Are you traveling to Mexico for the first time? These essential Mexico travel tips are sure to help your trip go smoothly.
It has been a long time since my first visit to Mexico, 15 years ago, but I recently had the opportunity to see the culture through fresh eyes when one of my oldest friends came to visit me.
If I were a better friend (and a better planner) I would have written this post before her visit so she could have been even more prepared. Insead she had to learn on the go, and help serve as a case study to remind of these important details and cultural differences! Thanks girl!
There’s a lot of misleading (or perhaps outdated) travel advice for Mexico floating around out there. This includes hotly debated topics such as “ice or no ice?” and “pesos vs. US dollars.”
I’m weighing in on all of it!
I’m also covering some of the more mundane things to know before traveling to Mexico that are difficult to anticipate if you’ve never been before. This includes safety tips, how to navigate the different forms of transportation, cultural nuances, money tips for Mexico and more.
Hopefully these tips will help your first trip to Mexico be fun and worry-free!
- 1 General Travel Tips for Mexico
- 1.1 1. Keep your FMM tourist card
- 1.2 2. Get a local SIM card
- 1.3 3. Download WhatsApp
- 1.4 4. Tap water isn’t drinkable
- 1.5 5. Don’t avoid ice in your drink
- 1.6 6. Pack a refillable water bottle
- 1.7 7. DON’T skip the street food
- 1.8 8. Food doesn’t always pica mucho
- 1.9 9. It’s not hot everywhere
- 1.10 10. Remember your manners
- 1.11 11. Museums are often closed on Mondays
- 1.12 12. Kleenex is a life saver
- 1.13 13. You CAN eat greens
- 1.14 14. Don’t be afraid to see a doctor (if you need one)
- 1.15 15. Don’t shoot your Tequila
- 1.16 16. Be prepared to adjust your schedule
- 1.17 17. Familiarize yourself with the bus systems
- 1.18 18. Carry a reusable shopping bag
- 2 Money Tips for Mexico
- 3 Safety Tips for Mexico
- 3.1 27. Basic Spanish goes a long way
- 3.2 28. Avoid ATMs around payday
- 3.3 29. Don’t flaunt your valuables
- 3.4 30. Be aware of common Mexico travel scams
- 3.5 31. Stay safe by checking the latest travel warnings for Mexico
- 3.6 32. Schedule arrivals and departures for the daytime
- 3.7 33. Use registered taxis
General Travel Tips for Mexico
This collection of tips will help you blend in a little more and save you from confusion during your travels.
1. Keep your FMM tourist card
When you enter Mexico, you are required to fill out a customs and immigration form which an official will then stamp, admitting you into the country.
There are two sections to this form (above and below a perforation), and both must be filled out. The top part will be retained by the immigration officials when you enter the country.
The bottom section will be stamped with your date of entry and the number of days you’re permitted to remain in the country (usually 180), and then handed back to you.
Keep the bottom section of your tourist card somewhere safe because you need to turn it in before you board your plane home.
Fortunately, if you do lose the form it isn’t difficult to replace, but it can be quite time-consuming, and you will have to pay a fee of $533 MXN. Just in case you happen to find yourself in this unfortunate situation, here’s how you can replace your lost immigration form in Mexico.
2. Get a local SIM card
If you don’t have a roaming package on your phone, a local SIM card is an inexpensive way to ensure you stay connected during your visit. It’s so handy to have continuous access to Google Translate and Google Maps throughout your travels. Plus the ability to make calls or keep friends and relatives updated with your location is a serious safety perk.
You can purchase a SIM card for TelCel in an Oxxo or X24 convenience store for about $200 MXN ($11 USD).
3. Download WhatsApp
If you don’t already have it, be sure to download WhatsApp for your first trip to Mexico. Most people in Mexico use Whatsapp almost exclusively for calling and messaging. This includes many businesses, who will message over Whatsapp instead of speaking to customers over the phone. This is awesome because if your Spanish is shaky, the ability to copy texts into a translator is super handy.
If you end up making friends, coordinating tours, or even calling taxi companies, WhatsApp will be the best way to contact them. Be sure to familiarize yourself with the app before traveling to Mexico.
