Mexico has a reputation for being super-cheap, but just how affordable is it these days? Is it just as expensive as the United States or closer in cost to nearby Guatemala? In this post, I break down how much money you can expect to spend in Mexico, and, most importantly, how to save as much money as possible while you're in the country.
Setting a Budget
How much money you should budget for Mexico travel often totally depends on where you're going. A non-urban location will be cheaper for many things—for instance, locally made handicrafts will be far cheaper than in the city if you buy close to the source—which is usually rural.
Resort areas can be just as expensive as any US city, though lesser known beach areas like Tulum are cheaper than famous spots like Acapulco. How to do Mexico on a cheap travel budget? Let's first look at how to buy food for less than $10 per day in Mexico.
If you're a budget traveler, you're going to be pleasantly surprised by how low your expenses are. Let's say you travel overland using public transport, stay primarily in hostels, eat Mexican street food for three meals a day, and take a tour every couple of weeks or so. In this situation, you can expect to average just $25 a day in Mexico.
If you're more of a mid-range traveler, you'll be looking to stay in decent hotels, splurge on some nice restaurant visits, occasionally take a domestic flight, and take several guided tours. In this case, you can expect to average $70 a day in Mexico.
If you're a luxury traveler, the sky's the limit! There's no real upper limit as to what you can spend in Mexico, so you could be looking at anywhere between $100 and $500 a day while you're there.
And if you're a digital nomad that's looking to live in Mexico for a month or more, your monthly costs will be even lower. I lived in Sayulita for three months on just $20 a day, in Guanajuato for a month for just $25 a day, and Playa del Carmen for a month for $30 a day.
Figuring Out Mexican Money
Drop the last digit, or the peso zero, for an extremely rough conversion (true exchange rate can change at any time). Using this formula, $1.00 is (very roughly) $10.00 pesos. Don't use this formula to budget -- it's an easy way to guess rough costs when you're shopping, though.
Assume that anything you like in the US, like Coke or McDonald's, is going to cost the same in Mexico—don't count on eating and drinking the way you do in the US and saving any real money. If you eat local produce and are adventurous with street food, you can get by cheaply. Although, if you're a fan of Coke, be sure to try some while you're in Mexico—it's made with cane sugar rather than refined sugar and it makes a huge difference to the flavor.
Large grocery stores exist in the cities, even small cities like Zihuatanejo, and some stuff, like bread, is a whole lot less expensive than in similar US stores.
Locally grown fruit anywhere in Mexico is cheap, but often especially cheap in mercados (open-stall community markets). An avocado in a Patzcuaro outdoor market is 3 cents; where I live in Colorado, an avocado is $1.39.
Street food is super cheap; stock your backpack with mercado-bought fruit and veggies for breakfast while having a terrific culinary adventure for main meals.
- Fifty cents for an ear of roasted corn from a street vendor is top dollar; you can get a tamale for 35 cents.
- You can buy a big plate of hot carbs for a buck in the mercados -- you just have to get off any city's beaten path, even by one block.
Use Public Transportation to Save
In-country transportation is cheap, provided you use local buses. It's just 40 cents for an Acapulco bus down the main strip (50 cents if it's air-conditioned), for instance, which makes getting around within cities exceptionally inexpensive.
"Chicken" buses, thus named because they head to and from rural locales and sometimes host an animal or two (though livestock-on-bus sightings are not really as common as some travel guides would have you believe), are cheap and pretty safe. Stand by the side of the road or city street, looking into traffic, and raise an arm when you see a bus approaching—it will probably pull over. You can usually get off by hailing the bus driver at any point along the bus's journey. The buses often run on a schedule; ask a local for advice on where they're going and when.
The farther away from population centers you get, the farther apart buses will be (like hours or days), so ask someone, like a bartender or shop clerk, when the buses run in the area to which you're headed. Cab costs vary but assume about $1 per 10 miles. Negotiate the rate before you get in.
Booze Sticker Shock
Beer and booze in Mexico aren't nearly as cheap as is usually assumed -- expect to spend a dollar or $1.50 for a bottle of beer in a bar. Bottles of booze are only about 10% less than they are in the US. Beer is perhaps two-thirds of the price in the US if bought in a grocery store.
If you're trying to travel as cheaply as possible in Mexico, you can save money on your accommodation fairly easily. You can camp on some of the beaches for free, but you should never assume without first asking a local if it's possible. Camping on a beautiful Tulum beach with access to a bathroom is $3; a very nice hostel in Cancun with breakfast is about $15.