Pre-Departure Checklist for Traveling to Mexico

From getting your Passport to landing at your destination. A guide to making your experience as stress-free as possible.

 

Passport

Apply for your Passport first task after deciding you want to go to another country. It is valid for ten years, so you need not worry about it expiring before you take your trip. The USPS makes this process easy. Everything from the photo to the paperwork in one appointment for around $120.00. Be aware of the times your local post office offers this service. Be sure to show up more than an hour before closing time for appointments, as it can take an hour to complete the process. They may not allow you to begin the process if you show up less than an hour before closing. In my personal experience, I left empty-handed and had to come back another day because I arrived too close to the closing time for the service, wasting time and effort. It can take several months to receive your passport in the mail and there may be issues, so go ahead and get it as early in the process as possible.
 

Research

Applying for your Passport and deciding to come to Mexico, you have taken your first step. Now it is time to gather as much information on the state(s) or cities in Mexico you are interested in visiting. This information can be gained from friends or family who have experienced the adventure, online research through travel sites, ex-pat chat rooms, and government websites. It is recommended you take advantage of all options. Please keep these things in mind when gathering information. Do your friends or family members share your zest for adventure and have the same interests and physical abilities? When was the travel site article published, and by whom? If the article is more than a couple of months old, it may not be as accurate as you would like. Likewise, if you see all their “recommended” things to do also happen to be advertisers on their site or packages they sell, well.. The comments of others are also very subjective. Even ex-pats have biases.
 
Some come to Mexico and expect some type of Mexican America where everyone speaks English, and all their favorite products are readily available. I assure you, in quite a few locations neither is the case. I have also seen people write horrible reviews of great locations simply because they did not consider the timing of their visit. Time of day, day of the week, or local holidays can dramatically change the dynamic of a location. One scathing review stated how disappointed they were about an area with nothing to offer. The problem was that they arrived during the day, on a Tuesday, and the location did not have much to offer. Just a Park along the Bay with benches and some monuments. Had they known to come during the evening, they would have discovered a highly active scene with families enjoying the many food carts, activities for the children, and craft vendors present every evening, especially on weekends. I know this to be true as I lived four blocks from the location and was a regular visitor. Do not rely on a lone source for information unless that source is “on the ground right now” to avoid disappointment. We here at calderitasbech.com update our information regularly and give an honest “boots on the ground perspective.”
 
Please note I use the word ex-pat here as that is what the chat rooms usually call themselves. Ex-pat, newcomers, and visitors are all words they use to describe themselves. To be clear, if you decide to move to a foreign country, you become an immigrant.
 

Choosing a Location(s)

What do you hope to see or do while in Mexico? Are a sandy beach and a cold margarita or cerveza all you require? Do you want to be surrounded by high-rise hotels/condominiums with the feel of spring break? Staying at an all-inclusive resort may be perfect, as everything is done for you. Lodging, meals, and the day trip you may have signed up for are all scheduled and paid for, but it may be too scripted for some travelers. Are you more comfortable with a backpack in an environment of trees, critters, cenotes, and archeological sites? Are you interested in immersing yourself in the local culture? If so, the resort areas or border towns will be disappointing, if not frustrating. With an estimated cost of $899.00USD to $1500.00USD per person to stay in one location for 5-7 days, you may want to spend less money on truly exploring and exposing yourself to the culture of Mexico and interacting with the locals. You can choose a village in a central location you are interested in exploring and stay at a hotel or hostel – not all hostels are dorms only – to use as a base camp for your adventures. While it may take more effort on your part to make it all happen, the reward could be life-affirming. For reference, the average of the costs above for a week at a resort is equal to four months of rent or three + months of exploring for me.
 
Keep in mind not all of Mexico is beaches and jungles. You may be more comfortable in the temperate highlands or a more arid climate of sweeping deserts. The same options listed above apply here also. There are big cities with large immigrant populations and similar living conditions as the resort areas, and there are many smaller towns where you can get the same immersion in local culture. Know that the more immigrants in any given location, the higher the costs. Staying in some cities in Mexico, with large immigrant populations, your expenses can be close to or higher than in the United States. If you choose a location an hour or two away from the “popular” population centers, your expenses will drop dramatically. Don’t worry that you will be trapped in a rural area with no way to get to the site you want to see. The regional bus system in Mexico is genuinely nice. Think charter buses, not city buses, and local transportation options are available in most locations.
 
