Mexican Politics and Transportation Planning

I realize that I am neither a political theorist nor a Mexican, which not only exacerbates my lack of experience with the Mexican political system, but probably makes anything I say that much more controversial, as well.  Yet, at some point, given my background in transportation, I should probably say something about transportation planning in Mexico, especially in recognition of Earth Day… a topic which invariably brings me to politics.

Take Linea 12, for example, which is the new metro line being built* between Mixcoac (directly south of the city center) and Tláhuac (south east).  By all accounts, the sheer size of Mexico City and the current horrendous level of automobile traffic mean that additional transit, and on a large scale, is probably a very good idea.  

However, it’s also safe to say that despite the possible benefits to the city, there is a strong political motive for the new line, as evidenced by the timing of the project’s announcement (just after the election of the new mayor, Marcelo Ebrard), the proposed completion date (just in time for the next mayoral election), and the massive advertising campaign that is being conducted by the mayor’s political party, the PRD (el Partido de la Revolución Democrática), regarding the new line.  Of course, since the mayor can’t run again — Mexican politicians can only serve one six-year term in any post — it is a question as to whether he or the party benefits more.

Mexico City currently features many political ads, like this one for the PRD.

Mexico City currently features many political ads, like this one for the PRD.

 

The key question is, of course, is Linea 12 a good idea?   Continue reading

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Getting a Refund on Mexico’s Tourist Tax

Although it’s often hidden down in the fine print, and almost never publicized, tickets to fly into Mexico City’s International Airport, or el Aeropuerto Internacional de la Ciudad de México (AICM, or “MEX”), include a tourist tax of around $22. The tourist tax is intended for all foreign nationals who enter Mexico on a tourist visa. However, Mexican citizens and anyone holding a Mexican residence visa, such as the FM-3, are exempt, which includes the currently-looking-for-employment author of this blog.

For example, here’s the fine print of the fare details from my flight back in October:

FP VIXXXXXXXXXXXX8610 EXP / 00332C
FC /FC 29SEP08BOS US X/IAD Q80.00US
MEX179.00TA14ND US X/ORD Q80.00US
BOS179.00TA14ND USD518.00END
XT30.80US5.00XA7.50AY24.80XD23.20UK
XF13.50BOS4.5IAD4.5ORD4.5

The first line is the method of payment; the next three show the allocated price of each flight segment; and the last two lines show a breakdown of the various taxes, some of which many passengers are already familiar with, such as the September 11th Security fee (“XA” I believe) and others not. The part highlighted in bold (XD23.20) shows that this ticket included a $23.20 charge for the Mexican tourist tax

Exempt or not, the charge is included in the quoted ticket price for every flight I’ve had to and from AICM. It’s possible that carriers know to exempt certain people, but I tend to doubt it as I’ve seen the charge included for itineraries originating in Mexico City as well as those paid for using credit cards from Mexican banks. The problem is that ticketing systems and agents don’t ask for the passenger’s status when the ticket is purchased… and I’m sure that Mexico is not the only country for which this occurs.

In October, I first requested a tax refund, which involves negotiating with the refund departments of the carrier from which the ticket was purchased. This isn’t the same as the carrier operating the flight; I had several different trips on United, but one was purchased on U.S. Airway’s website, so I needed to go through both airlines’ refund departments. The process involved more than a dozen emails, three faxes, and almost four months… but yesterday, I finally received the following email from United Airlines’ refund department:

Dear Valued Customer:

We have received your refund request.

We are issuing a refund for the following tickets to your credit card today.

Tickets Amount
0162183335047
$22.43
0167227744146
$22.69
0162178820923
$22.96
0162178415463
$22.96

Sincerely,
Swaleha Sayed
Refund Correspondent

Swaleha, you made my day.

In order to get a refund, you need to have the 13-digit numbers from the tickets, a photocopy of the necessary documentation (such as a U.S. passport and FM-3 visa), email addresses for the refund departments of your airline (check their websites), and a ton of patience.

If anyone else has had an experience with the tourist tax, I’d love to hear about it.

 

México, D.F.

Finding Cheaper (and Safe) Airport Taxis in Mexico City

For the inexperienced, finding a taxi in Mexico City can be an unusual, if not daunting, task. Not only are there many ways to catch a taxi, from calling one, to finding a taxi stand, or sitio, to hailing a green bug, or even una pirata, on the street, or even getting a special taxi that serves a hotel or the airport; but rampant stories of express kidnappings and nefarious taxistas feed the imagination and fears of tourists, ex-pats, and locals, alike.

Of course, taxi drivers, companies, and hotels, are keen to these perceptions of safety. Those taxis that are supposed to be safer; those that your agent/guide/friends/etc. tell you to take; those that you call or find at a sitio; are more expensive, often significantly so, and especially at night. Even more expensive are taxis from a hotel, where rates may be double of those from the sitios. For example, a taxi off the street from the airport to my house would likely run about 80 pesos, a taxi from a sitio 120, and the official airport taxi (or one from the Camino Real hotel by the airport) 240 or higher.

