Mexico only gets an honorable mention in The World’s Cheapest Destinations because when the peso is not near record low levels—like it is right now—there are less expensive places to go in much of Central America. Plus the majority of visitors to the beach resort areas are on a short vacation budget, so prices in those spots are more like “Florida at a discount” than a real bargain.
When you get away from those hordes though, Mexico becomes a terrific value for the mid-range traveler or flashpacker. For those on a shoestring, however, it takes a bit more work to keep the budget in check. Here are some strategies that will help a lot.
Big beach resort areas are priced for foreigners. The rest of the country is priced for Mexicans. Contrary to what many conservative politicians want you to think, however, Mexico is not a dirt poor country. It’s one of the world’s largest economies and there’s a very large middle class here (with an ever-expanding girth to match). In the interior, however, you’re much likely to find prices a family making $20K a year can afford, rather than what someone making 10 times that amount can. So you’ll find $20 hotel rooms, $3 lunches, and $3 taxi rides. Or a bucket of six beers for $7. Just watch out for the gringo retiree enclaves of San Miguel de Allende and the Lake Chapala area near Guadalajara. You’re back to American prices in those.
If you really want to hang at the beach for a while, find one favored by locals or surfers. Puerto Escondido and the smaller ones in Oaxaca state are a pretty good deal, as are the Gulf Coast ones near Merida or the ones an hour or two up the coast from Puerto Vallarta. As far as the well-known places go, Mazatlan has a higher percentage of domestic tourists than foreign ones, so it’s fairly reasonable.
Two (or Three) is Better Than One
Mexico is not the best place for solo travelers. There are hostels in the big cities and popular tourist areas, but they’re kind of rare elsewhere. It’s often easier and cheaper to find a $20 room for two than it is to find a hostel bed for a single. Triple rooms are very common if there’s a group of you. A cheapie room here won’t blow you away, but it’s seldom terrible. You’ll get clean sheets, hot water, and towels.
Another reason to travel with someone else is the expense sharing aspect. You can justify taxi rides more easily or share some of the huge portions you get sometimes at restaurant meals here. You can cook more economically and take advantage of inexpensive groceries.
Find Alternate Accommodation
I’ve met quite a few people who have done a home exchange with someone in Mexico and ended up in a terrific house. Others have used a house sitting service and ended up taking care of someone’s cats and plants for weeks in exchange for a place to stay.
If that sounds too daunting, however, at least look into sticking around for a while in a house or apartment instead of a hotel. Especially if there’s a group or family, this can be a lot more economical and give you much more space. Plus you’re more likely to be living like a local, in a real neighborhood, instead of being in the heart of the tourist or business zone. All the usual players like AirBnB, HomeAway, and VRBO have plenty to pick from in places that get more than a smattering of visitors.
Take Your Time
The expense item people complain about more than any here is the cost of buses from one city to another. They are very nice and comfortable those buses, with Wi-Fi bathrooms, and plenty of legroom, sometimes outlets even. All that comes with a price: you can easily play $5 to $10 per hour of travel depending on company and service class. If you’re on the move every day or two, that can bust your budget in a hurry. It’s best to go somewhere for a week or more, move on to the next place, repeat. It’s silly to make the long trek to isolated Real de Catorce and then leave a day or two later anyway. Savor the destination.
If you have a base, this is a good country to explore by rental car. Roads are in good shape and most highways have decent signage. Alamo has some great rental deals all over Mexico and last time I paid a crazy $12 a day plus $15 for liability insurance—that’s less than $90 for a long weekend. Again, if you have a few people, this is easy to fit into the budget and it will save a lot of time and bus fares.
There are a lot of Mexican airlines now, so sometimes a flight can be cheaper than a bus, especially from Mexico City or Tijuana. Interjet is the best of the cheaper ones, with Volaris and Aeromar next. Aerobus is the Spirit Air of Mexico, so you have to factor in lots of extra charges and annoyances.
Eat a Big Afternoon Lunch
The comida corrida, menu del dia, or meal of the day is a staple throughout Latin America, It comes in various forms, but at the lowest level here it’s generally a bowl of soup, a main dish with some rice and/or beans, and fresh tortillas. That’ll cost you less than $3 if you get it at a market stall or simple restaurant. Go up a dollar or two and you’ll get better dishes, an agua fresca drink (fresh fruit juice mixed with purified water), and maybe dessert. You’ll probably be stuffed at the end and can get by without a big dinner since this lunch tends to be an afternoon thing rather than at noon.
Mexicans fill in the gaps (and fill out their waistline) by snacking a lot, or having lots of meals throughout the day. Much of it is crap you’ll want to avoid, but the happy byproduct of this is you can almost always find something cheap to eat almost anywhere you happen to be. Mexican street food staples like tacos, gorditas, tlacoyos, tamales, chalupas, quesadillas, tortas, and on and on will fill you up for a few bucks and sometimes can be better than what you get in a restaurant. If you have access to a kitchen, fruit and vegetables, especially in the interior, are an incredible bargain. And they’ll be fresh.