to a preset legal limit, beyond which your own liability insurance kicks in.
Major Rental Agencies
Alamo. 877/222–9075; www.alamo.com.
Avis. 800/633–3469; www.avis.com.
Budget. 800/218–7992; www.budget.com.
Hertz. 800/654–3131; www.hertz.com.
National Car Rental. 877/222–9058; www.nationalcar.com.