Category Archives: Travel in Mexico
How to save money and avoid getting ripped off in Cancun, Playa del Carmen, and Tulum
From Cancun to Tulum, the Mayan Riviera is 90 miles of white-sand beaches, small towns, and big resorts between the deep jungle of the Yucatan Peninsula and the calm turquoise water of the Caribbean Sea.
Fortunately, this paradise can be quite affordable. Sure, staying at one of the fancy resorts can cost hundreds or even thousands of dollars a night. But search out smaller hotels and eat in local restaurants in Playa del Carmen, Tulum, Puerto Morelos, or downtown Cancun, and you may find that a vacation in the Mayan Riviera is cheaper than staying home.
Elsewhere on this blog you can find my article Top Tips for Travelers to Mexico, which lists all the important ways you can minimize your expenses and maximize your fun on a trip to Mexico.
There’s some overlap with the tips on this list, but as the title suggests, these are specific to the Mayan Riviera, one of the most beautiful and interesting parts of Mexico—perhaps even the world.
1. Stay in a small hotel a block or two from the beach
The huge resorts in Cancun’s hotel zone and in other parts of the Mayan Riviera are a lot of fun, with all-day pool parties, unlimited booze, and all-you-can-eat restaurants.
Similarly, the fancy hotels right on the beach in smaller towns are lovely, that’s for sure. And while they may be cheaper than the big resorts or a similar hotel in your home country, if you are really looking to save money, you can find great value if you search for a hotel away from the beach.
By great value, I’m talking about as low as 200 pesos a night (about $10-12 USD) for a modest but reasonable room, nothing fancy but a decent place to crash. For a little more, say 400-600 pesos (about $20-35 USD) you can get something perfectly good, with a TV, hot water, and air conditioning.
Look for cheaper hotels in downtown Cancun (the beach is a 20-minute ride away on a local bus), two or three blocks from the beach in Playa del Carmen, in Tulum town (which is on the highway, not on the beach), or just off the beach practically anywhere else on the Mayan Riviera.
You can search for hotels online, but the best way to find the cheapest hotels is just by wandering around and looking for them, which is easy to do in low season.
2. Avoid high season
If at all possible, don’t go during high season, which is late December to early January, Semana Santa (the week before Easter), and late July. Besides more crowds, many hotels raise prices during those times.
If you can only visit during a high season, however, don’t cancel your trip—just give yourself a little more time to visit popular places like the Mayan ruins of Tulum or Chichen Itza.
3. Don’t pay in U.S. dollars
Use pesos for everything, especially for souvenirs and meals. Although many restaurants and stores accept dollars, the exchange rate they use will be outrageous, automatically adding 10% (or more) to the price.
Exceptions to this are big nightclubs like Coco Bongo and the big adventure parks like Xel-Ha, which have fixed fees in U.S. dollars.
4. Get pesos from an ATM
Exchange rates from bank ATMs are usually good, much better than changing money at the booths in the Cancun airport.
Make sure you use a bank, not a “private” ATM, which charge higher fees. Banks are all over downtown Cancun and in Playa del Carmen, and you can find bank ATMs in bus stations too.
Basically, if you see a machine on the street or in a restaurant with only “ATM” written on it and no bank logo, then you can be sure it’s a private ATM and will charge high fees and perhaps even give a bad exchange rate.
Common banks in Mexico include Bancomer, Banamex, Santander, Banorte, HSBC, and Scotiabank. Look for these to save on fees when withdrawing money.
5. Ignore the “tour guides” on the street
As you walk around Quinta Avenida in Playa del Carmen (5th Avenue, the long pedestrian street that follows the beach), guides will constantly call out to you, offering nightclub tickets, trips to ecoparks and ruins, trips to Cozumel…pretty much any activity you can imagine.
Sure, talk to these guys and ask them questions, but keep in mind that you don’t need them for anything. Taking public transportation to Tulum or Chichen Itza is easy. For Cozumel or Isla Mujeres, simply go to the ferry terminals. For the big adventure parks like Xel-Ha or Xplor, buy tickets online (more on this below).
