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15 Ways to Save Money in Cancun and the Rivieria Maya

Katie has traveled to Cancun twice and did extensive research on the architecture of the ruins as part of her university honors program.

Take time to enjoy the natural beauty in the area!  You won't find whiter beaches or clearer oceans than those in the Riviera Maya or Cancun.

Take time to enjoy the natural beauty in the area! You won't find whiter beaches or clearer oceans than those in the Riviera Maya or Cancun.

The Riviera Maya Has Something for Everyone

The Riviera Maya is famous for its white sandy beaches, clear water, archeological ruins, friendly people, and theme parks. It's located in the Mexican state of Quintana Roo and has become a favorite tourist destination over the past half-century. With its wide range of attractions, it's sure to have something for everyone. Here are a few money-saving tips that will make your next trip to Cancun and the surrounding area more affordable and more enjoyable!

1. Shuttles and Cabs

From the moment you step off the plane you’ll most likely notice two things:

  1. It’s warmer and more humid than where you live.
  2. There are people trying relentlessly to get you to get into their cab. Don’t fall for it. They’re all either ridiculously expensive or selling timeshares.

Instead, arrange your ride to your hotel with your travel agent or your hotel concierge ahead of time. Many travel agents will provide this service free of cost. Be sure you know exactly what your driver or the representative will be wearing and any other way your company identifies itself. Don't just trust that because someone claims to be with your company they are actually a representative of that agency.

You'll also need ground transportation to your excursions throughout your stay. Many excursion companies will include ground transportation from your hotel to the attraction as part of the cost of the excursion. If this is the case, be sure you know where and when you will be picked up and how to identify your driver.

This is a photo of the van that picked us up for our excursion to Chichen Itza and Tulum.

This is a photo of the van that picked us up for our excursion to Chichen Itza and Tulum.

2. City Buses

Bus tickets are only a dollar each way (an American dollar, that is). The buses run to and from the hotel district in Cancun every few minutes. The hotel concierge or travel agents located in the hotel lobby will have a copy of the bus schedule. If there’s a stop near your destination, take advantage of this option before considering a cab.

3. Cell Phones

If at all possible, consider leaving the grid while in Mexico and put all electronics in airplane mode for the duration of your trip. International rates and fees add up very, very quickly and will apply to both in-going and out-going text messages and calls. If you do decide to use your phone, keep it in airplane mode when you’re not using it and limit use.

4. All-Inclusive Resorts

I highly recommend looking into the all-inclusive resorts. These resorts make it much easier to know where your next meal will be, exactly when you're ready for it, without having to try to plan around excursions you want to take. They can also be less expensive than other hotels once you factor in the cost of food, especially considering that it can be hard to know if food outside the resorts and big tourist attractions is safe in Mexico.

If you decide to go the all-inclusive resort route, consider the Grand Oasis. It has several branches throughout the Riviera Maya. Wristbands that grant you day access to branches besides your primary hotel can be obtained free of charge. These can then be used to access free beaches and meals while you’re off seeing the different sites and enjoying the different activities in the area.

This is a photo of one of the Grand Oasis resorts we took from a 263 foot tower.

This is a photo of one of the Grand Oasis resorts we took from a 263 foot tower.

5. Package Deals

Sometimes booking more than one excursion or buying more than one souvenir from the same vendor will allow you to get them at a package rate. Always double-check the package rate and be sure it is actually less than how much you would pay if you purchased each item separately. Package deals can be a great way to save money, so don’t shy away from them unnecessarily, but always double-check them.

6. Know What's Included

Many excursion companies use wrist bands to signify that you’ve paid for certain access to their facilities. Be sure you know exactly what is included and what costs extra. Don’t get stuck thinking you’ve paid for an attraction you wanted to see only to find it wasn’t included in the entrance fee. Know what is included so you can make informed decisions about whether or not the activity is worth the price.

On the flip side, one wristband may get you access to multiple attractions. Vendors do not always advertise these perks, so be sure to ask. For example, once my husband and I had paid for entrance to the XelHa Park to swim with the dolphins, we could use that same wristband to ride a glass elevator to the top of a 260-foot tower that overlooked the entire area. Luckily we met a frequent vacationer at the park who tipped us off or we would have missed out on the experience because it wasn’t advertised anywhere at the park!

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7. Know the Exchange Rate

Don’t just trust that vendors are being honest with you in calculating exchange rates. Know for yourself. Either ask the hotel concierge or check online before you go to avoid setting yourself up to be taken advantage of by not knowing the correct rate.

8. Ask for Discounts

Street Vendors and Merchants expect you to haggle. In the Mayan villages near the ruins, their goods are actually only worth about 30-40% of what they will try to sell them for. Remember that these areas are extremely poor and your sale may be the only way the vendor feeds his family that day. Consider aiming for closer to 60% if you can afford it. You’ll make a huge difference in a family’s life. Whatever you do, do not pay full price in any of the little tourist shops.

