Ahh, Mexico. The country is abundant with rich culture, endless beaches, and amazing food everywhere you turn. The beach destinations of Mexico (think Cancun, Tulum, Cabo San Lucas, Puerto Vallarta, etc.) are very popular year-round vacation spots for many travelers.
For beach dwellers, Mexico is well-known for its impeccable all-inclusive resorts and pristine turquoise waters. Not to mention, your dollar is stretched further here!
Cancun is definitely one of the more well-known destinations in Mexico. It is a beautiful coastal city on the Yucatan Peninsula in the Mexican state of Quintana Roo. If you’ve chosen Cancun as your destination of choice, read on! I’ve visited Cancun a handful of times, and each of my trips certainly has its ups and downs.
So without further ado, here are my top 15 Cancun travel tips, featuring a list of things I wish I’d known before visiting Cancun. In this post, I’ll provide you with my suggestions and personal learnings from previous trips–good and bad!
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Table of Contents
PREPPING FOR YOUR TRIP: CANCUN TRAVEL TIPS
1. Watch ‘The Mask’ for fun.
If you plan on visiting the most touristy area of Cancun, you should watch The Mask starring Jim Carey, just for kicks. (You certainly don’t have to hang out in this area; a walk through this zone was good enough for me!)
I won’t give too much away, but what you’ll notice when you’re in Cancun is a wildly popular club named Coco Bongo— and tons of people outside dressed up as The Mask. You’ll appreciate this touristy area slightly more once you refresh your memory.
2. Book a resort or hotel outside of the ‘Hotel Zone’.
Stay at least part of your vacation either downtown (to experience the local culture) or in a town further away from Cancun’s Hotel Zone. Other than a bunch of all-inclusive resorts stretching on for miles and miles, the Hotel Zone in Cancun is extremely boring, commercialized, and hard to get around by foot.
If you want to do anything else other than laying out on the beach, I’d suggest spending some time exploring the culture-rich area of Downtown Cancun or in other nearby coastal towns.
Whenever I go to Mexico for the all-inclusive life, I aim to stay in nearby areas outside of the Hotel Zone such as Playa Mujeres or down in the Playa Del Carmen and the Riviera Maya area. Excellence Riviera Cancun in Puerto Morelos is the resort I keep coming back to— highly, highly recommend!).
3. Save your immigration form from the airport.
Mexico requires travelers to fill out an Official Entry Immigration Form before passing through customs once they land at the airport.
If you want to be prepared, you can fill this form out online before traveling, though airlines will hand these out to everyone on the plane before landing so you can complete it then. (Bring a pen because the plane does not supply pens!) If you missed it, you can also fill out the form in the lobby before customs.
Once you exit customs, you will be provided the bottom portion of the sheet, or the exit portion. Keep this tucked away with the rest of your documents or in your passport, and DO NOT lose it. If you cannot present the exit form at security before boarding your flight home, you will be fined $60.
4. Bring bug spray.
This is one of my most preached Cancun travel tips. Even if you’ll be spending most of your time at the resorts, bringing bug spray is a must. The mosquitos tend to come out at night and especially after a day of rain or thunderstorms.
When I was in Cancun, I took a stroll through a walkway lined with trees and I kid you not, within 5 minutes I had gotten just about 15 mosquito bites that itched like crazy for the next few days. Spare yourself and just be prepared for potential bugs.
5. Pack all other “just in case” medicines and toiletries.
Bring all your first aid supplies and toiletries with you–sunscreen, allergy medicine, ibuprofen, itching cream, etc. For sunscreen, opt for the travel size if you don’t plan on checking a bag (otherwise you won’t be able to get it through airport security). This is better than not bringing any with you at all.
Why? You’re entering a pretty touristy area, which means all these necessities will surely be marked up and be very expensive. Just to give you an example of the exorbitant costs–our last all-inclusive resort had sunscreen on sale for $31 USD and Pepto-Bismol for $11 USD. One word: overpriced.