It’s possible that these “guide” have discounted tickets for nightclubs, but before buying them, stop by the nightclub (or check online) to find out the regular price.
6. Buy tickets online for ecoparks and shows
If you want to go to one of the heavily-advertized theme parks like Xel-Ha, Xplor, or Rio Secreto, always check the prices online—they all have websites in English. Besides offering inflated prices, the salespeople on the street may pressure you into a package you don’t want or don’t understand.
7. Take public transportation to Chichen Itza and Tulum
If you read this article about Chichen Itza, you’ll know that I’m not a big fan of guided tours. For the famous Mayan ruins like Tulum and Chichen Itza, you can just show up in the morning when they open. (Go extra early in high season, however.) Then you can enjoy the site without being part of a big, noisy group. You can stay as long as you want and search out all the hidden corners.
Besides, it’s cheaper to take public transportation. Colectivos (passenger vans) constantly travel along the coast. In the towns they leave from specific places—easy to find, or ask at the front desk of your hotel. On the highway, all you have to do is wave at them. If one has space, it will stop for you.
And by cheap, I mean between $1 and $3 USD. (But pay in pesos, of course.)
For places inland, you can take the modern and safe ADO buses, which leave from bus stations in every town. Check schedules and prices on their website. At the moment it’s only in Spanish, but easy enough to figure out.
8. About resort and timeshare sales pitches
Some resorts offer a free drink and access to their swimming pool if you listen to their sales pitch. In my opinion, this is a huge waste of an afternoon, but go for it if you’re interested.
Ignore anyone offering this outside of the resort itself, or if someone wants to tell you about a timeshare opportunity. Listen if you want, but by no means give them any personal information, such as the name of your hotel.
9. On buying souvenirs
The same souvenirs are available everywhere—in stores, in markets, and from people walking around the beach.
The rule is, basically, the farther away you are from the beach or places with lots of tourists, the better the prices will be. So this means never buy from someone offering you something on the beach. (Unless you want to, of course, but understand that the prices will be higher.)
Don’t buy anything on Cozumel—prices are higher by like 200%. Cruise ships dock in Cozumel, and every day thousands of tourists pour out of them. They have no idea what the peso is worth and get ripped off like crazy.
The same goes for Isla Mujeres—even though there are no cruise ships, the tourists there are a captive audience. It’s an island, after all.
So, for your best deal on a souvenir, head to a place with lots of shops in one place. In Playa del Carmen there are a bunch of small shops just inland from the Cozumel dock, and in downtown Cancun there are several markets like Mercado 28 or Mercado 23 that are full of souvenirs.
10. On buying souvenirs in markets
Probably the best market for souvenirs is Mercado 28 in downtown Cancun, an easy walk from the ADO bus station. Lots of vendors means lots of competition between them, meaning lower prices.
The downside is that the vendors constantly call out to you as you walk around. You may find it annoying, but just ignore them. Don’t get excited about something you like, just calmly ask the price and move on. You’ll almost certainly see the same thing elsewhere—ask the price again, and keep looking until you hear a price you like. Which brings us to…
In markets and souvenir shops, if you don’t see price tags, then get ready to haggle. Expect to be quoted higher prices if you don’t speak Spanish.
Don’t show any emotion when haggling, positive or negative, like saying how nice the product is. Just ask for the price, and then either offer a lower price or ask for a discount. If you don’t like the price, thank them and leave.
When you start leaving, usually they say nothing. In this case, yes you’ve been given the final price. Go look in other shops for the same thing or come back to buy it.
Sometimes, however, when you start to leave they will stop you and give you a lower price. When this happens, the real haggling begins. You can probably get an even lower price than what they offered.
But please don’t do this when buying fruit or some non-souvenir in a regular market. Typically you get the real price when shopping for food, and haggling over nickels and dimes for a bag of oranges or a loaf of bread is a little rude.
12. The Russian Discount
I noticed this first in Moscow, which is why I call it the “Russian Discount.” A big sign in the souvenir shop window says “Everything 50% Off!”
