Best Ways to Pay in Mexico
Story by Jim Foreman
The second most often asked question, after safety, about visiting Mexico is, “How do I pay for things in Mexico?”
Many seasoned travelers know the answer to this, quite handily. Despite that, it is surprising and often alarming how much bad advice is bandied about by people who claim to be knowledgeable in this matter. Before doing anything, it's wise to know the current exchange rate between Mexican Pesos and US Dollars.
Here are some common questions with some straight forward answers.
1) Can’t I just pay with US Dollars in Mexico?
Yes, you can in border and tourist areas, but that is foolish on many levels. First, As of this writing, the current exchange rate is over $19MX Pesos for $1USD. When you pay with US Currency, you are subject to the exchange rate decided by the individual vendor. That may be $17MX, $15MX or when dealing with especially unscrupulous sellers, as little as $10MX per $1USD.
The further south you travel south of the border, the less welcome US currency is until you hit tourist spots and are again subject to the whims of the individual vendor.
There’s also a ‘respect’ aspect to using the local currency. You show whomever you are dealing with that you are not an arrogant traveler, and that rip-off exchange rates won't fool you. Bargaining is much easier in Pesos, too.
2) Can I pay with my Credit Card for everything?
Credit cards are being accepted more and more by Mexican merchants. Many hotels, gas stations, supermarkets, medium to upscale restaurants and larger stores gladly accept credit and debit cards.
There are several problems with this approach. First, is that the credit card terminals and data network are often subject to outages and sometimes simply don’t work.
Second, most banks charge an International Transaction Fee between 2% and 3% of the total amount, per transaction. That said, a few don't.
An excellent compilation of credit cards that do not charge this fee can be found at CreditCards.com.
Notably, Discover and Capital One do not charge an International Transaction Fees and the exchange rates are very favorable to the cardholder. Some of their cards also offer rewards. Shop carefully for the right credit card offering.
Sometimes your bank credit card won’t work despite calling them ahead of time to give a travel notice. Banks are still quick to throw fraud holds on your card until you can sort out the problem. Even then, there’s no guarantee it will work. Have a backup.
For large purchases like premium hotel rooms, excursions, or a large group meal, it may not be a bad idea to use your credit card. Only use it sparingly.
If using your credit card, do not let it out of your sight. Often restaurants will bring a wireless credit card terminal to you for the transaction. If not, discretely go to the cashier and handle the transaction.
3) Can I get Pesos at my bank before leaving for Mexico?
Getting Pesos from your US or Canadian bank a horrible idea. US Banks are the biggest rip-offs when doing currency exchange. They will offer 40% to 50% of the actual value of the money. Don’t do this.
4) Should I exchange US Dollars at one of the money exchange places when crossing the Mexican Border?
You can. The buy and sell exchange rates are often displayed on a LED sign or posting in the window. Rates do vary from one currency exchange center to another.
Almost always, the exchange rates will be better in Mexico than the US. Make sure you see the amount on a calculator or register tape and confirm the exchange rate is the same as advertised before handing your dollars over.
Count with the cashier and then count again before leaving the window to verify you received the right amount. Once you exit the window, there is zero recourse for an incorrect amount given.
In Mexico, there are often runners or porters outside Cambio or money exchange places along busy thoroughfares. Most are honest. It’s best to go up to the window, in person. If you use a porter, it’s customary to give a small tip for their service. $10MX up to $20MX is a right amount.
5) Can’t I simply use an ATM and withdraw Pesos?
Yes! In most cases, this is the best way to exchange currency, but there are some caveats.
Make sure you notify your bank with a travel notice the dates and countries you wish to visit. While you are on the phone with your bank, ask them what the Foreign or International Transaction fee is. Credit Unions typically offer the lowest Foreign Transaction Fee. Certain banks like Charles Schwab Bank have zero foreign transaction fees and zero ATM fees. Accounts are very easy to setup and transferring between bank accounts is painless and quick.
When you are in Mexico, only use a bank branch ATM. Go to a bank in Mexico, and use their ATM. Use the ATM only during the day and preferably during business hours as there is often a guard on duty. Do NOT use an ATM at night.
Physically check for any tampering where you insert your card. Grab, with some force, around the card slot to make sure there are no installed card skimmers. This technique is also good advice in the US or any country.
Different banks have different out of network ATM Fees. Making a larger withdrawal typically negates the differences in these charges.
6)Are there any other ways to exchange US Dollars to Mexican Pesos?
Yes there are. New services like Xoom.com allow you to link your bank account to its service. If you plan ahead, you can arrange for any denomination to be transferred to Xoom.com where you can pick it up at specific bank locations in Mexico. The cost for the transfer is extremely low and there is no foreign transaction fee. You also don't have to use an ATM as you must walk into a bank branch or retailer and present proper credentials and ID.
Services like Xoom seem better suited for long term visitors to Mexico and part-time or full-time ex-pat residents. It can be used by anyone with a Xoom account and a bank account. Xoom is a PayPal service.
7) What’s the best way to pay for things in Mexico?
Collect any Pesos from previous trips. It’s good to have a little bit on you when you cross, but it’s not necessary. It's also wise to bury a $100US bill, where you can get to it, just in case.
If you have US Currency you need to exchange, do it on the Mexican side. Look at the signs posted for the Buy or ‘Compra’ rate. That’s how many Pesos they will give you for each dollar. Find one with close and easy parking and exchange your cash.
Ideally, go further into town and find a bank. Park and go to the ATM and withdraw $6000-$8000 Pesos. That’s between $320 and $440 US Dollars. That should last you three to five days depending on your spending habits. Don’t count your money at the ATM. Quickly stuff it into your pocket and retrieve your card. Make sure the transaction is complete.
Alternatively, If you have previously arranged a Xoom transfer, you can go into a participating bank branch, wait in line and withdraw your Pesos.
Distribute the large stack of Pesos you received later. For now, get in your vehicle and drive off.
If for any reason the ATM fails to dispense the currency, collect whatever receipt you can and take it up with your bank. Your bank should be very good at handling this. Usually it involves filling out a one-page form and in a couple days, the money is returned to your account. Don't try the same machine with another card. It's probably out of money. Go to another bank and try it again.
When you can discretely do so, put about $400MX in small bills in your wallet. Take out all credit and ATM cards you don’t plan to use actively. Distribute the rest in a couple of places. Have a couple $500MX notes handy for fuel fill-ups as it will cost between $800MX to $1200MX to fill up your car or RV. It’s between $200MX and $300MX to fill up a motorcycle.
Place the bulk of your cash in a place you would know but may be unusual. It could be an inner zippered jacket pocket. Also, consider in a pants pocket inside your luggage.
Don’t flaunt your cash. Be discreet when making purchases. A good salary for many Mexicans is $300MX/day. Please keep that in mind.
Lastly, please don’t keep your wallet or anything of value in your back pockets. Those are the easiest to pick. You don’t need a money belt or other contraption. Just use similar caution as you would back home.
Traveling in Mexico is fun, exciting and full of music, color, and wonder. You must have Mexican Auto Insurance. It’s the law. It's simple to go online, shop, buy and print an A+ rated policy at Mexican Insurance Store. It’s quick, easy and will be there for you if ever needed.
©2016 Jim Foreman All Rights Reserved.