Also, I recommend you pack some Immodium, Pepto-Bismol, and/or ciprofloxacin just in case. While the food you eat will likely be clean, a lot of travelers’ stomachs are not used to the differences in food (especially if you’re going to be trying street food during your trip).
And if you’re staying at an all-inclusive resort, your stomach probably won’t be used to digesting so much food either.
After talking to a few hotel workers, I learned that upset stomachs are not uncommon at all. Be prepared by bringing these medicines with you so you don’t need to buy these items in the chance that you need them.
6. Bring the right type of sunscreen. The reef-safe kind.
Sunscreen is absolutely necessary. Even if it’s overcast or cloudy, the UV index can be very high, so be sure to apply whenever you’re outdoors. We always go with a coral reef-safe brand, as traditional sunscreens contain chemicals that harm our environment as well as the natural balance of marine ecosystems.
In fact, you may even encounter tour companies and eco-parks asking you to only use sunscreen and sunblock that are biodegradable, containing titanium oxide and zinc oxide only.
And honestly, it’s not enough to just buy any old bottle that has a “reef-friendly” label on it. It turns out many sunscreens claiming to be “reef-friendly” or “reef-safe” actually aren’t!
Products containing the following ingredients are technically NOT reef safe: oxybenzone, avobenzone, homosalate, octinoxate, octisalate, octocrylene or nanoparticles. Always review the active ingredients on the bottle to be sure you’re really getting something reef-safe.
Here are a few travel-sized biodegradable sunscreens you can easily buy on Amazon:
- Badger Reef Safe Sunscreen – SPF 40 Kids Clear Sport
- Thinksport SPF 50+ Mineral Sunscreen
- Babo Botanicals Zinc Sunscreen Lotion SPF 30
- All Good Sport Face & Body Sunscreen Lotion
And on days where we are just out and about (not getting into the water)–for the face, we are absolutely obsessed with the magical Supergoop! Unseen Sunscreen. It goes on matte with no white-cast, no greasy film! We love this stuff.
7. For the best hotel and accommodation rates, avoid the high season.
Your best bet for cheap rates and decent weather is during the shoulder season. Shoulder season in Cancun typically falls between the months of April to May and September to late November.
During these periods, the weather is still warm and sunny, but it’s not as crowded as the high season (which runs from December to March and June to August).
When you avoid the “best times to go”, you can save a significant amount of money. The exact amount of savings will depend on the specific hotel and time of year, but generally, hotel rates can be up to 30-50% cheaper during the shoulder season. This is because demand is lower during this time, so hotels are more likely to offer discounted rates and promotions to attract visitors.
That being said, it’s important to note that some hotels and resorts in Cancun have their own peak and low seasons, so it’s always a good idea to check with the individual property for their specific pricing and availability.
8. Avoid the high season, but don’t go during the low season either.
If you’re thinking that you’d save a ton of money by going to Cancun during the low season, you wouldn’t be wrong. But I wouldn’t suggest it. I mean, unless you’re completely unaffected by high levels of humidity.
The low season in Cancun typically falls between the months of June to October. During this time, Cancun experiences a decline in tourism due to a combination of factors, such as the rainy season, hurricane season, unbearably hot weather and high humidity levels, and the start of the school year in North America.
For me, I can’t function in high humidity so I wouldn’t recommend that anyone visit during the summer months (which also coincides with hurricane season).
Shoulder season is where it’s at. In fact, the sweet spot–and my favorite time to go–is in late November to early December. We love going right after the Thanksgiving holiday.
9. Make sure you’re covered with some sort of travel insurance.
When I say travel insurance, I mean insurance for not just your belongings, accommodations, and flights, but also for your body! Especially if you plan on doing anything active/adventurous like snorkeling, surfing, ziplining, etc.
This is a no-brainer. When traveling internationally, be sure to get yourself some travel insurance.
I’ve heard of too many unfortunate experiences where friends and family have had baggage lost/stolen, hotels canceled, or have had unexpected medical emergencies while traveling where they’ve had to cut their trips short.