Check the prices—I’ve noticed that, almost always, everything in the shop costs double what other stores charge, so your 50% discount really isn’t a discount at all.
13. Eating in
If you have a hotel that includes free breakfast, you will automatically save money by not going out for breakfast every day. The free hotel breakfast will also save time, especially with a big group—not discussing where to go, waiting for a table, looking at the menu…
If your hotel has a kitchen, you can save even more money by eating in. I’m not talking about cooking a huge feast—it’s your vacation after all, maybe you don’t want to make such an effort—but it’s a good idea to buy some fruit or supplies for sandwiches, which is particularly convenient to bring along on a day trip.
14. Choosing restaurants
Same as with souvenirs—the closer you are to the beach or a place full of tourists, the more expensive the restaurants will be.
But it’s not only price—the Mexican restaurants geared toward tourists are not only more expensive, but also not nearly as good. For authentic Mexican food—obviously much more delicious than the bland stuff made for tourists—look for modest restaurants away from the beach, such as in downtown Cancun or three blocks from the beach in Playa del Carmen.
The best way to find these places is to ask a local, but not a cab driver or even the person at the front desk of your hotel, as they will probably send you to their friend’s touristy restaurant.
Whoever you ask, make it clear that you want something real, what the locals eat.
15. Check your bill carefully
Overcharging is common—adding a few more beers to the count, thinking you won’t notice. Make sure you actually ordered everything on your bill.
Tip 10%, but check to see if it was included already.
Pay in cash, not with a credit card. If the wrong person gets hold of your number, they can empty your bank account. Besides, if you use your credit card for every meal, it will be hard to keep track of all the expenses—which ones are correct, which are not.
Bonus Tip: Buy my guidebook
Shameless plug: All these tips and many more are detailed in my guidebook to the region, the Cancun and Mayan Riviera 5-Day Itinerary. It’s for the independent traveler who likes the beach but also wants some culture. Besides saving a lot of money, you:
- Have two full days on two gorgeous beaches: Cancun and Playa del Carmen.
- Explore two Mayan ruins: Chichén Itzá, one of the new Seven Wonders of the World, and Tulum, a sunny fortress built on cliffs overlooking one of the most iconic beaches in Mexico.
- Dip your toe into local culture in Valladolid, a small colonial town in central Yucatán.
- Swim, snorkel, or scuba dive in the clear, freshwater Dos Ojos cenote.
- Eat what Mexicans eat: seafood, tacos, and Yucatán specialties like panuchos and salbutes.
- Shop, party, get tan, and learn some Spanish, history, and culture. And, if time permits, explore more places in the region, including Puerto Morelos, Isla Mujeres, Cozumel, the Cobá ruins, Xpu-Ha beach, and many more.
You can get a free Kindle reader from Amazon to read the guide on your computer, or you can now buy a paperback version.
This part of Mexico may be the most visited, but in some ways the least understood. I try to remedy this with my guide.
Please leave a comment if you have a question about any of these tips or my guide.
In the long history of human progress, there’s never been a better time to get a hotel room.
You don’t need to see a travel agent nor carry around a guidebook that’s heavier than a pair of hiking boots. All you need is an internet connection, a little patience, and some travel-planning tactics.
In Mexico, as with anywhere, you basically have two ways to find accommodation, whether it’s a fancy resort, a spacious apartment, a hip guesthouse, a no-frills central hotel, a dirt-cheap hostel, or a space to put up a tent next to the beach.
You can either search and book online before your trip, or you can walk around looking at hotels.
I like both options, and whether I use one or the other mostly depends where I’m going. I usually book online if I’m taking a short trip to only one place, if I know exactly where I want to stay, if I’m traveling at a busy time, or if I’m going to a country that I’ve never visited before and don’t know much about.
When I’m going on a longer trip with several destinations, however, I prefer to find hotels by wandering around and checking them out in person. This is easy in most parts of Mexico, where you can find concentrations of hotels in the center or town or around tourist areas, like the beach. You can save a lot of money this way too.
