Updated: Oct 18, 2019
If you decide to take a trip to this Central American country, please read this guide on what you should do to prepare and what to expect as soon as you step out of the airport.
El Salvador is a dangerous country
Yes, as you've probably already have known, El Salvador is still a dangerous country. As a matter of fact, if you check the U.S. State Department's El Salvador Travel Advisory you'll see that it's currently at a threat level of 3 out of 4. Three meaning "reconsider travel to El Salvador due to crime".
This obviously did not deter my wife and I from visiting this country. The reason why we wanted to visit was because we wanted to explore a new country because we love traveling and trying out different foods. We ended up stopping in El Salvador for a few days after ending our main trip to Peru.
What we noticed immediately is that you'll see many armed security guards (with shotguns) and active military patrolling various neighborhoods (with M-16's). That is an immediate sign of danger and of course you've all heard of the MS-13 street gang in El Salvador.
The bottom line is to use precaution as you would traveling anywhere else. Avoid dangerous areas, just like you would avoid those same areas in some major cities in America. During our travel to El Salvador, we met a U.S. Embassy employee who has lived in this country for 4 years. He had his 4 kids with him and he said the country is not as dangerous as what's been reported, but again to use common sense.
You might need to get a Yellow Fever vaccination
Some of the things you should know prior to visiting El Salvador is that if you do travel from Peru or one of these countries, then you "might need" a Yellow Fever vaccination certificate.
When we landed we were never asked about Yellow Fever, nor having to present a vaccination certificate. My advice to you is to not take that chance and get vaccination certificate if you plan to visit any of these countries prior to visiting El Salvador.
Pay the $10 visa fee with the customs agent
When you finally land at the airport (Monseñor Óscar Arnulfo Romero International Airport), you'll pass through customs where you need to pay for a visa. The visa for U.S. citizens is $10 per person, which you can pay for in cash right to the customs agent. The process is very weird, yet fast. You'll collect a visa sticker and stamp on your U.S. Passport, which is always cool.
Up to 3G speeds and free text with T-Mobile and/or rent a pocket WiFi
Yes, you read that right. My wife and I use T-Mobile's One plan during our travels and El Salvador really has good coverage. We used it for a very minimal time, basically from the time we landed to the after we picked up our rental car which we also rented a pocket WiFi.
The pocket WiFi is the choice we stuck with 99% of the time we spent driving all around El Salvador. We barely had any hiccups and we recommend that you rent a pocket WiFi if you have the opportunity to do so. Also, keep in mind that like many Latin American countries, the popular communication app, Whatsapp, is used almost as the primary means of communication. This app will work on both cellular networks and WiFi.
Renting a car and driving in El Salvador
Renting a car in El Salvador is very easy. We like to use National Car Rental since we got their Emerald Club membership automatically for being a Chase Sapphire Reserve credit card holder (read more about why you should get a Chase Sapphire Reserve credit card especially if you travel frequently here). Whatever car rental company you decide to use, always try to book in advanced.
I highly recommend that you add additional coverage to have peace of mind while driving in El Salvador. The coverage that National provides in this country are third-party liability and collision damage waiver and theft protection. I usually don't purchase these additional coverages, but after driving in this country, trust me, you'll feel better about having the additional coverage.
Driving in El Salvador is not for everyone. Here in this country, you'll see very slow moving cars and very fast moving cars. Barely anyone uses a turn signal, so expect lot's of cars weaving in and out of traffic. The roads are very poor too. Expect to see lot's of potholes, which can cause a flat tire. You need to be highly alert driving here.
You'll also dodge dogs, people running across the highways and streets with no warning and see many big rigs carrying gas or trucks full of people standing in the back. This country has many hazards that you need to be aware of and having additional coverage is a smart move. Remember, that if you get into an accident, you had a theft or anything related to your car rental, you need to make sure you get a copy of the police report.
What currency is used in El Salvador?
Before our trip to El Salvador, we researched the web just like you're doing now about what type of currency is used in the country. During our trip we never had to exchange any U.S. dollars because El Salvador uses the same currency. As a matter of fact, things are so light on the wallet that you could literally bring all of your spare coins and spend it. Unlike other countries where if you pay using American dollars and the change you receive is in that countries currency, El Salvador will give you back U.S. dollars and coins as change. Bring your coins!
Tipping is not required, but accepted
Tipping is usually automatically included as a "service charge" in many restaurants in El Salvador. You should see a 10% addition on your bill, which is meant to cover the tip. You can also add extra tip if you think the service deserves it, but keep in mind that if you want add extra tip you need to let the server know to add the tip amount prior to them charging your credit card. If you forget to tip after you received your bill, you can still tip by cash.
The weather is very nice
The weather when my wife and I visited in late December was excellent. San Salvador and the drive along Ruta de la Flores and the small towns of Ataco and Apaneco were very mild. The weather was clear and sunny skies and the temperature was in the mid-80's. It reminded me of the weather back home in San Jose, California.
On the otherhand, if you are near the ocean the weather is much different. We didn't feel any humidity until we drove to the El Tunco beach which sits next to the Pacific Ocean. The weather there was humid and muggy. Not very comfortable weather, but if you are in the water then it won't really matter much.
The Salvadorean people, at least the ones that we met were all very helpful and polite. The customer service at most of the places we ate at were at times, much better than what we experience back home in California. They are just trying to work hard to earn an honest living.
I hope this quick guide about how to prepare for and what to expect in El Salvador based on my personal experience helps you make an informed decision. If you decide to visit this country, you'll have a very memorable vacation.