Vacationing in Cancun – Gotchas to avoid for frugal travelers

This follow-up article on our Cancun vacation is geared towards frugal minded folks hoping to stretch their vacation dollars in Cancun. Our hints can be summarized as:

  • Exchange Rate: In mid-June 2009, the exchange rate stood at 13.60 pesos per US dollar. We opted to exchange US dollars for Pesos at the hotel every morning and their rate averaged at 12.90. The exchange rate at the Hotel is comparable to that at the airport, banks, and other places and no particular advantage is gained by choosing one over the other. Several suggestions indicate currency conversion as unnecessary since US dollars is accepted most everywhere. Further, barring groceries and similar small items, prices are listed in Pesos and USD. In our experience, dealing in Pesos stretched the dollar – though the exchange rate varied among stores it was almost always less than 12 pesos to a US dollar. Change is given back in Pesos and more than 50% is lost on small items with US dollars as no change is returned for items priced between six to twelve Pesos – a classic example is the bus ticket where no change is given in Pesos by paying with a dollar.
  • Bus System: Local bus fare is 7.5 pesos and is independent of the distance as long as the travel is within the hotel zone or Cancun proper. The transportation system is very efficient with buses every few minutes. Using taxis for transportation purposes is comparatively more expensive and is almost never a choice for frugal travelers - the bus operates 24 hours in the hotel zone. Of the four routes that service the hotel zone, Route 1 and Route 2 are downtown bound and hence more frequent. There is a caveat though - avoid using it like a hop-on, hop-off service. Every trip counts and it makes sense to plan your route beforehand. There is no need to tip the bus driver but giving back the ticket intact as you exit acts as one.
  • Gratuity: Tipping is expected for everything with even a resemblance of a service. US rates (around 15% to 20%) are the norm for restaurants – sometimes restaurant include tip in the bill so be on the alert to avoid double paying. The frugal approach with respect to trivial services is to go along with it to prevent unpleasantness but focus on avoiding situations that calls for a tip as much as possible. For example, the airport is crowded with sales people and others eager to provide a service. Not engaging in a conversation with any of them helps to stay ahead of the game – book transportation to the hotel online before-hand and their personnel will get in touch with you.
  • Hotels: There are plenty of rooms with ocean views and from our experience, getting into one of them at a reasonable price is possible by reserving early. However it pays to do comparison shopping across sites, and exercise patience before committing. The only decision to be made before reserving is whether or not to go for an all-inclusive option. Unless one is into imbibing a lot, it is easy to get around on $20 or so per day by making frugal choices on where to eat. Further, the benefits of the ‘all-inclusive’ option are diminished should one venture out of the hotel zone. For our purposes, the Cancun Caribe Park Royal was ideal. It was not all inclusive but as the facility, the view, and the service was well above par for a 4-star hotel.
  • Food: Usually a mall or a restaurant is accessible within half a mile of one’s hotel location. In general, restaurants outside of the hotel are a better deal than those located within one. We used room service twice for breakfast but watched out for what we ordered. Full-service and other chain restaurants are priced at double the food-court prices in some of the malls. For example, at the Forum-by-the-Sea mall (Km 9.5 -a smaller mall within the first mile from the hotel) a pharmacy cum convenience store in the 2nd level housed an array of drinks and ice-cream priced for under a dollar. The food court (upper level) had fast food options, a burrito station (good), and Hong Kong express (worth a miss). In addition to open seating in the common area, “balcony” seating was available with great views of the beach and ocean – right above Chili’s seating at ground-level.
  • Shopping: For Cancun/Mexican themed items, the hotel gift shop, premium stores at the malls, outlet stores at Kulkulcan, and Mercado’s all carry similar products the difference being the price. For those lacking excellent bargaining skills, the best bet is the outlet stores. We found good quality T-shirts and hats priced in the $7 to $20 range at the “Mexican Outlet” store in Flamingo plaza.
  • Tours: It is best to book your tours online before embarking on the trip. This allows for the vacation to start early. Also, one can bypass sales pitches for time shares and other things. Though many choose to reserve after reaching Cancun for the flexibility it provides - the chance of last minute deals, the chance of earning a free tour as reward for sitting through a sales presentation of some kind (mostly time shares and variants) – the majority is left disappointed for one reason or the other…

Related Posts:
  1. Cancun Trip Report.
  2. Day tour to Chichen-Itza.
  3. Vacationing in Cancun - Gotchas to avoid for frugal travelers.

Last Updated: 02/2011.


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