Car Rental Houston
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Why rent a car in Houston?
The fourth-most populous city in the United States, Houston is an oft-visited city for both business travelers and tourists alike. It is a massive, sprawling city spanning many square kilometers. From a tourists point of view, most attractions are located near the downtown area. However, some lie in outer areas, such as the Space Center Houston.
The city is built for the car. Almost all residents use a car to get around and travelers will find a car is the best way to reach their destinations too. Though traffic and parking can at times be a hassle, a car is almost essential.
Of course, Houston is but one small part of Texas (even if it is its most-populous city). Most visitors will want to, and should, venture out of the city for either day trips or an epic road trip. Traveling to the Gulf Coast is certainly worthwhile, but venutring along the empty roads of West Texas is something that makes for a trip of a lifetime. Of course, the only way to do any of this is to rent a car.
Top ways to enter Houston
George Bush Intercontinental Airport (IAH) is the larger of the two major airports serving Houston and its main international gateway. The airport is located around 20 miles (12km) north of Downtown Houston with transit times varying greatly with traffic. The airport has direct access to the Hardy Toll Road, though it is also possible to take I-60 to avoid paying a toll. Renters can pick up their reserved cars at the Rental Car Center which itself can be reached in five minutes via a shuttle from all of the terminals.
William P. Hobby Airport (HOU) was formerly the main airport of the city. With the completion of IAH, it became a secondary airport. It does, however, host flights to and from most large cities in the U.S. Its main airline is Southwest. The airport is much closer to Houston’s downtown and is also a convenient entry point for those planning to travel south to Galveston. Rental car desks are located in the Baggage Claim area of the airport’s single terminal. The location where you’d pick up and drop off the car on the airport’s grounds depends on tour choice of supplier.
The only Amtrak route that passes through Houston is the Sunset Limited. The Amtrak station in Houston is just north of Downtown. A bus also takes passengers from Longview, which the Texas Eagle stops in, to Houston. Those arriving via an Amtrak train or bus can pick up a rental car from suppliers that have locations in and around Downtown.
Finally, it is generally allowed to bring rental cars from surrounding states to Texas. Of the states bordering Texas, Louisiana is closest to Houston. The city can be reached in four hours from Baton Rouge and five hours from New Orleans along I-10 via Beaumont. From New Mexico and states further west, a long drive along I-10 through West Texas is necessary to reach Houston. If coming from Oklahoma, you should take I-35 to Dallas and the I-40 on to Houston.
Useful city facts
Let’s be frank about, Houston in the summer is hot, unbearably hot. In addition to the heat normal for its location in the American South, the city’s proximity to the Gulf of Mexico and southeasterly winds makes for high humidity which makes the already high temperatures feel sweltering. The city averages more than 100 days a year in which the temperatures reach at least 90°F. Luckily, on the flip side, Houston winters are very mild. The city experiences a good amount of rain throughout the year and due to its flat landscape, tens to experience flooding.
Houston’s location near the Gulf of Mexico also makes it vulnerable to hurricanes, though Galveston takes the brunt of them. Hurricane season lasts from mid-summer through fall. Most recently, Hurricane Ike in 2008 damaged the city including breaking windows of the tallest building, the JP-Morgan Chase Tower. If traveling to the area, particularly the coast, during hurricane season, be sure to keep abreast of forecast and be prepared to evacuate if the order is given.
Houston was founded by the Allen brothers who purchased the land at the confluence of White Oak and Buffalo Bayou in 1836 and named after Sam Houston who would become the first President of the Republic of Texas. The brothers would start promoting settlement of their town while the Republic of Texas was promoting colonization of the state. The city would temporarily become the capital in 1842. Railroads would be built to the city to carry cotton and other goods to the port of Galveston. Later, the U.S. government would deepen the bayou so that Houston could serve as a port. Finally, oil would be found nearby and Houston would grow as an oil industry city. In the 1970s with the oil crisis and expansion of air conditioning, many companies would move their corporate offices to the city to take advantage of its lower wages leading to a sort of reverse of the Great Migration. Since then, the city has continued to grow with more and more people moving to it from other areas of the country.
