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Money & Costs — México


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Currency

México’s currency is the peso. Pesos can be either coins or notes. Notes come in denominations of 20, 50, 100, 200, 500, and 1000 and coins in denominations 2, 5, 10, 20, and 100. One peso is equal to 100 centavos. Centavo coins come in denominations of 20 and 50.

Currency Exchange

The peso is traded on the international currency markets and its exchange rate changes every business day against all major currencies. Historically, the peso's exchange rate has fluctuated widely against the US dollar, the Euro, the Canadian dollar and other major currencies. The inflation rate, however, has been low to moderate since 2001, so the prices of goods and services should remain steady. For current and reliable currency conversion rates check the website: xe.com.

México is still primarily a cash-based society and most sales are transacted in pesos, especially in small towns, villages, and rural areas. US dollars and other major currencies are often accepted as payment or exchanged at resort areas and business that cater to upscale tourists. For this service they usually extract a steep cut -- as much as 10% -- from the current currency exchange rates. To avoid this added cost, it is best to keep sufficient pesos on hand. The exception to all this is along the northern border in places like Tijuana, Ciudad Juarez, and Matamoras where US dollars can be be used for most, if not all, transactions.

Exchanging most major foreign currencies -- not just US dollars -- is easy at banks and casas de cambio (currency exchange businesses) in areas that travelers frequent. Outside of these areas, it is easier to exchange US dollars. Some guidebooks suggest that non-US based travelers can save money by exchanging their cash back home for US dollars and then upon arrival in México exchanging their US dollars for pesos. This may be true for less commonly exchanged currencies, but for Canadian dollars, Euros, British pounds, Swiss francs, Australian dollars, Yen, and other major currencies exchange rates in México are attractive and commissions are low to non-existent. For those visiting areas frequented by tourists exchanging money twice seems pointless. It does, however, make sense if venturing outside of the more tourist-trodden areas to convert home currencies to the more easily exchanged US dollar or to stock up on pesos.

Méxicans living and working in the United States send billions in remittances back to México every year. The flow of billions in to México creates a robust competition among Méxican banks and casas de cambio resulting in attractive rates for exchanging US dollars and pesos. This undercut any black market outside of narcotraffickers laundering drug money or other serious criminal activities. If approached about exchanging currencies, it is best to decline and use established banks and casas de cambio.

Many guidebooks publish prices in US dollars. Because of wide fluctuations in exchange rates over time between the peso and US dollar, prices published in US dollars are poor predictors of the actual costs in the near future. With the peso's relatively low inflation, prices published in pesos will be closer to the mark a year or two out. For these reasons, and because of the predominance of transactions in pesos, prices published in this guide are in pesos and denoted by Mex$. In some cases where businesses publish their prices in US dollars, the price is published in US dollars for clarity and denoted by USD$.

Traveler's Checks

The problem with traveling with cash is that once lost or stolen it can't be replaced. Traveler’s checks (cheques de viajero) solve this problem by creating a paper trail with a receipt from the purchase of the checks. If the checks are lost or stolen the issuing company will honor the purchase receipt and replace the checks. The purchase fees are also reasonable, usually between one to two percent of the face value of a check.

Traveler's checks are widely accepted in México and the exchange rates at banks and casas de cambio are usually comparable to rates for cash. If a bank or casa de cambio is offering a rate that is less than they offer for cash, shop around for a better deal, particularly if there are lots of other options nearby. The exchange rate from a hotels, restaurant, and other business is generally not good and like for cash they usually extract a steep cut — as much as 10% — from the current currency exchange rates. It is best to avoid these situations and only change traveler's checks at banks and casas de cambio.

Stick with established brands like American Express, Visa, and Thomas Cook in major currencies such as US dollars, Euros, Canadian dollars, British pounds, Swiss Francs, Australian dollars, and Yen. They are more widely accepted and their local offices and affiliates are more common so it's easier to replace missing checks.

It is best to purchase a mix of different valued checks. Banks and casas de cambio will not flinch at changing a large denomination check, say USD$100, but a restaurant or other small business may scoff because it would clean them out.