Or, especially if my flight arrives after dark, I may reserve a hotel online for only the first night or two, and then for the rest of the trip I’ll find hotels on foot whenever I arrive in a new part of the country. This is the best plan for a long backpacking trip—without hotel reservations every day, you can stay longer in places you like and leave the places you don’t.
Below I’ll explain both methods and my strategies for using them. But first…
Regarding package tours
If your idea of a vacation is buying a package that includes the flight, hotel, meals, transportation, and a guide who will accompany you the whole time, then you don’t really need this article. I don’t want to sound like a travel snob who’s sneering at the folks on the tour bus, but I must say that I strongly dislike that style of travel.
Besides the obvious—no freedom to do what you want, no opportunity for unplanned adventures—the main drawback to a package tour is all the waiting: getting on and off the bus, checking into multiple hotels, packing and repacking and packing yet again, and the inevitable lateness of your fellow tourists. Also, when you do the math, it’s usually cheaper to plan everything yourself.
I will say, however, that if you want a package tour to avoid the hassle of researching, navigating and negotiating—if you want that tour guide explaining and translating everything for you, every step of the way—then go for it. Search online and talk to travel agents.
But if you think you’re going to save money, at least compare with the cost of hotels (with the methods from this article) and flights you find online before you commit to the tour. Don’t assume that all-inclusive packages are automatically cheaper, especially because of the current low cost of flights and the abundance of hotels in countries that get a lot of tourists, like Mexico.
1. Booking online
Even if you plan to find hotels by walking around, it’s still a good idea to take a look online first. You can identify which parts of the city have the most options and get an idea of prices.
Google Maps is a good place to start. Type in the name of the city and “hotels” in the search field, for example, “Cancun hotels.” Then the map will zoom in and you’ll see the hotel icons, some with prices.
Google Maps is not a booking site, but it gives price estimates from other booking sites. After you click on the little icon for a hotel, you can put in the dates of your trip and see prices from various websites.
Usually these prices are all similar, but obviously try clicking on the cheapest one. This may be the part of the process you find frustrating, especially if it’s a travel site you’ve never used before. Some don’t include taxes and fees until the very end, when the price may go up by a lot.
While having this price comparison is a clear benefit, the best thing about Google Maps is—surprise—the map. You can see where the hotel is located, which in my opinion is the most important feature of any accommodation.
So do a little research into where you’re traveling. It’s good to get a hotel within walking distances of places you want to see. Like in real estate, a good hotel is all about location, location, location.
In Cancun, for example, when I type “Cancun hotels” into the search field, only the big, expensive hotels in the hotel zone come up. The discount hotels in Cancun, however, are downtown, but when you zoom in on downtown Cancun, no hotels are shown. You have to type in “Cancun hotels downtown” to see all of these cheaper options.
Having an idea of geography is even more necessary for an enormous metropolis like Mexico City. Simply typing in “Mexico City hotels” will give you options all over the place, but you’ll get better alternatives if you choose a specific neighborhood.
In most cities in Mexico, search around the zocalo, or center square, which is not only the center of town surrounded by historic buildings and places of interest for travelers, but usually has plenty of hotels nearby.
Travel booking websites
Like I wrote above, Google Maps is a good place to start, but by no means does it give you a comprehensive listing of hotels. Because it’s not a travel booking site, many hotels will not appear on searches, especially the cheapest. (Actually, the cheapest hotels in Mexico won’t be listed anywhere—the best way to find them is on foot.)
So, unless you find exactly what you’re looking for on Google Maps, also take a look on travel booking websites. I recommend booking.com, although there are countless other options, including expedia.com and tripadvisor.com, two popular ones.
Same as for Google Maps, always have an idea of where you want to stay first. Look at the map and see if the hotel is within walking distance of places you want to visit.
Next, read the reviews, good and bad. You can ignore one bad review, but if many reviews mention the same problem, then you can believe them.
Before you pay you’ll see a page that shows all the different room options. Look at this page carefully, especially for:
- Is breakfast included?