Despite being one of the most populous cities in the country, very few television shows and movies have been set in Houston. Movies based on space travel, like Apollo 13 and Armageddon, being the notable exception. Many movies, however, have been filmed in Houston thanks to the city’s tax breaks. Examples include Crazy Heart and Tree of Life. One of the few television shows to be set in the city was Reba, originally airing from 2001 to 2007.
Sports fans won’t be disappointed in Houston as the city has a team in every major sports league except the National Hockey League. In addition, the city has four Division 1 collegiate sports programs that play within it. This means that visitors can attend a sporting event at pretty much any time of the year.
The Houston Astros of Major League Baseball was formed in 1962 and recently won their first World Series in 2017 (being the only team in Texas to have won the World Series). The team current home is Minute Maid Park located downtown. Their former home, the Astrodome, still stands but is unable to be visited due to safety concerns.
The city has had two teams in the National Football League. The Houston Oilers played in the city until 1996 when it left for Nashville due to not being able to secure funding for a new stadium. An expansion team, the Houston Texans, replaced the team in 2002. The Texans host their home games at NRG Stadium which stands next to the old Astrodome. It is the only stadium with both a retractable roof and natural grass (an engineering feat, or sure).
The Houston Rockets of the National Basketball League have been in the city since 1971. They currently host home games at the Toyota Center in Downtown Houston. The team won two championships in the 1990s with Hakeem Olajuwon and Clyde Drexler as stars. It currently rivals the Golden State Warriors in the Western Conference with James Harden, the league’s current MVP, and Chris Paul its current stars.
Lest one think Houston is only about sports, the city is also home to three major universities and many other smaller institutions. These include the private Rice University and the public University of Houston and Texas Southern University. The wooded campus of Rice University is particularly worth a visit.
Top destinations and activities
- Space Center Houston - Houston is perhaps most famous as the location of NASA’s Johnson Space Center, the agency’s Manned Spacecraft Center where in addition to training and research, Mission Control is located. The official visitor center is leading science learning center that has more than a million visitors every year. The center has many things to see and do, all included in the single admission price.
The NASA tram tour takes visitors on a tour of the Johnson Space Center including Rocket Park with a restored Saturn V rocket. Independence Plaza contains a replica of the now decommissioned Space Shuttle. The Starship Gallery leads visitors through the history of the space program including actual Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo capsules along with the opportunity to touch a moon rock. Mission Mars, the International Space Station Gallery and the Astronaut Gallery and Space Center Theater round out the exhibits and activities.
- Houston Zoo - The zoo is located southeast of Downtown. It is the second most visited zoo in the country after the San Diego Zoo. Of the different exhibits, the Africa Forest is the most popular being home to zebra, gazelle, rhinoceros, giraffes, ostriches, and the Western Lowland gorilla. The zoo also has an elephant habitat, an aquarium, and three main bird exhibits. The zoo has and supports may wildlife conservations program both in Texas and across the world. Your visit helps support saving wildlife.
- Downtown Aquarium - The aquarium is one of the most popular attractions in Houston for both locals and tourists alike. Located on the northside of downtown next to I-45, the aquarium is easy to reach from anywhere in the city and has a paid parking lot directly behind the building. Attractions include the Louisiana Swamp, shipwreck, Rainforest, Shrunken Temple, and Gulf of Mexico. The aquarium also has a few rides that require separate payment as does the stingray reef where visitors can feed and touch the stingrays.
- Theater District - Near the aquarium is a 17-block section of Downtown that is known as the Theater District. The city and district is home to resident companies of all of the major performing arts disciplines: opera, orchestra, theater, musical theater, and ballet. Alley Theatre, Jones Hall (home of the Houston Symphony Orchestra) and Wortham Theater Center are all within a block of each other. Not much further away is the Hobby Center for the Performing Arts (home to the Theater Under the Stars production company). Bayou Place home to restaurants, bars, live music venues, and multiple movie theaters is also in the district.
