Take it from someone who made Mexico his adopted home after vacationing in the country since 2003: you can definitely travel Mexico on the cheap if you know the right steps.
Mexico only got upgraded to a full chapter of the fifth edition of 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. You have to make some adjustments on the where and how as opposed to a place like Nicaragua where the whole country is on sale constantly.
Here are some strategies that will help a lot to travel Mexico on the cheap.
Head Inland to Mexico’s Interior
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). Go to Polanco in Mexico City and you’ll see rich people in every direction.
In most of 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 $6. Just watch out for the gringo retiree enclaves of San Miguel de Allende and the Lake Chapala area near Guadalajara. You’re almost back to American prices in those until you get out of the central core.
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.
Also, if you visit Mexican beach resorts in the summer instead of the U.S. winter, that’s when the Mexicans are on their vacation. So prices at hotels tend to drop quite a bit compared to what they’re like in January through April. It’s hurricane season in the Caribbean though, so the Pacific Coast is a safer bet. Always research what travel season it is to balance budget and safety/comfort.
Two (or Three) People Sharing 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 for half that. 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.
If you do have to go alone, you’ll get a lot for your money usually for $20 to $35 a night. This past week I was in the Yucatan Peninsula for a press trip, but then I stayed on for a few night after to have more time in Merida. I didn’t want to stay in a hostel and needed a place to get some work done. So I poked around on Booking.com and paid close attention to the reviews for the cheap places.
This Su Ca-Sa en Yucatan place was a block off the Paseo de Montejo, a convenient spot, and I had a suite with kitchen, A/C, and hot shower. Plus they let me use a bike to ride on the closed-off Paseo on Sunday.
How much did I pay for this place? A total of $53.48 for two nights, including the 21% taxes. Sure, I was solo, but that certainly didn’t break the bank. You can find a rate like this for a Mexican hotel almost anywhere that’s not near a beach.
Find Alternate Accommodation in Mexico
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 if you’re there for more than a couple nights and it will 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 and Vrbo have plenty to pick from in Mexican locations that get more than a smattering of visitors.
Take Your Time: Slow Travel in Mexico
The Mexico travel expense item people complain about more than any here is the cost of buses from one city to another. Those buses are very nice and comfortable, with Wi-Fi (sometimes), bathrooms, climate control, and plenty of legroom, and charging outlets on the newer buses. The top companies give you a snack and something to drink as well.
All that comes with a price: you can easily pay $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.
Why are the prices so high for bus travel? On many routes, you can blame it on the toll roads. Driving from where I live in Guanajuato to just three hours away in Lake Chapala can cost 500 or 600 pesos just in tolls for a car–and buses have to pay more. If you’re on a route with no tolls, you’re paying for the amenities, fuel (which costs more than it does in the USA), and all the bus station overhead.
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, Avis, Hertz, and the other usual players have some great rental deals all over Mexico. At times I’ve paid less than $10 a day for a rental car, though you’ll have to pony up for liability insurance at $12 to 15 per day if it’s not explicitly included. 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. I usually start with Kayak and then branch out from there: sometimes it’s better to book direct and even pre-pay if there’s a price advantage.
Just understand that there are quirks to renting a car in Mexico. It’s never a fast process, first of all, and they’ll keep track of every tiny dent and scratch. You have to pay attention and choose carefully to avoid manual transmission if that’s an issue and the car size classes are uniformly smaller than the American ones. Your compact might really be compact, like this one I ended up with recently:
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 went bust during the pandemic, unfortunately, but Volaris and Aeromar are still around, with a smattering of others that are regional. Aerobus is the Spirit Air of Mexico, so you have to factor in lots of extra charges and annoyances, but the base prices are as cheap as a bus, living up to their name for light packers.
Eat a Big Afternoon Lunch to Travel Mexico on the Cheap
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. One of my best Yucatecan meals in Merida, for instance, was at the Santiago Market.
If you have access to a kitchen, fruit and vegetables, especially in the interior, are an incredible bargain. And they’ll be fresh. See this post and video for what you can get for a dollar or less in Mexico.
Find the Local Bargains in Mexico
Mexican people love a good fiesta, a concert, performers, and anything boisterous really. So in any sizable city, you’ll find a long list of entertainment options that are free or cheap. To give you an idea, if I go to see the local symphony, tickets are around $6. A big cultural performance in our elegant concert hall that’s more than 100 years old will seldom top $10 and they’re usually half that. Meanwhile, in normal times, there are always bands playing outdoors and in local clubs.
You also won’t pay much for the other kind of culture: museums and attractions. Sure, they’re going to soak you for all they can at Chichen Itza since the Cancun crowd is on a vacation budget, but harder to reach sites are much less. Palenque in Chiapas is around $6 and the grand Teotihuacan ruins that are a day trip from Mexico City cost less than $5 to enter. One of the best museums in the world, the National Museum of Anthropology in Mexico City, is only $4. For a place you could easily spend the whole day in.
Once you get past the famous places, you might pay just a buck for museum admission. That’s the case for a few of them where I live in Guanajuato and prices were similar when I spent a few days in Queretaro. The 16,000-piece mask museum in Zacatecas will set you back less than two bucks and it’s the same with the Museum of Death in Aguascalientes.
How about you? What strategies did you find that worked well to travel Mexico on the cheap?