Traveling to Mexico for the first time? Don’t miss these 21 surprising but useful Mexico travel tips, because there are a few things to know before traveling to Mexico, especially in 2021!
After a dozen visits and a year total traveling Mexico, I’ve learned a thing or two the hard way – and I’ve put together this list of things to know BEFORE traveling Mexico so that you don’t repeat my mistakes.
We’ll cover practical info you may not hear elsewhere – including how to use the bathroom without making a fool out of yourself, and an important immigration document you need to remember to save or else you may run into problems!
Table of Contents
- 👉 Top Tips
- ⚠️ Safety Tips
- 💲 Money-Saving Tips
- ✈️ Practical Tips
- 🧳 Mexico Packing List (opens in new tab)
⚠ IMPORTANT TIP FOR USA TRAVELERS TO MEXICO IN 2021 ⚠
Covid tests are now mandatory to fly back to the USA. Even vaccinated travelers can test positive, and if you do you’ll put into expensive mandated quarantine instead of flying home (just read the horror stories in this USA Today article). My top Mexico travel tip is to always make a backup plan for quarantine and consider travel insurance. While not legally required yet, I feel like I’d be tempting fate without it during a pandemic. Plus, it’s actually pretty cheap! World Nomads is my personal go-to during covid times. But do your own research and stay safe out there!
21 Mexico Travel Tips
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#1 – Restroom Doors Marked With an “M” Are For the Ladies
The Spanish word for women is “mujeres.” So, gentlemen, if you see a door marked with an “M,” do NOT assume that it is the men’s room. Instead, look for a door marked with an “H” (for “hombres”) or a “C” (for “caballeros”).
It seems like a simple enough thing, but going into the restroom marked “M” is almost habitual for English-speaking men, and so this tip still trips me up once in awhile. At least three different times I’ve rather embarrassingly found myself barging into the wrong restroom!
#2 – Don’t Lose the Paper Slip You Get at Customs
When the Mexico immigration officer hands you back your stamped passport, pay attention because there is likely something else hidden inside it.
Most visitors to Mexico will fill out a little section at the end of the immigration form which is actually on break-away paper. The immigration officer will tear it off and stick it in your passport. Hold on to it because you’ll be asked for it when you leave the country (or risk paying a fine)!
This is such an important thing to know before traveling to Mexico, so don’t forget it!
#3 – Never Drink the Tap Water
The tap water in Mexico is definitely 100% not ok to drink pretty much anywhere, so never drink straight from the tap. But Mexico is hot, so you really NEED to drink a lot on your vacation (water … we’re talking about drinking water here, you party animal). Many tourists end up spending a lot of time chasing down something to drink, and often get price gouged by enterprising vendors hawking bottled water. Buying bottled water quickly adds up, and the plastic kills the local environment.
So what are you to do?
One convenient and eco-friendly solution is to simply pack a water bottle with a travel-grade filter so that you can confidently drink the water everywhere you go.
The most popular and trusted name in this space is The Lifestraw Filtered Water Bottle. Lifestraw has been used by thousands of travelers around the world. You just fill up the water bottle and let the heavy-grade filter remove bacteria and parasites as you drink.
#4 – Go Beyond the Beach Resorts
This is one of the most important tips for traveling to Mexico.
Look, there is nothing wrong with enjoying popular sites like Tulum beach along Mexico’s Riviera Maya.
But, with that said, so many visitors simply stick to the highly-touristed coastal areas (the Tulum ruins, for example, are massively overcrowded at times) and perhaps throw in a quick stop in Mexico City.
And, in my humble opinion, that means they tend miss a lot of what Mexico has to offer!
That’s why one of the most important travel tips for Mexico is this: get off the travel lemming path and explore Mexico’s towns (here’s a guide to Valladolid, Mexico, one of my favorites), mountains, countryside, and quiet fishing villages (I recommend Celestun).
Mexico is a big country and there is a LOT more to it than just the beaches.
