Is it even possible to do Cancun on a budget? This land of cloud-white beaches and turquoise seas that rolls down the side of the Yucatan Peninsula isn’t often associated with the world’s most wallet-friendly destinations. It’s riddled with huge lux hotels and all-inclusive resorts. There are famous bars that draw in world-renowned DJs. You’ve got more chic spas by the Caribbean Sea than you can shake a plate of tacos at. It seems more like the sort of place that will break the bank into nacho-sized fragments!
But we’re a little more optimistic. We think there are loads of ways you can enjoy this paradisiacal corner of Mexico without having to take out a second mortgage (or even a first!). What’s more, doing that doesn’t mean skimping on experience. It simply means knowing how to beat the crowds, how to catch the best deals, and how to enjoy the area without dipping too deep into the travel fund.
This guide is all about getting stuck into all that. It’s got info on the most bargain-friendly seasons on the Riviera Maya, along with tips on where to stay and what to eat. The aim is to cut down the outgoing pesos and get you enjoying the sun, sand, and sea for less. Don’t worry, you can thank us when you’re lazing on the beaches…
How to find cheap flights to Cancun
First thing’s first: Those flights to Cancun. For many a traveler – especially if you’re coming in from Europe or Asia – this will be the single biggest expense of the lot. It’s not uncommon for nonstop hops from London to Cancun to cost upwards of $1,000 return. From popular US hubs like New York and LA, you’re looking at around the $400 return mark.
However, there are certain ways to ensure you get yourself in line to score the best deals on flights into Cancun. Big data analysis from flight aggregator Momondo reveals that August is the cheapest time of year to fly overall, with the average costs of fares dropping to just over $304. Their stats also show that you can save oodles by booking at least 60 days in advance of traveling, while Sunday is the most affordable departure day of the week.
When to visit Cancun on a budget
There’s no question about it – Cancun gets uber expensive when the US spring break season hits. That runs from late February to the middle of April every year. It sees thousands of pretty energetic people flock to the resort for weeks of partying and mezcal drinking. The vast majority stick to the Hotel Zone, but it also gets mega busy in Cancun town center. Of course, hotel rates match the influx and soar to a yearly high.
Christmas and just before the festive period can also be pretty pricy, mainly because that’s the time with the best weather of all. There’s also a huge surge in rates around New Year’s. On the flip side, the late fall is okay for prices but can be hit or miss when it comes to tropical storms and rain. That leaves the months of June, July, and August. They usually have a good balance between dry days and affordability, as many US vacationers are distracted by the summer further north.
Where to stay in Cancun on a budget
Resist the temptation of those shimmering infinity pools and five-star spa hotels if you’re planning to do Cancun on a budget. Sadly, those are just the sort of luxuries you’re going to have to forgo to keep the pesos in your pocket. Don’t worry, though: There are all sorts of budget accommodations that dollop on the character and fun without cranking up the price tag.
The first rule when it comes to getting cheap hotels in Cancun is always to avoid the Hotel Zone. That’s the home of the larger resorts and famous names like the Hard Rock Hotel and the Ritz-Carlton. Leave them for the Instagram influences and focus your search on the Downtown core of Cancun itself. That’s a grittier, more lived-in part of the city. However, it’s still within reach of the chalk-hued beaches and the snorkeling spots.
The bulk of Cancun’s hostels are also located in the Downtown. Some of the best are:
- Nomads Hotel & Rooftop Pool Cancun – A true backpacker’s hostel with a pool on the roof. Come here to holiday with likeminded budget globetrotters and enjoy the seriously good vibes. Pod beds and party nights add to the draws.
- La Casa Del Árbol – Quiet, homey little hostel stay that’s in a residential part of Cancun Downtown. Better for families and couples who want to steer clear of the big party crowds.
How to get around Cancun on a budget
The one downside of being based in the Downton of Cancun and not the Hotel Zone is that you’ll need to put in a bit more effort when it comes to reaching the beaches and the coast bars. That shouldn’t be too much of an issue here, though.