- Is there free parking? (Only if you need it, of course.)
- Is there free wi-fi (some hotels charge now), air-conditioning, a pool? Whatever else you require from a hotel?
- What is the cancellation policy?
This last one is crucial. Many hotels offer free cancellation until the day before you arrive. This is important not only in case your plans unexpectedly change, but also, if you have the time, you can do another quick search for hotels a day or two before your trip to see if something better is available. There may be a big, last-minute discount for a nicer hotel. If so, cancel the first hotel you booked and then book the new one. At least on booking.com and expedia, the refund is instantaneous.
Sometimes you can choose whether you pay online or pay at the hotel. If the price is the same, then it really doesn’t matter what you choose, although paying online saves you an extra step when checking in.
You’ll notice that on many sites, certain hotels have notices like “Hurry up! Only 2 rooms left!” Well, as cynical as I am about all things online, I must say that these announcements are probably true. I’ve observed several times that, when I check back later, the hotel that had the notice is no longer available. So, when you see a decent hotel that you’re not 100% sure about, review the cancellation policy carefully. If it has free cancellation until the day before you arrive, then you can book it without worry.
In general, with reserving both hotels and flights online, when I see something I know is good, I just book it and don’t think about it again. But if you’re not sure, then search several booking sites. Certain hotels will be listed on one site but not the others, and sometimes the prices or the options (breakfast, cancellation policy) are different on different sites.
Whichever site you use, sign up for an account so you can collect points and get access to special discounts. This is optional, however; most sites let you book without having an account.
Other online options
I must also mention airbnb.com, which is quickly becoming more common in Mexico. With airbnb, you look at rental properties like apartments or even whole houses. It’s great for larger groups or if you want a kitchen. You can search airbnb without an account, and the process is similar to other travel sites, except that when you finally make the booking, the owner of the property has to approve you too. So you always need to make an account when you finally want to book a place.
Another option is couchsurfing.com, which I’ve never used and never will. Lots of travelers swear by it, but I’ve heard too many horror stories (creeps creeping into the bedroom at night, creeps insisting on going out drinking together…and worse). Besides, I like privacy and don’t want to be some stranger’s houseguest while I’m traveling. Plus, if you’re on a budget, it’s not hard to find really cheap hotels in Mexico.
There are also many websites specifically for booking hostels. I’ll discuss hostels below, but right here let me mention two things. First of all, dorm beds in many hostels in Mexico, especially those that are popular on booking websites and listed in Lonely Planet, are actually more expensive than a private hotel room. Second, many hostels are not very clean and borderline unsafe. If you want to do the hostel thing, you are much better off visiting it in person.
As you search on booking.com and the others, you’ll see many options for resorts. In fact, for many people, a resort will be their Mexican vacation. They typically include all your meals and drinks, have excellent locations, and have big swimming pools and other fun amenities.
Sure, there are lots of advantages to staying in a resort. If you don’t have the time for a longer trip and just want to relax, then go for it.
There are some downsides, however. Staying in a resort means you’ll be missing out on culture, including authentic Mexican food, which typically isn’t served at resorts that have a lot of international guests. Also, although discounts abound, I’m not sure that resorts are always cheaper than the combined costs of modest (but nice) hotels and eating in restaurants, especially because eating good local food is typically inexpensive as well.
2. Walking around looking at hotels
Some of the cheapest places in Mexico are not on Google Maps or in Lonely Planet or other guidebooks. The only way to find them is to walk around.
This is a good option if you don’t mind wandering around unfamiliar places and possibly getting lost, and it’s an even better option if you’re patient, like to walk, can speak a little Spanish, and are on a budget.
Do not use this method after dark—it’s just not safe. Always get an idea whether the area you plan on walking around is safe or not, but you should know that tourist areas in most parts of Mexico (by the beach, around the zocalo) are perfectly safe in the daytime. It’s a good idea to do a quick check of Google Maps beforehand to get an idea of possible routes and what to expect for prices.
In general, in most Mexican cities, you have two options for areas to explore when looking for hotels: near the bus station or around the zocalo.
