A year ago my story An Insider’s Guide to Moving, Living, and Working in Mexico won Transitions Abroad’s Expatriate Writing Contest. Thanks again Transitions Abroad!
I have updated the story (July 2017). It’s now twice as long, with many more details about what it takes to live in Mexico, including:
- Immigration requirements
- Getting a job
- Getting an apartment
- Hooking up internet
- Using cell phones
- Medical care
- Food and drinks
- Dealing with authorities
- Traveling around Mexico
- Learning Spanish
Please click this link to read the article to learn all about living in Mexico as an expat. As always, I greatly appreciate your likes and comments. If you have any questions, I’ll be happy to answer them.
In the long, convoluted history of human progress, there has never been a better time to get a hotel room.
You don’t need to see a travel agent nor carry around a guidebook that’s heavier than a pair of hiking boots. All you need is an internet connection, a little patience, and some travel-planning tactics.
In Mexico, as with anywhere, you basically have two ways to find accommodation, whether it’s a fancy resort, a spacious apartment, a hip guesthouse, a no-frills central hotel, a dirt-cheap hostel, or a space to put up a tent next to the beach.
You can either search and book online before your trip, or you can walk around looking at hotels.
I like both options, and whether I use one or the other mostly depends where I’m going. I usually book online if I’m taking a short trip to only one place, if I know exactly where I want to stay, if I’m traveling at a busy time, or if I’m going to a country that I’ve never visited before and don’t know much about.
When I’m going on a longer trip with several destinations, however, I prefer to find hotels by wandering around and checking them out in person. This is easy in most parts of Mexico, where you can find concentrations of hotels in the center or town or around tourist areas, like the beach. You can save a lot of money this way too.
Or, especially if my flight arrives after dark, I may reserve a hotel online for only the first night or two, and then for the rest of the trip I’ll find hotels on foot whenever I arrive in a new part of the country. This is the best plan for a long backpacking trip—without hotel reservations every day, you can stay longer in places you like and leave the places you don’t.
Below I’ll explain both methods and my strategies for using them. But first…
Regarding package tours
If your idea of a vacation is buying a package that includes the flight, hotel, meals, transportation, and a guide who will accompany you the whole time, then you don’t really need this article. I don’t want to sound like a travel snob who’s sneering at the folks on the tour bus, but I must say that I strongly dislike that style of travel.
Besides the obvious—no freedom to do what you want, no opportunity for unplanned adventures—the main drawback to a package tour is all the waiting: getting on and off the bus, checking into multiple hotels, packing and repacking and packing yet again, and the inevitable lateness of your fellow tourists. Also, when you do the math, it’s usually cheaper to plan everything yourself.
I will say, however, that if you want a package tour to avoid the hassle of researching, navigating and negotiating—if you want that tour guide explaining and translating everything for you, every step of the way—then go for it. Search online and talk to travel agents.
But if you think you’re going to save money, at least compare with the cost of hotels (with the methods from this article) and flights you find online before you commit to the tour. Don’t assume that all-inclusive packages are automatically cheaper, especially because of the current low cost of flights and the abundance of hotels in countries that get a lot of tourists, like Mexico.
1. Booking online
Even if you plan to find hotels by walking around, it’s still a good idea to take a look online first. You can identify which parts of the city have the most options and get an idea of prices.
Google Maps is a good place to start. Type in the name of the city and “hotels” in the search field, for example, “Cancun hotels.” Then the map will zoom in and you’ll see the hotel icons, some with prices.
Google Maps is not a booking site, but it gives price estimates from other booking sites. After you click on the little icon for a hotel, you can put in the dates of your trip and see prices from various websites.
Usually these prices are all similar, but obviously try clicking on the cheapest one. This may be the part of the process you find frustrating, especially if it’s a travel site you’ve never used before. Some don’t include taxes and fees until the very end, when the price may go up by a lot.
While having this price comparison is a clear benefit, the best thing about Google Maps is—surprise—the map. You can see where the hotel is located, which in my opinion is the most important feature of any accommodation.
