I figured I would start making notes to give our clients about coming to Mexico. People hear such horror stories and, while problems can occur, usually everything works smoothly as long as you chill out. Yes there is corruption, but they want to keep tourists happy and spending money here so keep that in mind.
The first thing to do before traveling here, or anywhere outside the US, is to check what fees your credit card and debit card charges. While every bank offers credit cards with no international fees, those same banks also offer cards WITH fees. Check which one you have by calling your credit card company, and if you have a credit card that charges international fees ask your for a new card with one that does not charge fees. Bring that one to Mexico, and leave your other one home. Why pay 3% fee on every transaction when you don’t have to. Debit/ATM cards are the same thing, but there you may need to change banks which would be a hastle. Just realize that you will be hit with those fees and thus try to use the credit card with no fees for everything.
The next thing is actually something you should not do. Don’t change money from dollars into pesos. Walk right past all those currency exchange places. Bring some US cash with you, mainly some dollar bills a couple 5 dollar bills and maybe a 10 or 20 bill. This is for emergencies only and you likely will never use it. When you arrive in Mexico, you will use your debit/ATM card to widthraw Pesos from you US bank. At worst you will pay a 3% transaction fee but you will also get the best exchange rate. Since you don’t want to have any pesos left when you return, you need to manage how much you withdraw. While some ATMs let you take more out at one shot, don’t expect it to let you withdrawing more than 6,000 pesos. That’s about $320 at the exchange rate when I wrote this. There are ATMs all over so don’t worry you can get more.
It is important however that once you get through customs and everything you find an ATM at the airport terminal and take out money. You will need it for almost immediately for tips. Plenty of people speak english so just ask where the ATM machine is. In Cancun its right after you get out of customs, regardless of which terminal your are in. Again, if you can’t find an ATM to work for you just chill out. You can use those dollar bills for tips. When you get to our place we can help you out.
This brings me to an interesting point. Unlike the US, every ATM machine you see is not really an ATM machine. Some are automated bank tellers for the particular bank. If you bank with them you can use the machine, otherwise you need to find a true ATM. More often than not, its right next to the other one. Hence you will see 2 Banamex machines that look different right next to each other. One will give you money and one won’t. How do you know which is which? You don’t, just try one and if it doesn’t work, go to the next one. The ATMs ALL have english on them. Sometimes you press a button to select English, other times everything is just shown in Spanish and English. The physical buttons are only in Spanish but they are color coded. Green is OK, Red is cancel, Yellow is erase (I think).
That’s about all you need to know for money here. Mexico is a cash based society, but any larger restaurant, or larger store will take credit cards. The small restaurants and stores only take cash but you are not going to spend a lot of money there. At the beach a good dinner for 2 with alcholic drinks and tip will be under 500 pesos ($27). If you end up at a place that costs more (highly unlikely), they will take credit cards. Even the souvenir shops that sell bigger ticket items will take credit cards. What you will spend money on is tips. Tips are expected for EVERYTHING. I’ll get into that in another post. While you will find yourself tiping for everything, its only 5 or 10 pesos. Our Mexican friends would call that last sentence typical gringo, since they tip 1 or 2 pesos, 5 at the max 🙂
So how many pesos will you need during your trip. Obviously that varies, but I would say plan on 500 pesos a day. If you start running low, you can find an ATM and take out more. If you seem to have “left over” start using your pesos instead of credit cards. Worst case you bring some pesos home and use it the next time you come visiting us!