Mexico Travel tips part 3: Driving

We have all heard the horror stories about tourists being stopped by police and bandits. Being shaken down for money and so on. I’m sure incidents like this happen just like there are speed traps in the south that drop the speed limit from 50 to 15 and then haul you into court to pay an exhorbitant fine.  I however have never experienced this in either Cancun, the road to Merida, Merida, the road to the beach, or anywhere on the beach. So chill out.

You will experience many (depending on the time of year) police check points. Here you will have to slow to a couple miles per hour or even stop as they look inside the car. It looks scary but they just wave you on. During holiday periods there are checks like this going into and out of every city, town, and village. We have only been stopped once and that was because our rental car didn’t have front plates. We showed our paperwork and they waved us on.

Another common thing in Mexico is speed bumps. These are not your run of the mill US speed bumps! Go over one of these at more than a couple miles per hour and it can rip the bottom out of your car. You literally need to roll over them no faster than if you were walking. In certain areas they are pedestrian cross walks, but they are also on major roads / highways into and out of towns. This is where the police setup to look into cars.  Be on the look out for these things. They are bad!

You will notice that people don’t observe the speed limits. As a tourist, I recommend you do, or at least don’t go more than 10 kilometers per hour over the speed limit. We have a friend who drives like a maniac (40-50 kph over the limit). He brags that he has never received a ticket (he did roll a car though). However, he speaks spanish and when he has been stopped he just gives the officer some pesos.  This brings up an interesting point, keep a 200 or 500 peso note (~$10-$25) in your pocket. If you do run into trouble, our friend assures us that that will clear it up. It’s important to have it separated so they don’t see a wad of 500 peso notes because then they will want more.  We have never experienced this so take it for what its worth.

Finding your way in best left to Google. Get Google Maps on your phone, and download maps for Cancun, Merida, and Progreso (along with the roads between them) before you leave home. This way you can use google maps on your phone without incuring any data charges. When you are in Mexico, just let Google Maps direct you where you want to go. I also recommend a car charger for your phone, and a phone car mount (suction or vent attached). Then just blindly follow Google. It might make strange turns but it will get you where you need to go without a problem. Since the maps are stored on your phone, it will work regardless of cellphone coverage.

As a tourist you probably won’t run into this, but cities are broken up into areas called a colonia, and each area has its own set of streets. Hence in Merida, you will fine multiple Calle 15 (calle is street) all over town not connected to each other. You will notice the street numbers going 25 27 29 31 33 then 15 17 19 21 23 25 and so on. Its because you went from one colonia to another. Another interesting aspect of navigation is that in any particular colonia the odd numbers go in one direction (say east-west) while the even ones go in another direction (say north-south). Of course just because even numbers go east-west in one colonia does not mean they will go east-west in another colonia.  Hence why I say leave it to Google. Oh and when using Google put in the place name not the address. It works better since you might not know what colonia to use.

The road from Cancun to Merida is a toll rode. There are 2 toll stops. The first one is a fixed price of 276 pesos (or something like that). The second one you have to tell them you are going to Merida and its abut 180 pesos (on the return you have to tell them that you came from Merida).  You need cash and you need pesos. If you are driving from Cancun to Merida make sure you got pesos. These are government tolls so they won’t accept US dollars.

In closing, just remember those damn speed bumps. They are killers! Other than that relax and enjoy. The signs are in Spanish but use international symbols so you can figure out what they are saying.

 

 

Mexico Travel tips part 2: Rental Car

Renting a car in Mexico is an experience. It’s not like renting in the US or Canada, but as long as you know the “gotchas” and are laid back about the time it takes, its really easy. Preparation and realistic expectations are the key. It will cost more than you thought (not much more if you read below), and there will be a lot of waiting, but your on vacation so what’s the rush?

When you go onto a travel site like Expedia you will see car rental prices are unbelievably cheap. Depending on the day and strength of the dollar they might pay you to rent their car!  As the saying goes, if its too good to be true it proably isn’t true. That does not mean don’t rent from the rental place that offers the car for  $-1.00 a day, rather just realize that you will end up paying for the rental car more than you thought.