So it’s a good idea to do a little research into where you’re traveling. In Cancun, for example, when I type “Cancun hotels” into the search field, only the big, expensive hotels in the hotel zone come up. The discount hotels in Cancun, however, are downtown, but when you zoom in on downtown Cancun, no hotels are shown. You have to type in “Cancun hotels downtown” to see all of these cheaper options.
Having an idea of geography is even more necessary for an enormous metropolis like Mexico City. Simply typing in “Mexico City hotels” will give you options all over the place, but you’ll get better alternatives if you choose a specific neighborhood.
In most cities in Mexico, search around the zocalo, or center square, which is not only the center of town surrounded by historic buildings and places of interest for travelers, but usually has plenty of hotels nearby.
Travel booking websites
Like I wrote above, Google Maps is a good place to start, but by no means does it give you a comprehensive listing of hotels. Because it’s not a travel booking site, many hotels will not appear on searches, especially the cheapest. (Actually, the cheapest hotels in Mexico won’t be listed anywhere—the best way to find them is on foot.)
So, unless you find exactly what you’re looking for on Google Maps, also take a look on travel booking websites. I recommend booking.com, although there are countless other options, including expedia.com and tripadvisor.com, two popular ones.
Same as for Google Maps, always have an idea of where you want to stay first. Look at the map and see if the hotel is within walking distance of places you want to visit.
Next, read the reviews, good and bad. You can ignore one bad review, but if many reviews mention the same problem, then you can believe them.
Before you pay you’ll see a page that shows all the different room options. Look at this page carefully, especially for:
- Is breakfast included?
- Is there free parking? (Only if you need it, of course.)
- Is there free wi-fi (some hotels charge now), air-conditioning, a pool? Whatever else you require from a hotel?
- What is the cancellation policy?
This last one is crucial. Many hotels offer free cancellation until the day before you arrive. This is important not only in case your plans unexpectedly change, but also, if you have the time, you can do another quick search for hotels a day or two before your trip to see if something better is available. There may be a big, last-minute discount for a nicer hotel. If so, cancel the first hotel you booked and then book the new one. At least on booking.com and expedia, the refund is instantaneous.
Sometimes you can choose whether you pay online or pay at the hotel. If the price is the same, then it really doesn’t matter what you choose, although paying online saves you an extra step when checking in.
You’ll notice that on many sites, certain hotels have notices like “Hurry up! Only 2 rooms left!” Well, as cynical as I am about all things online, I must say that these announcements are probably true. I’ve observed several times that, when I check back later, the hotel that had the notice is no longer available. So, when you see a decent hotel that you’re not 100% sure about, review the cancellation policy carefully. If it has free cancellation until the day before you arrive, then you can book it without worry.
In general, with reserving both hotels and flights online, when I see something I know is good, I just book it and don’t think about it again. But if you’re not sure, then search several booking sites. Certain hotels will be listed on one site but not the others, and sometimes the prices or the options (breakfast, cancellation policy) are different on different sites.
Whichever site you use, sign up for an account so you can collect points and get access to special discounts. This is optional, however; most sites let you book without having an account.
Other online options
I must also mention airbnb.com, which is quickly becoming more common in Mexico. With airbnb, you look at rental properties like apartments or even whole houses. It’s great for larger groups or if you want a kitchen. You can search airbnb without an account, and the process is similar to other travel sites, except that when you finally make the booking, the owner of the property has to approve you too. So you always need to make an account when you finally want to book a place.
Another option is couchsurfing.com, which I’ve never used and never will. Lots of travelers swear by it, but I’ve heard too many horror stories (creeps creeping into the bedroom at night, creeps insisting on going out drinking together…and worse). Besides, I like privacy and don’t want to be some stranger’s houseguest while I’m traveling. Plus, if you’re on a budget, it’s not hard to find really cheap hotels in Mexico.
There are also many websites specifically for booking hostels. I’ll discuss hostels below, but right here let me mention two things. First of all, dorm beds in many hostels in Mexico, especially those that are popular on booking websites and listed in Lonely Planet, are actually more expensive than a private hotel room. Second, many hostels are not very clean and borderline unsafe. If you want to do the hostel thing, you are much better off visiting it in person.
As you search on booking.com and the others, you’ll see many options for resorts. In fact, for many people, a resort will be their Mexican vacation. They typically include all your meals and drinks, have excellent locations, and have big swimming pools and other fun amenities.
