Mexican shakedown

The crooked cop's palm: To grease or not to grease. Plus tips on hunkering down in Hungary and finding cheap U.S. lodging, and some parents' perfectly poisoned pens.

Published January 20, 2000 5:00PM (EST)

I live in Southern California and occasionally surf down in Mexico's Baja Peninsula, going as far as 150 miles south. Every time I go I am shaken down by the police. Once they have me pulled over they tell me, "Pay the fine here or follow us down to the police station to see a judge. If you decide to pay the fine, just put the money inside your registration and hand it to me." So-called fines are generally around $40. What are my rights in Mexico and how can I make myself bulletproof to such criminal nonsense?

In any country, visitors are subject to the local laws and practices, of course, and sometimes you get the raw deal. Warnings about driving in Mexico appear in the State Department's consular information sheet on Mexico, but no mention is made of shakedowns.

I posed your question to "Mexico Mike" Nelson, a Mexican guidebook author who's covered more road miles there than anyone I know and who publishes a newsletter, "Latin America Travel & Business Report." His response:

In my more than 20 years of driving, I have been stopped by corrupt cops three times. I am not an apologist for Mexico, but wonder why your reader is so unlucky. I wrote a couple of pages on how to deal with this situation in the book "Live Better South of the Border," and have an article with condensed information in my latest newsletter.

You can tell the cops you want to go to the "comandancia" (police station). If the stop is bogus, they will hem and haw and ask for a lower fine. If it is legit, the fine will still be much lower. If you don't want to deal with it, you can pay something (though that only perpetuates the problem and is not what I recommend), but for God's sake, do not be so generous. A cop makes about $3-$4 a day!

While he has to split the income three or four ways, a $10 "fine" is plenty. You just have to be persistent.

You can find more driving and road safety advice at the Mexico Mike site.

The topics of tourist rights and the police also are addressed in "The People's Guide to Mexico" by Carl Franz (John Muir Publications, revised 1998), including a section called "Do Tourists Need to Worry About the Cops?" Its advice? If you're stopped for traffic violations, above all, don't start shouting about how you're an American citizen and have rights. It also warns "punks, bikers, skinheads and aging hippies" that the less you resemble an average tourist, the more attention you may get from authorities. Another section is "A Field Guide to Mexican Cops."

I'm planning a cross-country drive from Baltimore to the Los Angeles area. Where should I look for inexpensive accommodations en route?

At this time of year, you should have no trouble finding inexpensive lodging on your drive to California. I made a similar trip a couple of years ago, and when it came time to stop each day, we were always able to find lodging in one of the major economy chains for $60 or less. If you're on your own, I wouldn't be surprised if you could find acceptable places for $40 or so each night.

If you wanted to be obsessive, you could get the nationwide guides published by economy hotel chains, allowing you to plot precisely where you'll stay or even make reservations. You could also visit their Web sites. Among them are the Super 8 Motel chain, Choice Hotels (Comfort, Quality, Sleep Inns) and the Motel 6 chain.

As you make your way west, keep in mind that bad weather can fill up roadside motels even in the off season. If you're driving into a storm, you may want to grab a place sooner rather than later. Also, prices tend to be lower at interstate exchanges with many competing motels. A good way to get a discount even when the prices are low is to carry a AAA motor club card, good for 10 percent off at a huge number of motels.

You can sometimes save by using coupons found in newsprint coupon guides found at rest stops. One such guide that pinpoints interstate motels and offers coupons is the Traveler Discount Guide, available for $3 by calling (800) 332-3948. The parent company produces 16 guides covering 35 states with more than 4,600 hotels. Another company offering similar coupon guides is Mr. Interstate, phone (800) 556-1218.

For REALLY cheap lodging, consider "Jim's Backpackers Guide," a directory of hostels and other economy lodging, available for $8 per copy, postage and handling included, from P.O. Box 5650, Santa Monica, CA 90409.

For a trip to Hungary with several friends, how can we go about finding a cottage outside of Budapest?