True story alert — in 2022, my partner even had his shoulder completely dislocated while surfing in Mexico, resulting in a $950 USD emergency room bill that we had to pay out of pocket for! Not fun and not cheap.
While this was in Cabo and not Cancun, the ocean does what the ocean wants and a dislocated shoulder is all the same no matter where you are in the world.
Don’t be foolish like we were! If this happened to you without travel insurance, you would have to pay out of pocket for these mishaps. This is why I get travel insurance for all my international trips now!
One of the best budget-friendly travel insurances for those traveling outside their home country is SafetyWing.
SafetyWing Insurance provides coverage for unexpected illness or injury, including eligible expenses for hospital, doctor or prescription drugs. This means that if you get ill or injured, they will cover the medical expenses.
In addition, it provides emergency travel-related benefits such as emergency medical evacuation (much needed if you like to go hiking / trekking in the wild), travel delay, and lost checked luggage.
GETTING AROUND: CANCUN TRAVEL TIPS
10. Uber is technically not legal here. You’ll need to get around by taxi, public transportation, or private transfer.
Do not try getting a ride through Uber at the airport, or anywhere else for that matter. Even though the app may work, Uber isn’t legal in Cancun. You should plan on getting around the old-fashioned way of getting around with either a rental car, taxi, or public transportation.
This was a hard lesson learned after my first trip to Cancun. Hailing a taxi in person is such a pain— the drivers tend to overcharge you astronomically. You can practice your bargaining here, but make sure to agree on a set price before hopping in.
This is so not my cup of tea, so whenever I go now, I tend to ignore all the taxi drivers shouting things at me at the airport to avoid getting ripped off.
Here’s what I’ve done on my subsequent Cancun trips—it’s super easy and straightforward: I pre-book transportation through Viator or Booking.com and provide them with my flight information as well as the estimated arrival time.
A driver will then get in contact with me (likely through text message) and will let me know where to meet them when I arrive at the airport.
Pre-booked transportation options include shared vans, shuttles, and private transfers. Compare the prices between each of the options and choose the one that fits your budget. It’s as simple as that! It’s also way cheaper than the in-person prices the taxis advertise.
On our last trip to Cancun, our private transfer from the hotel to the airport (pictured below) cost just $40 whereas a taxi for the same trip would have cost $50 USD. We were traveling in comfort and style while saving money, whoo!
11. Research how to get around town.
Take a look at your transportation options ahead of time, because it’s really not as straightforward without the ridesharing conveniences that many of us are used to.
Many resorts will send shared shuttle buses to the Cancun International Airport throughout the day to pick up incoming guests, so this is another option for getting to your hotel.
Looking to get around during your trip? You can take the bus around the Hotel Zone and into Downtown Cancun for a day of exploration.
The bus system in Cancun is pretty darn convenient. Buses run around the clock and run up and down the hotel zone every few minutes. They are safe, super affordable (~$0.50 USD), and easy to ride with 24/7 service. Make this your primary form of transportation within the Cancun city limits. The main routes are the R-1 and R-2.
Looking to visit nearby towns or heading to/from the airport? Consider the ADO bus.
These are first-class buses that travel to destinations like Playa del Carmen and Tulum, as well as to the Cancun International Airport. Tickets can be purchased on the same day. (Or, go with good ol’ private transportation–this option hasn’t failed me yet!)
And if that all seems too complicated, then just take the taxi (but be prepared to pay a premium for that luxury).
These resources may also be helpful to you:
- How To Get From Cancun To Playa Del Carmen: A Detailed Guide!
- How To Get To Isla Mujeres From Cancun (Hotel Zone, Downtown, or Airport)
- How To Get To Isla Holbox From Cancun (and Beyond)
12. If you need to take a taxi, look out for a few things before getting in.
First of all, you should have an agreed upon price for the ride BEFORE getting in. We don’t want to get swindled here.
Secondly, remember that taxi drivers are required to always display their official permits in a visible location. Never get into any unmarked, unofficial taxis.