- Museum District - Located just a few miles southeast of downtown, the Museum District is a group of 19 museums that collectively see almost 9 million visitors a year. 11 of these museums offer free admission. Many of the others offer free admission for some part of the day on Thursdays, though visitors may want to avoid these times due to the associated crowds. The highlights of the district are the Houston Museum of Natural Science and the Museum of Fine Arts. Hermann Park is also located in the district and is certainly worth strolling through.
- Galleria - The largest mall in Texas, Galleria is the best destination in the city for shopaholics. It is located in Uptown (which as a neighborhood is actually just called Galleria by Houstonians), west of Downtown near the interchange of I-69 and I-610. The mall has many high-end designer stores, including Gucci, Saks Fifth Avenue, Tiffany & CO., Valentino, and Louis Vitton. There is also both fine dining options and chain restaurants and fast food. The mal even has an aquarium and year-round ice skating rink. The mall has multiple free parking garages, Express Parking which requires a small payment, and valet parking.
- Buffalo Bayou Park - Located along the Buffalo Bayou west of Downtown, the park is a green area perfect for walking or cycling alongside the bayou(a bayou is a slow moving river, essentially). Bicycle rental is available in the park. The park has great views of the downtown city skyline. The highlight of the park, though, is the Waugh Drive Bridge. A colony of bats live underneath it and every evening at sunset they emerge in mass, quite a sight to see. The best view of this phenomenon is, of course, from the bridge itself.
Traffic and parking tips
Given that Houston is a sprawling city home to millions of people, it should be expected that traffic is nightmarish at times. Going into Downtown on weekday mornings or out of it in the evening expect long delays. Downtown is not the only place that sees heavy traffic, though. Traffic jams can be run into throughout the entire area, in particular around Galleria. Be particularly careful to leave enough time when returning to the airport.
One peculiarity of driving in Houston is the presence of frontage roads along the freeways (termed feeders by Houstonians). Roads run parallel to both sides of the freeways and every so often there are entrances and exits to the actual freeway.
Parking can be equally difficult in many places in the city. Do not expect to find free parking in Downtown. On-street parking is available for a maximum of three hours. Payment can be made via cash or credit cards at meters or via the pay-by-phone systems. Prices vary by location. Parking is free after 6pm Monday-Saturday and all day on Sundays. Parking garages and lots can also be found downtown and in other dense parts of the city. Most attractions have their own parking garages, though usually they charge for the use of these.
Most hotels in or in the vicinity of the downtown areas charge a daily fee for parking. Hotels further away may not charge for parking, particularly those located along the major highways.
Houston, along with other cities in Texas, has a toll road system that can be quite confusing not just for travelers visiting the city, but for local themselves. The area has quite a few toll roads including the Sam Houston Tollway (the second loop around the city), the Hardy Toll Road (which includes a spur to George Bush Intercontinental Airport), the Westpark Tollway,
The situation with rental cars and tolls in Texas is unfortunately different than in other states. If it is not possible to pay the toll in cash at a toll booth , it is not possible to make a payment on your own in any way if driving a rental car. The Sam Houston and Hardy Tollways are the only toll roads that accept cash. In most cases, rental car companies provide a system for tolls that includes a daily fee for each day of the rental period after a toll is incurred. This means that no fee would be charged if no toll road is taken.
Of course, it is almost always possible to get where you want to go avoiding the toll roads all together.
Drivers that opt out of the rental car companies systems become responsible not only for any tolls payable but also administrative fees from the toll company and high from the rental company. In this case tolls are tracked by a pay-by plate system. So if the system does not include a daily fee for every day, but a fee for every day after a toll road is taken, it is best for the driver to NOT decline it.