Usually one form of picture identification such as a passport is sufficient to cash traveler's checks. Although some places require a second piece of identification such as a driver's license or student id.

To replace missing checks present the purchase receipt at the issuing company's local or affiliate office and they will issue new checks of comparable value. It is important to keep purchase receipts separate from checks at all times to avoid their loss as well. To improve the turnaround time on refunds report a loss to the issuing company immediately. Also keep a record of the serial numbers and mark off the checks as they are used.

Phone numbers to contact in México for lost or stolen traveler's checks:

American Express
1-866-247-6878
Thomas Cook MasterCard
1-800-123-4823
Visa
1-800-123-4823



Personal bank checks and international money orders cannot be exchanged for pesos at banks and casas de cambio so they are useless for ordinary travelers. They can be deposited in a Méxican bank account, but the hold time until a check clears is weeks.

Credit, Debit, & Prepaid Cards

The most convenient way of making a purchase or withdrawing pesos from an ATM in México is with a bank debit card that works on a network such as Plus, Star, and Cirrus or with a major credit card such as Visa, MasterCard, and American Express.

Withdrawing cash from an ATM or making a purchase with a credit or debit card usually gives a better currency exchange rate than a bank or casa de cambio does for cash, although this savings may be offset by foreign transaction fees, generally between 2-5%.

Most businesses that cater to travelers or well-off Méxicans accept major credit and debit cards. Some business pass along credit and debit card transaction fees to their customers by charging for their use, while others present paying with cash as a discount in price.

Travelers who do not have a credit or debit card or are concerned about identify theft while using their personal cards should consider a prepaid debit card such as Visa TravelMoney. Prepaid debit cards are accepted everywhere in the world regular debit and credit cards are accepted. They are also reloadable, so as the card is drawn down more money can be added to it. Each card is issued a PIN code for ATM withdrawals making it as secure as a regular debit card and, if lost or stolen, it can be replaced just like a traveler's check.

Before choosing a prepaid debit card shop around and consider the fees carefully. Reload and monthly account maintenance fees, in particular, can be excessive. As a general rule, the more money added per reload, the cheaper the fees.

Every time a personal credit or debit card is used the card holders name, signature, card number, expiration date, and PIN number are all at risk of being stolen. Since no information is encoded on a prepaid debit card that points directly to the purchaser's bank or credit card information, it acts as a good shield against identity thieves.

Phone numbers to contact in México for lost or stolen credit cards:

Visa
1-800-847-2911
MasterCard
1-800-307-7309
American Express
55 5326 2929
Diners Club
55 5258-3220


Banks & ATMs

The most convenient way of getting pesos is from an ATM (caja permanente, cajero automático) with a bank debit card that works on a network such as Plus, Star, and Cirrus or with a major credit card such as Visa, MasterCard, and American Express. Queues for ATMs are usually short unlike the long lines common at banks.

Most major banks have ATMs in the lobby or outside near the entrance. In urban and tourist areas ATMs are popping up all over in places like corner stores and pharmacies. Many are available 24 hours a day and are an excellent way to get pesos after normal business hours.

Always be aware of surroundings and any suspicious behavior nearby when withdrawing cash from ATMs If unsure, walk away and find another machine. Only use ATMs in the daytime or at night when other people are around.

Also be protective of credit and debit card information when using an ATM. If an identity thief obtains a card's number, expiration date, and PIN code they can make a duplicate card and use it to withdraw cash from ATMs. Card information is most vulnerable when used in outdoor ATMs. Identity thieves have been known to set up hidden cameras to acquire card information.

The safest ATMs are secured behind doors that require cards to access them. Barring that, look for ATMs in public places such as bank lobbies or shopping malls. Don't be alarmed if police or armed security guards are standing around an ATM. Most likely, the machine is being refilled. This is standard practice.

ATM providers always charge a transaction fee for a withdrawal, usually between Mex$8 and 10 pesos. Also be aware that credit card companies treat cash withdrawals from an ATM as a loan and interest begins accruing immediately.

Banks are usually open during normal business hours Monday to Friday from around 9 am - 5 pm and some are open for part of the day Saturday, usually from around 10 am until 2 pm. They are never open on Sundays.

