Not all Mexican destinations are created equal, but all can be fabulous. You can explore Aztec history in a bustling city, spend lazy days at the beach, or meander through shops and restaurants on cobblestoned colonial streets. While not every destination is affordable from every U.S. departure city, a little clever fare searching on your part can send you somewhere south of the border for under $500.
I've rounded up a few Mexican escape spots that fit under budget from various U.S. departure points. All fares I've listed depart this fall for three nights, and are round-trip including taxes and fees. If you don't see your city mentioned, follow my example and look for airfare by using flexible-search tools on sites like Farecast, Kayak, or Orbitz. You can't be too picky about dates, but hey, you'll be getting a complete vacation for a few hundred dollars.
As for accommodations, don't be afraid to go against the grain. By finding alternatives to the obvious mega resorts or chain hotels, you can save a bundle.
With Puerto Vallarta's Pacific Coast locale, it's no surprise the best fares are from West Coast cities like Los Angeles, Seattle, and San Francisco.
- Los Angeles: $213 (Mexicana), found on Kayak
- Seattle: $306 (United), found on Kayak
- San Francisco: $314 (United and Mexicana), found on Orbitz
To save the most money on accommodations, look for small guesthouses or inns. Not only are you more likely to keep costs with the budget, but you will also escape the mass-produced trappings that can come with high-rise resorts. Plus, you can often find much more square footage per peso.
For instance, rooms at the in-town Casa Dulce Vida, a small collection of private suites designed to look like an Italian villa, start at $50 to $70 per night (including tax). Each "casa" comes equipped with at least one bedroom, a kitchenette, and a living area, and has access to the property's gardens and pool. Some casas are more lavish than others (the largest is about 2,700 square feet), so you might be able to upgrade, depending on how much room is left in your budget after airfare and how many traveling companions can split the cost with you.
To figure out the math, I took the higher $70 starting rate and multiplied it by three nights to get $210. Since casa prices are based on double occupancy, divide that sum by two to get $105 per person. Add airfare from San Francisco (the most expensive city I found), and the trip totals $419 per person, leaving plenty of room for extras like airport transfers.
Cost breakdown: $314 (airfare from San Francisco) + $105 (three nights at Casa Dulce Vida) = $419 per person
While Puerto Vallarta is part seaside paradise and part charming cultural town, Mexico City has everything you'd expect from an over-sized, world-class city: mounds of history, trendy urban neighborhoods, and a huge population that includes a sizable international crowd.
Here's a sampling of U.S. departure cities with the cheapest fares:
- Miami: $284 (Mexicana), found on Kayak
- Dallas: $298 (American), found on Priceline via Kayak
- New York: $315 (Northwest), found on Kayak
Like most major cities around the world, Mexico City offers plenty of large chain hotels (like Marriott, Four Seasons, and W Hotels) to please business and leisure travelers alike. However, you can find smaller, more personal independent hotels with just as pleasant price tags. From a quick scan on TripAdvisor, a sister site of SmarterTravel.com, I found a slew of hotels with fewer than 200 rooms and rates between $60 and $80 per night. A few properties with rave reviews include Emporio Reforma (part of a small group of luxurious hotels in Mexico), Hotel Maria Cristina near the U.S. embassy, and Hotel Catedral located by the cathedral (hence its name).
When I checked, a three-night stay at the Emporio Reforma for two people came to $285.85 (about $95 per night), including taxes. Divide the total by two to get $142.93 (minus a half cent) per person. Add in $315 for airfare from New York (the most expensive city listed here) and pay $457.93 for the whole trip. If you want to spend less per night, Hotel Maria Cristina has double rooms from 775 pesos (about $72, see XE.com for current exchange rates), and Hotel Catedral lists double rooms from 595 pesos (about $56). Both include taxes in their posted rates.
Cost breakdown: $315 (airfare from New York) + $142.93 (three nights at Emporio Reforma) = $457.93 per person
Cancun, the famous resort hot spot on the Yucatan Peninsula, is the most popular Mexican vacation destination for U.S. travelers. And as expected, it's often the cheapest to get to from the most U.S. cities, including:
- Boston: $286 (American), found on Farecast
- Tampa: $288 (American), found on Farecast
- Washington, D.C.: $301 (Delta), found on Kayak
- Chicago: $307 (Delta), found on Kayak
It may be difficult to avoid the sprawl of Cancun's mega, and often pricey, resorts, but it's not impossible. Located downtown near shops and restaurants, Hotel El Rey del Caribe may be the perfect oasis amid the hustle and bustle of Cancun's vacationers. Not only is it eco-friendly (by using solar power, recycling, and composting), but it also comes with a lush tropical courtyard, pool and Jacuzzi, and its own spa—all for relaxation and peace of mind. Double rooms start at just $65 per night and include taxes and breakfast. For three nights, the total comes to $195, or $97.50 per person.
Another Hotel Zone alternative is the boutique-style Terracaribe, also downtown. The hotel's website claims the property is near the ferry to Isla Mujeres, my personal favorite Mexican escape destination. When I looked, I found standard room rates for $52, including taxes. With prices this low, you could upgrade to the $85 junior suite (or stay extra nights) and still keep within budget.
Cost breakdown: $307 (airfare from Chicago) + $97.50 (three nights at Hotel El Rey del Caribe) = $404.50 per person
Don't stop with the Mexican cities I've outlined, as there are plenty of other options. For example, I also found a fare from Los Angeles to Los Cabos for $285 round-trip. Just keep using flexible-search tools, and leave your options open. And if at first you don't succeed, try again, as airlines and hotels are constantly discounting Mexico vacations.
Note that fares from some departure cities will cost anywhere from $50 to several hundred dollars more than the fares I found. Nevertheless, a trip to Mexico can still be an excellent value since hotels and other on-the-ground costs remain relatively low compared to other international destinations.
Know of a great Mexican vacation spot that's affordable, too? If so, add a comment below for other travelers to read.