Sure, there are lots of advantages to staying in a resort. If you don’t have the time for a longer trip and just want to relax, then go for it.
There are some downsides, however. Staying in a resort means you’ll be missing out on culture, including authentic Mexican food, which typically isn’t served at resorts that have a lot of international guests. Also, although discounts abound, I’m not sure that resorts are always cheaper than the combined costs of modest (but nice) hotels and eating in restaurants, especially because eating good local food is typically inexpensive as well.
2. Walking around looking at hotels
Some of the cheapest places in Mexico are not on Google Maps or in Lonely Planet or other guidebooks. The only way to find them is to walk around.
This is a good option if you don’t mind wandering around unfamiliar places and possibly getting lost, and it’s an even better option if you’re patient, like to walk, can speak a little Spanish, and are on a budget.
Do not use this method after dark—it’s just not safe. Always get an idea whether the area you plan on walking around is safe or not, but you should know that tourist areas in most parts of Mexico (by the beach, around the zocalo) are perfectly safe in the daytime. It’s a good idea to do a quick check of Google Maps beforehand to get an idea of possible routes and what to expect for prices.
In general, in most Mexican cities, you have two options for areas to explore when looking for hotels: near the bus station or around the zocalo.
In general, getting a hotel near the bus station is not a good idea. While these may be the cheapest in town, they may be unacceptably run down or dirty. Also, bus stations in Mexico are often not in the center of town, so there’s nothing to do or see nearby. But if you just need to find a quick place to crash without spending a lot of money or walking too much, then something cheap is bound to be available near the bus station.
The zocalo, or center square, is the best area to look around in most Mexican cities. The hotels right on the zocalo are usually a little fancier and more expensive, so explore the adjacent streets for further options.
Of course, when going to a beach town, you probably won’t want to stay near the zocalo, but on the beach. To save money, look for small hotels a block or two away.
Simple, family-run hotels may have the prices posted behind the front desk, but if not, you’ll have to ask. If you don’t speak Spanish, have a pen and paper ready for them to write the numbers on.
If you’ll stay for a week or more, try asking for a discount. If they have a kitchen, get them to confirm that you can use it without paying more.
Always ask to see the room before you take it. In all my travels all over Mexico, even when I could barely speak Spanish, I’ve never met anyone who refused to do this.
Examine the bed—too hard, too soft? Peek in the bathroom—moldy, smelly? Try the shower—is there actually hot water? Turn on the fan or air conditioning—is it ridiculously loud?
Some more tips:
Ask if there are bugs in the room. They will always say “no,” but if you see one later, you can probably get your money back because they lied to you and know it.
Never stay in a hotel above a restaurant. You can be sure of cockroaches that way.
Also—and this may be a tough one—try to figure out if there is a popular bar or nightclub nearby. Many times I’ve been surprised by neighborhoods that seemed peaceful but get really loud after dark. You can try asking at the front desk, but if you’re worried, only book the first night.
Among other packing essentials, it’s a good idea to travel with earplugs, not only for noisy hotel rooms but also for noisy buses. Buy them at a pharmacy before your trip—earplugs can be hard to find in Mexico.
Discount hotels in Mexico may not offer towels, soap or shampoo, so pack a small quick-dry towel and whatever else you need. This is almost always true for hostels too.
Regarding guidebooks and hostels
I believe that the Lonely Planet model of a guidebook is outdated, especially the listings of hotels and restaurants. By “Lonely Planet model,” I mean the huge guidebooks with an entry for nearly every city and town in the country, which contains lists upon lists of hotels, restaurants, bars, places of interest, etc.
These guidebooks were certainly useful in the ‘90s and early ‘00s before the ubiquitousness of the internet. Back then I carried well-worn Lonely Planets in several parts of the world, and they were invaluable for getting information for out-of-the-way places. Honestly, they can still be useful for making plans at the last minute, like getting off the bus in a new town, particularly when you don’t speak Spanish.
But with a little planning before your trip, you don’t need the big bulky guidebook, for several reasons.