4. Tap water isn’t drinkable
The tap water in Mexico isn’t safe to drink… mostly. Interestingly, the government rules that the water actually is sanitized and safe to drink. However, the containers that people use to store the water are rarely (if ever) cleaned, rendering it once-again, unsafe to drink. Some homes have water filtration systems installed which enable you to drink water straight from the tap, but this is not the norm.
While it’s generally safe to use the tap water for cooking and brushing your teeth, if you have a sensitive stomach you may prefer to brush your teeth with bottled water. That said, I always use tap water and haven’t had any issues.
5. Don’t avoid ice in your drink
I commonly hear travelers cautioning one another against getting ice in their drinks. There is a lot of skepticism over whether the ice is made with clean water or not. In my opinion (and in my experience), since locals don’t drink tap water they don’t make ice with tap water, and thus it is safe to drink.
Long story short: I never worry about whether my drinks have ice in them and I don’t think you should be worried about it either. If ya want ice, have at it!
6. Pack a refillable water bottle
The water may not be safe to drink, but repeatedly buying single-use plastic water bottles while traveling isn’t an ideal solution. It’s terrible for the environment and hard on your wallet. You can save yourself the trouble by packing a lifestraw water bottle, which filters bacteria and protozoa from water sources, making it safe to drink. Refill this bottle from the tap in your hotel or Airbnb, and you’ll be all set!
7. DON’T skip the street food
I often hear travelers who are (seemingly) unfamiliar with Mexico advising others not to eat street food when visiting this culinary wonderland. This is a huge mistake!!
Street vendors have sold me some of the tastiest food I’ve experienced (and some of the cheapest)! It may sound dramatic, but my local taco lady literally changed my life. She feeds me the most delicious tacos I’ve ever tasted for the low, low price of 14 pesos each.
I really think you’ll be missing out if you neglect to try street food in Mexico.
I understand why there is concern about the cleanliness of the street carts, but there are a few different indicators you can look for to help you judge whether it’s safe or not.
- Crowds are always a good indication that a cart is safe to eat from. Once someone finds a tasty, sanitary street cart, they’ll come back over and over again. If they get sick, they’ll be long gone. If you spot a street cart with a group of people around it all chatting jovially, it’s safe to assume they all eat there regularly.
- Watch how they handle the food and the money. At a trustworthy street cart, such as that of my taco lady, the person who handles the food never handles the money. As a result, she’s had a healthy crowd of patrons surrounding her cart since I first came across it 10 years ago.
8. Food doesn’t always pica mucho
If you love spicy food get used to hearing the phrase “pica mucho.” You’ll hear it every time your tortilla chip, spoon, finger, etc nears that alluring bowl of green or red salsa. See, many Mexicans struggle to believe that those of us from the north can handle even the slightest kick of spice, and, being the kind hearted souls that they are, they will rush to warn you that every salsa is spicy (picante).
If you’re not sure, put a drop of salsa on the back of your hand and taste it before you douse your food. Occasionally it actually does pica mucho and you’ll be glad you did.
9. It’s not hot everywhere
For many people, mentioning Mexico conjures images of nothing but palm trees and beaches. While this landscape is typical in many parts of the country, Mexico has a diverse geography, and in some areas, it can actually be quite cold. Even the beach destinations have months cool enough to warrant wearing jeans. Wherever you’re headed in Mexico, be sure to research the climate before you finalize your packing list.
10. Remember your manners
As easy-going as Mexicans are, manners are important to them. You’ll make a better impression if you exercise extra politeness. It felt strange at first to me, as a Canadian, to say “buenos dias” and “buenas tardes” to every person I encountered, but I’m becoming more extroverted in that way. Whenever you visit a shop or restaurant be prepared to greet the salespeople when you enter and say goodbye when you leave.
Additionally, when in restaurants you may notice that people say “Provecho” when you’re eating — even strangers passing on the street will do this. This is a polite gesture, which people use to wish you a good meal. You will earn extra karmic brownie points for using the phrase. When you enter a restaurant and pass by a table of people eating just say “provecho.”
