Should you rent a car in Denver? The mile high city sits dramatically beneath the imposing peaks of the Rocky Mountains and is Gateway to some amazing skiing country, not to mention the numerous other outdoor pursuits that can be enjoyed around the year. Does that make this a pretty obvious place to get a rental car, or can you get around without one?
Do I need a car in Denver? Introduction
Why rent a car in Denver?
When and where should you rent a car in Denver?
Why not? Visiting Denver without a car
A few reasons why you shouldn’t rent a car in Denver – or why you might get by without a car for a few days!
Visiting the Denver Area without a car
Should you rent a car in Denver? – Specific questions
Is it worth renting a car in Denver just for part of my stay?
Not really – Colorado really is a state that celebrates the great outdoors, so the chances are that even if you want to use Denver as a base, you are going to want to be visiting a lot of places which are well outside of the city.
Denver has invested heavily in light rail in recent years, and in 2016, a fast rail link was finally opened out to the airport. All this will be perfectly fine for getting into, and then around the city, but other than some half decent bus links to nearby towns like Boulder, which has a massive student population anyway, rail and bus services really are very few and far between once you get out of the Denver metropolitan area.
Even if you want to spend a day or two in downtown Denver, there are plenty of hotels around the edge of the city which will provide free parking, and then if you don’t want to drive into town, you can still use transit for that.
Is it worth renting a car in Denver even for backpackers, students and other travellers who are on an extremely tight budget?
Yes, it probably will be. Getting a rental car can always be a problem for younger drivers, but as long as at least one member of your group meets the criteria to be able to hire a car, then it really is the best option. You need really do need to hire a car in Denver to explore the amazing landscapes that Colorado has to offer.
Given the relatively limited number of bus services which operate into the Rocky Mountains, you really should rent a car in Denver, whatever your budget.
Do you have an Amtrak pass?
The big exception to the above might be that if you are already travelling around the USA using Amtrak, then the rail journey through the Rockies is a really amazing trip to experience anyway. However, you are still going to want to see something beyond the tracks.
For this, it might be worth getting off at Glenwood Springs and then taking advantage of the numerous shuttle buses which can connect you through to Aspen. Once you are in Aspen, you should have access to year-round resort facilities, including hiking and mountain biking in the summer. However, as a budget traveller, you might still find yourself constrained by the price of resort hotels. If you have a rental car you’ve obviously got a lot more flexibility to shop around the region for hotels, and this is why it is probably still worth getting one anyway, even if your budget is tight.
Rockies by bus
If you really don’t feel it’s worth it to rent a car in Denver for any reason (or you simply can’t), then you can at least get a bit deeper into the Rockies by bus, using the Colorado state “Bustang” service. This will get you as far as Glenwood Springs in the west (see trains, above), or down to Colorado Springs. However, the buses to Glenwood Springs only operate twice per day, with services operating so close together, it really is more like just a daily service.
You can also reach Glenwood Springs, and other locations south of Denver by Greyhound – but again, scheduled are sporadic.
Do I need a car in Denver if I am planning on staying downtown?
Yes, you probably still will! If you only ever stick to the city, then you’ll be missing out on everything the Rockies have to offer, and if you try to travel around the Rockies using only bus and coach services, you’ll still be heavily limited.
Of course, the big exception to this is the Amtrak service through the Rockies, which departs from the very central Union Station – now the centre of an impressive mixed use urban district.
There are also various transfer and shuttle services if you are trying to get to resorts like Aspen or Vail. However, if your aim is to stay in the city but then to go out anywhere scenic and then come back within the same day, the only way you’ll have this kind of flexibility will be to get a rental car.
Even if you prefer to stay in one place, rather than to do a “road trip”, then there are so many possible driving loops into various different parts of the Rocky Mountains that you really should rent a car in Denver if you possibly can.
I usually try to avoid driving if I can – so should I hire a car in Denver?
Probably, yes! Carornocar has rated 300 cities around the world from places like Hong Kong or Singapore at the “no car” end of the scale, through to cities like Phoenix and Tampa which we would basically define as “absolute car”. In other words, although these cities do have local public transit services, anybody who has the choice or the ability to get a rental car when on vacation there will almost certainly do so.
We rate Denver as being just below “absolute car”, largely because even if the state of Colorado is very car oriented, it also offers some of the most amazing railway trips that you will find anywhere in the world. Even without riding Amtrak to take this California Zephyr service, you can still get to major destinations in Colorado by bus, although scheduled are very limited.
I am a train enthusiast – do I still need to hire a car in Denver?
Yes, absolutely! In the case of two of the three most impressive tourist/heritage railway lines, you need to rent a car in Denver to get to the start point.
You may be able to cross the Rocky Mountains by train in comfort with a wonderful window seat view, but this train trip really isn’t suitable for any kind of local journeys, because it only operates once each day. Even if you are thinking about taking the train to Glenwood Springs and back to enjoy the best section of the Rocky Mountain rail journey (the highlight being Glenwood Canyon, just before Glenwood Springs), you will still have to spend at least one night there, as the west and east bound trains pass each other on the other side of that canyon.
You could look at hiring a car in Glenwood Springs instead of Denver, but this is unlikely to be very good value due to the much more limited choice here.
If you want to combine rail trips with driving, you really should rent a car in Denver (or at the airport) first, travel around Colorado, and then drop it off at Union station before continuing onwards by train.
I am mainly interested in architecture and urban/cultural attractions – should I still hire a car in Denver?
Probably! I think it is reasonably fair to say that Denver has relatively few buildings of substantial architectural merit, other than the airport, which you will see anyway, assuming that you fly here.
You can reach everything in central Denver without a car, since there is a good standard of transit within the city, and this has improved dramatically in recent years.