In addition to normal toll roads, the Houston area also has a system of express lanes, called High Occupancy Toll (HOT), that can be used by drivers in High Occupancy Vehicles (which sometimes means two or more people and sometimes three or more) for free and drivers of single-occupancy vehicles for a fee. Payment must be made with an ExTag for these lanes, so if you do not have one from your rental provider and are not have others in the vehicle with you, avoid these lanes.
If planning to travel on Texas 99 (the Grand Parkway), an outer ring toll road, make sure your rental provider has a TollTag for the car. Pay-by-plate is not possible on this road, nor is cash payment, and the fines for using it without a proper tag are very high.
Ideas for a day-trip
- Sam Houston National Forest - One of four national forests located in Texas, Sam Houston National Forest is about 50 miles north of Houston, less than an hour’s drive. In the forest, one can find white-tailed deer, eastern gray squirrels, quail, doves, woodpeckers, and, in winter, bald eagles. The most popular activity in the forest is enjoying one of its many hiking trails, of which the 128-mile long Lone Star Hiking Trail is the most well-known. Camping, fishing, hunting, and boating are all also possible.
- Galveston - Approximately a 45-minute drive southeast of Houston, Galveston is a city and island on the coast of the Gulf of Mexico. The island is at the same time popular with Houstonians and a major port of call for cruise ships. The most popular reason for visiting is the beaches, of course. Like many beach towns, there is also a pier, Pleasure Pier, that offers rides, food, and other activities.
- New Braunfels - Located just northeast of San Antonio, New Braunfels is a three-hour drive from Houston. The town was originally settled by German immigrants in the 1840s. As such, the Gruene Historic District is full of old buildings and steeped in history from the time. Another major attraction is the Comal River, the shortest river in the world. It is popular to rent tubes and spend a relaxing day floating down the 2.5 mile river. Finally, the town is home to Schlitterbahn Waterpark, a great place to get some much needed relief from the scorching sun of Texas.
- Brenham - Roughly halfway between Houston and Austin, Brenham is about an hour’s drive northwest of Houston along US 290. Brenham is the hometown of Blue Bell Creameries whose ice cream can be found in grocery stores across the country. The creamery welcomes visitors with an Ice Cream Parlor where they can grab a scoop of ice cream, an Observation Deck from which they can see the ice cream being made, and the Visitor Center which details the store of the company.
Not far from Brenham is the place “Where Texas Became Texas,” Washington on the Brazos. This is the historic site at which the independence of Texas from Mexico was declared on March 2, 1836. In addition to events that are held year-round, the state park has the Star of the Republic Museum, Independence Hall, and the Barrington Living History Farm all of which detail the lives of the 59 delegates who made the declaration.
- Enchanted Rock State Natural Area - Located in Hill Country in Central Texas, Enchanted Rock is a granite mountain that rises above its surroundings. The state park is more than the rock, however. Visitors can go caving, hike on one of its many trails, rock climb, or have a picnic. Backcountry camping is also possible. Venturing further into Hill Country, visit Fredericksburg, a town founded by German settlers. You could also stop by Llano, the “Deer Capital of Texas” on the way to the natural area.
- Jefferson - Though a small city with a population of around 2,000 people, Jefferson is a popular tourist destination. It is just two and a half hours east of Dallas. Though it can be visited as a day trip, it may be worth staying overnight in one of the many bed and breakfasts in the city. Jefferson has many popular attractions. A bustling city in the 19th century due to steamboat traffic, Jefferson saw a decline with the rise of railroads. Instead of being abandoned, though, the city was preserved in its 18th-century form. It now has beautifully maintained streets and buildings which leads to its popularity.
- Tyler - An East Texas city named after the tenth president of the United States, Tyler is known as the Rose Capital of America. The prime tourist attraction is, unsurprisingly, the largest rose garden in the country. The garden hosts the annual Texas Rose Festival every October. A great zoo and science center can also be found in the town. Tyler is just a one-and-a-half-hour drive southeast of Dallas along I-20.
