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Crossing the Border: A Tourist’s Checklist for Driving to Mexico

Rent a Car to Drive to Mexico

Mexico is a popular tourist destination, which should come as no surprise. Our neighbors to the south have lots to offer when it comes to cultural experiences, attractions, and cuisine. Because the nation is so close to the U.S., you can forego expensive plane tickets and drive to Mexico instead.

If you’re planning to rent a car to drive to Mexico, it’s important to prepare properly. Traveling to a foreign country always adds special considerations to the trip, especially when you’re crossing a national border while driving. Following the checklist below will help you prepare for the journey.

Make sure your passport is valid. It takes up to 8 weeks to renew a passport by mail so don't wait until the last-minute.

Get Your Papers Together

Like any trip to a foreign country, renting a car to drive to Mexico requires you to have your travel documents in order. Make sure your passport is valid. It takes up to 8 weeks to renew a passport by mail, so don't procrastinate. You can opt for expedited processing that will be completed in 2-3 weeks, but this costs an extra $60. You can also renew your passport in person. For that, you’ll need to make an appointment at a passport agency.

If you don’t have a passport, the process takes four to six weeks following your appointment at a passport acceptance facility. Since it requires lots of paperwork to secure a passport, it’s recommended that you allow two to three weeks to put the papers together.

You’ll need your passport to reenter the United States after you rent a car to drive to Mexico, take the trip, and are ready to return. Be sure to keep it in a safe place during your trip.

Research Your Destination

Like any country, Mexico has some areas that are friendlier to tourists than others. The U.S. Department of State’s Mexico Travel Warning tells you places to avoid. They provide a state-by-state breakdown of the safety status of Mexico. Find out which states you’ll be traveling to, and do your research. Knowing what areas to avoid can significantly reduce your risk of becoming a crime victim.

Some states like Puebla have no travel advisories in effect, but others like Chihuahua are so dangerous that travel is recommended only during daylight hours and only on major highways. Make sure you explore the travel advisories for every state that you’ll drive through, not just the places you’ll be staying.

Get the Right Vehicle

To ensure that your road trip goes as smoothly as possible, you need the right vehicle. Our San Diego airport rental car location is a convenient option for those planning to travel from San Diego to Mexico. Renting a spacious car will keep you and your fellow passengers comfortable on the long drive, and the extra space will ensure you have lots of room to stash souvenirs.

While you’re in Mexico, be wary of taxis. Robberies and assaults are common in so-called “libre” taxis, or taxis that aren’t associated with any organization. Since you’ll be taking a road trip through Mexico in a rental car, try to avoid traveling in taxis. If you have to call a cab, ask the concierge at your hotel to contact an authorized taxi.

Consider Travel Insurance

If you require medical treatment after rent a car to drive to Mexico and take the trip, it’s important to note that your health insurance probably doesn’t cover medical care in foreign countries. If so, check with your health insurance provider to explore alternative coverage options.

If your insurance doesn’t cover out-of-country expenses, the U.S. State Department has useful information on travel insurance. You never know what will happen on a vacation, so it’s good to know that you’ll be covered in case of any illnesses or injuries.

Be Smart About Money

The peso is the national currency of Mexico, so you’ll need to convert U.S. dollars to pesos to spend money. Carrying cash while traveling internationally is useful in case you have trouble with credit cards, but it can also make you a target for thieves. Keep extra cash in a money belt or in your hotel’s safe, so you’re never carrying more than you need.

Using credit or debit cards tends to be the easiest way to spend money while abroad, and it often has the best currency exchange rates. However, credit cards can be lost or stolen, so bringing a few cards and having spare cash is recommended. It’s also a good idea to check your bank’s policy on foreign ATM use — many banks charge fees.

Brush Up on Your Spanish

Because Spanish is the official language of Mexico, it’s a good idea to familiarize yourself with helpful phrases before you go. While many people speak both English and Spanish in touristy parts of Mexico, such as Cancun and Puerto Vallarta, you’re less likely to encounter English speakers in the rest of the country. Knowing some basic conversational Spanish can go a long way toward helping you get around (and help prevent you from falling victim to tourist scams).

Often, the locals are appreciative of tourists who take the time to learn their native language. Even if your Spanish is broken or heavily accented, residents generally take kindly to your attempts to use their language. You may find that people are friendlier and more helpful when you make the effort to communicate in their language.

Dress for Warm Weather

Mexico tends to be hotter and more humid than most parts of the United States. Wearing clothes made of natural, breathable fabrics like linen and cotton will help keep you cool on your journey. Synthetic fabrics like polyester tend to trap heat in, so try to avoid packing those for your trip.

Stop at a Border Crossing Point for Documents

All U.S. Citizens must pay a fee to obtain a tourist card (FM-T). You’ll need to know the number of days you’ll be in Mexico, your passport number, your destination, and your city of origin. To get your tourist card, stop at any of the official border crossing points.

If you rent a car to drive to Mexico and travel more than 25 kilometers away from the border, you’ll also need to get an entry permit, or a Forma Migratoria Multiple. You can get these at any immigration checkpoint, and you’ll have to present this form at all immigration checkpoints on your trip.