Whatever buildings you may be interested in, the architectural setting of Denver is all about the landscape of the Rockies behind. This is most pronounced in the hugely impressive tent structures of Denver Airport, but you can also appreciate the city centre from many different parks and other such vantage points.
Even if you aren’t the skiing or hiking type, you can’t really appreciate this city without also enjoying these landscapes – at the very least, you should rent a car in Denver for one day, look at a simple driving loop which brings you back into the city for dusk.
How many people would we need in the car before a rental becomes better value than using transit?
Probably just one! Unless you really are just looking for shuttle transfers between Denver airport and wherever you are staying, you will almost certainly find that it’s worth renting a car in Denver anyway, even if you are a solo traveller. The major exception here would be anyone who is already travelling on Amtrak or Greyhound pass (see above).
Certainly for two friends travelling together, for a couple or any kind of family travelling together, getting a rental car is likely to be so much more convenient anyway. You might not even consider adding up the costs of public transit (and the inevitable taxis) for a group of 3 or more, as it’s almost certainly not worth it.
We are senior citizens, should we rent a car in Denver?
Yes, there are no particular reasons why older drivers and senior citizens would want to avoid getting a rental car in Denver.
Colorado has an extensive network of highways around the urban areas, whereas major highways through the Rockies like into to Interstate 70 have regular rest stops. In some places, you can stop for services and local information at facilities promoted by the local visitors’ bureau. This might make for a nicer rest stop than using franchised service areas.
Make sure you have plenty of fuel and also drinking water if you are driving on some of the more remote roads in the Rocky Mountains, as they can sometimes run for tens of miles without any kind of junction, and they often don’t pass anywhere near even small towns.
The most relaxed way to experience the Rockies may be from the window of a train, but spending a day or perhaps two travelling this way isn’t really a substitute for getting a rental car for the rest of your stay, but trains and buses are infrequent.
Do I need a rental car if I am flying into Denver airport but staying in another destination outside Denver?
Not necessarily, if you are visiting one of the popular ski resorts, where regular transfers are available year round.
There are also various airport commuter shuttles to places such as Fort Collins and Colorado Springs.
However, you will probably still need a rental car to get around your destination city, unless you are just staying in resort, where local buses are usually available (especially in Aspen).
If I’m planning on touring around, is this best done in a rental car?
Yes, there really aren’t many other options! Travelling from place to place is always going to be a challenge using nothing but public transport, other than the exception is already listed above.
Although Colorado offers some amazing driving roads, this is challenging terrain for cycling, in terms of both the physical effort needed and the general lack of provision of safe cycling routes. (See cycling section)
Should we try to visit Denver without a car because that’s better for the environment?
There are a lot of very good environmental reasons for walking, cycling and using transit instead of driving, at least where these options are available, and usable.
In Colorado, it’s very hard to make this argument. If you’ve come this far, then you will want to see the Rockies, and unless you can plan around the limited bus routes, it could be a wasted trip.
The environmental argument is much stronger when you have a well used electric train as an alternative to an urban car journey in a diesel or petrol car. This isn’t the case in Colorado, as only the local light rail services use electrified lines.
The Rockies are not really geared up for touring cycling, but you can hire mountain bikes in several resorts during the summer – for example in Aspen or Vail.
The bottom line is that Colorado isn’t Switzerland, and Denver isn’t Zurich. We can never say “yes, you really should rent a car in Denver because it will be better for the environment”, but the alternatives here are really not that good.
Should I hire car in Denver to start a road trip?
Absolutely! Denver is one of the best places in the world from which to start a road trip, not just because it provides such easy and direct access to the Rocky Mountains, but also because it’s only natural to continue onwards from here through to iconic locations such as Monument Valley and then the Grand Canyon.
Looking to the north, there are various loops which will take you through Yellowstone National Park and then possibly on to Devils Tower in Wyoming and then Mount Rushmore.
Depending on which other places you might have in mind, it’s always worth looking at combinations of flight and car rental options to other western cities such as Salt Lake City, Las Vegas or Phoenix.
Arriving from Europe/Asia
If you are looking at flying into Denver from Europe or Asia, then you may find a wider choice of flights to Las Vegas, or alternatively it might be better to fly to Los Angeles or San Francisco and then start your Great American West road trip from there.
Should I rent a car in Denver and return it somewhere else?
Advice on One Way Rentals from Denver
Generally, we don’t think this is a good idea. The problem with a one way rental is that you can expect to pay a huge amount in surcharges for doing this.
Denver in particular is a substantial distance away from the next nearest major city, and you would almost certainly be returning your can in another state.
Many rental companies will let you drop your car off in another location in the same city without extra charge. It might be worth renting a car at Denver Airport, and then returning it to Union Station to continue your journey by bus or train. Although that is technically a one way city, it’s still the same urban area.
You may also find a deal where you rent a car in Denver and then return it to Colorado Springs or vice-versa. This could work out if you can get cheaper flights that way.
In a state like California, you can escape one way rental charges by using a hire company which will allow you, for example, to pick up a car in Los Angeles, and then return it to San Francisco without extra fees. Other than Colorado Springs (which is nearer to places like Pikes Peak), you don’t really have this option here.
Should I rent an RV / camper in Denver, instead of a car?
Yes, Denver is an obvious place to start a road trip using an RV / camper, since there are very few cities between here and the Great Salt Lake.
Are we saying you should rent a car in Denver just because that’s what we say on every page?
Not at all! AS we said above, Denver is one of the most “car” oriented destinations of any of the 300 featured on this site. It makes no difference to us whether you book a rental car or not, the advice is free to read. We hope the advice is useful, and that you enjoy your trip to Colorado, however you get around.