Mexico is a big country — and there are plenty of ways to get around it. Which method is right for you depends on a few factors, including where you will be traveling, what sort of travel you are interested in, and, of course, cost. With that in mind, here is a look at those options.
I have driven Mexico from end to end — twice. And I loved it. In 2008, my husband and I followed the Pacific Coast to the southern border with Guatemala, and beyond. On the return trip north, we navigated Mexico’s gorgeous, mountainous interior, stopping for a several-month stint in Mexico City before crossing back into the United States at Juárez, then among the most dangerous cities in the world. It was an incredible trip, and one I would recommend highly. Even so, when friends ask about renting a car in Mexico, I invariably discourage it.
On a longer trip, there are as many reasons to be the captain of your own ship in Mexico as there are anywhere else. But most travelers are not on the road for months or years, but days or weeks. On those trips, renting a car in Mexico is often unnecessary, expensive and, in my experience, more of a hassle than it is worth.
Though perceptions of safe travel through Mexico often come filtered through overblown stereotypes, it is best to be informed before proceeding. A good starting place is the State Department’s travel warning page, which offers both a general assessment and a state-by-state breakdown: there are no advisories in the Yucatán or Oaxaca, for example, but travelers are advised to “exercise caution” in Veracruz and to “defer nonessential travel” to parts of Sonora and Michoacán.
That said, the most frightening experiences of my yearlong road trip involved taking a turn and finding a herd of cattle blocking the road and watching cars pass each other on roller-coaster hills at racecar speeds. While roads and signs in some parts of the country have improved in recent years, in many others, road-tripping remains more of an adventure than a vacation — something to consider if a vacation is what you are after.
Car rentals in Mexico seem, at first glance, to be a bargain. A quick online search of prices may return daily rates as low as $3 or $4, as one recent Mexico City query did. But the actual price tag is almost certainly several times that, even without the usual add-ons and upgrades. One factor is a hidden cost that many renters are not aware of before they are standing at the rental counter, staring at a line on a rental agreement in acute sticker shock.
As is the case in the United States, Mexican law requires all drivers to carry Mexican liability insurance, which typically runs about $15 per day. It is not, however, always clear what the insurance requirements actually are and which costs are included in the quoted price. Many websites, including big booking sites like Kayak and Priceline, make only passing mention of insurance in their fine print.
A Priceline quote for a Ford Fiesta rental through Budget in Mexico City for two days in early February, for example, costs $13, plus about $7 in taxes and fees. But it was only by clicking a policies link at the bottom of the page that I discovered this: “Customer must be able to provide proof of liability insurance when traveling in Mexico.” And it still wasn’t clear if that coverage was included in Budget’s price.
After a lengthy and convoluted chat with a Budget customer service representative, I was informed that yes, I would be required to buy “supplemental liability insurance” (at $15 per day). Though it is technically “optional,” as mentioned, driving in Mexico without it is illegal. There was also a fee of 95 pesos (about $6.21 at 15.29 pesos to the dollar) for each additional driver. So while the advertised rate was $13, with insurance and two drivers factored in, my husband and I would actually end up paying about $41.50 for the car — and that’s not including other add-ons, like collision coverage or GPS.
A final tip: Manual transmissions are much more common in Mexico than they are in the United States, so if you are an automatic-only driver, be sure your reservation is not for a stick. The bottom line: always read the fine print on any agreement before you make your reservation.
Fortunately, there are several great alternatives to driving yourself. While there may be times when you really do want that rental, before you book first consider the country’s famously extensive and affordable bus system, its budget-friendly airlines or — depending on your itinerary — even hiring a car and driver, which can be arranged for as little as $40 to $60 a day, depending on the number of passengers and the route. The negotiated price typically includes everything and the itinerary is as flexible as it would be if you were driving yourself, so the private driver option is both practical and luxurious. After all, how much will you really be able to enjoy that gorgeous drive if you are constantly slamming on the breaks to avoid breaking an axel on a tope, one of Mexico’s steep and oddly placed speed bumps?