WHEN YOU’RE IN CANCUN: CANCUN TRAVEL TIPS
13. Authentic Mexican food is harder to find.
If you’re looking for authentic Mexican food, skip the overpriced, chain restaurants in the Hotel Zone and head to Downtown Cancun. The busiest street carts or the least pretentious restaurants tend to have the best food.
Make sure to check out Parque Las Palapas in Downtown Cancun for a massive array of authentic Mexican food choices. The park is open on a nightly basis!
Pro Tip: Use Google Maps’ reviews to look for good restaurants worth trying instead of looking for them on Yelp or TripAdvisor–you’ll find that Google reviews are a lot more informational in non-US countries like Mexico!
14. Don’t plan too much for your first day there.
Allow your body to adjust to the weather as well as to any time zone changes you may experience after landing. Since Cancun is a tropical destination, you may need some time to adjust to the humidity and heat.
On my last trip, I had a mission to head straight into town to eat and explore upon dropping my bags off at the villa hotel. I didn’t care that a thunderstorm had just passed through and that the residual humidity was off the charts!
Well, out I went and boy was I not prepared for the exhaustion that had overcome me in less than an hour. It was like I had been drained of all the energy from my body and all the pep in my step was just wiped out of me.
What I ended up needing was a long 2-hour nap in an air-conditioned room.
So just heed my warning, if your body isn’t used to hot and humid conditions, take it slow and remember to stay hydrated!
15. Leave the Hotel Zone to shop at local markets.
Looking for souvenirs to bring home for your friends, family, and coworkers? Skip the airport gift shops and check out local markets and artisanal shops.
Mercado 28 is the only place you really need to go for this. Here, you will find an endless assortment of handmade goods, kitschy souvenirs, and food/alcohol gifts.
If you’re coming from the Hotel Zone, you’ll take the R-2 bus to Mercado 28. Tell the bus driver this is where you want to go. When you get dropped off, don’t be fooled by the first strip of overpriced stores you see (here’s how you’ll know— people will be standing in front of these shops stating that you’re at Mercado 28). Instead, you’ll have to keep walking a few more blocks up the street.
At some point, you’ll see the Mercado 28 archway on the other side of the street. You’ve made it—now get ready to sharpen those bargaining skills!
16. Get out of Cancun with some day trips.
Exploring the lesser-traveled destinations in Mexico requires a little bit of planning, but it will be so rewarding. While it might be tempting to chill poolside all day in your all-inclusive resort, be sure to leave Cancun to explore the rest of Quintana Roo!
Isla Mujeres, Tulum, and Playa del Carmen are within arm’s reach from Cancun. Not only are these places beautiful, but they also carry a boatload of historical significance. These unique beach communities are all very different, making them perfect for day-tripping.
Isla Mujeres is a small yet breathtaking island just 8 miles north of Cancun. Upon disembarking the high-speed ferry, you’ll see a quaint town with lined with wispy palm trees and golf carts rolling by everywhere you look. The streets between the endless beaches are lined with charming local bars, eateries, and shops.
Spend your afternoon relaxing by the Playa Norte beach, walking down Hidalgo Street, hanging out at the sea turtle sanctuary, or exploring the outskirts of the island in a golf cart of your own.
You can reach Isla Mujeres by ferry or by booking a day trip on a catamaran.
Playa Del Carmen
Playa Del Carmen is an hour south of Cancun. Here, you will find a little bit of everything —upscale villas and resorts, great shopping, and people watching on Fifth Avenue, as well as the Xaman-Ha Mayan ruins.
Tulum is just a bit further south from Playa Del Carmen. It is home to a picturesque set of Mayan ruins by the coast, as well as a good variety of boho/eco-hotels, shops, restaurants, and other things to do that you won’t want to miss. There are amazing cenotes near Tulum that you certainly won’t want to miss!
Cozumel is directly east of Playa del Carmen and is easily accessed by a quick and scenic ferry ride. The diving and snorkeling opportunities here are endless and unbeaten!
