Headed to Cancun on your vacation and looking for tips on how to have the best time? First you should know that you’re likely to have a lot of fun. But visiting a foreign country — no matter how much it caters to tourists — can lead to all sorts of questions about what to expect.
The good news? Cancun definitely does cater to American tourists. That makes many things more familiar than they would if you visiting somewhere further abroad (for instance, you can easily get by speaking English).
Below, we’ve rounded up our top tips and advice for visiting Cancun. Covering everything from money to getting around to safety, these are pointers that you don’t want to go without — especially if it’s your first time visiting.
Your Phone Will Likely Work in Cancun
While you still need to double check with your carrier, there’s a good chance that your cell phone will work in Mexico with no additional charge. Even if it doesn’t, you can often add service in Mexico for as little as $5.
Over the past several years, the fight for your cell phone service has led many carriers to offer new perks. One of those is service in Mexico and Canada. Many plans today have Mexico included automatically in the plan for no extra charge. There’s no need to get a new SIM card or jump through hoops.
And if it’s not included? Call your provider and tell them you’re headed to Mexico. They can tell you the options you have for service in Cancun. Often you can get service extended to the country for about $5-$10 per day.
Book a Hotel with an Airport Shuttle
The Cancun airport is near the famous Hotel Zone, but it’s still a bit of a drive. You can book your own transportation like a taxi or shuttle, but it’s a lot easier just to stay at a hotel with free airport shuttle service. These shuttles can take you directly to your hotel and back to the airport without having to deal about a third-party. Simply let the hotel know you’ll need a ride and hop on when you land.
The good news is that lots of hotels that sit right on the beach offers shuttles to guests. You can see a full list of Cancun hotels with airport shuttles here.
Arrange Transport Ahead of Time
Unfortunately, it’s a bit of a circus as you leave the Cancun airport. Taxi and shuttle drivers will walk along asking you where you want to go and trying to drum up business. Frankly, it’s a bit uncomfortable in many cases. That’s why we suggest arranging your transportation ahead of time instead of having to deal with finding a ride this way.
You can figure your ride out by booking online ahead of time (or by staying at a hotel with a shuttle). Then when you arrive you can let anyone who approaches know that you’re already taken care of.
One word of warning — it’s not unheard of for drivers of rival companies to tell you that the company you booked with is no longer in business. Just give them a smile and let them know you don’t need a ride.
Shuttle Transfers Are the Cheapest Way to the Hotel
You can take a taxi, but if you want the cheapest way to the hotel zone — and with a set price that you pay before you arrive — then look at one of the many shuttles that offer Cancun service. With so many people flying into Cancun and heading to the hotels, there is a thriving industry of shuttles. That competition leads to some low prices.
Simply Google “Cancun shuttles” to see a number of your options. A one-way ride should be about $10-15 per person. Of course, you can also just use the hotel’s shuttle for free if staying at a place that offers one.
No Need to Worry About Pesos
There are advantages of using pesos to purchase items in Mexico, but in the tourist hotspots like Cancun, U.S. dollars are widely accepted. In fact, bills from restaurants will come with a price that’s both in pesos and dollars and you can choose which way you want to pay. Note that you’ll often pay less using pesos because of the exchange rate charged by the establishment. Still, if you don’t want to change money over, you don’t have to. Keep in mind you might get change for dollars back in pesos.
Sunscreeen: Love It and Wear It
Even if you come to Cancun from a hot place — like Texas or Florida — you still aren’t quite prepared for the sun at lower latitudes. Here the sun’s rays are more direct, meaning that you get their impact much more quickly than you would back home. In other words, use sunscreen and reapply often. This isn’t so much for health reasons, but your enjoyment of your vacation. You don’t want to be locked inside the room because you got burned on your first day at the beach.
Take Advantage of Hotels with Childcare
If you’re a family traveling to Cancun, take advantage of one perk that many hotels now offer — childcare. A number of hotels have all sorts of amenities for kids (including child waterparks) and you can even drop them off while the staff keeps the kiddos entertained for the day. It’s a great way to have a day that both the kids and parents enjoy. See our list of Cancun hotels with childcare here.
