Cancun essentials: Everything you need to plan the perfect Mexico getaway

Apr 16, 2021

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For decades, Cancun, on Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula in the southeast of the country, has been a go-to for Americans looking for a quick beach getaway. It’s just a two- to three-hour flight from cities like Atlanta, Houston, St. Louis and Washington, D.C. Flights have traditionally been inexpensive and, in this age of COVID-19, Mexico has made it easy to visit. Mexico is one of TPG’s picks for where to travel right now. There are no restrictions or requirements to enter Mexico at this time. You will, however, need a negative COVID-19 test to re-enter the U.S., but most resorts in Cancun can assist you with this.

There are two things that typify Cancun: the Caribbean Sea that laps its incredible white sand beaches and the party scene that’s a fixture of many resorts, bars and clubs. Most travelers start with a visit to the ubiquitous Senor Frogs bar and grill chain and then work their way up to the city’s classic nightclubs.

But, there is so much more to Cancun than its spring break scene. It’s home to the world’s second-longest coral reef, which means there are plenty of opportunities for snorkeling and scuba diving. Parasailing and fishing are other popular pastimes and there are some Mayan ruins, such as Zona Arqueologica El Rey, that you can see right in town.

Here’s what you need to know to plan a trip to Cancun.

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In This Post

When to visit Cancun

December through April is peak season in this part of Mexico, but steer clear of March and April if you wish to avoid spring breakers. May through August brings warmer and more humid weather. You may encounter perfect weather from September through November, but it’s the season for rain and hurricanes so keep that in mind as a possibility.

If you travel during hurricane season and your trip investment is hefty, consider buying trip insurance that covers named hurricanes. But if you want more flexibility to cancel your trip based on the threat of bad weather, purchase a policy with a cancel for any reason add-on.

How to get to Cancun

Pricing of nonstop flights to Cancun. (Screenshot courtesy of Google Flights)

I know this is The Points Guy and we all love using miles and points for all our trips. However, it’s usually quite easy to find very affordable airfare from U.S. gateways to Cancun. The above map shows nonstop, round-trip prices from a variety of cities to Cancun for dates from June through October. We’re talking $173 round-trip from Miami, $181 round-trip from Denver and $245 round-trip from New York.

Before redeeming miles, check cash prices to see if it makes more sense to book your flights that way.

Cancun is a fantastic option for a special trip where you want to pull out all the stops because it is possible to fly there in style. Learn how to fly to Cancun in a lie-flat seat.

AA 787-8
Business class on American Airlines’ updated 787-8. (Photo by Zach Griff/The Points Guy)

These are the U.S. gateways with service to Cancun International Airport (CUN). (Note that not all airlines have resumed routes from all gateways to Cancun. Check with your preferred airline to confirm the route has returned or when it’s scheduled to resume.)

  • Atlanta (ATL): Delta
  • Austin (AUS): Southwest, Spirit
  • Baltimore (BWI): Southwest, Spirit
  • Boston (BOS): American Airlines, Delta, JetBlue
  • Charlotte (CLT): American Airlines, VivaAerobus
  • Chicago (MDW): Southwest
  • Chicago (ORD): American Airlines, Frontier, Spirit
  • Cincinnati (CVG): Delta, Frontier, VivaAerobus
  • Cleveland (CLE): Frontier, Spirit
  • Columbus (CMH): American Airlines
  • Dallas (DFW): American Airlines, Spirit, Sun Country
  • Denver (DEN): Frontier, Southwest, United Airlines
  • Detroit (DTW): Delta, Spirit
  • Durham (RDU): American Airlines, Delta
  • Fort Lauderdale (FLL): JetBlue, Southwest, Spirit
  • Houston (HOU): Southwest
  • Houston (IAH): Spirit, United Airlines
  • Indianapolis (IND): American Airlines, Frontier
  • Kansas City (MCI): American Airlines, Frontier
  • Los Angeles (LAX): Delta, Interjet, United Airlines
  • Miami (MIA): American Airlines, Interjet, LATAM
  • Minneapolis (MSP): Delta and Sun Country
  • Nashville (BNA): Spirit, VivaAerobus
  • Newark (EWR): Frontier, United Airlines, VivaAerobus
  • New Orleans (MSY): Spirit
  • New York (JFK): American Airlines, Interjet, JetBlue
  • Orlando (MCO): Delta, JetBlue
  • Phoenix (PHX): American Airlines
  • Pittsburgh (PIT): Spirit
  • Philadelphia (PHL): American Airlines, Frontier, Spirit
  • Portland (PDX): Alaska Airlines
  • Saint Louis (STL): American Airlines, Frontier
  • Salt Lake City (SLC): Delta
  • San Diego (SAN): Alaska Airlines
  • San Francisco (SFO): United Airlines
  • Seattle (SEA): Alaska Airlines, Delta
  • Washington (IAD): United Airlines

