Trials of a bargain hunter in Mexico

Before I get into this and in the spirit of full disclosure, let me state that I am typically found toward the far end of the “frugal spectrum.” I wouldn’t call myself “cheap.” That would be too generous.

I’ve always been focused on getting my money’s worth. In fact, in the mid-’70s, I actually subscribed to a newsletter called “Moneysworth.” I drive a hybrid SUV. I shop for bargains that out-Costco Costco. I park on the street whenever possible. I prefer restaurants that offer two-for-one coupons. You get the picture.

And I’ve always been partial to Mexico. I love bargains — what can I say?

How much do I like the idea of an affordable vacation? Let me get to the bottom line: 37 years ago, my bride and I honeymooned in Tijuana — true story, ask her.

One of our most memorable vacations was in 1977, when we found a beachfront hotel for $14 a night in Puerto Vallarta on Playa Los Muertos (Dead Man’s Beach) before it changed its name to Playa del Sol. And it wasn’t even part of a package.

Another deal was in 1981, when we cashed in air miles on now-defunct PSA (Pacific Southwest Air) to anywhere they flew. Their furthest destination from Seattle was Los Cabos. But I couldn’t find an affordable hotel in Cabo even then, so we caught a bus up to La Paz. Upon arrival, we discovered some bayfront available — two-bedroom, spanking new condos (at El Moro, which still exists) for $35 a night, a great bargain at the time.

Sure, you couldn’t eat the salads in those days, but what do you expect for $14 a night? Even though sewers sometimes emptied into the bay a half-mile away, you simply looked for a beach that was up-tide. (After all, we dumped our raw sewer into Lake Washington until the 1960s, so who are we to be self-righteous?) Perhaps the enchiladas weren’t as large as those at Azteca, but this was the real Mexico. And for Mexican meals under $5, who’s complaining?

I won’t even try to argue that Mexico is as clean as Scottsdale or is as air-conditioned as Rancho Mirage, or has grass as green and nicely trimmed as La Jolla. But Mexico is always cheaper. It is still a better value, isn’t it?

I’m not so sure any more.

The days of reasonably affordable Mexico may be over. The bargains are fewer. The deals — gone. Cabo now seems as pricey as Hawaii, and the value is not what it used to be.

Let me give you some examples: Let’s start with “the gotchas”: Air tickets to Mexico come with exorbitant local taxes and fees that other destinations just don’t have. Alaska Airlines officials report that as much as $30 of a domestic airlines round-trip ticket price goes to taxes and fees, a significant portion of which pays for security upgrades since 9/11. Compare that with Mexican tourism and departure taxes along with U.S. immigration fees that can be as high as $160 round-trip to Mexican destinations. $30 taxes and fees to lie in the sun in the American Southwest versus $162 for Mexico’s sun. That’s significant.

Upon arrival for your relaxing Mexican getaway, you are squeezed at the airport in the vice of over-active condo hawkers, rental car hucksters, bag carriers on the one side and the cab union mafia on the other side charging nonbargainable and twice-too-high rates to get you into town. And forget about bus service. It’s a gotcha.

What about hotels? The properties that were developed by FONATUR, instant resort towns such as Ixtapa, Cabo, Cancun, Hautulco or Playa Carmen, are uniformly expensive and only become reasonable when you get them bundled with a flight such as Costco’s or Alaska Air’s Vacation offerings. The hotels themselves were built in the 1970s and ’80s to existing Mexican standards and today are run down, with frustratingly common malfunctioning toilets, room air conditioning units that sometimes work and light bulbs of 25 watts and lower. And they always have that 19-year-old Mexican guy with the iron lungs and the tiny audio speaker system exhorting everyone to get in the pool and boogie — at decibels that would result in imprisonment in Europe.

Prices at mealtime in the Mexican resort towns continue to climb. From Cabo to Cancun, prices are equal to and above those of comparable restaurants in the United States. Mexican tourism authorities explain, “Yes, but our water is purified now.” But so is the water of competing sunny resorts.

Another area of amazement has been the price of rental cars in Mexico. At a Mexican Tourism Conference, I had the opportunity to pose the question to the Director of Alamo Rental Cars in Mexico. He explained that it is more expensive to run a car rental operation south of the border because they don’t yet have the infrastructure or automated systems. No computers, so forms need to be hand-written. No power washers, so cars need to be hand-washed.

“Yes, but what about the low cost of labor in Mexico? I would think that would make prices lower,” I countered.

“You would think so, yes. But it doesn’t. Another high cost of doing business there is because the roads are so bad that our cars break down more frequently. And the drivers often hit cows in the roadway late at night.”

“Oh, I see. So gringos need to pay more to rent a car in Mexico so that they can drive on inferior roads in cars less well-maintained and must dodge cows if they drive at night?”

“Well, yes.”

I can go on about the desk clerks who speak perfect English at check-in but no longer speak the language when a maintenance or billing problem arises. Or the ocean resorts on beaches where swimming is not allowed. Or tours where the tour guides know less about their tours than you do, but you get the picture.

All of those challenges were evaporated with time when the prices in Mexico were well under the prices of comparables in Hawaii, Arizona, Florida, Nevada, California, Costa Rica or Panama. But these days, a traveler to Mexico tends to find reasonable deals at Mexican hotels and restaurants located inland and at distances from airports serving American air carriers. Cities such as Colima, Merida, Guanajuato, Morelia, Zacatecas, Patzcuaro or Uruapan, are examples of areas where prices remain under American prices. These towns aren’t necessarily easy to get to, but they do offer a more authentic Mexico and prices that even some Mexicans can afford.

“The Economist” annually publishes its “Pocket World in Figures,” and in its 2007 edition, the P.W.F. analyzes 70 leading countries of the world in a smorgasbord of economic indicators including cost of living. “The Economist” created an arbitrary base-line of 100 for New York City and compared the 70 countries against that. For instance, Germany is 106 (6 percent more expensive than NYC), Ireland is 108 and France rated 130.

Mexico has a comparable cost of living of 84. But look what other enticing-to-travelers destinations have lower costs of living: Argentina at 54; Brazil at 68; Chile at 70; the Czech Republic at 83; Hungary at 74; Kenya at 66; Morocco at 73; Portugal at 83; and Thailand at 61.

Mexico is closer. Mexico has near-guaranteed sun. It is true that the Mexican people are quite pleasant, which is nice when you are on vacation, to be sure. And if you bought some Mexican property a few years ago and have discovered ways to save a buck here and there along the way, you might well disagree that Mexico is no longer a bargain. If you do disagree, we welcome your comments and suggestions on ways to get a good deal and the best of Mexico.

Bill Morton can be reached at

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