Use “20” to Roughly Figure Exchange Rates
Need to know how much something is in dollars? Just take the price in pesos and divide it by 20 to get a rough estimate. Likewise, you can use “20” times the amount of dollars to figure out how much it is in pesos. While the exchange rate isn’t going to be exactly 20 pesos to the dollar, it’s close enough to give you an idea.
Take something that costs 800 pesos. Divide by 20, and you know it’s about $40 in U.S. currency. Likewise, if you want to know how much something is in pesos that costs $20 U.S., then multiply it by 20 to see that it would cost 400 pesos.
There’s a Lot of Natural Beauty Nearby
Most people head to Cancun and head straight for the hotel. That’s perfectly ok. With stunning beaches, why wouldn’t you want to spend some time soaking it in?
But truth is there is a lot of natural scenery and beauty outside the city as well. Cenotes (natural swimming holes) have the absolute clearest water you’ll ever see. Nearby islands like Isla Mujeres offer pristine beaches, as well as some beautiful rugged shoreline. Snorkeling, diving, and adventure parks are also nearby and offer a fun way to get out and see some of this gorgeous part of Mexico.
Enjoy hanging out at the hotel, but don’t think it’s all high-rises in the area.
Know the Time to Travel
You can travel to Cancun year-round, but there are some times that may be better than others. Summers are hot, with frequent thunderstorms that can blow up seemingly out of nowhere. June through November are hurricane season, and yes, hurricanes can impact this area of the tropics.
Many people prefer to visit in the winter, but this is the high season where rates rise due to snowbirds looking for a warm place to visit.
That’s why we don’t think there is a perfect time to visit Cancun, but just be aware of the general outlook for the time you do plan to visit. As close to perfect as you can get is around April or May when it’s plenty warm, but winter is over in North America (so prices are lower) and hurricane season isn’t yet underway.
ATMs Are Ideal for the Best Exchange Rate
The two ways to get the most favorable exchange rate are to use a credit card, or to take cash out at an ATM. We understand that many people may not be comfortable using their card abroad for risk of identity theft or skimming. If you do plan to use cash, you’re better off using an ATM than trying to change money in the airport or at another exchange booth. You’ll get a favorable rate that’s as close to the real exchange rate as you’ll find.
Be Prepared for “Propinas” (Tips)
If you’re Spanish isn’t great, a propina is a tip. By the time you leave Cancun, you’ll definitely know the word. As a tourist destination, people’s incomes rely on the cash that tourism brings. That means just about everyone will expect a tip. That includes drivers, waiters, maids, and whomever else provides any sort of direct service. How much to tip depends on you, but figure about 10% of the bill, or a few bucks a day for things like housekeeping.
Be Ready to Negotiate With Vendors
Find a souvenir that you like? In most shops that price on the item is a starting point for negotiations. You’ll get a feel quickly for where you can haggle and where you can’t. Places that seem like the kind of stores you’d find back home usually have set prices. But smaller vendors you can negotiate with.
The rule of thumb is to offer about half of what the item is listed at, and then work yourself up from there.
Don’t feel comfortable negotiating? You’re on vacation. You shouldn’t do anything you don’t want to do. It’s ok to pay full price, just know that it might not be the best deal.
Make Sure You’re Drinking Purified Water… and Ice
Even today it’s a good idea to still drink purified water and ice when you are visiting Mexico. For the most part you don’t have to worry about it — it’s common knowledge so the restaurants go out of their way to either serve you a bottle or let you know that the water and ice is purified.
Still, if you aren’t’ sure, it doesn’t hurt to ask if both the drinking water and ice are purified. A little prevention by being careful and making sure can help you save a lot of stomach ache later on.
Be Prepared for the “Hawks” at the Airport
Maybe it’s a rude description of people just trying to make a living, but it can feel like you’re a mouse walking out of the Cancun airport with “hawks” circling you. That’s a nickname for all the folks selling everything from timeshares to taxi rides to rental cars.
