Puerto Vallarta has long been one of the Bay Area's favorite beach getaway destinations, with easy nonstop service on Alaska and United that takes a little over 3.5 hours. But tickets aren't cheap. If you can find a roundtrip ticket for under $400, consider yourself very lucky. It doesn't help that Mexico inflates the cost of each ticket by about $60 with the country's hefty departure tax that gets baked into each fare.
And right now you should be feeling lucky because a quick scan of Google flights shows fares running $319-$378 roundtrip for fall nonstops of Alaska Airlines. Fares on American Airlines are even cheaper-- running at about $292, but you have to make a stop in Phoenix in both directions.
Once you get to Puerto Vallarta, you can save money and have a better trip by keeping in mind some things NOT to do. Below is a list of my top ten in the order that you will encounter on your trip.
1. Don't leave home on a trip to Puerto Vallarta without a pen.
You will need one to fill out the immigration forms before you land in Puerto Vallarta. The airlines hand out the forms on the plane but don't supply pens. I remembered to pack a pen on my trip to Puerto Vallarta last month and was a hero to the couple seated next to me. Also, more airlines are no longer handing out the second immigration form that you will need to enter Mexico, so you will have to pick it up and fill it out after you land and before you get to passport control or you can fill it out in advance here. When you pass through Mexican immigration, you'll get a small visitor's card-- fold it up and keep it with your passport so you don't lose it. It will be collected from you when you fly home. If you lose it you'll have to endure more paperwork and pay a fine of about $35.
2. When walking out of the airport on arrival, don't make eye contact with anyone in the "shark tank."
When you exit customs in the Puerto Vallarta airport, you have to run the gauntlet of timeshare salespeople, who, by the way, will never use the word "timeshare." They will approach you, sometimes with cold drinks telling you they can find you a taxi or a shuttle. They will usually ask you where you are staying and pretend that they represent a shuttle service for that hotel. They have incentives to sign people up who are staying at high-end hotels so they will be especially aggressive if they hear you are staying at a nice place. No matter how nice they appear, walk straight ahead and don't make eye contact. You have to walk through two rooms full of this nonsense, but just keep going. They are not allowed to follow you out.
3. Don't exchange money at the airport.
Unlike Mexico City, where you can get the best exchange rates at the airport, the opposite is true in Puerto Vallarta. You will get a much better deal at a bank, ATM or a money exchange booth in the city. If you do change money at the airport, only do enough to hold you over until you can get to a bank. Banks offer the best rates for exchange, followed by storefront money exchange booths and hotels. Just be sure to check the current exchange rate (about 19 pesos per dollar right now) before leaving home and know what rate you are getting before you do the exchange. It is not customary in Mexico to be charged a separate fee to exchange money. They make their money on the exchange rate they offer you. If you exchange money in a bank, you will have to show them your passport and give them a copy that they can keep. Banks usually won't make a copy for you, so bring copies before you leave. Of course, you can bypass the exchange game by using your ATM but you will likely be socked with fees from your bank and the Mexican bank. I am a big fan of banks that will reimburse you for all ATM fees when traveling at home or abroad.
The main pier in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico
4. Don't take an airport taxi. In fact, avoid taking taxis at all in Puerto Vallarta and use Uber instead.
On a trip last month, I was quoted a rate of 345 pesos (about $18) for a cab from the airport to the Zona Romantica area, just south of downtown. But you can get an Uber ride for as little as $6 or $7 for the same route. You can also save about a third of your the taxi fare by walking across the pedestrian bridge that goes across the street from the airport. Taxis are generally waiting in front of the Tacón de Marlin restaurant that is just on the other side of the bridge.
Taxis are not metered in Puerto Vallarta; instead you pay by zones. Be sure to establish the fare before you ride. Better yet, take Uber. Rides with the ride sharing app are usually cheaper and you don't have to worry about being ripped off by the driver. Uber can drop off clients at the airport curb but is not allowed to do pick-ups there. To pick up Uber from the airport, exit the airport and turn left, at the end of the airport building turn left again and you will see the pedestrian bridge. Both the bus stop and Uber stop are just in front of the bridge. You can also cross the bridge and call the Uber from the other side. If you don't have a data plan on your smartphone, the Puerto Vallarta airport has free wi-fi but it often doesn't work. On the other side of the bridge, The Tacón de Marlin restaurant has free WiFI and the password for it is written on signs in the restaurant.
