If you’re headed to Mexico, here are money matters to know when you get there:
1. Don’t be confused by the currency: Both the U.S. dollar and the Mexican peso use the “$” symbol, which can lead to major confusion. I saw a message once from a European tourist wondering why the famous Copper Canyon train trip one way cost a whopping $1,200 dollars – when it really only cost $100. Just use common sense. If it seems way too expensive, then you’re likely seeing the price in pesos.
2. Stay local: Look for smaller, Mexican-owned hotels and guesthouses. Yes, there are big chain hotels there, both American- and Mexican-owned, but I don’t go to Mexico to experience corporate culture. You'll save money .
Try Booking.com, a reservation service that specializes in smaller hotels and guesthouses, and see what pops up for the city you’re visiting. Or check TripAdvisor.com. A few owner-operated places that I like, off the top of my head: Hotel Oasis in Loreto, Las Golondrinas in Oaxaca and the Rio Vista in El Fuerte – the starting point for the Chepe train through Copper Canyon.
3. Know the cab fare: Before getting into a taxi, always negotiate the price in advance. Most don’t have meters. Don’t forget this. Taxis are affordable in Mexico, but if you don’t ask the price, there’s a decent chance you'll get gouged at the end of the ride. Most airports avoid this by having you buy a taxi ticket into town for a set fare.
4. Hire a driver: If I don’t know the area, I prefer this to renting a car and getting lost, due to generally poor signage on the roads. You can ask at your hotel, and they’ll find you one who speaks English, but expect that the driver will have to give them a cut. Or go to a taxi stand and talk to drivers there about what you need and where you want to go. Sometimes they can be a real blessing, like the driver we had in Oaxaca who knew where we could get a wooden crate built on the spot to bring our ceramic purchases back home safely.
5. Take a bus: Mexican buses are government subsidized, surprisingly cheap and enjoyable, especially the executive and first-class lines. I don’t recommend the local buses for any distance unless you want a chicken on your lap. But long-distance luxury travel lets you see the country and avoid the airport and is quite comfortable. Some seats even spread out nearly flat to help you sleep. If you’re on a double-decker bus, go upstairs and have a better view of the countryside. I’ve been on buses that even had hostesses who served snacks and Pepsi in little cups. Many have videos and coffee machines.
6. Don’t be afraid to haggle with vendors. Bargain for your purchases. Vendors are going to take one look at you, think, “Americano,” and double their prices. But Mexicans themselves bargain when they buy.
The key to haggling is to be friendly and lighthearted. Don’t just bark out prices at the shopkeeper.
Note: A shop that has fixed price tags probably won’t bargain.
7. Get out of the tourist zone: If you’re vacationing in a major tourist destination such as Cancun or Cabo San Lucas, be aware that you’re paying greatly marked-up prices for everything compared to what Mexicans spend. Sometimes, if you just walk a few blocks away from the tourist zone, you can find where the Mexicans themselves shop and save yourself some significant coin on groceries, sunscreen, bottled water and such for your condo or hotel. You can also ask a cab driver to take you to the local shopping area, which probably includes a Wal-Mart.
Note: There are also Costco stores in Mexico.
8. Use pesos: Most tourist destinations in Mexico will accept your U.S. dollars, but be aware you’re paying a premium for that service. If you change your money into pesos, you can get a better deal – the value depends on whom you’re buying from. Ask restaurants to calculate your bill in pesos.