Most banks will exchange major international currencies and traveler's checks, but they are more bureaucratic, have shorter hours, longer queues, and less attractive exchange rates than casas de cambio. Casas de cambio are also usually open for long hours on Sundays.

Casas de Cambio

To exchange major international currencies and traveler's checks for pesos, casas de cambio (currency exchange businesses) are usually a better all around deal than banks. Generally, the queues are shorter; they are open for longer hours, usually 9 am to 7 pm, including Sundays; and the exchange rates are better than at banks. Currency exchange rates vary so shop around for the best deal if there are several nearby.

Wiring Money

The quickest way to receive money from abroad is to wire it using MoneyGram or Western Union. Once sent, the cash is usually available for collection from a local agent in México within minutes. The cost, however, is exorbitant and this method should only be used in case of emergency. Both companies charge on a sliding scale based on the amount being sent. The greater the amount being sent, the cheaper the fee.

Both companies' websites have information on fees, how to send and receive funds, and agents located worldwide.

MoneyGram www.moneygram.com
Western Union www.westernunion.com


Another, albeit more complicated method of wiring money, is to transfer funds directly from a bank in your home country to a bank in México. The person wiring the money will need to know the Telex number of the bank in Mexico receiving the funds. This method makes the most sense for ex-patriots living in México who have a local bank account and rely on funds from abroad.

Money Safety

Pickpocketing and other kinds of petty theft are the crimes travelers are most at risk of. By taking a few simple precautions travelers can lessen the risk of losing their cash and valuables.

Try not to look too affluent. Never wear expensive jewelry, designer clothes, or display anything that signals affluence or attracts attention.

In case of emergencies, it is prudent to travel with at least two credit or debit cards, cash, and traveler’s checks in multiple denominations.

It is important to divide up cash, cards, and travelers checks. When out for the day carry only enough incidental cash, say Mex$200-400, for the day's expenses and leave all other valuables in a hotel safe.

Consider buying an inexpensive second wallet for incidental cash, tourist card stub (visitors are required to carry it at all times), and photo id, preferably an old one. In case of robbery, only a cheap second wallet and some easily replaced cash and possessions will be lost.

Never leave valuables: passport, credit and debit cards, traveler's checks, cash, jewelry, cameras, and laptops in a hotel room if there is a safe (caja fuerte) available. No matter how secure a hotel appears, it is vulnerable to theft. Many nicer hotels have in-room safes secured with an electronic lock and accessed by a private PIN code. If a hotel does not have a safe, a decision will need to be made whether it is better to take all valuables or leave them in the room.

Always carry the main stash of cash and valuables out of sight in a money belt separate from incidental cash. Loose-fitting pants with zipped interior pockets can be used in lieu of a money belt, as long as the valuables are not noticeable.

Always be inconspicuous with cash. Display as little of it as possible when paying for something and never count it in public.

Never carry valuables in a fanny pack. Doing so broadcasts where the loot is.

To secure individual lockers in hostels use a personal padlock, not one supplied by the hostel.

Always be aware of surroundings and any suspicious behavior nearby when withdrawing cash from ATMs If unsure, walk away and find another machine. Only use ATMs in the daytime or at night when other people are around.

Also be protective of credit and debit card information when using an ATM. If an identity thief obtains a card's number, expiration date, and PIN code they can make a duplicate card and use it to withdraw cash from ATMs. Card information is most vulnerable when used in outdoor ATMs. Identity thieves have been known to set up hidden cameras to acquire card information.

The safest ATMs are secured behind doors that require cards to access them. Barring that, look for ATMs in public places such as bank lobbies or shopping malls. Don't be alarmed if police or armed security guards are standing around an ATM. Most likely, the machine is being refilled. This is standard practice.

When a credit or debit card is used for payment in a restaurant it is usually gone for a few minutes. During the card's absence an identity thief, using an easily obtainable card skimmer, could scan its vital information. Paying with cash or a using a prepaid debit card such as Visa TravelMoney is the only way to guard against this.

To expedite the replacement of traveler's checks in case of theft write down check numbers. Also make photocopies of important documents such as passport, driver's license, and birth certificate.