#5 – Toilet Paper Goes in the Trash Bin
Yep, another bathroom tip! But it’s an important one if you don’t want to flood your hotel’s loo:
Do NOT flush toilet paper in Mexico.
Unless you’re in a resort, where they sometimes build them wide enough to handle American bowel movements, the pipes just aren’t built to handle the stuff. Instead, the proper procedure is to toss it in the little waste bin that you’ll always find somewhere close to the throne. Be a good restroom citizen and use the bin!
Mexico Safety Tips During Covid
#6 – Mexico’s Pandemic Is Far From Over
I realize many of you won’t want to hear this, but the reality is that Mexico is still in the midst of a raging pandemic. While the USA and UK are speeding forward on vaccinations, it’s a totally different story in Mexico. The country currently has the third highest death toll in the world, and it might get worse before it gets better.
Look, the cold hard reality is that Mexico is letting tourists in because it needs the money, NOT because it is safe. Even if you have been vaccinated, remember that the locals serving you and cleaning your room likely haven’t had that privilege yet. Be respectful, wear a mask when required, and follow all local public health regulations.
#7 – Many Travelers are Getting Quarantined in Mexico
“A Traveler’s Worst Nightmare: When Your Covid Test Comes Back Positive.”–The New York Times (March 17, 2021)
The New York Times recently did the above expose on the many travelers to Mexico who have caught covid, got caught in quarantine, or otherwise found out that travel to Mexico during a pandemic isn’t all fun and sun.
Honestly, there’s no perfect way to limit your risk apart from staying home. Covid tests are required for many nationalities to return home, and you could get slammed with a huge quarantine bill if you test positive. That’s why a record number of travelers are choosing to protect their trips with travel insurance for Mexico.
#8 – Don’t Skimp on Travel Insurance (Like I Did)
Are you really going to risk travel to a foreign country during a pandemic … while uninsured?
Personally, I feel the risks are just too great. Travel insurance isn’t expensive compared to what might happen if you skimp on it. Plus, if you plan to drive in Mexico, you’ll want to consider coverage for both liability and the rental.
👉 I like to buy my travel insurance through World Nomads. I used them happily for years while traveling the world, but then in 2019 I switched to a different budget insurer trying to save a few bucks. MAJOR mistake. At the start of the pandemic, I got trapped in Argentina, and that other company (who will remain nameless, lest I give them publicity) refused to cover anything related to covid. I learned my lesson, and I’ll be again using World Nomads once again on my next trip to Mexico.
#9 – Mexico is Safer Than You Think (Apart From Covid)
Mexico has gotten a lot of negative attention on the safety front in recent years. And certainly it’s true that parts of the country (which you were probably unlikely to visit anyway) have been plagued by a recent increase in cartel-associated violent crime.
But, let’s be clear about one thing: traveling in most of Mexico is very safe.
Millions of tourists visit Mexico every year, and violent incidents against tourists are actually very rare. Tourism is big business here and the government puts a lot of resources into ensuring the safety of visitors – especially in the popular places like the Riviera Maya, Mexico City, Cabo, etc.
Moreover, Mexicans are some of the most welcoming and friendly people on the planet – they aren’t out to get you!
With that said, Mexico is currently experiencing a severe covid epidemic (with the third highest number of deaths in the world). So check the latest United States Department of State Travel Advisories for Mexico before you go.
#10 – Beware of Car Rental Scams in Mexico
If you try to rent a car before going to Mexico, you’ll likely be tempted with some crazy cheap rental car prices online (it’s not uncommon to see rental cars listed online for as low as $1/day).
Don’t believe this Mexico travel scam for a second! As soon as you show up to the counter, the agents will insist you have to have their MASSIVELY overpriced insurance.
The best way to avoid this scam?
👉 Bookmark the car rental site Discover Car Hire, which is the best I’ve found in terms of avoiding hidden car rental fees in Mexico (and a great site for rentals generally compared to the more popular American sites). And sort your own travel insurance BEFORE leaving (again, I personally use and love World Nomads).