- Glen Rose - Just 75 miles from Downtown Dallas and even closer to Fort Worth, Glen Rose is a great place to visit to experience natural history. The Fossil Rim Wildlife Center and Dinosaur Valley State Park are both just outside Glen Rose. The first offer more the 20 miles of hiking trails where several dinosaur footprints can be seen. The later is a wildlife center. Dinosaur World is also worth visiting with kids with opportunities to pan for fossils and see animatronic dinosaurs.
Most popular rental types and cars
The most popular class of rental car in Houston is the economy of which the Kia Rio is a great example. Given Hoston’s popularity among those traveling with families and the opportunity it provides for long road trips, Intermediate and Fullsize cars are also very popular. The Chevrolet Cruze is a good example of the intermediate class and the Chevrolet Malibu is a good example of the full-size class.
- Padre Island National Seashore - Located on the Gulf of Mexico about a four-hour drive south of Houston, Padre Island is a great place to escape the chaos of the crowded city. The seashore is the longest stretch of undeveloped barrier island in the world. It is possible to drive to the northern section of the island and to most of the rest of the island with a four-wheel drive vehicle, though there is a waterway separating it from South Padre Island. The primary thing to do is enjoy the wild, empty Gulf beaches. Travelers can camp in the park at either one of two campgrounds or along almost any part of the beach. Be aware that there are no amenities in the park and the closest place where firewood, gas, ect. can be purchased is 12 miles from the entrance of the park.
- Brownsville - The southernmost city in Texas is a five-hour drive from Houston. Tough the city used to be popular as a gateway to Matamoros, few these days venture to cross the Gateway International Bridge into Mexico due to the security situation. If you decide to take the risk, do NOT venture outside of the green zone just across the bridge. Most rental providers do not allow their cars to be taken to Mexico, so you would have to walk across the bridge. The other popular reason for visiting the city is still very popular and that is to travel to South Padre Island, just 30 minutes away.
- Big Bend National Park - In the southwestern part of the state, and a nine-hour drive from Dallas, Big Bend National Park is one of the most remote national parks in the country. It is, therefore, one of the least visited. This is unfortunate, though, as the park offers excellent hiking and biking trails. The park is the most popular between mid-November and the beginning of January and late March (when students have spring break). Due to extremely high temperatures, travel during the summer is not recommended and the hours of some of the facilities is reduced. Though the park is far away from everywhere, the drive to it is half the adventure. Getting lost on the desert and mountain trails in unspoiled and lonely nature is the other half.
- Dallas - Dallas is the third-largest city on its own, but the Dallas-Fort Worth Metroplex is the largest metro area in the state and fourth-largest in the country. Dallas is known for its upscale hotels and fine dining, but it also offers some tourist attractions, the most notable of which are Dealey Plazza, the site where President John F. Kennedy was murdered, and the Sixth-Floor Museum which covers the murder; JFK Memorial Plaza; and the Dallas Museum of Art, a world-class art museum.
If traveling in the area between the end of September and the middle of October, do not miss the State Fair of Texas (September 27 - October 20 in 2019). Texas’s state fair is a conglomeration of quintessential “texasness.” Even if you are going to miss the State Fair, it is still worth visiting the Fair Park and seeing the historic architecture.
- Fort Worth - At the other end of the DFW Metroplex, Fort Worth was once a completely separate city and the “Gateway to the West.” Fort Worth’s history is much closer to the stereotypical Texan cowboy culture than Dallas’ as it was a center for the cattle trade. The downtown area with its old buildings has many restaurants and bars and is popular both during the day and night. The nearby city of Grapevine is also worth a visit for its historic downtown and its wineries.