In general, getting a hotel near the bus station is not a good idea. While these may be the cheapest in town, they may be unacceptably run down or dirty. Also, bus stations in Mexico are often not in the center of town, so there’s nothing to do or see nearby. But if you just need to find a quick place to crash without spending a lot of money or walking too much, then something cheap is bound to be available near the bus station.
The zocalo, or center square, is the best area to look around in most Mexican cities. The hotels right on the zocalo are usually a little fancier and more expensive, so explore the adjacent streets for further options.
Of course, when going to a beach town, you probably won’t want to stay near the zocalo, but on the beach. To save money, look for small hotels a block or two away.
Simple, family-run hotels may have the prices posted behind the front desk, but if not, you’ll have to ask. If you don’t speak Spanish, have a pen and paper ready for them to write the numbers on.
If you’ll stay for a week or more, try asking for a discount. If they have a kitchen, get them to confirm that you can use it without paying more.
Always ask to see the room before you take it. In all my travels all over Mexico, even when I could barely speak Spanish, I’ve never met anyone who refused to do this.
Examine the bed—too hard, too soft? Peek in the bathroom—moldy, smelly? Try the shower—is there actually hot water? Turn on the fan or air conditioning—is it ridiculously loud?
Some more tips:
Ask if there are bugs in the room. They will always say “no,” but if you see one later, you can probably get your money back because they lied to you and know it.
Never stay in a hotel above a restaurant. You can be sure of cockroaches that way.
Also—and this may be a tough one—try to figure out if there is a popular bar or nightclub nearby. Many times I’ve been surprised by neighborhoods that seemed peaceful but get really loud after dark. You can try asking at the front desk, but if you’re worried, only book the first night.
Among other packing essentials, it’s a good idea to travel with earplugs, not only for noisy hotel rooms but also for noisy buses. Buy them at a pharmacy before your trip—earplugs can be hard to find in Mexico.
Discount hotels in Mexico may not offer towels, soap or shampoo, so pack a small quick-dry towel and whatever else you need. This is almost always true for hostels too.
Regarding guidebooks and hostels
I believe that the Lonely Planet model of a guidebook is outdated, especially the listings of hotels and restaurants. By “Lonely Planet model,” I mean the huge guidebooks with an entry for nearly every city and town in the country, which contains lists upon lists of hotels, restaurants, bars, places of interest, etc.
These guidebooks were certainly useful in the ‘90s and early ‘00s before the ubiquitousness of the internet. Back then I carried well-worn Lonely Planets in several parts of the world, and they were invaluable for getting information for out-of-the-way places. Honestly, they can still be useful for making plans at the last minute, like getting off the bus in a new town, particularly when you don’t speak Spanish.
But with a little planning before your trip, you don’t need the big bulky guidebook, for several reasons.
First of all, when a hotel or hostel gets listed in Lonely Planet or a similar guidebook, it instantly becomes more popular. At least for Mexico, you’re better off finding hotels on your own by walking around the right neighborhood or looking at travel booking sites. In Mexico, a private room in a small hotel is almost always cheaper than a bunk bed in a hostel dorm.
Sure, stay in the hostel if you want to make friends, but if you’re truly on a budget, you’ll save money by avoiding the Lonely Planet listings. Besides, if you’re actually looking for adventure, why stay where all the other backpackers stay?
This is also true for restaurants and nightclubs. The ones in the Lonely Planet may be full of foreigners getting overcharged, while a more local experience can be found by asking the right people a few questions. (Where do people go out dancing around here?)
By staying in small, family-run hotels, I’ve not only saved a lot of money, but I’ve met some interesting people too. I made friends with the owner of a hostel in San Cristobal de las Casas, and now I stay there every time I visit, welcomed like an old friend. The owner of a hotel in Guatemala invited me into her home next door, which was full of odd statuettes and art, each piece with a story. And there’s no better person to get travel advice from than the friendly local working at the front desk.
If you have any more tips for finding hotels in Mexico or elsewhere, please share them in the comments.