Cancun is one of the most beautiful paradises in the Carribean. However, it is often associated with all-inclusive resort vacations that can be cliche touristy. BUT, when you actually step away from the hotel zone, filled with fist-pumping spring breakers and families with their kids, Cancun is a whole different experience. Spoiler: it is way cheaper and more authentic. Here are my best tips for traveling in Cancun on a budget.
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How to find cheap flights to Cancun
First things first, flights are usually the biggest expense of a trip. My biggest advice on finding cheap flights to Cancun is the same as my advice on finding cheap flights to anywhere:
- Be flexible with your travel dates. The more you can do this, the more likely you will score a deal.
- Use Skyscanner. It is by far my favorite search engine. Choose “cheapest month” as your departure date, and you can see the dates with the lowest price for your destination.
- Sign up for alerts. Besides Skyscanner where you can sign up for price drop alerts for your destination and travel dates, you can also sign up for flight deal alerts on websites such as Scott’s Cheap Flights and Secret Flying. Also, don’t forget your favorite airline’s newsletter! I follow the Toronto Flight Deals & Travel Specials’s Facebook page, where they share extremely low price flights going out from the YYZ airport. If you live in a big city, there may be a similar Facebook page for you too!
Funny story (well not really funny): My original plan was to visit Costa Rica but I got discouraged by the steep price tag of the flights. Instead, I found a $250 deal to Cancun and I jumped on it. Best decision ever!
Where to stay in Cancun
Accommodation comes next on the big expenses list. Repeat after me: Stay AWAY from the hotel zone. Not only are the hotels more expensive there, everything is more expensive there. I once sat down for lunch with my friend in a restaurant on the tourist strip and realized for the price of two tacos there, we could get double amount of tacos back in the city center. Of course, unwilling to be cheated on our tacos, we left and went to the place we always eat. (More on where that is later)
The point is, you can enjoy everything Cancun has to offer without staying at one of the flashy resorts. There are cheaper hotels and hostels just 15 minutes away. During my three weeks, I stay at Granada 6 Hostel (MXN 242 and up), which I highly recommend. It is a super cozy house with a homey vibe, and it is conveniently located near the ADO station.
I have to share that I actually got to stay here for free. WHAAT?! I know. I volunteered at the hostel doing reception work in exchange for free board, an opportunity I found via a program called Workaway. I will be talking more about this program and how to volunteer travel in a future blog post. So look out for it!
Some other great cheap places to stay in Cancun include:
Señor Frog MXN 269 and up
The Mayan Monkey MXN 469 and up
Boom Feel Hostal MXN 311 and up
Mezcal Hostel MXN 354 and up
Agavero Hostel MXN 269 and up
Selina Cancun MXN 135 and up
Psst get $16 off your first booking on Booking.com when you register through my link.
How to get around in Cancun
Public transportation in Cancun is very easy. The buses run 24/7. A ride to the beach is about 15 minutes and will cost you 12 pesos. Even a long distance ride to Playa Del Carmen is only 40 pesos. So save your car rental fees!
Best cheap things to do in Cancun
The best things in life are free, or…don’t cost very much. Here are some of the best cheap things to do in Cancun.
Go to the beach
This is what you came for right? Cancun has many stunning beaches with soft white sand and turquoise sea stretching as far as the eyes can see. You don’t need to spend a dime to witness its beauty. Other than maybe the bus ticket to get you here. That is less than a dollar for a day in paradise. You can tan, swim, snorkel, play sports…the fun options are endless. Here are some of my favorite beaches in Cancun: Playa Delphines, Playa Marlin, Playa Forum, Playa Langosta.
*Know before you go: In recent years, Cancun has been having issues with overgrowth of sargassum seaweed. Read this article to learn about the current seaweed conditions in Cancun and the impact.
Bike along Kukulkan boulevard
For active souls and early birds, I highly recommend Kukulkan Boulevard in the morning. Get on a bike or take a jog along the palm tree lined road. Nothing like the first fresh air of the day and seeing the sun rise into the sky. It’s a feeling that makes you feel just…alive! You know? If you are shaking your head no, then go back to bed. We’ll talk other things that don’t involve getting up early.
Who else is a crazy morning person like me? 😛
Visit Mercado 28
This colorful market has all sorts of souvenirs and weird trinkets that are fun to browse. You can find anything and everything here from Lucha Libre masks, to traditional Mexican dresses, to I <3 Cancun fridge magnets, to painted Dia de los Muertos skulls. The shopkeepers can be annoying with the constant promotion of their stalls, but just smile, say “no gracias” and walk away if you are not interested. If you do decide to buy something, make sure to haggle!
Take photos at Plaza Bonita
Right next to Mercado 28 is a cute plaza deserving of its name “Bonita”, “pretty” in Spanish. It is where the locals hang out and still quite undiscovered by tourists. Instagrammers, this is your spot! Vivid murals, colorful staircases, pink and blue buildings, adorable cactuses…It’s the perfect place to take some epic photos.
Check out Museo Maya de Cancun
The Mayans plays a big part in the history and culture of the Yucatan peninsula. For cultural buffs, the Mayan Museum of Cancun is a must visit. They have a huge collection of Mayan archeological artifacts. The museum only costs 80 pesos $4 to enter.
Watch the sunset at Plaza La Isla
Cancun has the most dazzling sunrise over the ocean I’ve ever seen. However, if that’s an impossible ordeal for you, the good news is, you can also see the sunset over the water at Plaza La Isla. How many destinations do you know that offers both gorgeous sunrise and sunset views? Only in Cancun. Simply walk over to the west side of the hotel zone peninsula to the shopping village. Grab a seat on the boardwalk and enjoy the awe-inspiring sky show.