11. Museums are often closed on Mondays
This tip is pretty straightforward. Museums throughout the country are typically closed on Mondays. This is because the weekends are usually when they receive the most visitors, and therefore they must remain open. Instead of giving employees a day off on Sundays (a day which usually offers free admission to Mexican nationals), they close on Monday which is often a slower day. There may be the occasional exception to this rule, but generally, it’s best to plan museum visits for other days of the week.
12. Kleenex is a life saver
Public restrooms in Mexico can be hit or miss when it comes to toilet paper, soap, running water, and even toilet seats. With this in mind, it’s wise to always carry a packet of tissues in your purse in case you find yourself in a pinch. I’d also suggest carrying hand sanitizer or wet wipes because often there is no soap to wash your hands.
13. You CAN eat greens
There’s a lot of superstition floating around on the internet about what you should or shouldn’t eat in Mexico. Salad (namely lettuce) is usually one of the foods that is blacklisted. I guess the concern is that vegetables are washed with tap water, which isn’t safe to drink, therefore rendering the veggies contaminated as well.
Usually, this isn’t true. The majority of locals wash their vegetables with soap or a vegetable cleaning solution that neutralizes any bacteria or microbes that will make you sick. After all, locals don’t drink the tap water either. They don’t want to get sick any more than you do.
Curious to learn more about Mexico? Check out these fun facts about Mexico!
14. Don’t be afraid to see a doctor (if you need one)
After living in the US for 5 years, the idea of seeing a doctor usually fills me with dread because no matter how much insurance I paid for, a simple visit always seemed to cost a fortune + parking (Canada, why did I leave you?!).
In Mexico, things are different. If you feel the need to see a doctor for any reason during your visit, it’s really easy to do so.
Many of the major pharmacies, like Farmacia del Ahorro, or Farmacia de Guadalajara have their own walk-in clinics called consultorios. All you have to do is show up, take a seat, and wait for the doctor to see you. Once inside, describe your symptoms and the doctor will offer a diagnosis and a list of medications to help you feel better. Obviously, you’re expected to buy the meds from the adjoining pharmacy.
If you’re suffering from an illness or ailment that may benefit from medical attention, just know that this process is simple and affordable. You don’t pay for the consultation, just the medications, which, by the way, are much cheaper than they are back home.
All this to say, if you’re sick during your trip, there’s no need to suffer until you get home to your primary care physician. These consultorios can likely fix you up and have you back to your regular self in no-time, without cutting into your margarita fund!
And, if you have a more serious illness, a trip to the Emergency room isn’t going to ruin you financially either, especially if you have travel insurance.
If you’re looking for extra tips on how to avoid the dreaded Montezuma’s revenge, a fellow travel blogger put together a great post about how to avoid getting sick in Mexico. Make sure to check it out before your trip!
15. Don’t shoot your Tequila
It may be served in a shot glass, but in Mexico Tequila is usually sipped instead of downed as a shooter. Drink it however you want, but I thought I’d include this to help prevent a potential party foul.
16. Be prepared to adjust your schedule
Depending on where you’re visiting from, you might struggle with the fact that schedules in Mexico are different from what you’re used to. For instance, typically everything happens later (and more slowly) in Mexico than you’re likely accustomed to.
Breakfast hour is usually around 8:30 or 9 am, lunch is between 2 and 4, and dinner is around 9 pm.
Because breakfast is so late in the morning (at least by the Canadian standard that I was used to), most businesses don’t open until 9 or 10. This can be difficult to accept when you’re a Type A traveler who is accustomed to getting an early start (*ahem* Dad *ahem*).
It can be difficult to shift your schedule, especially on a short trip, but you’ll risk missing out on the full Mexican experience if you’re the early-to-bed, early-to-rise type. Not only is the energy in the streets is entirely different in the evening when most people are off work, but also many restaurants cater to the traditional Mexican schedule. Some may not be able to accommodate diners who want to eat at different hours.
As you work on shifting your schedule to the Mexican one be sure to carry snacks in case you can’t find a restaurant that’s open at your preferred meal time.
17. Familiarize yourself with the bus systems
If you’re planning to do any bus travel in Mexico you’ll need to know which bus lines serve the area you are visiting.
I often hear travelers recommending ADO to one another, but ADO only serves southern Mexico (below Mexico City), so if you’re headed to central Mexico, the west coast, or anywhere else, ADO won’t be an option.