#11 – Use a VPN to Protect Your Digital Security
Mexico is one of those countries that is struggling to keep up with the rise of hackers and identity thieves and travelers to Mexico make easy targets. You might think you are connected to your hotel’s WiFi, when really you’re passing your info on to a nearby scammer.
The best way to avoid having your sensitive data stolen in Mexico is to use a VPN to securely encrypt your data. Quality Mexico VPNs are cheap, so there’s really no excuse not to set one up now so you’ll be secure in Mexico. Plus, you should probably use one at home anyway.
👉 Free VPNs are pretty shady, so personally I use the cheap but effective Express VPN (if you use that link, you’ll get 3 months free by the way). I’ve tested a few VPNs, and I like this one because it doesn’t slow down my speeds, is pretty affordable. Plus, as an added benefit, you’ll be able to watch streaming videos in Mexico as if you were back home!
Money Saving Tips
#12 – ALWAYS Pay with Pesos
I don’t know why, but a lot people seem to get it in their head that simply because many touristy places in Mexico will accept the U.S. Dollar, there is no need to acquire pesos.
While it’s true that you can pay with dollars at many places in Mexico, it’s almost ALWAYS a bad idea.
Because the exchange rate you’ll get from the merchant is going to be deserving of a place in those waste bins along with your TP.
A better option is to change dollars at the best rate you can find, but the best option is to acquire an ATM card that gives the interbank loan rate for foreign currency withdrawals (personally I use Charles Schwab). Or you can pay with a credit card that gives that same rate without foreign transaction fees.
But, whatever you do, please please please pay with pesos. Unless you love giving money away, that is, in which case keep shelling out those dollars.
#13 – Save Money by Taking the Colectivos
This is one of my best money-saving tips for traveling to Mexico. Colectivos are shared minibuses or vans that are very common in the Yucatan and some other parts of Mexico (elsewhere, such as in Mexico City, they are sometimes called “peseros”).
And colectivos are by far the cheapest and quickest form of public transportation available. For example, a ride from Playa del Carmen to Tulum costs only $2! If you want to learn how to take a colectivo, here’s a good guide.
#14 – Use Mexico’s Bus Network (It’s Top Notch)
Mexico is a much bigger country than most realize, so getting around can be a challenge. And while flights are often a decent value option, don’t forget about the excellent Mexico buses. It can be a great and affordable way to travel, plus you get to see Mexico’s gorgeous countryside.
Mexico has a tiered bus system, with different classes of service offered at correspondingly higher prices. The higher classes are first (“primero”) and platinum (“platino”). The first class buses are nicer than most in the U.S., with comfortable seats and onboard restrooms.
The platino buses, meanwhile, are worth a trip just to experience. The seats are equivalent to business class seats on an airline!
Bottom line: Whether you’re just taking a short trip from Cancun to Valladolid, or a longer journey across Mexico, don’t feel shy about taking the buses here!
#15 – But Buying Bus or Plane Tickets Online Can Be Tricky
If you want to buy a bus or domestic air ticket through the internet, be prepared for the likelihood that your foreign credit card won’t be accepted.
It’s super frustrating, and hopefully with the growth of pin and chip this will eventually get fixed, but in the meantime the only way to buy ADO tickets or many airline tickets is to either:
1) go to the station, or
2) reserve online and then go pay at your local OXXO convenience store (this same, method, by the way, is how locals pay their electricity bills here).
It’s annoying but, hey, all part of the fun of going to Mexico right?
👉 Update: A reader points out that you can now use BusBud to pre-book ADO bus tickets online. Hooray!
Practical Things to Know Visiting Mexico
#16 – Visit Some Cenotes
In parts of Mexico, especially the Yucatan peninsula, the limestone bedrock gives way in places to form caverns filled with natural underground water. These “cenotes” make for some incredible swimming holes. Some are exposed above ground, while in others you’ll feel like you are in a cave.