PECEROS, BUSES AND FLIGHTS
Alice Driver, the author of a coming book about the disappearance of and violence against women in Juárez, Mexico, traveled from Honduras to the northern border in 2011. “I crossed from Guatemala into Mexico in a pecero” — also known as a colectivo — “a small van that is cheaper, but more crowded, than a bus,” Ms. Driver wrote in an email from her home in Washington, D.C.
Peceros, she wrote, are fine and very affordable for shorter journeys, but because their routes are not usually published anywhere, they may be a challenge for more timid, non-Spanish speaking travelers. They can be money savers — Ms. Driver pointed to the five-and-a-half hour journey from Palenque to San Cristóbal de Las Casas, Chiapas (304 pesos) — and a good way to meet people, “but if you are tall like me,” Ms. Driver warned, “you will find yourself stuffed into extremely cramped spaces.”
Long-distance first-class buses (typically indicated by “Elite,” “Plus” or “Lujo”) are more comfortable, but also a good bargain on many routes. Ms. Driver ended up flying from Chiapas to Mexico City, but for the sake of comparison, she said the trip would have taken about 13 hours on the ADO bus line (794 pesos in advance, or 1,266 pesos the day of). Making the same trip by car would have taken about nine hours, while the flight on the discount airline Interjet cost 2,212 pesos.
She advised that for long bus trips, like the 24-hour trip from Mexico City to Juárez, the price (1,685 pesos) is close enough to that of a flight (1,048 pesos, on VivaAerobus) that you should only take the bus if you want to experience the scenery. “What I remember most about the trip was the light in the north,” she wrote, “the stark beauty of its sunrises and sunsets.”
Julie Schwietert Collazo, a journalist based in New York who regularly covers Latin America, typically flies into Mexico City and then takes cheaper, domestic airlines within the country. But on a 2011 trip, also to San Cristóbal de Las Casas, she found there was no flight that would get her to a meeting she was scheduled to attend. Instead, she flew to Tapachula, Chiapas, and took an overnight second-class bus (158 to 346 pesos). The experience was “perfectly fine,” and she didn’t feel unsafe, though security forces — either the police or military — did board during the night for an identification check. “There was nothing untoward about it, and no one was taken off the bus,” she said.
Even so, Ms. Collazo advised that with the growing number of budget airlines in Mexico, travelers may find it affordable enough to fly between many cities rather than take the bus. Had the timing worked, Ms. Collazo’s trip, for example, would have cost less than $200 round trip (currently $183 on Interjet for flights in February) for an-hour-and-a-half direct flight to Tuxtla Gutiérrez, the nearest major airport from San Cristóbal. From there, either a taxi, a shuttle (arranged in advance) or a colectivo would do.
One region in Mexico where the positives of renting a car balance more evenly is the Yucatán, where Zora O’Neill, a co-author of “The Rough Guide to Cancun and the Yucatán,” recently returned from a work trip to the region and said that the real drawback of renting a car is not the price or the roads, but the fact that once you have one, you feel compelled to use it: “You rush from town to town, and don’t settle in one spot and enjoy it.”
Worse, Ms. O’Neill said, you may be tempted to drive down a road that you really shouldn’t. “I drove down to Punta Allen, south of Tulum, one summer,” she said, “and the road just kept getting worse and worse, with deeper and deeper water-filled potholes. The car finally conked out, because the engine got too wet. I had to sit and wait an hour for it to dry out.” When she finally got to Punta Allen, there was a storm that further destroyed the road. “I had to hitch a ride with the beer truck and leave the car behind.”
Even in the Yucatán, Ms. O’Neill prefers taking buses and colectivos. “It’s an excuse to be up close to people and see what they’re wearing and carrying, and so on,” she said. “You get to see funny dubbed movies, and buy snacks from people who get on at stops to sell things.”