- Denton - Just north of Dallas and Fort Worth, Denton is home to the University of North Texas and is, therefore, a college town. The city has a burgeoning music scene with many live concerts and multiple music festivals. It is also home to the North Texas State Fair and Rodeo. The historic town square is a good place to find unique shops. The university has a planetarium whose shoes could be of interest to the traveler. Finally, the town is the closest to the Texas Motor Speedway, though the speedway is technically a part of Fort Worth. The race track hosts races throughout the year including NASCAR and IndyCar races.
- San Antonio - More than 35 million people visit San Antonio every year. The city is known for the Alamo, famous for its role in the Texan Revolution and the soldiers who, though surely outnumbered, defended it from the Mexican Army. The Battle of the Alamo would become a turning point in the war. Many are of course underwhelmed at the site having expected the physical size to match the size of its historical importance.
San Antonio is not just the Alamo, though. The city is also known for the Riverwalk, a pedestrian area below street level along the San Antonio River. The Riverwalk is packed full of bars, restaurants, and hotels. Boats are available to get around the area. No trip to Texas should leave out San Antonio.
- Austin - The capital of the state of Texas is often said to feel as if it is not located in the state. Austin is home to the University of Texas and its more than 50,000 students. The are is also packed with tech startups and known for its musical and food scenes. In fact, the city is often known as the Live Music Capital of the World. The typical landmarks, museums, and such that come with a state capital can also be found. Located on the way between the Dallas-Forth Worth area and San Antonio, a stop in “weird” Austin is certainly worth the while.
- Louisiana - The capital of tourism in Louisiana (but not the capital of the state) is New Orleans, which is a five-hour drive from Houston. On the way there, though, visitors must pass through Acadian, or Cajun country. This is where the bayous, alligators, and unique cuisine can be found. Of course, a visit to the French Quarter, Garden District and further to the outlying areas of New Orleans should not be missed.
- Arkansas - Located northeast of Texas, Arkansas is not normally high on tourists’ destination lists. Aside from the historic sites of Little Rock and the Crystal Bridges art museum in Bentonville, the primary draw of Arkansas is its natural and it is thus known as the ”Natural State.” In the northern part of the state, the Ozark Mountains can be found. Hot Springs is unsurprisingly named for the hot springs that surround it. Various state parks offer camping and other recreational activities. If you want to get outdoors and experience a piece of nature, Arkansas is a great destination for you.
- Memphis - Of course, if already in Arkansas, it would take only a few more hours to drive to Memphis. Time permitting (and if allowed by your rental supplier), this certainly should be done. Memphis is one of the most famous cities in the world when it comes to music. Memphis is one of the cities along the Mississippi River where the blues originated, the unique version of it termed Memphis Blues. Historic Beale Street was the epicenter for the development of this sound. The street is now the most popular tourist attraction of the city, with numerous bars and clubs with live music every night of the week.
Venturing outside of downtown, Sun Studio is where many famous songs and albums were recorded, including Elvis’ and Johnny Cash’s first recordings. It is now open for tours and parking can be found behind the building. Completing the musical tour of the city, head to the southern part to Graceland, the legendary home of Elvis Presley.
Aside from music, the city is also known for the historic part it played in the civil rights movement and its cuisine. The city was, unfortunately, the location where Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in 1968. The Lorraine Motel, where he was fatally shot, now serves as the National Civil Rights Museum.
As for food, Memphis is known for its unique style of barbecue which is slow-cooked pork, usually, the ribs and shoulders that can either be made using a dry rub or brushed with sauce. The World Championship Barbecue Cooking Contest takes place in the city every May.
Top 7 Cities near Houston
Dallas Car Rentals from $53.39 per day361.8 km / 224.8 miles away
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Corpus Christi Car Rentals from $63.03 per day324.5 km / 201.6 miles away
Lubbock Car Rentals from $63.03 per day735.7 km / 457.1 miles away
Killeen Car Rentals from $63.03 per day266.2 km / 165.4 miles away
Laredo Car Rentals from $63.03 per day485.0 km / 301.4 miles away
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