Transportation in Mexico: How to Get Around
If you’ve been traveling around Southeast Asia or Central America, the distances required to go from place to place in Mexico can come as a shock. Moving from one coast of Mexico to the other is similar in scope to doing the same thing in Canada or the U.S.— this is the 15th-largest country in the world by area.
On the plus side, it can be quite comfortable going from city to city. Mexico has one of the best bus systems in the world, with four classes of service between popular destinations and roads that are, for the most part, in good shape. Plus although the budget airline competition took a while to get going in Mexico, the country has made up for lost time the past couple of years and there are now plenty of choices beyond the traditional duopoly of Mexicana and Aeroméxico.
None of this comes all that cheap, however. While internal flights and executive class buses are a good value for tourists on vacation, they’ll quickly eat up a backpacker’s budget. If you’re on the move every day or two in this country, it will double or triple your costs compared to someone spending a week in one spot before heading to the next spot. All prices below are in U.S. dollars, which generally trades in a narrow band against the Mexican peso.
Internal Flights in Mexico
Mexico’s airline industry traditionally catered to the country’s wealthiest residents and business travelers. It wasn’t in any hurry to let in scrappy upstarts who would undercut their high fares. Now there are nine budget airlines flying the Mexican skies, but they’ve had to claw their way into each connection. Most only serve 10 to 25 destinations, including industrial areas that don’t interest tourists.
Click Mexicana is one of the larger players. It flies to quite a few places popular with travelers, including Cozumel, Guadalajara, Ixtapa-Zijuatanejo, Manzanillo, Mérida, Mexico City, Oaxaca, Puerto Vallarta, Aguascalientes, Huatulco, León, and Puerto Escondido. I have flown with them twice and neither time has the plane been anywhere close to full. You have to navigate a website that’s in Spanish only, but fares are frequently 20 to 40 percent less than those on Mexicana itself. In both cases, the flight price was only about double the price of the best class of bus, which is worth the money sometimes to avoid a long and boring trip.
Interjet has its hub in Toluca (outside Mexico City), but it hits a lot of tourist hot spots, like Acapulco, Cancún, Guadalajara, Ixtapa-Zijuatanejo, Los Cabos, Mérida, and Puerto Vallarta. Viva Aerobus is run by the people who started RyanAir and you can fly them to Cancún or the hub of Monterrey from Austin, Texas.
For those who are coming from or to California, Volaris is a great bet. Not only do they fly from Tijuana, but their website is available in English and flights can be a bargain in advance: less than $100 to go one-way from Tijuana to Acapulco, for instance.
The Mexican Bus System
If you’ve had your fill of the Latin American “chicken buses,” the choices in Mexico will seem heavenly. Buses are generally well maintained, the drivers stick to a timetable, and you will have multiple class and time options for most routes.
For about $10 per hour of travel, you can really go in style with an executive class bus. These air-conditioned coaches have just three seats across, enough legroom to really stretch out, complimentary drinks and snacks, a bathroom, and a movie. They are true express buses, going point-to-point with no stops.
The first class buses are about 25 percent less in cost and are still air-conditioned express buses. They have four seats across, less legroom, and are generally a bit older.
The second-class option is 40 to 50 percent cheaper than executive class, or $5 to $6 per hour of travel. Second class is usually not express, so it will take longer and will stop more often. Sometimes these buses are air conditioned, but often not.
Third class is a small step up from the Latin American norm on inter-city routes, but will be the same old converted school bus on rural routes. Slow, sweaty, and cramped, but far cheaper than the others and in some areas, the only choice. You can wave one down from the side of the road in almost any location you happen to be.
Note that rates are likely to rise in line with ongoing increases in the price of fuel. For a complete rundown of Mexican bus options and links to individual company websites (most in Spanish only), see this Bus Travel in Mexico page.
Trains Near Extinction
Mexico used to have an extensive passenger train system, but now all that remains is a one-day tourist trip from Guadalajara to a tequila distillery and the route going through the Copper Canyons. Many well-heeled travelers explore the latter on customized luxury coaches run by tour companies, but you can also just hop on the regular train that the local use.
Follow this link for schedule and prices, which top out at around $70 for the whole stretch in second class (which is air-conditioned), double that for first class.
A company called Bamba Experience offers a hop-on, hop-off van service between hostels and backpacker hotels in Mexico. They’ll also work out a combo bus and van pass if you set up an itinerary in advance.
Combi vans ply the short routes between towns and cities that are an hour or less apart. They’re the best way, for example, to get from Tulum to Playa del Carmen for cheap at any time of day. Just stand by the road flag the combi down, or catch it in the central square of whatever town you’re in.
Rental cars are surprisingly expensive in Mexico, especially when you factor in the “good to have” liability insurance. The process is straightforward, but expect to pay double what you would in the U.S., with anything under $35 a day usually being a tiny manual shift car that doesn’t have air conditioning. You’re often better off hiring a car and driver, especially if there are a few of you splitting the cost.
Ferries ply the waters between the west coast mainland and the Baja Peninsula. There are three routes between the two land masses, with the longest being an 18-hour trip from La Paz (north of Los Cabos) to Mazatlan.
Some say the best way to see Mexico is to drive through it in your own vehicle. If you drive a car that is easy to get parts for and think this is for you, get the paperwork in order first. You need the registration, a driver’s license, the title (or a note from your bank if the car is not paid for), and your passport. A credit card is necessary for a bond or you’ll have to leave a large cash deposit. You should purchase liability insurance for Mexico before you leave the United States or, as a last resort, you can buy a policy from a storefront agency on the U.S. side of the border.
TIM LEFFEL is the author of some classic books on budget travel and travel writing. He is also editor of PerceptiveTravel.com, featuring narratives from some of the best wandering authors on the planet.