Asking for available discounts isn’t just a good idea in the street shops. At one of the parks, I saved $46 on a photo package they had taken of my husband and I while we swam with their dolphins. I purposefully discussed the price difference between the photo package I wanted and the package just beneath it in price with my husband in front of the sales representative. I commented how the difference in price wasn’t worth what was gained with the package I wanted. In order to save his sale, the salesman offered me a 20% discount on the whole package if I would get the photo package I actually wanted. You may not always get a discount with this technique, but it’s worth a try!

9. Shop Around

Don’t buy your souvenir or book your excursion with the first shop or company you see it in. It is not uncommon for neighboring shops to be selling the exact same items for vastly different prices. Talk to two or three shop owners and use their neighbor’s prices to help you haggle the prices down.

10. Be a Savvy Shopper

Don’t fall for high-pressure sales techniques. Street vendors will work very hard for your business. Repeatedly saying “No Thank You” and walking away is the only way to get them to stop. They may follow you a few feet, but they’ll return to their shop and start on the next victim fairly quickly.

Do not take merchandise vendors try to hand you until you’re sure you’re interested or you want to inspect the time. They’ll quote a low price, hand it to you, and then say that was the price per oz. or something similar. You’re then in the awkward position of trying to get them to take it back before you can walk away. If you do end up holding something you don’t want and can’t get them to take it, set it on the ground and leave.

11. Cash

There’s no reason to exchange your American dollars for Mexican Pesos. Although some items, like bus fare are slightly cheaper if you pay in Pesos, that cost isn’t worth the fees charged to exchange your money. Everyone accepts American dollars. Use them.

With that being said, there are strict laws in Mexico about the defacement of money. Double-check that your bills aren’t written on or torn as many vendors will not accept damaged bills. If you’re given damaged money as change, ask for a new bill.

Many of the employees in the Yucatan Peninsula work for tips. Plan to tip every driver, every waiter, and the bartender and entertainment on every excursion. Have enough small bills that you can tip throughout your stay without trying to find change. Only banks can break American money for smaller bills. Other customer service agents will have to exchange your larger American bills for smaller Mexican bills. There’s generally a fee involved and it can be difficult to change those dollars back into American dollars if you have extra at the end of your stay. ATMs are available, but they have noteworthy fees as well.

12. Backup Form of Payment

Always be sure you know whether or not there is a fee for using a credit card before you give the vendor your card. They can add fees of up to 20% that could be avoided by paying cash.

In addition, it’s also a good idea to have enough cash to cover excursions or a second time you can talk to someone about booking the excursion. Many vendors use wireless card readers to take credit card payments. Their connectivity isn’t always reliable. If a vendor claims your payment didn’t go through and wants to swipe your card a second time, ask to see the receipt saying the transaction didn’t go through. Don’t let someone double charge you.

13. PINs and ATMs

ATMs can only be used to withdraw money from debit and credit cards that have PINs associated. Be sure at least 2 cards have a PIN set up before leaving for your trip. Try to avoid withdrawing cash as there are fees involved, but in a pinch or an emergency, it’s important to have this plan open to you. Wifi and cell phone service, especially to US or international lines, are hard to come by in Mexico. It’s much easier to have this set up before you leave on vacation.

Not having the right sunscreen cost me for more than a week in more than cash! (I'm on the far left, my husband is to my right.)

Not having the right sunscreen cost me for more than a week in more than cash! (I'm on the far left, my husband is to my right.)

14. Eco-Friendly Sunscreen

Buy Eco-Friendly, Biodegradable Sunscreen before you go if you’re checking luggage. It’s not readily available in the United States, so plan to purchase it online with enough time for it to arrive before you leave. Many excursions will not let you wear sunscreen that isn’t biodegradable in order to protect the wildlife and the reefs. They don’t always tell you that this is the case before leaving on the trip. Instead, they’ll just announce at a given time that sunscreens that are not biodegradable are not permitted after that point. While appropriate sunscreen is sometimes available for purchase at that time, it is usually overpriced as the vendors know that your options are to pay their prices or burn. Avoid the cost of a sunburn or the extra fees and either purchase eco-friendly sunscreen before you go or check with the hotel gift shop where you can purchase it before setting off on your adventures. Be sure it’s waterproof and re-apply twice as often as you think you need to!

15. Don't Be a Target

Be sure your hotel has lockboxes in your room. Don’t trust all the hotel staff are honest people, poverty causes desperation in even the very best. I lost my digital camera to the hotel maid the first time I went. I had it hidden in clothes in my closed suitcase, but she found it and took it anyway.

Don’t carry electronics, money or other valuables you don’t need, and keep your valuables in fanny packs or pouches around your neck. It’s much harder to steal from these options than it is to steal from a backpack, purse, or pocket. If you do decide to use a backpack, be sure someone in your party is always walking next to the person wearing it and slightly behind them to keep a good eye on it.

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