I put together a guide to buses in Mexico to help you decipher the tangled web of companies that are out there. There is also a platform called ClickBus which allows you to search timetables for multiple bus lines at once (before you had to visit their individual websites to do this). Unfortunately, ClickBus doesn’t have partnerships with every bus company, so there are still some gaps in the service.
Another thing to know about bus travel is that most websites won’t allow you to buy tickets online with a foreign credit card. Clickbus and other third party sites will, and some bus companies accept payment through PayPal. Otherwise, you can purchase bus tickets at convenience stores like Oxxo.
18. Carry a reusable shopping bag
Mexico is beginning to make strides to cut down on single-use plastics, but they still have a long way to go. Help them reduce their plastic waste by carrying a reusable shopper with you during your travels. It will come in handy time and again, from market days to souvenir shopping and everywhere in between.
I’m sure you have a favorite bag around the house, but if you need a recommendation, I love Baggu bags. They’re strong, machine washable, and they come in a compact little pouch which makes them easy to stash in your purse or backpack.
Money Tips for Mexico
There are a lot of little nuances when it comes to money in Mexico. In this section I’m sharing all the little tips and tricks I’ve learned to help make life easier and blend in more throughout my travels.
19. Always have change on hand
It’s important to always keep small change on hand when traveling in Mexico. You’ll need it for tipping, visiting public restrooms (often they charge a 5 peso fee), or making small purchases. Many businesses in Mexico can’t (or won’t) make change for bills larger than 200 pesos, so always be prepared with smaller denominations.
I like to carry small bills and coins so I can pay for taxis with exact change, it helps cut down on price disputes and it makes it quicker and easier to get in and out.
20. You can use credit and debit cards in many places
Many places in Mexico accept payment with a credit or debit card. This includes grocery stores, convenience stores, and even small businesses, especially in cities.
While cash transactions are typically preferred, carrying a large quantity of cash on you isn’t ideal, and most ATMs do charge a fee to withdraw money.
I like to use a card for larger purchases and save my cash for smaller transactions or places that don’t accept cards at all. Of course, this is just a personal preference. I don’t like to carry large amounts of cash, so using my card as much as possible enables me to maintain the small amount of cash that I am comfortable with carrying.
21. Tipping in Mexico
It is customary to tip in restaurants in Mexico. Most Mexicans will tip 10 – 20% depending on the quality of service. I generally tip 15 or 20% unless the service is particularly bad. Just like in Canada and the US, wait staff in Mexico are often underpaid with the assumption that tips will make up the rest of their wage. On top of that, minimum wage in Mexico is around $90 MXN per day. I don’t think it’s necessary to tip more than 20%, but you should keep in mind that a few pesos could make a big difference to your server.
But servers aren’t the only people who will be expecting a tip. You should also plan to tip tour guides. The amount obviously depends on your experience and the type of tour you’re on, but I’d say no less than $50 MXN.
Other people you’ll encounter who expect a tip:
- Individuals who help you with your luggage (a few pesos is customary)
- Cleaning staff in hotels ($50 – 100 MXN per day)
- Baggers in grocery stores ($5 – $10 MXN)
- Shuttle drivers, but only if they help with your luggage ($20 – $50 MXN)
It is not expected that you will tip Taxi drivers. In Canada the taxi drivers all seem to expect a tip, but in Mexico that is just not the case.
22. Tip in pesos
There is a common misconception floating around, particularly in resort communities, that Mexican workers prefer to be tipped in US dollars. I can’t speak for everyone, but I have yet to encounter a local who prefers US dollars to pesos.
A common justification given for tipping in US dollars is that they are worth more… but it seems easy enough to just tip a comparable number of pesos, no?
When you tip a local in a foreign currency they are then forced to visit a money exchange or exchange the currency in their bank, where they will usually be charged a conversion fee.
Not to mention, they’ll have to spend their precious free time waiting in line at the bank when they’d surely rather be spending time with their family and friends. A typical work week in Mexico is 6 days on and one day off. Don’t burden people with chores on their days off!
