Vacations are not always perfect despite having an itinerary. Things don’t always go as planned. That’s life. I have made many mistakes while traveling. I have had to modify my plans on the spot. Other times I have regretted doing a few things because nobody had told me not to do them. I want you to have a smooth experience. That’s why I came up with a list of tips for traveling in Mexico.
Whenever I travel, I always do some little research to get as much info as I can about my next destination. I try to look for the dos and don’ts from people who live or who have at least been there. First-hand experiences are a valuable tool for all travelers. This way you can always compare all recommendations on hand and make a well-informed decision. There are things that don’t appear on your typical travel guide. It is always a good idea to ask locals for recommendations, especially if you want to have a more “authentic” experience. There is nothing wrong with following travel guides. In fact, you should try to get as much info as you can from as many sources as possible. The more info you can get, the better.
Should I Pay in Dollars or Get Local Currency?
The Mexican peso (MXN) is the local currency. The exchange rate varies over time, but in the last months it has been somewhat steady. As of October 2019, 1 dollar is equivalent to 18-19 pesos. There are places named casas de cambio where you can exchange your dollars for pesos. Banks and several stores like HEB or Elektra also offer this service. At all costs, avoid exchanging dollars at the airport. Airports have the worst exchange rates. I think this applies to airports not only in Mexico but all over the world. Only go for it if you have no other option.
You can pay in dollars at most places with no problem, particularly along the USA-Mexico border or in touristy places like Cancun and Los Cabos. As a matter of fact, you will probably see prices displayed in USD at many locations in Cancun, but this is just for your reference. You can pay in pesos if you prefer to do so. Just keep in mind that the fact that you can pay in dollars does not mean you will a good exchange rate. More often than not, you will be better off paying in pesos. So, always check what is more convenient for you.
Last but not least important, you can pay by card. If you are not sure if a certain business accepts cards, please ask beforehand. Most major businesses accept this form of payment. Visa and Mastercard are widely accepted, but not so Discover. I would say that even American Express has more acceptance in Mexico than Discover. And don’t forget about foreign transaction fees! Always check your card member agreement to avoid any unpleasant surprises when you receive your bank statement. You may want to get a card that waives those fees if you don’t have one already. Keep in mind that even though cards are widely accepted nowadays, it is always a good idea to have some cash on you.
Do I Rent a Car?
Renting a car may be your first option. You can easily rent a car at any airport. You will find familiar names like Avis and Hertz, among others. But always beware of the deals from third-party websites you see online. You can see $5 rentals and fall for them, but that’s just the base price. When you show up at the car rental office, your price will go up because of insurance. A lot of rental car companies follow this strategy. Mexican liability insurance is mandatory by law, but more often than not it appears in the fine print. Your credit card company may have you covered in that respect, but again, always read your card member agreement to know your rights. However, rejecting the rental car company’s insurance and using your credit card’s may be a hassle and not worth saving a few dollars. There are many stories about that. Ultimately, it’s for you to decide.
If you rent a car, always choose toll roads (autopistas) over free highways (carretera libre). They’re safer and in much better conditions. And don’t drive at night, especially in parts of Michoacan, Guerrero and Sinaloa. Always drive during the day. Consider this when making your itinerary.
Uber might be another option for you. Most major cities like Mexico City, Guadalajara and Monterrey offer this service. It’s fast, safe and convenient. Generally speaking, Uber is cheaper than taxis, but this is not always the case. Remember Uber has dynamic pricing which can make the difference. I recall one time I flew to Monterrey and got there around midnight. That one time getting an Uber was more expensive than a taxi from the airport. Usually, Uber is cheaper, but there are exceptions. If there are no taxis in the city you’re visiting, ask your hotel to get you one from a sitio. Avoid taking taxis on the street.
If you are on a budget, you could consider public transportation. There are sites and apps you can use to plan your route. Personally, I like to use https://rutadirecta.com. Well, I used their app, but there seems to be none right now. But you can still use their website and choose a starting point and destination. You will see a list of buses you can take along your route. This website lists information of 20 cities.
And don’t forget you also have the subway and trolleybuses in some cities like Monterrey and Mexico City.
Where Should I Stay?
There are plenty of lodging options at your disposal. Your first option will most likely be a hotel. There are many types of hotels to choose from. Your options vary from big-chain hotels to smaller boutique hotels to hostels to cabins. A rule of thumb is: Secure a hotel reservation before traveling! I once traveled without booking a room first and I remember I had a hard time finding a hotel upon my arrival. Never again. I highly recommend booking a hotel before leaving for your destination, especially if you’re traveling during peak season. You may be able to find a hotel, but at a much higher price.
Personally, I always try to find a hotel in the downtown area. I think it is more convenient as you have everything close to you. In Mexico downtowns, there are always churches, old buildings and a plaza principal (main square) and lots of things to see at night or on the weekend. That’s why I always try to stay there. But that’s just me. You may find a cheaper hotel in the suburbs but then going back and forth may be a hassle and not cost effective.
I’m not a fan of all-inclusive hotels. I mean, if you’re going to stay at the hotel the whole time, then yeah, go for it. But if you will just sleep there, I recommend just looking for one that offers free breakfast. You can always find cheap eats practically anywhere.