Renting a cottage in Hungary is not as simple as renting one in Tuscany -- there's no long history of that type of tourism there. In the past decade it's become increasingly common for people to rent rooms in their homes to foreign visitors, and house and apartment rentals are supposedly available in and around Budapest. But you'll have to scratch around to find something that matches what you have in mind.

Start by contacting the Hungarian National Tourist Office USA, c/o Embassy of the Republic of Hungary, 150 East 58th St., 33rd floor, New York, NY 10155-3398; phone (212) 355-0240. The office has the name of at least one company that offers rentals in Budapest.

Another useful site is Hungary Tourism.

A company called Interhome USA arranges rentals throughout the world. In the past year it added Hungary, where it offers houses and apartments, as well as some properties in the country. Elsewhere in the region, it also represents properties in Slovakia, the Czech Republic and Croatia. Interhome's phone number is (800) 882-6864.

Several links to Hungarian sites, as well as travelers' accounts, can be found via Rec.Travel Library. You may want to post a query on a Web bulletin board and see if you get any responses. Also, a general Web search is likely to turn up certain travel agencies that offer package trips to Hungary, and by contacting them you may find a locally connected agent who knows of rental properties.

Revisiting a previous Travel Advisor Q&A:

A recent column in which a reader complained about sprawling lap children aboard airplanes struck a raw nerve with some parents, including these two:

My son was born 11 pounds, 3.5 ounces -- which is big, but part of a trend; kids these days are being born bigger. Sometimes life dictates that someone go somewhere, and planes are a necessary evil, especially with kids. Dealing with air pressure and baby paraphernalia is still better than a three-day trip via bus or car. For a younger couple, that $300-plus for the other seat is half of the rent money or day-care money for the month.

I would encourage passengers to understand that kids are kids -- and that even affluent DINKS came from somewhere -- certainly the odds are that one day in the past their highly stressed mother was carrying them for the obligatory "see-the-parents trip" and they screamed and put their bottle in someone else's ear. Now it's the DINKS' turn.

If anything, the anguish of a parent who is trying not to bother fellow passengers is only surmounted by the child who has been strapped down in a featureless environment for five or six hours, and really, really needs to run around and explore.

We buy a seat, prepare toys, get our son away from sugar, etc. He's generally well-behaved. But if you have not traveled with a kid lately, it's amazing how lacking in patience and compassion our society has gotten. Likewise, the media of today make it hard for a stressed-out mom to allow a stranger to offer a hand, tell stories to her kid, etc. for fear the stranger is a molester or worse. Male teachers can't even hug little kids for fear of lawsuits.

Our society is losing the concept of "the Fellow Traveler community." I hope that we can find it again.

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Sorry you think lap kids are huge and imposing. Sorry you think parents with children shouldn't be able to travel. Sorry those same children will be wiping the drool off your chin when
you're in your dotage and need personal attendants (as well as earning the wages that will pay for your Social Security). Thanks for taking our efforts to raise our children as productive citizens for granted.

I am so sick of hearing about whiners who can't deal with momentary
proximity to children, even when offered the compensation of in-flight
alcohol and those wonderful packs of peanuts. I have traveled with my legally lap-appropriate children exactly twice since they were born. In both cases, my wife and I were diligent in trying to obtain a slot of seats where we wouldn't inconvenience others. Our children were fed, bathroomed and provided with stimulus to prevent
boredom to help them maintain composure during the flight (this included antihistamines for the youngest to help her sleep and prevent decompression ear pain).

I never saw huge, obviously overage children on these flights. My
experience with ticket agents indicated they were quite willing to
verify ages. (We brought birth certificate copies to the airport.)
People like you would prefer to exclude parents economically from
flights, and force us to forgo travel, or undertake long (and more hazardous) journeys by auto to reach our destinations. You don't care about the threat to our sanity, to our children's safety
or to the nation's future citizens. Nothing matters but your momentary

By Donald D. Groff

Donald D. Groff has been dispensing travel advice for a decade for such publications as the Philadelphia Inquirer, Newsday, the Boston Globe and the Kansas City Star.

MORE FROM Donald D. Groff

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Children Latin America Mexico