Pickpockets, often operating in groups, like to work among the chaos of crowds in places such as bus stations, airports, and markets always looking for the easiest score. The less one looks like an easy mark, the less likely they are to be targeted. Always carry bags or purses in front, not to the side or behind. And, of course, never leave bags or other belonging unattended, not even for a second.

There are a few common schemes pickpockets employ to relieve a mark of his valuables. By being aware of these schemes, they can be spotted before they unfold and thwarted. One common ploy is for a pickpocket to distract a mark while another picks his pocket. Another old favorite is to take a razor blade and slice open a mark's bag and quickly make off with the loot. A more violent tactic is for two thieves to immobilize a mark by pinning his arms to the wall while a third rifles through his pockets. And finally, there is the straightforward grabbing of a purse or bag and sprinting off before a mark has a chance to react.

Muggings do occur, but they are rare. If held up, do not confront a mugger; hand over wallet or purse immediately. Like all thieves, muggers are looking for an easy mark; stay out of deserted areas in cities or any other mugger friendly place.

Costs

The cost of travel in México varies considerably depending on destination, time of year, and type of travel. Well-trodden destinations such as the Carribean coast, Baja California, and the Pacific coast and most large cities invariably cost more than places off the beaten path. Many hotels raise their prices — as much as 50% — during the high season, holidays, and special events. Airfare is a significant expense that needs to be considered since most travelers travel to México by flying. Airfares vary widely depending on season. For information on the cost of airfare, read the article Getting there — México.

The actual high season varies depending on location, but generally speaking, the peak travel times are the Summer months of July and August, a couple of weeks before and after Christmas, and Easter. If off-season travel is possible, considerable savings can be had for hotels and airfare. For information on the best time to travel, read the article When to go — México.

And finally, the type of travel will effect costs. Most destinations in México can accommodate all types from budget to high-end.

Traveling in México is not as inexpensive as it once was. Indeed, budget travelers, arriving from other places in Latin America, especially Central America, expecting the same low prices, often experience sticker shock. Still, budget travel is still possible in México.

Staying only in modest hotels and eating exlusively in inexpensive restaurants, budget travelers can get by on USD$30-60 a day. Getting by on less is still feasible, but it takes real effort, staying only in hostels, shopping in markets and eating in often, only eating out at food stalls, street vendors, and the most inexpensive restaurants. For tips on saving money while traveling, read the article Budget Travel — México.

In the midrange, say Mex$700-1400, expect a pleasant and comfortable room with private bath and two meals in decent, but not high-end, restaurants. At the upper-end of this price range there are some great deals to be found with really elegant hotels and nice restaurants available.

At the high-end a swank room in a hotel or resort and two fine dining meals a day expect to pay a minimum of Mex$1400.The maximum for the high-end, the sky's the limit.

All sleeping accommodations listed in this guide are labeled with one to four dollar signs ($-$$$$) to signify price range for a single adult in the least expensive room during the high season.

$ Less than Mex$200
$$ Mex$200 - 500
$$$ Mex$500 - 1000
$$$$ Mex$1000 - 2000
$$$$$ More than Mex$2000


All cafés and restaurants listed in this guide are labeled with one to four dollar signs ($-$$$$) to signify price range for a meal that includes a non-alcoholic beverage for a single adult.

$ Less than Mex$50
$$ Mex$50 - $100
$$$ Mex$100 - $200
$$$$ More than Mex$200

Tipping

A tip is rarely ever added to the check and whether to tip and the amount is left up to the customer. Keep in mind that Méxican workers in businesses that cater to tourists depend on tips to augment their wretched wages.

Some guidelines to tip by:

  • In expensive restaurants waiters expect 10% to 15%, in less expensive establishments 10% or less is sufficient.
  • In bars and clubs waiters expect 10% to 15%.
  • Although not expected, consider giving a tip of 10% of the cost of the hotel room to the staff who have worked hard at extremely low wages cleaning your room and otherwise being helpful during your stay.
  • For a porter hauling luggage Mex$10 should be sufficient.
  • Drivers normally do not expect tips. Nevertheless, if a driver has been especially helpful, consider leaving one.
  • For parking and gas-station attendants Mex$5 should be fine.
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