Although taking a taxi off the street requires a bit more savvy for the sake of safety, those from sitios and hotels are equally safe and accessible and recommended for the inexperienced; such that the doubling of the rate at the hotel is merely an unofficial “tourist tax.” Nowhere is the fleecing of tourists more apparent than at the airport (at some point, I should break down on this blog all of the surcharges that get added to a ticket when you fly into AICM), where the “official” airport taxis are all astronomically expensive. A few pirate drivers will cruise the airport halls, but I usually avoid them on principle. Instead, with a little initiative and a short walk, it’s possible to find a sitio taxi and halve the cost.

Mexico City Airport Taxi Sitio

As the airport makes a ton of money by having really expensive taxis, the airport sitio (for Terminal 1) is located just off airport property. To find it, cross the skybridge that houses the airport tram; it’s located near Puerto 5. Terminal 1 is linear and the doorways, or puertos, are numbered, in order. Cross the bridge, walking past the tram, and then walk down the stairs to street level — the sitio is the little kiosk on the side of the street at the base of the stairs.

México, D.F.

Buying Gas

In our apartment, we use natural gas for both cooking and heating water.  However, like much, if not all of Mexico, our gas is delivered in tanks, rather than by pipes under the street.  On the roof of our building, we, as well as all of our neighbors, have a tank or two that connects to a small pipe that runs in through our window.  And when one tank runs out, we have to go to the roof, switch the line to the spare, and relight the pilots for our appliances.  It’s actually not as big of a pain as I would have imagined.

Once a tank is empty, it can be exchanged for a full one by buying it off the street.  Three or four times a week, sometimes more, a truck drives through our neighborhood with a load of full tanks.  The truck drives very slowly and, as it moves along, an army of workers walk past each apartment building, ringing every doorbell and screaming “gaaaassss!”  It took a little getting used to!  When your tank is empty, you simply wait for them to ring your bell, and then stick your head out the window and scream back: “gaaaassss!”  One of the workers will run to the truck, grab one of these tanks, which must weigh in the neighborhood of 120 pounds-plus, and will carry it up to the roof of your building and connect it.  A full, large tank costs 306 pesos (plus the empty spare), and it never hurts to add a small tip to the gas-man.

Replacing the empty tank with a full one...

Replacing the empty tank with a full one...

 

México, D.F.

Buying Duty-Free

On my way up north for the holidays, I stopped by a “duty-free” store in the Guadalajara airport.  “Duty free” is in quotes because I find that their prices, often given in dollars, are usually higher than what you can find at places in town after including taxes.  I would have preferred a non-stop flight home, but the stopover proved to be fortunate, as this particular shop had a few bottles of the tequila that I like, which was already sold out (forever!) in stores in Mexico City.  After haggling for a minute (yes, they’ll sometimes cut you a discount if you ask), I chose to purchase a few bottles.  

While paying, the cashier offered me the choice of pesos or dollars, a choice that would have otherwise been completely innocuous except that prices were in dollars and they offered an exchange rate that was much better (or worse, depending on your view) to the official bank rate.  For example, they offered me 11.9 pesos to the dollar if I paid for the $88 tequila, discounted to $80, in pesos.  My credit card company, however, gives me (almost) the bank rate, which, at the time, was nearly 13.25 pesos to the dollar.  Something seemed really amiss about this, but I made them show me the math: they multiplied $80 by 11.9 to find the price in pesos.  Then I divided by 13.25 to find what my bank would charge me… and found that I could get the $88 “duty-free” tequila for $71.  It would be cheaper to pay in pesos!

I didn’t believe that this was possible, but I chose to pay in pesos just to try it out.  After signing the receipt, I realized that they had run the transaction in dollars ($80).  And when I pointed this out, the cashier apologized and said that the error couldn’t be reversed.  They also said that it’s better to pay in dollars because my “bank rate could change at any time.”  Their attempt at logic failed; however, I was also running late for my flight.  I can only assume that the cashier was lazy, not competent, had explained the system to me incorrectly, or believed that if I were to pay in pesos it would lower their commission.  Ah, well!

So, lessons for the next time I buy duty-free:

  • Ask for an additional discount… one never knows!
  • Look up the bank rate and learn what the credit card will charge
  • If the offered price is dollars, consider asking to pay in the local currency
  • Be better at math than the cashier
  • Check the receipt before signing!

That said, it also helps to do a little shopping before you go to the airport… as prices in town (with duty) may be lower than “duty-free” and you may also have the opportunity to refund the VAT/IVA.

 

San Francisco, CA

How to get a refund on the Mexican IVA

The IVA, or impuesto al valor agregado, is Mexico’s 15% value-added tax. Several months ago, I heard that it was possible for extranjeros, like me, to get a refund of the IVA for large purchases. This holiday, on my return trip to the U.S., I decided to see whether this was actually true. So, on the day of my flight back, I took a bunch of receipts with me to the airport and gave myself some extra time after checking in to see if I could secure a refund.

The company that handles the refunds is called Yvesam and, according to their informative, but neither attractive nor functional website, they have two very small booths located in Terminal One of Mexico City’s International Airport. After checking in, I found one, and asked for a refund on several purchases (ok, ok… tequila). I had to haggle with the guy at the desk for a few minutes, but the bottom line is that, yes, it is possible to get the IVA refunded for many purchases, less a 35%(!) “convenience” (read: “government corruption”) fee.