First of all, when a hotel or hostel gets listed in Lonely Planet or a similar guidebook, it instantly becomes more popular. At least for Mexico, you’re better off finding hotels on your own by walking around the right neighborhood or looking at travel booking sites. In Mexico, a private room in a small hotel is almost always cheaper than a bunk bed in a hostel dorm.
Sure, stay in the hostel if you want to make friends, but if you’re truly on a budget, you’ll save money by avoiding the Lonely Planet listings. Besides, if you’re actually looking for adventure, why stay where all the other backpackers stay?
This is also true for restaurants and nightclubs. The ones in the Lonely Planet may be full of foreigners getting overcharged, while a more local experience can be found by asking the right people a few questions. (Where do people go out dancing around here?)
By staying in small, family-run hotels, I’ve not only saved a lot of money, but I’ve met some interesting people too. I made friends with the owner of a hostel in San Cristobal de las Casas, and now I stay there every time I visit, welcomed like an old friend. The owner of a hotel in Guatemala invited me into her home next door, which was full of odd statuettes and art, each piece with a story. And there’s no better person to get travel advice from than the friendly local working at the front desk.
If you have any more tips for finding hotels in Mexico or elsewhere, please share them in the comments.
Mexico is one of my favorite countries to travel in, and not just because I live here, but because of its incredibly diverse landscapes, friendly people, excellent food, and low prices—especially for those with U.S. dollars, for which the exchange rate is quite good at the moment.
You can plan any type of trip in Mexico: budget backpacking or high luxury, adrenaline or relaxation, culture or nature, a long-term adventure or a quick weekend—the possibilities are endless. Like for anywhere, a little information and preparation will greatly improve your trip, but knowing what to do may not be obvious, especially the first time around.
With this in mind, here are my top tips for first time travelers so you can plan the fun, safe and economical adventure of your dreams in Mexico.
Choose only one city or one region to explore
In Mexico, long distances separate popular travel destinations like the Mayan Riviera, Oaxaca, Mexico City, and Puerto Vallarta. For example, driving from Tijuana to Los Cabos (on the southern tip of Baja California, known to foreigners as “Cabo”) takes at least 20 hours—so how long do you think the bus will take?
Remember, every day you spend traveling between destinations is a day you miss out on enjoying a destination. So, unless you have plenty of time—like more than two weeks—plan to visit only one place or travel around only one region in Mexico.
If you love culture and big, dynamic cities, go to Mexico City with a day trip to a nearby area. If you love nature, go to Chiapas, or rent a car to explore the Huasteca Potosina.
If you love the beach, you have numerous options—Oaxaca for rustic, low-priced adventure and surfing; areas around Cancun for white sand, clear water, Mayan ruins and a unique ecosystem; Los Cabos for partying, fishing and scuba diving; Nayarit, Mazatlan, the list goes on and on.
Reconsider your resort
Staying at an all-inclusive resort is fun—you can hang at the pool all day, meet other travelers, and eat and drink as much as you want. So if you just want to relax, go for it.
But if you are looking for any culture, skip the resort. If you want adventure—exploring on foot or local transportation—skip the resort. And skip the resort if you are on a budget. The price of staying in a smaller, local hotel and eating at authentic, affordable (and amazing) local restaurants will almost always be cheaper.
Avoid high season
To avoid crowds and save money on hotels, try not to travel during Mexico’s high seasons, which are:
- Mid December to Mid January, especially between Christmas and New Year’s
- The week before Easter, called Semana Santa, when everyone has at least a few days off
- Late July and early August, when many Mexicans have a one- or two-week vacation
Long weekends and holidays can get busy too, such as Mexican Independence Day (September 15-16), the Day of the Dead (the first days of November), and all the “days”—Mother’s Day, Children’s Day, etc. These are bad times to be on the highways, especially on the first and last days of the holiday.
Also, particularly during high season and holidays, try not to check into a resort or a big hotel on Friday afternoon and check out on Sunday morning, because the lines may be really long and slow, as everyone is beginning or ending their weekend trip.
If your only opportunity to travel is during high season, however, don’t cancel your trip—just plan on spending a little more money for a hotel, spending a little more time at the airport or getting to a popular tourist destination, and dealing with crowds—but nothing unreasonable.