Where to stay in Cancun

As you search for the perfect resort, understand that Cancun is divided into two areas: the Zona Hotelera and El Centro. The Hotel Zone is a long beachfront strip of resorts interspersed with restaurants, bars, nightclubs and shopping centers. When people think of Cancun, they are picturing this area and it’s where you want to stay. El Centro is a downtown area.

For families, here are some particularly family-friendly resorts in Cancun.

If you’re not sure if Cancun is right for you, check out TPG’s favorite points hotels on the beach in Mexico.

Cancun all-inclusive resorts

(Photo courtesy of Hyatt Zilara Cancun)
  • Armar House, All-Inclusive (Marriott)
  • Breathless Riviera Cancun Resort & Spa, Ascend Collection: from 65,000 Choice points
  • Hideaway at Royalton Riviera Cancun All-Inclusive Resort (Marriott)
  • Hilton Cancun, an All-Inclusive Resort: opening soon
  • Hyatt Zilara Cancun: from 25,000 Hyatt points
  • Hyatt Ziva Cancun: from 25,000 Hyatt points
  • Now Jade Riviera Cancun, Ascend Collection: from 25,000 Choice points
  • Now Sapphire Riviera Cancun, Ascend Collection: from 25,000 Choice points
  • Planet Hollywood Cancun All-Inclusive Beach Resort (Marriott)
  • Planet Hollywood Adults Scene Cancun All-Inclusive Beach Resort – Adults Only (Marriott)
  • Royalton CHIC Suites Cancun All-Inclusive Resort & Spa (Marriott)
  • Royalton Riviera Cancun All-Inclusive Resort & Spa (Marriott)
  • Secrets Riviera Cancun Resort & Spa, Ascend Hotel Collection: from 75,000 Choice points
  • Zoetry Paraiso de la Bonita Riviera Maya, Ascend Collection: from 90,000 Choice points

Cancun resorts

The Ritz-Carlton, Cancun (Photo courtesy of the resort)
  • Canopy by Hilton Cancun La Isla: 35,000 to 80,000 Hilton points
  • InterContinental Hotels Presidente Cancun Resort: from 30,000 IHG points
  • JW Marriott Cancun Resort & Spa: from 40,000 Marriott points
  • Marriott Cancun Resort: from 30,000 Marriott points
  • Renaissance Cancun Resort & Marina: from 30,000 Marriott points
  • The Ritz-Carlton, Cancun: from 40,000 Marriott points
  • The Westin Lagunamar Ocean Resort Villas & Spa, Cancun: from 40,000 Marriott points
  • The Westin Resort & Spa, Cancun: from 30,000 Marriott points
  • Waldorf Astoria Cancun: opening soon

Riviera Maya resorts

The Presidential Suite pool at Andaz Mayakoba Resort Riviera Maya (Photo courtesy of the resort)

Riviera Maya, another popular Mexican resort area, is just to the south of Cancun and encompasses destinations such as Playa del Carmen, Xcaret, Xel-Ha and Cozumel Island. It’s about an hour’s drive to Riviera Maya from Cancun and two hours to Cozumel.

  • Acanto Playa del Carmen, Trademark Collection by Wyndham: from 15,000 Wyndham points
  • Andaz Mayakoba Resort Riviera Maya: from 25,000 Hyatt points
  • Cozumel Hotel & Resort, Trademark Collection by Wyndham: from 15,000 Wyndham points
  • Grand Hyatt Playa del Carmen Resort: from 25,000 Hyatt points
  • Hilton Playa del Carmen, an All-Inclusive Adult Only Resort: 46,000 to 80,000 Hilton points
  • Hotel La Semilla, Playa del Carmen, a Member of Design Hotels: from 30,000 Marriott points
  • InterContinental Hotels Presidente Cozumel Resort Spa: from 44,000 IHG points
  • Secrets Aura Cozumel, Ascend Hotel Collection: from 35,000 Choice points
  • Sunscape Sabor Cozumel, Ascend Hotel Collection: from 30,000 Choice points
  • The Fives Downtown  Hotel & Residences, Curio Collection by Hilton: 35,000 to 70,000 Hilton points
  • The Westin Cozumel: from 30,000 Marriott points
  • The Yucatan Resort Playa del Carmen, Tapestry Collection by Hilton: coming soon
  • Thompson Playa del Carmen Main House: from 12,000 Hyatt points
  • Thompson Playa del Carmen Beach House: from 20,000 Hyatt points
  • Wyndham Garden Playa del Carmen: from 15,000 Wyndham points
  • Viva Wyndham Azteca – All-Inclusive Resort: from 30,000 Wyndham points
  • Viva Wyndham Maya – All-Inclusive Resort: from 30,000 Wyndham points

What to see and do

Sand, sun and sea are the main draws in Cancun and you can enjoy all three from the comfort of your resort. Most hotels in Cancun’s Hotel Zone are beachfront with plenty of loungers, palapas or cabanas to choose from and they also have pools for when you’re not in the mood for sand.

The world’s second-longest coral reef is right offshore, so you can book snorkel or diving excursions — or even just a sunset catamaran sailing if you’d prefer to stay topside.

If you do go diving, check out the Underwater Museum of Art (MUSA) at the National Marine Park of Cancun and Isla Mujeres. You can explore 500 sculptures in three galleries: Manchones Gallery, in Isla Mujeres, where the sculptures are 26 feet deep and Punta Nizuc Gallery and Punta Sam Gallery, both in Cancun, with sculptures at a depth of 3 feet.

Shop for Mexican handicrafts at Mercado 28, located downtown. Just be ready for aggressive sales tactics and know that negotiating price is expected. There are some good restaurants and street food in the area and it’s also a good place to find tour operators if you’re not satisfied with the options at your hotel. You can book everything from parasailing to horseback riding to trips to a local cenote (a sinkhole swimming hole).

For a bit of history, check out the Mayan Museum of Cancun and the Zona Arqueologica El Rey ruins.

Finally, for adrenaline junkies, Xavage by Xcaret offers white-water rafting, jet boat tours, ziplines, ropes courses and even a “monster truck” experience.

Safety in Mexico

The U.S. Department of State, Bureau of Consular Affairs has issued a Level 3: Reconsider Travel advisory for Mexico. You can read the COVID-19 health alert and the security alert pertaining to cartel violence in the country.

Despite the travel advisory, many Americans feel safe traveling to Cancun because it is a very defined resort area catering to tourists. Some visitors preferred to stay at their resort for the entirety of their stay. If you venture beyond your resort, take the same type of precautions you would at home. Be aware of your surroundings, know where you’re going and how to get there, and avoid sketchy areas. Your hotel concierge can help you map out a plan to see the surrounding areas in a safe way.

Bottom line

Beach fans, divers and anyone that enjoys resort-style vacations will fall in love with Cancun and its affordability. Visitors tend to return year after year — either to their favorite resort or trying a new spot on every trip. It’s the perfect place to home base for day trips to visit Playa del Carmen, Xcaret or Cozumel as well.

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Editorial Disclaimer: Opinions expressed here are the author’s alone, not those of any bank, credit card issuer, airlines or hotel chain, and have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of these entities.

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