Rental companies here make their money on insurance. Mexican law says they must provide liability insurance included in the price but that’s only $40,000 worth. You need more and the rental car forces you to buy more unless you bring certified documentation signed by the secretary of state showing you have your own liability insurance. Even with that it will could take hours and a lot of fighting to get them not to force you into buying liability insurance. The better solution is to take that into account, and just buy their liability insurance. Thus the trick is to find the company with the lowest insurance prices. You should also make sure you have print outs from their website with the exact daily insurance rate. Companies like Payless who don’t have their rate documented will charge $25 a day and up depending on who is at the counter. In Cancun I rent from FOX rent a car. They have cheap cars and their liability rate is $15.99 a day. Their return process is also great. In Merida I rent from Alamo (Fox is not in Merida) as they have a published rate of $18.99 a day. Don’t think that because Hertz or Avism is charging $40 a day (compared to $2 a day at Fox) that they won’t tack on liability insurance. They will.

The next aspect of insurance is loss damage waiver (LDW) or insurance that protects you from damage to the rental car. Here your credit card becomes very important. Make sure you have a credit card that offers this as a benefit. Then make sure you call your credit card company and make sure they offer the benefit for Mexican cars. Many do, so call to make sure. Typically cards with no foreign transaction fees are also good about this benefit. Just because the card offers the benefit in the US, does not mean that they offer it in Mexico. CALL AND ASK!  Once you are sure of the benefit, try and get a print out that shows it. Fox and Alamo are good and will take your word, others might not and you will need to to show them some proof. It is important for you to make sure you are covered, because you might have to resort to this statement: “I am covered, and I accept full responsibility for buying the car in case of an accident”. They will make you sign a paper to that effect (even Alamo and Fox). If you can’t get a credit card that will cover LDW, then rent through Expedia and buy their LDW coverage. It’s about $18 a day. Notice how that free rental car is now costing between $15 and $36 a day? The biggest problem is other travelers who don’t expect this and then have a fit at the counter.

On a related subject, I can attest how great credit card companies are with their LDW benefit. I was rear ended once and I called my credit card company, gave them the details, then when I returned the car told them my credit card company would take care of it and gave them the number to call and authorization to charge my card for the repair. That’s it! I didn’t even have to deal with my insurance company’s deductible.

Mentioning insurance company brings up another point. American car insurance companies that provide rental car insurance benefits don’t do so for Mexico. I know this to be true of both Geico and Progressive. So get that credit card it will be much easier.

OK, when you make your reservation make print outs to bring with you. That way there won’t be any arguments about rental rates. If you followed the preparations above you are all set for an easy, but lengthy, process. After getting out of customs look for your rental car agency. They will lead you to a van that takes you to the car lot. Even though there are counters at the airport terminal, nothing is done there. They just drive you to the place. The nice part is that the rental facility is air conditioned, the bad part is that you will need to wait in line and since the process is very paper intensive and many people are shocked by the extra cost items it takes a LONG time. You however will be prepared and it will go easier once you get to the counter. Remember to tell them you WILL buy the liability coverage (SL1 at FOX), and that your credit card will pay for any damage to the car so you don’t want ANY other insurance. They will make you place a hefty deposit hold on your card, but don’t worry it never gets charged. After signing a ton of documents, they will give you a few pages to take outside to the person who will get your car. Again you will have to wait until all the people ahead of you get their car. Typically there are timeshare people there who will take your paperwork. Try and give it straight to the rental agent. If you can’t get around them, then when you hand it to them tell them you are staying in Merida (if you arrive in Cancun) or Progreso (if you arrive in Merida). That way they won’t bother you and will hand the paper work straight off to the rental agent.  Eventually you will get your car.

The agent will walk around the car with you marking off any damage to the car. Make sure you mark EVERY dent, nick, scratch, discoloration, dirt mark, ANYTHING. It’s better to over identify problems than to miss one. It just makes the return that much easier. Next you will be introduced to tipping. You should tip the guy. This is the start of tipping everyone and everywhere. A couple US dollars is enough or 20 to 50 pesos. He will help you load your luggage and be on your way. YAY

Returning your car is straight forward. Alamo in Cancun is a zoo which is why I recommend Fox there. At Fox they have a dedicated return area and the whole process is civilized. At Alamo in Cancun rental and returns are in one area, crowded and people who push go first. I actually had to block the entrance into their facility to get them to process my return. At Fox its like in the US. Merida is smaller so its not a zoo. Here is where making sure you caught every nick in the original inspection helps out. They take that paper and walk around the car and say OK. You go in, they find their original paperwork you signed when you rented the car (yes they have computers, yes your information in the computer, but the return is done on paper).  They charge you for the rental, and cancel the deposit they made you sign. Other than being paper based, its just like in the US or Canada. It’s also pretty efficient. Of course remember to refuel before returning. There are gas stations close to the return place in case you forgot. Gas prices are the same all over so it won’t cost more at the airport either.

 

 

Mexicso Travel tips part 1: Money

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!