The good news is that they will take no for an answer… but they will definitely make you say no again and again. Simply let them know you aren’t interested in their services with a polite “no, gracias” and they will usually move on to the next person.
There Are a Number of Day Trips From Cancun
There’s actually a lot to do and see in the areas outside the city. Want to visit a picturesque tropical island? Visit Isla Mujeres, just off the coast of Cancun. There’s Chichen Itza, Tulum, Akumal, cenotes, adventure parks, and more — all within a few hours (or much less) of the Hotel Zone.
If you’re anxious about driving in Mexico, don’t worry. There are tour companies that can arrange everything for you. Just look online to see what’s available.
You Might “Win the Prize” In the Airport
Ok, it’s not a real prize, so don’t get your hopes up. Passing through customs, each person will walk up to a red and green light. Hit a button and hope that you get green (most people do). If you get green, then you’ll pass right on through and leave the airport. Those who get the red light are stopped and have their bags inspected. Don’t think you did anything wrong or look suspicious. It’s a random draw as to who gets green and who gets red.
Keep Your Wits About You While Having a Good Time
Cancun is known for its nightlife, and if you are staying in the Hotel Zone, it’s not far to the bars and nightclubs. Go out, have a great time, and make some friends. But it’s important to keep your wits about you. Remember, you are in a foreign country and while it might seem Americanized, you are still bound to follow the rules and laws of Mexico. Don’t think that it is a “Disney” experience where nothing bad can happen or that the laws don’t really apply.
Safety Is Relatively Good in the Hotel Zone
You likely have heard about the sharp rise in violence in Cancun. Over the past several years, the murder rate has increased dramatically. This isn’t to scare you, but simply make you aware of what’s going on.
The good news is that the tourist areas of Cancun like the Hotel Zone have been largely spared of this violence. There have been a few isolated incidents, but nothing like is seen in other parts of town. Remember that about 4 million Americans each year take trips to the area and there are few problems as long as you stay in the safer tourist areas.
Be Ready For Guards with Big Guns
If can be a bit unnerving until you realize they are there to keep things safe. When you first arrive to Cancun, be ready to see military and police carrying some rather large assault-style weapons. This show of force is meant to dissuade anyone from trying anything funny and also to show tourists that the area is secure. But if you aren’t used to it, the weapons can come as a shock.
Visit the Museo Maya de Cancun
It’s doubtful that culture comes to mind when you think of a tourist mecca like Cancun, but the area is steeped in a lot of history. You can learn by visiting the Museo Maya de Cancun. A beautiful new facility that opened just a few years ago, the museum is highly rated on TripAdvisor. It features tons of Mayan artifacts that tell the history of the indigenous people. There is also more about the Mayan culture and actual ruins (San Miguelito) that you can explore. It’s an amazing gem that’s in the middle of the resorts.
You’re Going to Need a Passport (With at Least 6 Months Left)
Sorry, no way around it. The days of visiting Mexico without a passport are over. These days you’ll need a passport if you are flying into Cancun. And while you can get them in a short time frame before your trip, it’s best to have it before you plan your trip.
One more tip — be sure the passport doesn’t expire for at least six months after your trip. In fact, if your passport expires within the next year, go ahead and renew it before you go.
Be Ready for Rain Showers
Head to Cancun in the wet season that runs from May through October and you should be prepared for some rainy afternoons. During the summer there can be pop-up showers that drench an area, only to be sunny just a few minutes later. Want to avoid the rain? Try to plan your trip in February, March, or April, when the rainfall is only a few inches per month.
Know About Issues With Tainted Alcohol
It made headlines not that long ago, but has since gone quiet; we’re talking about the issue of tainted alcohol. A number of people reported to have a couple of drinks at resorts and then suddenly blacking out without any recollection of what had happened. After some newspapers in the United States began investigating, the authorities cracked down on supplies of tainted alcohol. Still, while the headlines have died down, it’s smart for you to know about issues with liquor. Try to drink from unopened bottles if you can. If not, go slowly and make sure you have others around that can help should something go wrong.