Isla Holbox is a small Mexican island known for its laid-back atmosphere, easy access to activities and stunning natural beauty. In recent years, Isla Holbox has become a popular destination for travelers looking to experience the Caribbean without crowds and big resorts.
The main attraction on Isla Holbox is undoubtedly its beaches. With white sand and crystal clear waters, they are ideal spots for swimming, snorkeling and basking in some sunshine.
There are also plenty of opportunities to explore nature further on foot or bike along one of the many trails that meander through mangroves and salt marshes.
17. You can do a bunch of activities without renting a car.
Avoid renting a car in Cancun, as driving can be difficult and dangerous. Instead, take a taxi or shuttle to get around. Another option is to get to places via day tours!
Many tour operators hold full-day tours that will pick you up from your hotel. If you want to experience Mexico outside of your resort in Cancun (which I highly recommend you do), consider the following:
Day Trip: Tulum Ruins and Cenote Swim | Combine ancient history with adventure on this 6-hour tour of the Tulum archaeological site and a swim/snorkel experience in subterranean cenotes and limestone caves.
Day Trip: Chichen Itza, Valladolid with Cenote Swim | Explore Chichén Itzá and learn about its impressive ruins from an informative local guide, then swim in an underground river on a guided excursion, finally, enjoy a guided tour of the colonial town of Valladolid.
Day Trip: Tulum, Coba, and Cenote Swim | Visit two of the most important Mayan archaeological sites with a certified guide on this full-day tour: Coba and Tulum. In the afternoon, you’ll be able to swim in a cenote, and enjoy a traditional Mexican lunch.
Isla Mujeres All-Inclusive Catamaran Tour | Experience the white sands and turquoise waters of Isla Mujeres (in my opinion, a must for anyone visiting the Cancun area). On this full-day tour from Cancun, cruise to the island on a catamaran and snorkel in the protected waters of a marine park. Spend your remaining free time relaxing on the beach, feasting on a lunch buffet with open bar, and roam the quaint streets of the island.
Whatever tours you choose, make sure to carve out some time to visit a cenote! Cenotes are truly unique to the Riviera Maya and cannot be found so common across the world.
Additionally, you shouldn’t overlook the culture and history of the region. It’s teeming with thousands and thousands of years worth of historical significance!
18. Exchange for pesos at ATMs for the best rates.
Exchanging your home currency for pesos from an ATM is a much better deal than exchanging it at your local bank ahead of time or at the foreign exchange kiosks at the airport.
If you can find an ATM at the airport that’s hosted by a bank, and your bank refunds you ATM convenience fees, getting pesos here will be perfectly fine! Otherwise, head downtown for the ATMs that charge the least fees. You’ll get the best conversion rates here.
You’ll also notice at shops and restaurants in Cancun, you’ll have the option of paying in US dollars or pesos. One thing I’d definitely recommend is paying with pesos.
Paying with dollars (not recommended) will cost you an additional 15-20% more than what you need to pay.
19. Always have pesos available for spending (and tipping).
You should always keep pesos on hand, as you’ll find not everyone outside of your resort will accept credit cards. By doing this, you will also avoid fees that are sometimes incurred when using credit or debit cards internationally.
Having pesos on hand also means you can tip easily (which is something you should do to support the local workers). Even if you’ll be spending all your time in an all-inclusive resort, you should tip. A small tip at the bar, the restaurant or after room service can go a long way.
Pro Tip: You’re likely to get better service and be prioritized before the other non-tipping hotel guests.
20. If you pay with a card or even cash, make the payment in local currency (pesos).
What you’ll find when you’re in Cancun is that USD is widely accepted. Which is pretty different from many other parts of the world where it’s local currency, card, or bust.
This added layer of convenience in Mexico, despite its convenience, will come at a price. The USD price will almost always come at a slightly higher rate than when paying in pesos. If you choose to pay in USD in cash or credit card, you’ll be losing money.
Always pay in pesos!