And also, you have Airbnb. There are travelers who prefer this over hotels. It may be cheaper, but there are some things that you have to take into consideration. The communication process may not be very effective depending on your host. Even simple things like checking in could be a little complicated. And worst of all, your host can cancel your reservation and then you find yourself looking for a hotel at the last minute. That is one of the things I would like to worry the least during my vacation.
Where Should I Eat?
There is no limit here. You can have an expensive meal at a gourmet place or you can opt for something cheaper. You can find all kinds of restaurants. If you want to go for the cheaper route, you can go to the mercados (markets) which are usually located in the downtown area. You will always find something cheap and authentic to eat there. Another option is eating on the street. Yes, you read that right. If Mexico is known for something, it’s for its ample variety of street food vendors. You can find on the street all types of food you can imagine: tacos, tortas, tostadas, gorditas, burgers, hot dogs, ice cream, etc. Just make sure to carry some cash on you.
Mexican food is spicy by nature. Literally everything. If you’re not used to it, you may have a hard time. You should always carry with you some type of medication for your stomach.
If you don’t know where to go, I recommend you use Google or apps like Foursquare, Yelp and Trip Advisor. I always use one or a combination of all of them when I’m unsure of where to go. You can filter your search by type of food, location or price range. Of course, you can always ask a local for advice or simply wing it. We have all done it.
If you are a picky eater or simply don’t want to complicate yourself, you will probably find a lot of restaurants you’re familiar with. Major cities have restaurants like McDonald’s, KFC or Pizza Hut. Although I think you should try to eat something authentic, but if that’s not your thing, it’s totally fine.
It’s happened to me that I go to a restaurant that people highly recommend, but I ended up not liking it. It’s not the norm, but it’s happened. And there have been times when I found a hidden gem that I loved. You never know.
Do I Have to Get a Tour?
Yes and no. For starters, there are instances where you have to get one. I remember earlier this year I wanted to visit the coffee plantations in Veracruz by car, but I was told that was not possible. They only did tours with agencies. So I had to get a tour. I’ve heard similar stories of people who wanted to visit other places but were told they could not go on their own. Always ask before making any plans.
In many cases, it’s really optional as you can either get a tour or go on your own. Usually, people go on their own to save some money. However, it’s not always cost-effective. Sometimes it’s cheaper to rent a car or get there by public transportation. Just do the math.
There are cases where you might prefer a tour. Some locations are hard to access and you might feel safer with someone who knows how to move around. If your peace of mind is that important to you, just get a tour. Going on tour also gives you the opportunity to learn more as you can ask the guide any questions you might have.
Will I Be Able to Use My Cellphone There?
You probably will. Unless you are in the mountains or deep in the jungle, you will have cell phone/Internet signal. If you come from the U.S., a lot of phone carriers let you call, text and surf the web at no extra cost. In my case, I’m a T Mobile user and I always use my American cellphone when I go to Mexico. I even use my GPS and have had no trouble for the most part. I don’t know what it’s like for European or Asian carriers. Check directly with them.
If your phone carrier doesn’t offer any of the above, you can get a SIM card from a Mexican carrier and put it on an unlocked phone. The major carriers are Telcel, Movistar and AT&T. I used to do this, but stopped ever since T Mobile began including coverage in Mexico.
And then there’s also Wi-Fi. You can connect to free Wi-Fi in many places like restaurants, malls and parks.
Learn Some Local Etiquette
Many things in Mexico are similar to our American or European counterparts. But there are some differences nonetheless. For instance, our love for spicy food. If you go to any restaurant in Mexico, no matter how cheap or expensive, you will always find salsa or hot sauce.
Us Mexicans love their tortillas. That’s why it’s very common for us to eat with our hands. Don’t get me wrong. We do use silverware on some occasions, but I would say we use our hands to eat most food. So next time you’re eating tacos or gorditas, don’t even think of asking for silverware.
We are very respectful towards older people or strangers. When you address one of them, you should call them “usted” and not “tu”, unless there is a close relationship between you. If you use “tu” in some cases, you will probably come across as disrespectful.
Small talk is pretty common in Mexico. Whether you’re in an elevator, at a restaurant or on the street, don’t be surprised if someone says hi to you without knowing you. This is especially true in small towns.
Obviously, there are many more things we could include here, but I think I will do it in another post.
But I Don’t Speak Spanish!
This shouldn’t be a big problem if you visit a major city. Due to our proximity to the U.S., we have a lot of influence from our neighbor and that of course includes the language. Many people speak English at the airport, at hotels and most tourist attractions so you should be fine. However, I strongly believe you should make an effort and learn some Spanish. It would be the same thing if you wanted to go to France, for example. You should try to learn the local language, whether it be Spanish, French or Chinese. Learning a language gives you a better opportunity to experience another culture.
A Last Word
I hope you found my tips useful. As you can see, there are many similarities between traveling in Mexico and doing it in any other country. There are things that change over time, but this is the most recent information I can give you now. Traveling should be an enjoyable experience, and if you can avoid any mistakes others have made, that’s wonderful! Don’t be afraid to make your own mistakes, though. The most important thing is learning from them and not repeating them in the future. If you would like to learn more, please feel free to comment below. See you soon!