23. Pay in pesos
I’ve seen many people online asking what currency to bring to Mexico. It boggles my mind that anyone would say anything different than Mexican pesos. Many people seem to suggest that US dollars are the ideal currency, and I’m sorry, but this is ridiculous. The local currency (Mexican pesos) is always the best currency to use.
When you pay in dollars you are usually given a poor exchange rate. Currently, $1 USD is worth about $18 MXN, but when you use American dollars in shops and restaurants you’re often given an exchange rate of 15 or 16 pesos to the dollar, and sometimes less!
Yes, it may cost a bit to exchange your native currency to pesos, but it will likely save you money in the long run.
24. Which ATMs are best?
If you prefer to deal with cash, the following ATMs are the ones that seem to charge the lowest fees for withdrawing cash. Keep in mind, my bank accounts are in Canada and the US; I’m not certain if the fees are different for banks in other countries.
Here are the banks I use, with their approximate fees (these seem to vary slightly by location, but not much):
- Santander – usually the fee is around 30 pesos
- CI Banco – usually about 17 pesos
- Ban Bajio – about 21 pesos
- BanaMex – about 25 pesos
I avoid HSBC and Bancomer because the fees tend to be high– around 90 pesos. Also, Bancomer is a really popular bank for Mexican nationals and as such it often has a long line (I really hate waiting in line).
25. Haggling isn’t actually that common in Mexico
Many people seem to believe that haggling is the name of the game when it comes to shopping in Mexico, but in my experience this just isn’t the case. More often than not prices are as marked and there’s not much you can do about it.
Occasionally vendors or taxi drivers may invite you to haggle, particularly in very touristy zones where they’re accustomed to doing it, but it’s not a big part of the culture.
On top of that, some locals even find it offensive (myself included). I understand the desire to pay a fair price in exchange for whatever you’re buying, but I’ve witnessed many tourists simply trying to drive the price down as low as possible. Always remember, the person selling to you probably has a family to feed. In my experience, prices in Mexico are low enough already. If you’re not content with what something costs you’re better off looking for a different option.
On that note, avoid doing your souvenir shopping in the heart of the tourist zones where rent is high. If you venture a couple of blocks away you’ll often find the same items at a fraction of the cost.
26. Confirm taxi rates in advance
You wouldn’t be the first traveler to end up in a squabble with a taxi driver over a fare. Sometimes taxi drivers will apply a “gringo taxi” which basically means they charge foreigners more than they would charge locals. It sucks, but it happens.
The best way to avoid this to agree on a fare in advance. You can ask the taxi driver how much it costs to go to your desired destination. If you don’t agree with his price, feel free to suggest a different one, but make sure you’re on the same page before you get in.
Safety Tips for Mexico
It’s understandable to be concerned about safety if you’ve never visited Mexico before. After all, everyone and their crazy aunt is likely warning you not to go because it’s “super dangerous.”
While safety can be a concern in Mexico, the following travel advice will help you drastically reduce the risk of incident during your trip.
27. Basic Spanish goes a long way
If you only follow one of these Mexico travel tips, let it be this one.
Many people in Mexico speak (or at the very least, understand) a little bit of English, but it’s still a nice gesture to learn some basic Spanish before you visit. Being able to exchange pleasantries with the people you encounter will make all of your interactions go much more smoothly. Mexican culture really appreciates formalities, and small gestures go a long way here.
At the same time, understanding or speaking a little Spanish makes you less vulnerable as a traveler. For example, in tourist areas, it’s not uncommon for taxi drivers to try to overcharge by as much as double the standard rate. Knowing this, I have a strict “no English in taxis” rule. I figure if they know that I speak Spanish they’ll be more reluctant to try to stick me with the “tourist price.” So far this rule has paid off. Literally.
For a quick cheat-sheet of Spanish phrases for visiting Mexico, check out my post on Simple Spanish Phrases For Mexico.
28. Avoid ATMs around payday
Most workers in Mexico are paid on the 15th and 30th of the month. During this time, the lines at ATM machines are exceptionally long, as many people need to withdraw cash right away to cover their bills and expenses.
I’ve waited as long as 30 minutes to use an ATM on payday. Not my idea of a good time. If you need to withdraw cash around this time of month, plan to go the day before payday.