Tip: Plaza La Isla is also a great place to walk around. You can see romantic Venice like canals and even sneak a peak at the dolphins of the aquarium next door.
Enjoy a night out with free drinks
Coco Bongo is arguably the most famous place to party in Cancun. The spectacular shows and open bars are crazy, and so is the entrance price. For a more low key yet equally awesome night out, head to Ave. Carlos Nader near ADO station. Here you will find many cute bars and clubs. Chicas, make sure to check out Amarula on Wednesdays for their ladies night! I am talking unlimited free drinks.
Take a day trip
Don’t limit yourself to Cancun! There are so many cool day trips just a bus/ferry ride away. Hop over to the sleepy island of Isla Mujeres, look for cenotes (swimming holes) near Puerto Morelos, or visit the magnificent Chitchen Itza.
Stuff your face with delicious Mexican food
Mexican is probably one of my top 3 cuisines. Therefore, I was in heaven in Cancun. I couldn’t get enough of tacos, sopas, salbutes, burritos, and fresh guac. They are all super cheap. I usually pay 15-18 pesos for a taco. That is just $3 for a delicious meal. Keep reading the best place to eat in Cancun below.
Where to eat in Cancun
Plaza Las Palapas is hands down the best place to get cheap and delicious street food in Cancun. Think of it as an outdoor food court. There are many stalls so you have lots of choices. I came here with my friends way too often. I love the strawberry juice, AKA agua fresca, at the drinks stall. Also, you have to try a maquesita, a sweet rolled up crepe with fillings like nutella and banana. So yummy! Find a seat under one of the umbrellas, and you can listen to one of the live bands at night as you eat your food.
Palapas is especially booming on Sundays. Watch out for little kids zooming around in their toy cars and entertainments such as Lucha Libre.
Cancun on a budget tips
Don’t exchange money at the airport
The Cancun airport has the absolutely worst exchange rate. If you really need some cash to get to the city, exchange just enough for the bus ticket, then go exchange at ADO station. The ADO bus to city centre cost 84 pesos (around $5 USD).
For reference: At the time of writing this post (December 2018), the exchange rate is about 19 MXN to 1 USD.
Learn to bargain
As expected, shopkeepers try to rip off tourists who don’t know any better. Never believe the first price they give you. Test them by offering %50-60 and they will counter. Often, walking away will led to them giving you their real price. If not, move on. There are many shops selling the exact same things, especially at Mercado 28.
Cook your own food
Another advantage of staying in a hostel is access to a kitchen, which means you can save more money by cooking your own food. There was a Sorianna Supermarket very close to where I stayed. It was very easy for me to buy fresh fruits and veggies, pastries, pasta, etc. My friends and I would could together at the hostel and make a whole party out of it. It was the best and we saved so much $$!
Be vigilant and watch out for scammers
Staying in the local part of town, I felt generally very safe in Cancun. However, you do need to be vigilant about your money and belongings. I once made a very stupid mistake and paid a taxi driver way too much for fare. ($90 USD too much to be exact. It was late and I was tired.) The taxi driver took my money without saying anything and drove away quickly before my brain could process what I did. I was very mad at myself for this embarrassing #travelfail. My friends have also lost things such as money and phones. People will cheat you sometimes because the temptation of money is too great. BUT! I don’t want to over worry you. There are way more kind people in Mexico than sucky people. Exercise common precautions and you should be fine.
Splurge once in a while
Lastly, don’t be a cheapo all the time. Spend a little more once in awhile. Some activities are worth it like visiting Xcaret, the most interesting eco-natural culture park in the Yucatan. I thoroughly enjoyed my time there, even though it cost me more than $100 dollars (my biggest splurge ever!)
Cancun expenses breakdown
To help you further, I have created a chart of example prices you can expect for things in Cancun. The prices are in Mexican pesos, which at the time of writing this post, converts to 19 MXN per 1 USD.
|Hostel accommodation||270-360 pesos per night|
|Bus within city||12 pesos|
|Bus out of the city||40 pesos (Colectivo fare to Playa del Carmen)|
|Ferry||225 pesos (Return fare to Isla Mujeres)|
|Average Meal||55 pesos (3 tacos)|
|Beer||33 pesos (1ltr)|
Check out my Yucatan Mexico Guide on Youtube
Cancun on a budget cheatsheet
Because you love me for being extra, I also made a PDF download for you. It has a list of all the cheap things to do in Cancun we’ve mentioned, hostel suggestions, and a section for you to plan your own budget. Enter your email below to get the download link in your inbox. By signing up, you will also receive the TBB newsletter where I share monthly travel tips, new itineraries, and exclusive goodies like free printables.
Going to Mexico soon? Plan your trip in 4 easy steps
Book A Flight: Find the cheapest flights on Skyscanner, my go-to search engine.
Find A Hotel: Score affordable accommodation on Booking.com. Receive $16 off your first booking with my link here.
Buy insurance: You never know what may happen on the road. Protect your trip & gear with World Nomad, the best travel insurance company ever. Get a quote here.
Read up on the best advice: Love a good old fashion guide book. Suggested reading: Lonely Planet: Cancun, Cozumel & Yucatan.
If you want more Mexico travel inspiration, make sure to check out everything I did in Mexico in my Instagram Story Highlights.
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