Regardless of the path you choose to take, online Ex-pat groups can be an excellent source to get information on your area of interest. While they try to be helpful, be aware that not everyone in the group will share your vision of the perfect vacation, so ignore the naysayers who cannot fathom your personal decision to do something they wouldn’t dream of. Many people have done what you are planning to do, and they can be accommodating in pointing out some of the nuances of that area. They are aware of how expensive the area is and may have ideas for local attractions that may not be well known to those who do not live there. Be sure to ask for specifics on affordability, as it can be very subjective. What is considered affordable for one person can be prohibitive to another. Cross-reference information provided from these sources as you would any other source of online information to avoid disappointment
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Language Barrier

f you do not speak Spanish, start learning now. While in resort areas, the employees who interact with the guests will speak English. Once you leave the compound, you may be on your own. The “town” area near the resort may also have a higher percentage of English speakers. Once you get further out, those numbers will decrease dramatically. At the very least, learn your numbers. 1 through 20, the “tens” and the “hundreds” are crucial. This will make everything you purchase much more straightforward and lessen the chance of being short-changed. Learn how to ask where things are. “Dónde está” can save you. The bathroom, the bank, the airport, the bus station, taxis, etc. Also, learn how to say hello and thank you. Some parts of Mexico are more formal than others, so when exchanging pleasantries knowing what to say and when to say it will bring you some street cred and respect. Suppose you speak into your translator and hold it up for them to read and the person on the other end may not be literate. Not the way to build respect with the locals. Don’t be afraid to try to say what is on your translator even if you know you will mess it up completely. The locals will chuckle and be more than happy to work with you. There will be times when another local hears you trying, and they will step in to help you with their limited English. Be sure to thank them all. My go-to line is Estoy aprendiendo – I am learning, and I smile and get smiles and nods in return and build that much-needed street cred.
 

Travel Doctor or Insurance

Your family physician should be able to refer you to a Travel Doctor if his practice does not offer the service. Get a consultation and decide what is suitable for you, your destination, and your activities. If you cannot get a referral, go online, and see what is available in your area. My insurance through my employer paid everything for my visit, but I would have gladly paid for the four-day course of Azithromycin for “Montezuma’s Revenge.” And yes, it took all four days. Enough said.
 
Travel insurance or local insurance is required in Mexico. I was never asked for proof of it, but you may. Your insurance agent should be able to refer you to a reputable company offering it, but if not, go online and get it. It is not expensive and can help prevent a vacation disaster. You will also want to let the American Embassy/consulate know of your plans and definitely fill out the consent to disclose form. It allows the authorities to let your family know what is going on if you run into problems.
 

Travel Insurance

 

Must Have Phone Apps

If you are unfamiliar with any of these Apps, I recommend you download them early and put them to the test in a familiar area before traveling abroad to ensure they will serve you well.
 
English to Spanish Translator
Not all translators are created equal. Most do not work well if you are not using proper English. Slang words do not translate well. You will find out how much slang you use in everyday conversations when you start using a translator app. Even using proper English, your translator app may steer you wrong, especially with a gender-specific language like Spanish. Still, the receiving person should be able to make sense of what you are trying to get across. Find one that is easy for you to use and will give you the most significant benefit. Google Lens is also good to have as you can point your camera at printed material and it will translate that menu, historical marker, etc.
 
Google Maps
I have not found a better map app than this. Easy to use on any phone or computer, its versatility cannot be matched. It is excellent for locating places to see, eat, and sleep, and it usually has reviews written by people who have been there. Remember the tips on reviews from above. Do you want a hotel/hostel/Airbnb near your transportation hub or attractions you wish to visit? Google maps can be a good starting point for finding suitable lodging for you.
 
Whatsapp
WhatsApp is commonly used here in Mexico. It is a good, economical phone/texting service used by many people and businesses. It could help avoid a high phone bill, and many people only list a WhatsApp phone number for their business. Especially food delivery services.
 