Additionally, thieves are on high alert during these times of month, because they know that many people are liable to be carry large quantities of cash. It’s important to be vigilant about this. If you do visit an ATM, be sure to visit one in a well-lit, populated area, preferably during the day when there is less risk of robbery.
29. Don’t flaunt your valuables
This is especially important in cities and crowded areas, but it’s a good rule of thumb everywhere. It’s always best to remain relatively inconspicuous as a tourist, as we can be easy targets for theft. This is typically due to being distracted or overwhelmed by everything we’re trying to do or see.
Petty theft isn’t exactly uncommon in Mexico, and while I’d say you’re unlikely to have a violent confrontation, there are many savvy pickpockets.
Avoid drawing attention to yourself by keeping flashy jewelry to a minimum. Try to keep your valuables (phone, camera, wallet) concealed as much as possible and close to your body.
I try to limit the amount of cash I carry to exactly what I’ll need for the day, plus possibly my credit or debit card and a piece of ID. I leave everything else at home and use a small zipped pouch as a wallet. It sinks quickly to the bottom of my purse, which I keep zipped and close to my body. If I need to use my phone, I do, but as soon as I’m finished, I tuck it back in my purse and zip it closed.
I also invested in an anti-theft purse, which has special features that make it difficult for pickpockets to get into. I don’t use it everywhere, but I won’t go to Mexico City without it.
Usually, I’m not particularly concerned about theft, but I do try to be cautious. It’s especially important to take these measures when visiting crowded areas or attending events. If you’re hanging out in a laid back town like Tulum, there’s a much lower risk of theft than in a big city like Guadalajara or Mexico City.
30. Be aware of common Mexico travel scams
First, let me just state: scams are not the NORM in Mexico. I’ve lived here for 3 years and been scammed only a handful of times. However, even though they aren’t super common, it’s best to be aware of common travel scams in Mexico so you can navigate them effectively if they happen to you.
Tangerine Travels put together this epic YouTube video talking about over 40 different scams in Mexico. They’ve traveled throughout the entire country over the past 3 years and they share everything they’ve learned along the way on their YouTube channel.
31. Stay safe by checking the latest travel warnings for Mexico
The US State Department has a frequently updated site with all of the current travel warnings for Mexico. Keep in mind though, that in some cases dangerous activity is limited to particular cities or areas within a state and not rampant throughout the entire state. Be sure to read the warnings carefully and then double check recommendations with other sources.
I’ve found Facebook to be a decent resource when it comes to asking questions about the state of travel, as it enables you to connect with people who are on the ground in your desired destination.
A couple of handy Facebook groups include:
- MEXICO ?? Backpacker / Traveler
- Make Memories in Mexico With Tangerine Travels
- Female Travelers in Mexico (my group!)
Don’t forget to also search for destination-specific Facebook groups, as these tend to have members who live somewhere year round.
32. Schedule arrivals and departures for the daytime
That flight that lands at 11:30 pm might be $100 cheaper, but trying to navigate a foreign city in the middle of the night after a long day of travel could put you at risk. This is especially true in Mexico City, but this tip applies everywhere.
While the chances that something bad will happen are low, it is much more likely to happen at night. Unfortunately, kidnappings and robberies do happen throughout Mexico. The last thing you want to do is get in a shifty taxi and then have to bail out of it on a dimly lit street after dark. Especially if you’re a solo traveler.
Splurge a little on the plane or bus tickets that allow you to make connections in the daytime. That way if anything shifty happens there will probably be witnesses, or at least someone to ask for help.
33. Use registered taxis
A good way to prevent transportation mishaps is by using registered taxis whenever possible. This is especially critical at airports and bus stations where foreigners are easy targets.
At airports or bus stations you can buy tickets for taxis from booths within the terminal. You’ll pay a fixed rate based on your destination and don’t be surprised if it comes out a bit higher than you would ordinarily pay. It’s worth the money to protect your safety.
When you’re out and about in the city you can catch registered taxis from sitios (taxi stands) or by calling a radio taxi. You will have to pay a few pesos extra in both of these scenarios, but again, it’s worth it.
For more Mexico safety tips click here.
I sincerely hope you found these Mexico travel tips helpful. Is there anything I missed? Let me know in the comments!
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