Traveling to Mexico for the first time? Don’t miss these 23 surprising but useful Mexico travel tips, because there are a few things to know before traveling to Mexico.
After a dozen visits and more than 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 worst mistakes.
We’ll cover practical info you may not hear elsewhere – including how to use the bathroom without making a fool out of yourself. Oh, and if you’re headed to the beach, you might be in for a nasty surprise unless you read tip #22!
Table of Contents
- 👉 Top Tips
- ⚠️ Safety Tips
- 💲 Money-Saving Tips
- ✈️ Practical Tips
- 🧳 Mexico Packing List (opens in new tab)
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23 Mexico Travel Tips
#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 – If You Get a Paper Slip (FMM) at Customs, Don’t Lose It
When the Mexico immigration officer hands you back your stamped passport, pay attention because there may or may not something else hidden inside it.
For years, visitors to Mexico had to fill out a little section at the end of the immigration form which is actually on break-away paper. The immigration officer would tear it off and stick it in your passport. This is called a Multiple Immigration Form (FMM).
In 2022 Mexico started phasing out the FMM — so these days you may or may not get it, depending on your port of entry.
If you do get an FMM, hold onto it because you’ll be asked for it when you leave the country (or may risk paying a fine)! If you don’t get it don’t stress, it just means the equivalent information should now be stamped in your passport (which is of course much easier for everyone).
#3 – Don’t Assume You’ll Get 180 Days at Immigration Automatically
Until recently, Mexico would give just about anyone 180 days in the country more or less automatically. This is one of the reasons Mexico became such a popular destination for digital nomads.
In 2021, Mexico’s immigration service (INM) started cracking down – hard, in some cases. Now at the airport they may ask you for exactly how many days you need and, if its longer than a month or so, may require proof you’re actually leaving.
Have copies of accommodation reservations and outbound flight tickets on hand. I’ve heard many horror stories of nomads coming with plans to stay for 6 months, only to be given 30 days – sometimes even 10 – to leave the country.
On the other hand, many visitors still do still report getting 180 days without question. It all seems very much a “luck of the draw” situation, depending on your port of entry and the mood of the Mexican government at the time.
Also know that INM has started conducting random checks of people who appear non-Mexican – on the street, at bus stations, at popular nomad spots. This seems most common in Playa del Carmen and Tulum. Technically you’re supposed to always have your passport and FMM on hand. I’ve gotten by with photos on my phone, but your mileage may vary.
#4 – Never Drink Mexico’s 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.
#5 – 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 to do some things in Mexico City.
And, in my humble opinion, that means they 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. Valladolid, Mexico is one of my favorites, and easily accessible from the Riviera Maya.
Mexico is a big country and there is a LOT more to it than just the beaches.
#6 – 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!
🎁 Have a Holiday or Birthday Coming Up? Share our list of the best gifts for people going to Mexico with your loved ones. Maybe they’ll get the hint 😉.
#7 – Use a VPN to Protect Your Digital Security (Especially if Working Remotely)
Mexico is struggling to keep up with the rise of hackers. Several news investigations have highlighted how easy it is for identity thieves to target travelers in Mexico. You think you are connected to your hotel’s WiFi, but really you’re passing your info to a nearby scammer. Bank details, passwords, sensitive data … whatever else you’re doing on your devices, a hacker could see.
The best way to protect yourself from digital theft in Mexico – especially if you plan to work remotely – is to use a VPN to securely encrypt your data. Quality VPNs are cheap, so there’s really no excuse not to set one up now so you’ll be secure when you get to Mexico.
👉 Personally, I just use the cheap but effective Express VPN (that link gives you 3 months free, by the way). I’ve tested several VPNs, and I like Express VPN because it works on every device, doesn’t slow down my speeds, and is affordable. They have a 30-day money-back guarantee, so for a short trip, there’s really zero risk in trying it.
Mexico Safety Tips During Covid
#8 – You Might Get Covid in Mexico
You probably have already thought of this particular Mexico tip, but you may not have fully thought through the consequences of what its like to get it in a foreign country. My partner Clara caught covid in Puerto Vallarta and it was not fun!
First, it’s wise to bring some rapid tests in your suitcase. You can’t easily get them in Mexcio, and covid tests costs $30 USD (or more). That’s assuming you can find a place still offering them.
Second, have a plan for what happens if you do get it. My partner and I separated from each other so I could avoid getting it, but that meant I had to rack up a huge bill for last minute hotels in Puerto Vallarta! Of course, it could have been even worse than that, had she needed more serious medical care, so have a plan for that too.
#10 – Consider Travel Insurance
VisitorsCoverage is a travel insurance marketplace where you can quickly compare quotes from hundreds of insurers -- all it takes is a minute to enter your details!
Due to the risks of traveling in a pandemic, a record number of travelers around the globe are choosing to protect their trips with insurance.
When it comes to travel insurance Mexico isn’t that different than the other places I travel. I just think its common sense for met o get insurance.
Whatever you do, just think hard about it. Are you really going to risk travel to a foreign country during a global pandemic while totally uninsured? I mean, I know covid-19 has become more political than it should and that you probably have strong opinions about it, but … like … really?
#11 – Mexico is Safer Than You Think
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 have been plagued by a recent increase in cartel-associated violent crime. Most of them you are unlikely to visit, but to be honest there have been several high-profile safety issues in Playa del Carmen and Tulum crime incidents impacting tourists recently.
Still, let’s be clear about one thing: traveling in most of Mexico is generally very safe.
Millions of tourists visit Mexico every year, and violent incidents against tourists are actually very rare at a statistical level. Tourism is big business here and the government puts a lot of resources into ensuring the safety of visitors – especially in the popular places to go in Mexico, 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!
👉 Read Next: Is Mexico City Safe?
#12 – Beware of Car Rental Scams in Mexico
If you try finding rental cars in Mexico online, 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).
Mexico is absolutely notorious for car rental scams and hidden costs. With the Discover Cars search engine, you can search & compare the best prices from dozens of rental agencies, see reviews, and book with confidence.
Money Saving Tips
#13 – 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.
#14 – 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.
#15 – 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!
#16 – 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” cards 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
#17 – 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!
#18 – 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!
#19 – 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. Don’t be tempted by VivaAerobus’s fares: it’s almost always worth it to pay for another airline in Mexico.
#20 – 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 altitudes and can get surprisingly chilly during winter, 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 – you may need a jacket!
If you’re the type of person who always messes up what to pack, check out our full packing list for Mexico to make sure you don’t forget any essentials!
#21 – 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 there, 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.
#22 – Be Prepared for Sargassum (Seaweed) in Tulum, Cancun, and Playa del Carmen
When you think of lounging on a Mexican beach, you probably don’t picture a meter of seaweed separating you and the shoreline. But that’s the reality of the situation in many popular Carribean destinations — more often than you might think!
Sargassum is especially a problem in Tulum, Cancun, and Playa del Carmen. It’s a risk all year but, honestly, a lot depends on when you visit Mexico. The sargassum season tends to pick up in late spring, and continues until hurricane season in the fall (when the hurricanes clear out the great sargassum belt).
If you are traveling during this window and worried about seaweed ruining your beach vacation, consider going to an island like Isla Mujeres or Cozumel. Depending on the currents, at least one side of the island will usually be seaweed free. Alternatively, the Pacific Coast is an option to avoid the problem altogether (though you may run into the rainy season, depending on where you are going).
#23 – Be Sure to Experience 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 “done” the country just because you stayed in Puerto Vallarta for a weekend once. 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, history, architecture, and unique vibe.
It’s not all the same!
I’ve been to Mexico more than dozen times, often for months at a time – 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
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