It is not customary to tip taxi or Uber drivers in Puerto Vallarta but you can give a modest tip if the driver helps you with bags or gives an extra service. If you do take a taxi, if you only have large bills, make sure the driver can change it before you take the ride.
5. Don't be afraid of the city buses.
I usually take a city bus into town from the airport. The fare costs 10 pesos which is a little over 50 cents. The city buses are safe and fast and there is a stop just outside the airport next to the pedestrian bridge, the same spot where Uber is allowed to pick up travelers. Before you get on the bus from the airport ask the bus driver "Vas al centro?" which means "Do you go downtown." If the driver nods, you know you are on the right bus.I usually enlist the help of other people at the bus stop who are usually happy to help. Just remember the words "El Centro." I have felt much safer on the buses in Mexico than on any of the rides I have taken lately on BART, Muni or SamTrans. The bus drivers' will also make change but don't press your luck by expecting change from a big bill. If you are a first time visitor to Puerto Vallarta, it is probably a better idea to take a taxi or Uber until you can get the lay of the land. Also,the buses don't have luggage racks, so take a taxi or Uber if you have big luggage.
6. Don't be afraid of the water but do be cautious.
Unlike many other parts of Mexico, the water is safe to drink in Puerto Vallarta. In nearly 20 years of visiting the city, I have always drank tap water and never had a problem. People will often times get sick from the overconsumption of alcohol and rich food and blame it on the water. But if you want to be on the safe side, many hotels offer bottled water to guests and many have additional water purification systems. If you are staying in an old building with equally old plumbing, you may want to drink bottled water to avoid any contaminants that may have entered the water through the bad plumbing. Also many homes in Mexico use rooftop tinaco tanks that fill with water and gravity is what makes the water pressure But if the tanks aren't cleaned regularly they could be the source of contaminants that could make you sick.
Chemical burn from a temporary tattoo
7. Don't get a temporary tattoo on the beach.
This one is personal for me. The temporary tattoo I got nearly left me with a permanent scar. It gave me a chemical burn that did not completely heal for a couple of months. A quick Internet search shows I am not alone. Most of them use black ink and not real henna. You may not have a bad reaction like I did, but is it really worth the risk?
8. Don't forget the mosquito spray.
The rainy season in Puerto Vallarta starts in June and runs through October. It is also the time of year when the mosquitos are in full force. I sprayed myself with repellant religiously except for my last night in PV when I was getting tired of the smell I paid for it with about ten nasty bites on my back and legs.
9. Don't just hang out at your hotel or resort.
PV has some of the most beautiful, modern resort hotels you will find anywhere. But most of the mega resort hotels are in the hotel zone, which is between the airport and downtown Puerto Vallarta. To get a taste of real Mexico, take a city bus downtown. Walk along the city's famed Malecon, a sculpture-lined pedestrian walkway that lines the waterfront. Keep heading south on the Malecon, over the Cuale River. That section of town is known by three names, Zona Romantica (Romantic Zone), the South Side, or Old Town, the latter being a misnomer since downtown is much older than Zona Romantica. Zona Romantica is home to the city's public beach, Playa de Los Muertos, and the city's newest landmark, the modern pier that is both a functioning pier for water taxis but it is also a beautiful metal sculpture designed to look like the sails of a boat. It is lit up in a kaleidoscope of colors each night. If you walk even further south, you will come to a sculpture at the waterline of a boy on seahorse. Zona Romantica has a thriving LGBT community and the most popular beach for gays is the area south of the pier and just north of the sea horses. In the distance, south of the beach you can see the Los Arcos Marine Park. Los Arcos means the arches and it refers to the arched openings in the side of the giant rocks. A number of boat tours take tourist there for snorkeling. One of the symbols of Puerto Vallarta is arches, which it derives from those landmark rocks.
10. Don't be afraid.
Unfortunately border gang violence has caused some to paint all of Mexico with a very broad brush. I feel much safer walking the streets of PV than San Francisco. In my two decades of visiting Puerto Vallarta I only encountered one aggressive panhandler. When I didn't give him money, he accused me of being Canadian, told me I had cheap sneakers, and said I wasn't welcome there. (He was right about the sneakers.) But take the same precautions you would in any other city. If you are going out late at night only bring enough money with you that you will need that night. Leave the rest in the hotel safe. The bad guys target the most vulnerable people, and if you are drunk, walking alone at night, you are extremely vulnerable.
(Please note that this post is written by TravelSkills reader Ed Walsh.)