Don’t be in a hurry
Things can move pretty slowly in Mexico, especially as you travel farther south, where I’ve heard Mexicans from Mexico City complain about slow service, slow walking, slow talking…
Buses may be incredibly indirect, a protest may shut down the highway, the museum you want to visit may be inexplicably closed—you never know what could happen, and you shouldn’t let it ruin your time.
So plan your days with lots of wiggle room. For example, if you think it will take four hours to enjoy the place you want to see, plan for six or more.
Ignore the hustlers
In tourist spots from Cabo to Cancun, hustlers prowl the beaches and promenades offering tours, boat trips, souvenirs, cigars, and meth masquerading as cocaine. They have a specific, time-tested, friendly approach that can be hard to ignore. Yes my friend, whatever you need, they got it.
You only need one word with these people, a firm gracias. Don’t apologize, don’t stop walking, and don’t laugh at their jokes, or you’ll spend your whole trip dodging them. Sure, go ahead and buy from them if you want, but remember that it’s always best to go straight to the source for any activities—the boat dock or park entrance, for instance; souvenirs are always cheaper in markets; and buying drugs is begging to get ripped off.
What’s most important, however, is that these hustlers don’t sour you to the general friendliness of average Mexicans. Just because you’ve had enough of annoying sales pitches doesn’t mean that everyone who tries to make conversation wants to sell you something.
Save your tourist card from immigration
Most tourists are allowed to stay in Mexico for 180 days, which corresponds to about six months. This time is written on a little card that you fill out before going through immigration, which is also stamped. Save it with your passport because you will need to turn it in when you leave the country. Without it you’ll be charged a fine of around 30 USD.
Know how to get out of the airport
The easiest and most expensive way is to go to an authorized taxi stand inside the airport. You pay there and then take the receipt to the driver. The price is determined by where you go, not by how many people use it, so try to find people to share with.
Whatever you do, never simply walk outside the airport and hail a cab—it’s not safe.
If you want to save money—sometimes a lot of money—do some research online to see if a bus goes from the airport to where your hotel is. Most airports in Mexico either have a bus stop outside or a little bus station inside, including Mexico City, Cancun, and San Jose del Cabo. Using a bus means you’ll spend 40 pesos instead of 400.
Get multiple destination flights
If you have the time and are planning a longer adventure in Mexico, fly into one city and fly out of another. For a month-long trip covering the best of the south, you could fly into Cancun and then out of Tuxtla Gutierrez in Chiapas. If you have several weeks and want to explore the colonial cities of Mexico’s central highlands, you could fly into Mexico City and then out of Guadalajara. To travel the entire Baja California Peninsula, fly into Tijuana or Ensenada and out of Los Cabos or La Paz (or vice-versa).
This option is called Multiple Destinations on most travel websites, and it can save you a lot of time and money.
Fly long distances, don’t take the bus
A flight between distant cities is typically cheaper than taking a bus, and of course much faster. Mexico has several independent airlines, like Interjet, Volaris, and Vive Aerobus. Always check their prices before you commit to a long-distance bus.
Look for “alternative” bus stations
If you are really trying to save money, go to the city’s second-class bus station or an independent bus station for the cheapest transportation options. In Mexico City, for example, you can catch cheap buses to Chiapas near the huge Merced market, cheap buses to Oaxaca near the airport, and cheap buses north (Monterrey and points between) about halfway between the zocalo and Garibaldi Plaza.
These buses usually don’t have websites and aren’t listed in Lonely Planet or on Google Maps—you have to ask around for them.
Bring warm clothes and earplugs on the bus
It may be steaming hot when you get on the bus, but once they get going, they tend to crank up the air conditioning and play non-stop movies in Spanish. A jacket and earplugs are crucial.
Rent a car, and rent wisely
You can rent cars for cheap in Mexico, and despite some dangers and nuisances, driving is a great way to see the country. Be aware that the insurance you buy from travel websites is not valid in Mexico. When you get to the counter, the price can double or even triple when they add insurance. You can avoid this by renting directly from car rental company websites and reading all that boring fine print.
Stay in small hotels to save money
On side streets in Mexico City, hidden behind the big international hotels, you can find family-run hotels with decent rooms for as little as 200 or 300 pesos per night (between 10 and 15 USD).