Stay Vigilant Against Crime

The U.S. Department of State’s travel advisory for Mexico notes that three types of kidnapping are common in Mexico. In traditional kidnappings, the victim is abducted and held captive until a ransom is paid. In express kidnappings, the victim is abducted for a short time, in which they are usually forced to withdraw money from an ATM before being released. Third is virtual kidnapping, where victims are contacted by phone and coerced into isolation by threats to their families and loved ones, and are held captive until a ransom is paid.

Carjacking is another common crime in Mexico. Carjackers use a variety of techniques, including roadblocks, bumping vehicles to force them to stop, and running vehicles off the road. Be wary of traveling in the dark; if possible, do most of your driving during the day. It’s also best to stick to toll roads (cuotas) whenever possible, as carjackings occur less frequently on these roads.

To help protect yourself, consider enrolling in the Smart Traveler Enrollment Program (STEP). STEP allows you to register with the nearest U.S. Embassy while you’re abroad. After enrollment, you’ll be kept up to date with travel warnings and advisories. Registering your information also makes it easier for the U.S. Embassy, as well as your friends and family, to get in touch with you in case of an emergency.

Know Your Time Zones

Mexico encompasses four time zones. Depending on the route you plan to take, you may be traveling through more than one of these zones. Changing time zones doesn’t tend to be a major issue, but it’s something to consider when you have time-specific plans, such as dinner reservations or hotel check ins. You don’t want to arrive at your hotel and find that the new time zone means that you still have to wait an hour to check in.

Remember to Tip

As with the United States, tipping in Mexico in customary and expected. Most people who work in Mexico’s service and tourism industries rely on tipping to supplement their income. Carry some Mexican cash with you, so that you can tip your service workers appropriately.

In restaurants, you should tip your waiters at a rate of about 10% to 15%. You can tip 10% at more casual places like diners, but 15% is expected for good service at a high-end restaurant. If there is someone waiting on your table at a bar or cantina, a 10% tip is usually expected.

If you’re staying at a hotel, bellhops, concierges, and maids should all receive small tips for their services. You should also offer small tips to baggage handlers, car valets, and any other service people you may encounter.

Bargain with the Locals

Many visitors to Mexico remark that shopping at the local markets is one of the most memorable things you can do when you rent a car to drive to Mexico. Bargaining is an encouraged part of shopping with local traders, although it can be tricky to get the hang of it. If a trader feels you’re undervaluing his or her goods, the person may become offended and refuse to trade with you.

A good rule of thumb is to turn down the first price that you’re offered, but be reasonable with counter offers. Avoid being too aggressive. Speaking Spanish, even broken Spanish, can also go a long way toward helping you get a better deal.

Note that bargaining is only common in markets and with street traders. If you go into a mall or department store, don’t expect to haggle your way to a better price.

Eat and Drink With Caution

After you rent a car to drive to Mexico, you’ll probably make it a point to try some indigenous Mexican cuisine. Mexico is known for its street food, but be careful when choosing where to eat. Look for vendors that have other people flocking to them. It’s smart to observe where the locals are eating, as they’re most likely to know what’s good.

Unlike in the United States, a lot of the water in Mexico isn’t safe to drink. Don’t drink tap water; opt for bottled water instead. In restaurants, it’s best to ask to have your drinks without ice. The water in hotels and high-end restaurants is usually safe to drink.

Be Aware of Your Altitude

After renting a car to drive to Mexico and embarking on your trip, you may travel to some places that have unusually high altitudes, which can have adverse, unexpected effects on those who aren’t acclimated to living at a high altitude.

The CDC has many tips for travelling to high altitude destinations. A gradual ascent is key to a comfortable ascent. Know the warning signs of altitude sickness is also essential: headache, feeling tired, lack of appetite, nausea, and vomiting. Don’t continue on to higher altitudes until symptoms go away. If symptoms don’t go away after several days of staying at the same altitude, you should descend to a lower altitude instead of risking injury.

It’s also important to note that the effects of alcohol become intensified in higher altitudes. If you plan to drink in places like Mexico City or Guadalajara, be careful. Your usual alcohol tolerance will be lower, so drink slowly.

What to Do if You Lose Your Passport

Before you rent a car to drive to Mexico, it’s important to know what to do in case of emergencies. Since you can’t re-enter the United States without your passport, it’s smart to plan what to do if your passport is lost or stolen during your trip.

The U.S. Embassy & Consulate in Mexico can help you apply for an emergency U.S. passport to help you get back home quickly. Their website provides specific details on what you’ll need and how to make an appointment. We recommended adding this page to your bookmarks so you can easily access it in case of an emergency.

Ready for Your Trip to Mexico?

Planning ahead and researching your destination in Mexico is the best way to make your trip go as smoothly as possible. Taking time to ensure everything is in order before you start an international journey will make your trip more hassle-free. With this checklist and our San Diego airport rental car location, you have everything you need to rent a car to drive to Mexico and have a safe travel experience.  

Visit Airport Van Rentals today to see our San Diego car rental options, and start planning your trip south of the border.