What to do:

  • Pay with credit card; use the same card for all purchases and save both itemized receipts (that show IVA) and the credit card slips
  • The day of your international flight, check in and then bring your passport, credit card, and receipts to one of the two booths at the airport. One is located right outside the international check-in lounge for Mexicana, by Puerto 7. Unfortunately, the booth is only open during regular business hours (like 9 to 6), so early morning departures are, apparently, ineligible for the IVA refund.
  • Be prepared for some bureaucracy… it helps to be patient!

Limits:

  • Each individual receipt must be for at least 1250 pesos (or so)
  • You are supposed to be taking the purchases with you on your flight. So, if you’re not, if may help to check a bag first and then feign ignorance!
  • If you can’t prove that each of the purchases were made by credit card (bring the slips!), then the total purchases can only be 3000 pesos.
  • According to the website, refunds may be limited to certain stores… but I didn’t have any trouble with this.

So, despite the 35% corruption charge, this means that it’s cheaper for me to buy tequila in the city at an Europea and get an IVA refund than to buy it duty-free at the airport. That, I have to say, is alright.

South San Francisco, CA

My (Bad) Experience with Ticketmaster

It’s always comforting, especially during the holidays, to find things here in México, D.F. that remind me of being up north in the U.S.  For example, Ticketmaster’s service in Mexico is just as dreadful and overpriced here as it is back home. 

Yesterday evening, I went to see El Buen Canario at Teatro Insurgentes.  This new John Malkovitch-directed play has received quite a lot of hype here, as much for it’s director, who I’ve heard doesn’t speak Spanish, as for lead actor Diego Luna.  I’m not a major patron of the theatrical arts, but I thought the show was fantastic and the entire cast put on a great performance.  Getting the tickets to the show, however, was not so enjoyable.  Ticketmaster (TM), just as back in the U.S., has a practical monopoly on online ticket sales for events in Mexico City.

Placing the order for tickets was a frustrating experience(s).  I had wanted to buy tickets as a gift and to go during the holidays, but I didn’t have a particular date in mind.  TM made searching for seats to be a real pain, as each time you view the seats for a performance, you need to decipher one of those visual keys that is used to deter people from writing programs that buy tickets for online brokers.  Of course, I’ve got 20/20 vision and am a native english speaker, yet I still have trouble with these.  (Why they would need such a filter for performances that aren’t in ultra-high demand, I am baffled….)

Dessaur through??

Dessaur through??

TM only lets you search one performance at a time, so I had to search for seats to each show individually.  Each time, TM would offer to me the “best” seats for that show.  However, TM’s interpretation of the best seats usually meant most expensive.  For example, TM kept suggesting a pair of seats in last row of the front section, but all the way in the corner — definitely not good seats — even when there would be availability front row center only one or two rows behind in the next, and less-expensive section.  As a result, I not only needed to search show-by-show, but also section-by-section; each time having to fiddle with one of those anti-broker visual cues.  I know a little about the system of inter-tubes… but using TM’s website to find tickets took me the better part of forty-five minutes.  Are you kidding me?!?

Publish tightly??

Publish tightly??

By the time I found the show/seats I wanted, I was fuming.  This frustration was, of course, exacerbated by the ordering process.  The first time I placed a ticket order, as a resident of México, D.F., I chose will call for delivery, which has a fee, only to have my order rejected because I used a U.S. credit card.  Consequently, I needed to start all over again (more of those annoying visual tests).  The second time, I succeeded in placing the order, but was told that I needed to pick up the tickets myself at one of two dozen locations around the city, but not at the theater.  At the time, this didn’t seem like a huge deal… after all, they provided a nice list. 

delivery 111??

delivery. 111??

Of course, the list of places to pick up tickets on Ticketmaster’s website is incorrect.  I went to a location near my house (a forty-minute walk), a Mixup music store, only to find that, while Mixup places “Ticketmaster” orders, they won’t print tickets for anything purchased online.  What?!?  Forty minutes, later, I found myself at a Liverpool, a department store out at Parque Delta, where, after waiting in line for 15 minutes, finally received my order.  Of course, the Liverpool wasn’t in the list of “pickup” locations on the website.  Total time to pick up ticket?  Two hours.

Sofia whined??

Sofia whined??

And for the “privilege” and “convenience” that TM provides, they charge exorbitant fees.  For example, for our 450-peso seats at the teatro, the nice folk at Ticketmaster tack on 80 pesos per seat for “convenience” plus additional “per order” and “delivery” charges.  I’m not sure what’s convenient about it, nor can I figure out where TM is spending all this money — I certainly didn’t receive 200 pesos worth of service!  Sigh… well, somebody in Mexico is making a fortune out of this.

Island Calvé??

Island Calvé??

I found out later that I could have skipped Ticketmaster altogether by purchasing tickets at the theater box office.  Ah, that’s probably why they wouldn’t let me pick up my tickets there.

 

México, D.F.