For the same price, you’ll find hotels in Playa del Carmen a block or two from the beach. This goes for nearly anywhere in Mexico—you won’t be right on the beach or on the fanciest street in town, but just around the corner.
You can search Google Maps or booking.com or whichever online travel site you like, which is a good option for your first few nights in the country. But to save big money, you’ll find the cheapest hotels in Mexico by just walking around.
By the way, the hostels listed in Lonely Planet and other guidebooks are not your cheapest option. In most places, you can find a private room in a small hotel for the same price as a bed in a crowded, noisy dorm room in a hostel. Stay in a hostel to meet people, not to save money. (Although in some places it’s possible to find dirty and unsafe hostels that cost less than a tall can of beer.)
If you have a large group, want a kitchen, or will stay somewhere for a long time, take a look at airbnb, which is slowly becoming more popular in Mexico. You don’t need an account to browse the options.
Yes, you can’t drink tap water in Mexico unless you stay at a nice hotel where they specifically tell you it’s ok. In this case, there should be a little sign in the bathroom that says the water is potable. Or there may be a water cooler in the lobby.
The tap water is fine for brushing your teeth, showering, washing vegetables, etc.
Buy large bottles of water
Buying those little bottles of water can add up, so if you will stay in one place for more than a few days, buy a big bottle of water at a convenience store.
You have to pay a deposit for the largest ones (20 liters), so save the receipt so you can return the bottle later.
Don’t obsess over ice
Because of the tap water issue, some travelers have somehow gotten the idea that they have to be constantly vigilant about ice in restaurant drinks. They don’t. Of course restaurants use clean water for drinks—if they didn’t, all the locals would get sick too and the place would go out of business. The idea that Mexicans can drink the water because their bodies are used to it is straight-up wrong.
I cringe when I hear someone asking (usually in English) if the ice was made with filtered water. It’s a pointless question, like asking if the food is good in the restaurant—if it wasn’t, do you think they’d tell you?
If you are really worried, just order your drink with no ice, or ask for a beer.
Don’t stick the whole lime in your beer
Just squeeze the juice into it. And yes, in Mexico they use limes, not lemons.
Beer lovers, buy caguamas
The cheapest way to drink beer in Mexico is a caguama, a big bottle roughly the size of a 40-oz. There’s a deposit on the bottle, so save your receipt so you can return it later.
Yes, Coca-Cola is better in Mexico
Have you heard this before? That Coca-Cola is better in Mexico because they still use cane sugar instead of corn syrup?
I didn’t believe it either until the first time I flew back to the U.S. after my first year of living in Mexico. I rarely drink soda, but I ordered one on the airplane. One sip of the U.S.-produced Coke and I could tell the difference.
Don’t drink from the bottle
Your best Coca-Cola, and of course your best beer, comes from a glass bottle. You’ll notice that the bottle of soda always comes with a straw, and the beer with a glass to pour it into.
I learned this trick in Asia—when you see that the bottle was recycled, take a look under the rim at the top of the neck to see all the dirt that has piled up from multiple recyclings. Because of this nasty residue, don’t drink straight from the bottle unless you wipe it down clean with a napkin first. That’s why your beer or soda will sometimes come with a napkin wrapped around the neck.
Drink fresh juice
It’s cheap and available everywhere, especially juice stands in public markets, where a liter of freshly-squeezed orange juice (or something fancier) usually costs between 20-40 pesos (1.50 to 3 USD).
Avoid touristy restaurants
When you see a fun-looking restaurant full of colorful sombreros and sarapes, Mexican flags, and singing mariachis, but it’s full of foreigners speaking English, don’t eat there. Mexicans tend to think that foreigners don’t like spicy food, so they dumb it down. If a tired basket of nachos sits on every table and the salsa tastes like marinara sauce, then you’re in the wrong place.
But when you see an open space with concrete-block walls, no decorations, and a handwritten cardboard sign with the menu on it, and it’s full of locals, eat there to experience real Mexican food.
Every town has a taco or seafood restaurant that’s known locally as the best. Find it. Ask locals for advice, but not tour guides or taxi drivers, who will recommend their friend’s restaurant. If all else fails, try at the front desk of your hotel, but explain that you want something real. Otherwise you will be directed to a restaurant with the “Americanized” Mexican food they think foreigners like.