You can go swimming, snorkeling, and even diving in these cenotes!
Swimming in a cenote is a uniquely Mexican experience and, if you’re visiting a part of the country that has them, you absolutely have to try it out!
#17 – Try the Botanas
“Botanas” are basically snacks that are served between meals in many parts of Mexico. Think of them sort of like a more casual version of Spain’s tapas. In many Mexican cantinas, you will receive free botanas along with the purchase of alcoholic beverages.
Often times, the quality and the quantity of the botanas they bring out will get better the more you order…. so drink up!
#18 – Avoid VivaAerobus
You know how in the USA people hate Spirit Airlines? And how in Europe they hate EasyJet and Ryanair?
Well, one thing you should know before going to Mexico is that all of those airlines look like first-class carriers compared to Mexico’s budget airline, VivaAerobus.
VivaAerobus is the king of nickel-and-diming customers.
Want to pay for your flight with a credit card?
Yep, that’ll be an extra $25.
Want to take carry on luggage with you?
Be prepared to weigh it precisely before leaving or face huge fees at the gate (yes, they weight every single item).
Expect your flight to be on time?
Forget about it.
Need help from customer service?
Hahahahahaha (or, as we say in Mexico, “jajajajajaja“).
Don’t be tempted by VivaAerobus’s fares: it’s almost always worth it to pay for another airline in Mexico.
#19 – You Might Need to Pack a Jacket (Mexico Isn’t Always Hot!)
Yes, Mexico’s latitude means that much of the country is warm during most of the year. You’ll probably never have a cold night in Quintana Roo. But one of the things you need to know when traveling to Mexico is that some popular destinations – particularly interior destinations like Mexico City and Oaxaca – sit at high altitude and can get surprisingly chilly, especially during the winter and especially at night.
That’s why one of my top Mexico travel tips is to not assume that just because you are going to Mexico that you can get away with packing only shorts and swimwear!
#20 – Build in Extra Time for Everything
Like most of Latin America, Mexico tends to run on a clock that’s a little fuzzy at times.
Never assume that anything is going to start on time in Mexico. The person you’re meeting may not be there promptly, but they are coming. That the ride you’re taking is going to get, but probably not quite when promised.
Just roll with it.
Seriously, you’ll enjoy your Mexican vacation if you chill out and embrace the local’s fluid concept of time. So whether you’re planning two weeks in Mexico, two days, or two months, just be sure you don’t schedule yourself too tightly …. and don’t stress when things take a bit longer than planned.
#21 – Be Sure to Experience the Mexico’s Many Different Regions
My final tip for travel in Mexico is …
Don’t fall into the trap of thinking that Mexico has a single culture or that you’ve seen the country just because you spent a weekend in Cancun or Cabo. Mexico is an ENORMOUS country and there are a lot to do in Mexico.
Mexico is HUGE! Mexico has over 128 million people. That’s more than the entire populations of the U.K, Canada, and Australia – combined. And Mexico spans almost 2 million square kilometers – which is about half the size of the entire European Union.
Mexico has mountains, deserts, cities, beaches, jungles, canyons, plains, and every sort of landscape you can imagine. Each part of the country has its own culture, food, and unique vibe.
I’ve been to Mexico a half dozen times, and spent well over six months there in total – and I still feel like I have barely scratched the surface!
I hope you enjoyed these Mexico travel tips! If you have any questions or tips before you travel to Mexico, scroll down and leave me a comment.
And, while you’re in the planning mood, be sure to bookmark some of my most popular Mexico guides:
- Best Chichen Itza Tours
- Best Tulum Hotels
- How to Go from Cancun to Tulum
- Best Beach Clubs in Playa del Carmen
Oh, and if you’re on Pinterest, I’d love for you to pin this post so you can come back here and so others can find what to know before traveling Mexico too: