Money & costs
A single traveler, staying in budget accommodations and eating two meals a day in restaurants, can expect to pay from M$250 to M$300 a day for those basics. Add in other costs (such as snacks, soft drinks, entry to museums), and you’ll spend more like M$400 to M$450. If there are two or more of you sharing a room, costs per person come down considerably. Double rooms are often not much more expensive than singles, and triples or quadruples are available in many hotels for only slightly more than doubles.
In the middle range you can live well in Mexico City for M$600 to M$700 per person per day. Two people can easily find a clean, modern room with private bath and a TV for M$450 to M$600, and have the rest for food, admission fees, transportation and incidentals.
At the top of the scale, a few hotels charge more than M$3000 for a room, and there are restaurants where you can pay M$600 or more per person. But you can also stay at very comfortable hotels for under M$1200 a double, and eat very well for M$300 to M$600 per person per day.
Keep your costs down by having a comida corrida, a three- or four-course set lunch served by many restaurants, or make a meal of the tasty botanas (snacks) served by cantinas along with each drink you order. Almost all Mexico City museums are free on Sundays and many cinemas have half-price shows on Wednesdays (of course, those places will also be more crowded then). The city regularly stages free concerts on the Zócalo on weekends and many museums offer music recitals and films – check Tiempo Libre magazine for listings. Finally, use the metro and the Metrobus to get around instead of taxis.
Waiters in bars and cantinas will fully expect a tip of 10% to 15%, with the higher rate anticipated in the upscale dens of Condesa and Polanco. In dance clubs, a service charge of 10% may be added to your bill, but they’ll still expect you to shell out an additional 5%.
In general, workers in small, cheap restaurants don’t expect much in the way of tips, while those in expensive establishments expect you to be lavish in your largesse. Workers in the tourism and hospitality industries often depend on tips to supplement miserable basic wages. In restaurants and hotels frequented by high rollers, tipping is up to US levels of 15%; elsewhere 10% is usually plenty. If you stay a few days in one place, you should leave up to 10% of your room costs for the people who have kept your room clean (assuming they have). A porter in a midrange hotel will be happy with M$10 a bag. Taxi drivers don’t generally expect tips unless they provide some special service. Car-parking attendants expect a tip of M$3 to M$5, and the same is standard for gas-station attendants.
Mexico’s currency is the peso, which can be denoted by ‘M$’, ‘MX$’ or ‘MN’ (for moneda nacional). Any prices quoted in US dollars will normally be written ‘US$5’ or ‘5 USD’ to avoid misunderstanding. The peso is divided into 100 centavos. Coins come in denominations of 20 and 50 centavos and one, two, five, 10, 20 and 100 pesos. There are notes of 20, 50, 100, 200, 500 and 1000 pesos.
The most convenient form of money in Mexico is a major international credit card or debit card – preferably two if you have them. Visa, MasterCard and American Express cards can be used to obtain cash simply from ATMs in Mexico, and are accepted for payment by most airlines, car-rental companies and travel agents, plus many upper midrange and top-end hotels, and some restaurants and stores. Occasionally there’s a surcharge for paying by card, or a discount for paying cash. Making a purchase by credit card normally gives you a more favorable exchange rate than exchanging money at a bank, and isn’t subject to commission, but you’ll normally have to pay your card issuer a ‘foreign exchange’ transaction fee of around 2.5%.
As a backup to credit or debit cards, it’s a good idea to take a little cash and a few traveler’s checks. US dollars are easily the most exchangeable foreign currency in Mexico. Euros, British pounds and Canadian dollars, in cash or as traveler’s checks, are accepted by most banks and some casas de cambio (exchange houses).
Be discreet when changing money or making payments and avoid counting currency in public places or flashing cash when making purchases.
ATMs (caja permanente or cajero automático in Spanish) are plentiful in Mexico City, and are the easiest source of cash. You can use major credit cards and some bank cards, such as those on the Cirrus and Plus systems, to withdraw pesos from ATMs. The exchange rate that banks use for ATM withdrawals is normally better than the ‘tourist rate’ for currency exchange – though that advantage may be negated by extra handling fees and interest charges.
To avoid the risk of ‘card cloning, ’ use ATMs only in secure indoor locations, not those in stand-alone booths. Card cloners obtain your card number and PIN by means of hidden cameras then make a copy of your card and use it to withdraw cash from your account.
You can exchange cash and traveler’s checks in banks or at casas de cambio. Banks go through a more time-consuming procedure than casas de cambio, and usually have shorter exchange hours. There is often a better rate for efectivo (cash) than for documento (traveler’s checks).
The greatest concentration of ATMs, banks and casas de cambio is on Paseo de la Reforma between the Monumento a Cristóbal Colón and the Monumento a la Independencia, but there are others all over town.
American Express (5207-7049; Paseo de la Reforma 350; 9am-6pm Mon-Fri, to 1pm Sat; Pesero ‘La Villa’ or ‘Metro Chapultepec’)
Casas de cambio
Centro de Cambios y Divisas (5705-5656; Paseo de la Reforma 87F; 8:30am-7:30pm Mon-Fri, 9am-5pm Sat, 9am-2:30pm Sun; Pesero ‘La Villa’ or ‘Metro Chapultepec’)
Cambios Centro Histórico (5512-9536; Madero 13; 9:30am-6:30pm Mon-Sat, 10am-6pm Sun; Bellas Artes)
Taxes & refunds
Mexico’s impuesto de valor agregado (IVA; value-added tax) is levied at 15%. By law the tax must be included in virtually any price quoted to you, and should not be added afterward. Signs in stores and notices on restaurant menus often state ‘IVA incluido.’ Occasionally they state instead ‘IVA no incluido’ or ‘más el IVA’ (IVA must be added to the quoted prices).