Avoid foreign food outside of tourist areas
In places with lots of tourists, you can get good pizza, good steak, good burgers, good sushi, all kinds of stuff.
But once you are off the beaten path, stick to Mexican food. Much like how Mexican food outside of Mexico is altered according to foreign tastes, foreign food in Mexico is altered according to Mexican tastes. This means sushi covered in melted cheese, steaks and burgers cooked beyond well-done, and pizza with barely any tomato sauce. (My theory is that it doesn’t matter to them because Mexicans drench pizza with hot sauce or ketchup anyway.)
Tip 10% at restaurants
Check your bill to make sure it wasn’t already included. Also watch out for overcharging and pay in Mexican pesos, not with another currency or with a credit card.
If you go to the supermarket, give the person who bags your groceries a peso or two. Give five to ten pesos to the guy who fills your tank at the gas station. At the hotel, give 10-20 pesos to the guy who shows you to your room. If you stay in an all-inclusive resort, leave a 50 or 100 at the bar if you drink a lot.
Mexicans don’t tip taxi drivers, but in tourist areas they seem to expect it from foreigners. So if your driver is friendly or helpful, give him an extra 10 or 20 pesos, but if not, don’t worry about it.
Shop and eat in markets
Markets are one of the best places to visit in Mexico, period. You can stock up on fresh fruit and vegetables, browse odd witchcraft supplies, and get some of the best and cheapest local food at small restaurants found in the corner of every market. (Tip: Look for the busiest restaurant and eat there.)
As you wander around, people will constantly call out to you, asking you to buy something. Don’t let them intimidate you, it’s just how they do business. Just like for hustlers, you only need to reply with gracias, which also means “no thank you.”
…but don’t be a cheapskate
I can’t count how many times I’ve visited a market with a world traveler who has social conscience and makes sure you know it. You know this type—some even imply that their mere presence in the foreign country is somehow helping it in some vague way.
Yet I’m always surprised to see these same people haggling with every vendor they see, trying to get a five peso discount. In my opinion, if you really want to do good, don’t bargain with farmers over fruit. They may raise the price a little because of your terrible Spanish, but can you blame them? You have a $500 DSLR camera hanging around your neck! Traveling should never be a competition with strangers to see how little money you can spend.
Sure, it’s necessary to bargain in touristy markets that sell souvenirs, but it’s rarely done for food in markets. If you don’t like the price, thank the vendor and keep looking.
Also, don’t treat markets like a nonstop photo opportunity. You’ll get a better picture if you ask the person first, and you’re more likely to get a yes and a big smile if you buy something before asking.
Pack light, pack right
If you plan on changing destinations a few times, whether by airplane or bus, try to pack as little as possible—carry-on size or small enough to fit between your knees on the bus.
Unless you need it for work or something else important, don’t bring the laptop and all the devices. You’ll not only waste time playing with them, but you’ll worry about them whenever your bag is out of sight, like in the luggage area above or below the bus.
There are some things, however, that you should bring no matter what. You’ll need some warm clothes for high altitudes, late nights, and air-conditioned buses. You’ll need some long pants to blend in away from the beach. (Mexicans don’t wear shorts and flip-flops in the city.) And you’ll need some basics like a raincoat, sunscreen, earplugs (your hotel might be next to a nightclub), and swimming gear, even if you won’t go to the coast, because many hotels have pools.
Check out more detailed packing suggestions here.
Know the exchange rate
A guaranteed way to get overcharged is to have no idea how much pesos are worth in your home currency. Look it up online and make some notes about how much 100, 200, and 500 pesos are worth, and keep the cheat sheet in your pocket.
If you don’t speak Spanish, carry a pen and paper everywhere for people to write prices on for you. Taxis, for instance, don’t have meters, so you must agree on the price beforehand.
Don’t pay in U.S. dollars
This is another good way to get ripped off. When someone says you can pay in U.S. dollars (or some other foreign currency), say no, because the exchange rate they will use will be ridiculous.