There are uber-efficient bus links that go from the center out to sands like Playa Caracol and Chac Mool Beach. They run 24 hours a day, seven days a week out. The price for a ticket is a mere 9 MXN ($0.40). You’ll also find longer distance bus routes that link up the Riviera Maya towns of Tulum and Playa del Carmen for just 40 MXN (that’s around $2).
A bike will be even cheaper. Lots of hostels will have them available to rent on site. We would say that taking to two wheels isn’t the easiest in Cancun. Kukulkan Boulevard is the main road on the Hotel Zone and it gets crazy busy with traffic by mid-morning. It’s certainly not safe for bikes. There is a pedestrian path that some cyclists use, but you’ll have to be careful to dodge all the people there!
What to do in Cancun on a budget
You reckon Luther Vandross and Janet Jackson had just jetted back from Cancun when they wrote that “the best things in life are free”? We do. It’s so true of this resort town. Who needs fancy Michelin-rated eateries and glitzy cocktail bars by the Caribbean when you’ve got mile upon mile of glorious beachfronts? Why pay through the nose for fancy designer clothes when you can trawl uber-fun Mexican marketplaces that burst with color and life?
Here are just a few of the free (or nearly-free) activities we’d recommend having on the radar when you get to Cancun:
- El Rey Archaeological Zone (50 MXN/$2.50 USD) – If you don’t want to fork out for a whole day tour of Chichen Itza, the El Rey Archaeological Zone offers that fix of immersive Maya history. It’s just behind Playa Delfines, showcasing 47 ancient structures centered on a large stepped temple.
- Playa Delfines (free) – 10 miles out of Downtown Cancun, Playa Delfines is a little bit of a trek. However, the rewards are 100% free parking and one of the most gorgeous west-facing beaches on the Hotel Zone. There might be a small charge to use the palapas.
- Playa Caracol (free) – There might be a 200 MXN charge for the lounge chairs on Playa Caracol, but there’s nothing stopping you laying down your towel and enjoying the pristine sugar sands for nada. Located on the north side of the Hotel Zone, this is one of the more protected and picture-perfect of Cancun’s beaches. Crowds are the main downside.
- Isla Mujeres (70 MXN/$3.50 USD) – It’s not free to cross the strait to Isla Mujeres, but the outgoing should be a max of 70 MXN each way for the faster ferries (that’s $3.50!). The reward is a whole isle of resplendent coral reefs and shimmering white beaches. There are also snorkel rentals there that won’t break the bank and you can take a picnic to cut the cost even more.
- Parque de Las Palapas (free) – Avid people watchers won’t want to miss a jaunt to Parque de Las Palapas. It’s a bustling gathering point of Downtown Cancun with fairground rides, bandstands, and loads of shaded seating areas. It’s a cool chill-out spot in the heart of the city.
Nightlife in Cancun on a budget
If you’re hitting Cancun because of its party credentials, then you might need to set aside a little more of the budget for mezcal and entry tickets. While the nightlife is darn fantastic here, it’s anything but cheap. Still, you can save by planning your shindigs properly.
The iconic mega club at Coco Bongo could set you back $86 per person to get through the door. However, that includes up to 15 drinks (national branded ones, not international drinks and liquors), along with a snack, and entry to the famous acrobatic shows. It’s considered one of Cancun’s bucket-list nightlife spots, so could be worth considering. Alternatively, there’s Congo Bar Cancún right across the road. It’s not as well known but has made its name as Bongo’s cheaper compadre (read: competitor). A whole open bar in that one costs around $30 for the whole night!
Cheap food in Cancun
Mexico is a mecca for foodies who don’t like to spend too much. Again, you’d be wise to dodge all of the eateries down the Hotel Zone. Those have a penchant for celebrity chefs and European fusion food. Much better are the local street stalls and cantina kitchens that await in the downtown.
They include the night market at Plaza Las Palapas, where taco cooks and coconut sellers meet every evening. Then you’ve got Market 23. That’s a favorite of ours, mainly because it’s uber-authentic and reigns as the oldest foodstuff bazaar in the town. The stores sell all sorts of tropical fruits, local pulses and grains, handmade corn tortillas – plenty to pack and take back to the hostel kitchen!