Driving on Antigua

If you're only on Antigua for a couple of days, you can get around by taxi. You don't have to look for them - they are looking for you. Virtually every private car doubles as a taxi, and if you look like a tourist, the somewhat subdued "Taxi? Taxi?" will become a sound you'll get used to like the ticking of a clock.

(If this annoys you, you'll have to equip some object that makes you look a less likely target. A pager might work, but nothing can top the "Avis" car keys casually dangling from your hands as you walk.)

And while we're at it - never have I seen a taxi equipped with a meter or timing device; the fare you pay is always a matter of negotiation. Be sure to have at least a vague vebal agreement on the fare before you enter, and verify that you're both talking the same currency ("dollar" is not enough!).

Anyone staying for longer (and not planning to spend 90% of his time on the beach of his resort hotel) will require a rental car. Numerous companies exist at and near the airport, as well as at English Harbour in the South and in St. John's. Expect to pay about US$ 800 to 1.000 per month as a "ballpark figure"; you might strike a bargain deal somewhere but this is the average for the simple cars. The price usually includes third-party insurance. The good news is that fuel costs virtually nothing (measured by European standards at least).

If you rent a car, you will require an Antiguan driving license. You can obtain one from the rental agency if you provide a valid license from another country and EC$ 50. Such a license is valid for three months and can be extended twice; after that, you are eligible for a permanent Antiguan license which is issued based on the three temporary licenses you should have accumulated by then.

Car Types

Most cars are white or silver (because of the intensity of the sunlight). Virtually none are equipped with heating, but all have air conditioning. The dominant basic rental car model is a white Toyota Tercel, automatic like most cars on Antigua, in which the air conditioning consumes about half of the available engine power. I'm not kidding! You cannot overtake anybody without switching the A/C off first. The tyres on most rentals tend to lose air, so be sure to perform a daily visual check and top up the air at a filling station if required. If you can afford it, go for a simple 4x4 Jeep as it will open up some roads to you which you wouldn't want to negotiate with a sedan car. (The locals prove that it is possible though.)

Whether a car is registered as a rental, private, business or government vehicle can be seen from the number plate. Rental plates are green and usually start with an "R".

Recommended Behaviour

Being a fromer British colony, Antigua of course has left hand traffic. Thus, most have the steering wheel on the right hand side, but you'll see a relatively high percentage (about 10-20%) of other cars as well. It doesn't really matter much. I have heard rumours that if you enter the American military base on Antigua, you'll have to switch to driving on the right, but I don't know if that is true.

The island-wide speed limit is 40 mph; 20 mph in urban areas. You will find that many people go 50-60, and, especially at night, you will also find many going 10. I believe Antigua doesn't have drink-and-drive laws - you can be drunk as a skunk for all they care as long as you don't cause an accident. That's why some people go very slow sometimes. Antigua doesn't have single track roads, so overtaking should not pose a problem. Unless of course the drunk guy in front of you chooses to drive in the middle of the road for safety reasons...

Traffic lights seem to be considered a recommendation.

Beware of cyclists. Even grown-up Antiguans often use children's bikes and cycle with their heels on the pedals, feet stretched outwards, lifting their knees almost up to the chin, all the while swerving a few metres to the left or right.

The Police

I was once stopped by the police for speeding, on a good road outside St. John's. They explained to me that they used a radar to measure my speed, and asked if I knew how fast I was allowed to go on that road. Slightly bending the truth, I said no. Then they asked how fast I would be allowed on such a road in the country I came from. Truthfully, I said 100 kph. The officer exchanged a puzzled look with his colleague, then asked: "How much is that in miles?" - I answered "about 65", and only then they revealed the readout from their radar device: It showed 55. They told me that the limit is 40 everywhere on Antigua, asked me to respect that and wished me a good onward journey. I have been told by local colleagues that they could easily have fined me a few hundred EC$, so do be careful.

I was also stopped multiple times during routine stop-and-search operations by the police and what sometimes looked like military personnel (yes, they do have an "Antiguan Defence Force"). Of course you're never happy about such an interruption because you usually are going somewhere, but the situation was never unpleasant. Every time, they would immediately explain why they stopped you (mostly they were looking for drugs and weapons - they would just create a checkpoint at a random place and look at everyone who passed), and then two or three of them would inspect your car and bags for a few minutes. They always made a point of doing everything while you were looking (actually asking you to watch them), they were always very polite, and I never felt threatened or harrassed in any way. That's more than I could say about the average U.S. American cop!

This happened about five times during my half-year stay.

The photographs on this page show myself and some colleagues with, near, and on our rental cars.

  Frederik Ramm, 2002-10-23