Exceptions to this are places with a fixed fee, like nice hotels, some tourist destinations, and even some nightclubs. You can check if using U.S. dollars is the usual way to pay by checking the place’s website.
Another exception to this is Baja California, where you can pay in dollars almost everywhere and the exchange rates are typically good. But be sure to know the rate, of course.
Pay in cash, and get it from an ATM at a bank
Don’t use your debit or credit card to pay at restaurants or bars. (Hotels are probably ok.) If someone steals your number, they can run up lots of charges. Banks usually reimburse you for this, but it’s still a pain in the ass.
Get cash from ATMs, and match the symbols on the back of your card (Cirrus, the Exchange, etc.) to the same symbol on an ATM to minimize fees.
Use ATMs at banks, not private ones on the street that charge higher fees, and always withdraw money in the daytime. Avoid the 15th and last days of every month, when everyone gets paid and the ATM lines can be extraordinarily long.
Also, be sure to inform your bank with a phone call that you will be traveling so they won’t put a hold on your card.
Yes, it’s a bad idea to change money in most airports because of terrible exchange rates, but (for the moment) the rates at the Mexico City airport are surprisingly good, although not inside the baggage claim area. Wait until you clear customs to change money, and as always be sure to know the real rate so you can compare.
Read this for more about managing your money in Mexico.
Carry lots of change
If you’re going to take local buses, shop in a public market, or eat on the street, don’t try to pay with a big bill (200 or 500 pesos), as they probably won’t have change. Save your change every time you buy something so you can use it later.
See a doctor in a pharmacy if you get sick
Most pharmacies have a doctor’s office attached where you can see a doctor for free or really cheap. This is a great option for a bad stomach, insect bites, or any other non-emergency. The doctors typically prescribe lots of medicine, but you only need the crucial ones, like antibiotics.
Go to the dentist
Every office I’ve been to has been fully modern and exceptionally inexpensive (like 10-20 USD for a cleaning).
Don’t flush toilet paper
That little garbage can next to the toilet is for the toilet paper, which you should never flush. Mexican sewage systems can’t handle it. This, like “don’t drink the water,” is true for pretty much everywhere in the developing world.
Don’t get taxis on the street in Mexico City
They aren’t safe. Ask your hotel to call a service for you, or use the metro (subway) system, which will almost definitely go where you want to go.
Keep your eyes on the sidewalk—stepping into an unmarked hole is no fun. Cross the street carefully because pedestrians do not have the right of way in Mexico. For safety’s sake, don’t wander around at night, and even in the daytime, always ask the person at the front desk of the hotel if it’s safe to walk where you want to go. And, wherever you go, don’t walk around with your face in a smartphone or map—it makes you a target for thieves.
Keep your safety on your mind at all times
No, Mexico is not nearly as dangerous as the headlines want you to believe. Most tourist areas are perfectly safe for those who take the right precautions—wallet in the front pocket, head up, no drinks from strangers, the usual advice.
Don’t let your guard down, however. The most important way to stay safe is evade anyone who gives you a bad vibe. People traveling everywhere get into bad situations just because they don’t want to offend a stranger. Your safety is far more important than your pride.
Don’t be discouraged by people who have never visited
Why is it that people who don’t travel so often try to discourage those who do? No, you aren’t asking for trouble just by visiting Mexico, and no, it’s not automatically your fault if you get in trouble. And, yes, go to Mexico—you’ll love it.
Learn a little Spanish
Honestly, this one isn’t even necessary for tourist areas. You’ll find that most hotel and restaurant workers speak English, and after diligently studying Spanish before your trip, you may find yourself frustrated by waiters who answer you in English after hearing your broken Spanish.
But, to be polite, especially off the beaten path, that month or two of light studying will be enormously helpful. At least learn the correct greetings in Spanish and how to ask, “Do you speak English?”
When in Mexico, do as the Mexicans do
The best way to have a great trip while saving money is to travel the way Mexicans do. Most of the tips on this list relate to this basic advice. Stay where Mexicans stay, eat where they eat, and visit the places they like to visit. Greet them, chat with them, get to know them. Take their advice and consider their point of view. You’ll find that, more often than not, they will offer you the same courtesy.
Have a great trip, and please ask anything or leave more tips in the comments.