Wunder Ground
It is always good to know the local weather when planning an excursion. I have found it to be more reliable than most and the only one I found to have radar info in some of the more remote areas of Mexico.
 
Rome2Rio
Suitable for starting your trip and moving around in Mexico. It will list a few options on how to get from point A to point B, and points in between, using multiple types of transportation. It is usable on phones and computers and is linked to Booking.com, making the transition from finding a route to making reservations for accommodations easier.
 
Hostels, Hotels, and Lodging
Most of the hotel Apps are very much the same. Find the one(s) you like and make some comparisons. If you want to save as much money as possible, this is one way to do so.
 

Renting in Chetumal Mexico

 

 

Flight Availability, Cost, and Rules

Now that you have decided to come to Mexico and have a feel for the Apps that will help you manage your stay, it is time to look at flights. Google Flights is a good starting point as you can search using destination, price, and dates. It is easy to use and has a calendar with prices for each day of the month. Be aware the prices listed are the lowest possible price per person and are not a firm purchase price. When making my reservations, I have found it is not beneficial to save $4 to $10 using a booking site instead of the airline site. I have found by using the airline’s site, I avoided booking a flight that did not exist and would have cost me significantly more if it did exist.
 
Be flexible. You may find it beneficial to land in a city outside your chosen area to avoid long layovers. Many flights arriving and departing in southern Mexico will send you to CDMX for an 8-to-12-hour layover. If you create a game plan for the time spent on a layover, this may not be a problem. If waiting in an airport is a deal killer, the regional bus lines are comfortable and inexpensive. Taking a bus for the final leg of your journey may get you where you want to go quicker, cheaper, and offer a scenic view of the landscape as a bonus. There are many rules on what you can take on a plane. Some are very commonsensical, but some are amazing. Be sure to check out the TSA site below first.
 

TSA Travel Security – What to Bring

 
Also, check your airline’s website for prohibited items and baggage rules. Online info may not be as accurate as you would like, so it is best to get answers from a “real” person before arriving at the airport if you have questions. If you use a chat option, be sure to conduct the chat on your phone and save the conversation. This is especially recommended if you anticipate having extra baggage fees or other considerations. If your return flight is more than 14 days away, you will be required to pay an extended stay “tax”. Be sure to check your airline ticket price breakdown for this fee. It will be $594MXN / $29.70USD +/-. Make sure you do not pay this “tax” twice. Your boarding pass will designate whether it has been paid. It is extremely helpful to know if this fee was paid in advance and how to show the authorities proof of payment at your destination.
 

 

Departure Airport

Keep all documents and your phone easily accessible. There may be QR codes with health questionnaires that must be filled out before you get into the screening area. You will need to show your Passport and tickets a few times before you board. Wear easy-to-remove shoes and belt as you may have to take them off for screening. Laptops need to be separated from your luggage, so make them easy to remove from your baggage. Water bottles are ok, but only if they are empty. You can refill them on the other side once you pass through the screening process.
 
At some point in your flight, the flight attendants will hand out a Forma Migratora Multiple (FMM). You will need to fill out this form before you land. Yes, another document to keep handy going through customs, but it is easily kept with your Passport.
 

Customs at Arrival Airport

There will be a gate with agents to check your Passport and FMM card. If you are staying for more than 14 days and are asked for the length of your stay, it is best to add a week or so to your length of stay. This will help compensate for any changes in plans, anticipated or not. You paid the extended stay fee so there would not be an extra cost. They may just put 180 days, the maximum time allowed on your passport entry. They will write this on your FMM, and you will want to always carry this card with you while in Mexico. You will need to show it to any Immigration Officials you encounter during your stay, and you must have it to leave the country. If you do not have it on your person, lose it while here, or overstay your time, you could have to pay a fine. It is also a good idea to always carry your Passport with you unless you spend all your time in a resort. Now you can go to baggage claim and pick up any checked bags you may have. Now that you have all your possessions, you could be chosen for a search. Cooperate completely. One prohibited item found in your bags can lead to a more thorough investigation and more time spent in the airport.
 
Now that you have cleared customs and are out of the airport the land of Mexico awaits! This may be your opportunity to eat the first authentic taco in your life. Savor the moment..
 

¡BIENVENIDO A MÉXICO!

 
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