The Mexican cuotas (toll roads) are similar to the interstate system in the USA. The proper name is autopista, but cuota is what the road signs usually say.. The newer ones are divided four-lanes; sometimes, the older ones and mountain roads are undivided 2-lanes. All are limited access highways, usually in good condition and well maintained.
Almost all are privately operated via franchises from the government, and they are expensive. This high cost results in limited traffic with few buses and trucks on most routes. I think this alone make them worth the price.
Toll prices are listed in pesos on signs at each toll booth. Some near the USA border will accept dollars at a poor exchange rate. Credit and debit cards (Visa and MC) are accepted at some booths, but certainly not all. It's best to plan to use pesos.
Mercifully, the cuotas bypass smaller towns while a free highway (libre) will pass through all of them -- a very slow process with lots of topes (speed bumps) and, sometimes, wandering livestock.
Large cities are a different story. Almost without exception, the cuotas do not pass through nor around large cities. They will stop short of the city, dump you onto the free highway through the city, and then reappear on the other side. This is often a confusing damn nuisance.
The system is not complete throughout the country, and some sections may be interspersed with the free highway which will often run more or less parallel to the cuota. There are some cuotas that do not have a companion libre. The most detailed maps of cuotas and libres can be found here in these PDF route maps. They are a bit confusing at first, but they contain a lot of information. Unfortunately not all routes are included. Downloads are very slow.
This website (itis very slow) will allow you to calculate toll charges and expected travel time between cities served by the cuotas. Click on English Version if you wish. My limited experience is that the listed travel times are a bit underestimated. The listed fees are not always up to date.
Getting past México City is a major hassle. Recently there has been partial relief with the opening of a new bypass highway, Arco Norte, skirting the north-eastern side of the area. A Google map and details are here.
Most toll plazas will have a junk food shop and rest rooms. Gas stations are rare on cuotas, so gas up before you start, or plan to exit at a large town to get gas. Sometimes gas stations can be found just outside the toll plaza, but sometimes one may be too far away.
IAVE (Identificación Automática Vehicular Electrónico) is the system for paying tolls automatically as you drive through electronic toll booths. If you travel the toll roads often, this can be a real time saver.
The IAVE stickers can be bought at a toll booth and some banks. The cost is $300 pesos, but the account comes with a $300 peso credit, so it's actually free. You can deposit money in your account at some banks and several retail stores (details on the website). If you have a Mexican credit card, tolls can be charged to your credit card. When you buy the sticker you receive a bar code as well as an account number, either of which can be used for the recharging deposit, usually with a $12 peso fee..
You affix the sticker to the windshield just below the mirror, and it is read automatically as you approach the gate, the light turns green and the gate goes up, and you drive on.
You can register on the IAVE website with the card number, and you’ll receive a password, so you can check your balance and see all the charges to the account. It is a good idea to check after each trip because errors can occur.
Safety: Are the cuotas safer than the libres? Probably. There is far less traffic. The highway is almost always in very good shape. It's fenced, so there are no farm animals wandering in your path. The controlled access makes them less attractive to banditos.
There are only occasional solar-powered emergency call boxes on some routes. If you break down in the middle of nowhere, wait for the Green Angels (Los Angeles Verdes). The Green Angels are government paid bilingual crews that patrol the cuotas throughout México every day (but not at night) in green trucks, carrying tools, spare parts and gasoline, looking for motorists in trouble. Los Angeles Verdes will provide mechanical assistance, first aid, basic supplies, gas, and towing. The services they provide are free, but there will be a charge for repair parts or fuel. Even though the services are free, tipping is appreciated.
Your toll fee includes limited insurance while you are driving on the cuota. The coverage will be listed in the fine print on the back of the toll receipt. The policy offers limited medical coverage and other benefits. The most commonly used benefit seems to be for road damage. If a defect in the roadway damages your car (such as windshield cracks from loose gravel, pot hole damage, etc), the insurance will take care of it. If your car damages the roadway, in an accident for example, you are covered for the repairs to the roadway. (It is customary in México to charge the at-fault driver with the cost of repairing any damage to the road. This applies to all highways.) If you have a minor claim, you can report to the authorities at the next toll plaza and present your toll receipt from the previous booth -- don't toss the receipts. You cannot file a claim later or without the receipt. If you have a major accident or your car is disabled, move to a safe place, if possible, and stay with the car until a CAPUFE claims adjustor arrives to inspect the damage and write a report.
Details of the insurance is here in Spanish.
Here is an interesting out-of-gas story I gleaned from the internet
Here are two experiences shared by friends who had problems on a cuota. One driver waited by his car, the other drove on to the next toll booth.