21. Take some time to learn about the culture and history.
Cancun is so much more than the beaches, glitzy resorts, and nightclubs. During your vacation, be sure to take some time to learn about the culture and history of the Yucatan. From ancient Mayan ruins to colonial Spanish architecture, there’s a lot to discover in this region.
Start by exploring iconic Mayan sites like Chichen Itza, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, or Coba and Tulum. Other options include the Museo Maya de Cancun, a multi-million dollar museum built to house the Mayan artifacts found in the region.
For an immersive experience, consider taking a guided tour focused on local culture or visiting during one of Mexico’s traditional festivals like Dia de los Muertos. These events provide an authentic glimpse into local customs and beliefs that have been preserved through generations.
22. The Xcaret México Espectacular Show is the most epic thing ever.
If you are limited on time and could only choose one excursion during your trip to Cancun, let it be Xcaret! This eco-park is like Disneyland, only in the jungle. And instead of rides, you’re moving, swimming, and learning about Mexican culture.
Among the highlights are the underground river swim, the Aviary, the Coral Reef Aquarium, and the Butterfly Pavilion. Aside from the natural attractions, you’ll also get to learn so much about Mexican culture through the Mayan ruins, Mayan Village, various art exhibits, as well as the epic Xcaret México Espectacular show.
The México Espectacular Show is by far the highlight of this whole park. It’s an epic performance and showcase of Mexico’s history featuring over 300 performers! I’d watch this show time and time again–and to this day, continue to recommend it to all my friends!
Read More: Xcaret Park Review: Is It Worth The Money?
23. Don’t drink too much.
While it’s tempting to indulge in the party scene in Cancun, be careful not to drink too much, especially when you’re out on the beaches or under the hot sun in general.
Excessive drinking can lead to dangerous situations, so pace yourself and don’t get so drunk that you lose sight and awareness of your surroundings!
Also, never leave any drinks unattended, especially as a solo traveler. You never know what kind of creeps are prowling around looking for susceptible tourists. This applies to all travel destination hotspots!
Compared to other travel destinations, Cancun has been known to be less safe due to drug cartel/violence issues, so you’ll want to be vigilant and aware of these ongoing issues.
24. Get your tax refund after all that shopping.
Calling all shopping lovers! Cancun Airport recently launched a Tax Back program. The program enables travelers to be refunded the value-added tax paid on purchases while in Cancun.
If you spend over 1,200 pesos in a single location, you are entitled to receive a percentage of your payment back as a reimbursement for the taxes paid. As you’re about to leave via Cancun Airport, be sure to go to the Tax Back offices to claim the refund on your purchases. Be sure to keep all of your receipts!
When shopping, don’t forget to ask for a receipt at participating stores and bring proof of purchase to the Tax Back offices at the airport.
25. Relax and have fun!
You are on vacation, YES! Go into it with the most positive attitude and embrace where you are– a tropical haven. If you want to spend all your days fitting in action and adventure, do it. But don’t forget to carve out some time to do nothing but relax. Ahhhhhh…..
BONUS TIP: There is a good chance there will be families traveling by plane with young children and/or babies. A very good chance. We highly recommend bringing earplugs or headphones for your plane rides to drown out any potential crying babies!
THE FOUR MOST POPULAR CANCUN TOURS
- 3-in-1 Discovery Combo Tour: Tulum Ruins, Reef Snorkeling Plus Cenote and Caves: see some of the Yucatan’s absolute best features, all in one day!
- Chichen Itza All-Inclusive, Tequila tasting, Cenote Swim, Buffet & Valladolid: a whole day tour that combines culture, history, nature and food–I loved this tour!
- Xcaret Day Trip with Transportation: one of the best eco-parks in the entire world, it’s so worth a visit–don’t miss the Mexico Espectacular show at the end of the day!
- ATV Tour, Ziplines and Cenote Swim with Lunch and Transportation: a great tour for adventurous travelers that want a good mix of adrenaline and nature
Want more Mexico travel tips? Read More: