Our travel to Cancun, Mexico was not one of my long-hoped-for and much-planned trips. It was a somewhat short-notice change after the hurricanes came through this year. (Though one daughter has been desperately wanting to swim in a cenote – you can read about where to swim in cenotes near Cancun here!) So, our Cancun airport arrival was more relying on signs and general intuition to get ourselves through the process. So, let me share with you what we learned about arriving at Cancun airport, both from tips given from family & friends (and my girls hairstylist!) and from our own experience:
Travel to Cancun is quicker than you think!
First, it is much easier to get to Cancun, Mexico than we anticipated. We’ve been quite loyal to Hawaii over the years, which is a looooong trip from the East Coast. So, when I realized it would be a less than 4 hour direct flight (closer to 3.5 hours in reality), and no time difference, I wondered why we had never done this before? This is a big plus, and means taking a long weekend is very doable. Hmmm….
Yes, Cancun Airport does require the Immigration Form upon Arrival.
When we were preparing to land, our flight attendant told us we would not need to complete an immigration form upon arrival. Several other passengers asked about the same thing, wanting to complete it in the relative comfort of our seats instead of jockeying for position at one of the few little tables right in front of immigration. We were assured we wouldn’t need it.
But, alas, that was not true. We got to our passport check and were asked for our immigration form. “We were told we didn’t need one by the flight attendant.” Ah, well. Thankfully, our Immigration Agent was kind and helpful, finding a stack of the forms (which took going down the line of booths, looking through cabinets) and giving us one. Then… she stood there and started handing them out to everyone on our plane – as well as the 3 planes that landed roughly 5 minutes after us. We all had to jockey for position at those little desks with the pens that don’t work. Pens were dug out of carry-ons and passed around, but we did get it done, and make it through the check. Be sure to have your dates of travel, arriving flight number, and address of wherever you are staying handy!
Arriving at Cancun Airport’s Big Button!
Once we were through immigration, we got our bags, and then had to go through Customs. This could wind up being no big deal. Stand in line, with all your bags, hand in your completed customs form (No, I’m not bringing livestock into the country. No, no one asked us to put something in our bag for them.) Maybe answer a few questions.
But! Then you are asked to hit the Big Button. It’s like a gameshow button, or one of those big buttons they use on cheesy commercials. People before us walked up, answered questions, were instructed to hit the button, and it flashed green. They were waved on through. You know what’s coming though, don’t you?
We hit the button and it started flashing red! Whoo-Hoo! We’re the big winners! That’s right, every bag we had, every zippered compartment of every bag, every bag within a bag…. opened and searched. (Need some idea of what to take to Cancun and the Riviera Maya area? Check out this Riviera Maya Packing List by Janine in the World – a blogger who lives locally!)
I do understand what they are doing and why, and it’s just part of the international travel gig. That doesn’t change the fact it’s an irritation, mostly because two of our bags weren’t carry-on sized and as lightweight as usual, and we had to heave all our bags up on that counter. Then we had to try to get all our rifled-through-stuff reorganized to close everything back up as fast as humanly possible as they were waving the next bags onto the counter. So, heave your bag down off the counter, and keep going, through the sliding doors.
Running the Cancun Airport Gauntlet
As you take your bags from customs, you exit the area through sliding glass doors. You are not yet exiting the airport, you are entering what we called The Gauntlet. There will be a TON of people vying for your attention. They will have clipboards, some will seem very official. They will be offering to help plan excursions and tours, some will be offering you free tours. These people are all actually time share sales people. They will give you tickets to things, from what we heard you can score some pretty nice freebies – IF you take the time to go to the timeshare sales spiel. From what I experienced of just regular shopping, I have no desire to sit through a hard sell of a timeshare. We kept our eyes forward, hands on bags, said the occasional ‘no thank you,’ and kept on walking!
Getting your Cash upon Arrival in Cancun
The one reason to stop in within The Gauntlet, is if you need some cash. I know, I know, you should get it at the bank before you go, you should just pull it out of an ATM, you should do whatever it is everyone is SURE is the BEST way to avoid losing anything in the conversion. But, sometimes you find yourself about to get to the taxi area, and you didn’t get the Mexican Pesos you meant to!
First, you can use US Dollars in most places in the Cancun area. So, if you are really stuck, that will work. However, if you are purchasing something, you don’t get the best exchange rate doing this, so I don’t advise it except in a pinch.
There is an ATM right beside the Currency Exchange desk, and you can pull Pesos out there. (This is usually our preferred way of doing things. Yes, there’s a fee, but we never remember to go to our bank days before our trip and order the currency we need.) BUT, when we were there the cash machine was out of cash. Quite unfortunate. We went to the currency exchange desk, and they would not take a credit card to give us pesos, even though we have cards specifically for international travel.
SO, in the end, we dug through our wallets and pulled out the cash we had, and exchanged it. Then, we hit up another ATM at our hotel once we got there.
Getting a Taxi at Cancun Airport
When you exit the final set of sliding glass doors, weaving your way between the countless Timeshare salespeople, you will find yourself in the beautiful Cancun weather… surrounded by yet more timeshare salespeople. Seriously, it’s pretty amazing how many they are, and how insistent they all are that you pay attention to them.
Continue weaving your way through, keeping a hand on your luggage at all times. I’m not sure theft is a problem, but there are an abundance of people who would like to help you with your luggage – for a nice tip, of course. As you approach the curb there is a line to your left with gentlemen in uniform who will ask where you are headed, and wave a taxi forward to get you to your destination. This is how getting a taxi works, so go ahead and let them help you. A tip is appropriate and appreciated.
A final word on Taxis: The maximum fee between different destinations is regulated by the ‘Secretaria de Trabajo’ and your hotel should have a copy of this posted or available to help you know what to expect. (See photos below of the list posted in the JW Marriott Lobby.) To get from the airport to a hotel in the “Zona Hotelera” in a regular 4 person car is 450 Mexican Pesos, or at the time of writing this, a little over $23 USD.
At the end of this, you will step out at your hotel, ready to relax and soak up some Cancun sunshine… Or to tour and travel your heart out… whichever type of traveler you are.
If you are looking for some awesome activities in Cancun, check out some of our favorites:
- Top 10 Things to do on Isla Mujeres – an easy to get to, laid back island day trip.
- SCUBA Cancun’s Underwater Museum – amazing first lesson and dive in one day!
- Swim in a cenote, these are easy driving distance from Cancun.