Updated: Sep 18
If you're anything like me, the allure of traveling to a beautiful, exotic destination for next-to-nothing is hard to resist. But it's a real challenge to travel, especially for a longer trip, on a modest budget.
When we decided to head to Mexico, my partner Raul and l were in the early days of creating our online businesses. So the income was anything but consistent. But we were burnt out and needed to find a solution for some well-deserved time off.
If you're an entrepreneur or freelancer, you can relate to the importance of taking a break from putting in endless hours to make it all work. We saw it as a must and knew we had to get creative.
And that's why I'm excited to share my story of how I traveled to Riviera Maya, Mexico for just under $750. If you follow my lead, I'm confident you can too.
I'll walk you through my process so you can think of how discounted travel can work for you on your next trip.
Our Route Through the Riviera Maya
We're based in Austin, Texas, and had about two weeks of time to head down south. We took a flight and rented a car, planning a road trip with four major stops.
We stayed in the towns of Puerto Morelos, Bacalar, Playa Del Carmen, and Cancun.
We took one major road (highway 307) that started at the Cancun airport and stretched down coastal Mexico to the naturally pristine town of Bacalar.
The total driving time was 9.5 hours round-trip, but this is broken up over the course of 16 days.
How I Got a Deeply Discounted Trip to Quintana Roo, Mexico
Last year I was waiting to board at the Austin airport when an attendant called me to the counter. She pulled me aside and informed me that there was a shortage of seats on the aircraft and wanted to know if I'd be willing to take a later flight that arrived at my destination that evening.
Once I agreed, she arranged for me to catch an alternate flight and provided me with an $800 credit voucher for a future flight for my troubles.
Fast forward a couple of months. I'm sitting down with my partner to price-checking destinations that our $800 credit can cover. We quickly find out that if we want to travel internationally, we need to pick a popular nearby destination to keep costs under the value of our voucher.
We decided that a 16-day trip to Cancun was the best bet. It was close to our home in Austin, beautiful, affordable, and warm. There was just one small problem: while Cancun was the most affordable and quick destination, we didn't want to spend the vacation sitting on a single beach with other tourists.
How could we explore this terrain in a way that felt intentional and interwoven with the authentic Mexican communities of the Yucatan Peninsula? And how could we do it at a fraction of the price?
Well, instead of spending an average of $4,500 to hang and drink on a resort beach for two weeks, I decided to plan everything myself. To my delight, planning the trip myself resulted in over 80% in savings.
For two weeks of lodging I budgeted $500, there is a budget for a car rental and gas of $475, an activity budget of $300, and a grocery budget of $200. This totals the trip at $1,475, which breaks down to $105.35 a day.
These costs split between me and my partner meant that my individual cost was $737.50.
Not so bad when you consider that this is an all-inclusive experience that includes all of your activities, transportation, food, and lodging within that price. This is merely a third of the cost of your average resort, and they don’t include several of the perks we will be getting within this itinerary.
How to Save Up to 80% on Your Trip to Mexico
How did I keep costs down? here were our top tactics for saving money and maximizing our experiences:
1. Rent a Car
The first way we were able to drive prices down was by renting a car. This saved us money on the commute to and from the airport. It also made it much cheaper to enjoy local experiences without the high cost of tours.
We found it easy to drive in Mexico since we were on the right side of the road and the streets were in pretty good condition. There are very few highways through the jungle, so you'll find yourself heading on a single road for most of the trip.
This makes it hard to get lost! You'll also want to do a bit of research to be able to identify the street signs correctly beforehand if you don't know Spanish.
2. Stick to Happy Hours
Just like in the states, happy hours are our favorite way to experience high-quality food and drinks without breaking the bank.
We made sure to hit up happy hour menus whenever we were feeling peckish or needed a refreshing beverage to cool down from the heat. Not only did this save us money, but it also allowed us to try a bunch of different restaurants that we may not have otherwise visited.
3. Rent Spaces with Kitchens
Whenever we travel, we make it a priority to find lodging with a kitchen so that we can cook some of our meals. Hostels are a good option, but since we are a couple and appreciate some privacy, we opted for Airbnb rentals that were priced below $50 a night.
By splitting these costs with my partner, each night was between $10 to $25 dollars per person. This saved us a lot of money on food costs and also included a few amenities such as coffee and purified water for deeper savings.
4. Take Advantage Of Off Hours and Days
This tip will save time in addition to money, and give you a more intimate experience.
We found that by avoiding the midday heat and going out in the morning or evening, we could explore ancient ruins without the crowds. We also had the entire beach to ourselves when everyone else was taking their siesta indoors.
The same goes for days of the week—if you want to experience a popular site without all the people, aim to visit mid-week instead of on the weekends. Keep an eye out for free admission days as well!
5. Volunteer for Airline Credit
If you have the time and flexibility, consider volunteering to be bumped from your flight in exchange for a voucher. We were able to get $800 in vouchers this way, which more than covered our airfare costs.
Of course, this isn't an option for everyone but it's worth considering if you're looking for ways to reduce your travel expenses. You can often negotiate the amount of compensation you receive, so if you want to make it worth your time, aim for a voucher that will cover your entire trip!
Our 2 Week Mexico Itinerary
If you need inspiration on how to spend your time along the Coast of Yucatan, here is a sample itinerary for what we did during our two weeks in the area.
Days 1 to 3: Puerto Morelos
Puerto Morelos is a small fishing village located about 30 minutes south of Cancun.
This is an ideal spot to start your trip if you want to avoid crowds and get a taste of authentic Mexico. During our time here, we enjoyed fresh seafood, strolled through the streets, and snorkeled in the corral right off of the beach.
Jan 16th: Arrive at Cancun at 12:26 P.M.
Pick up rental car
Check into our home in Puerto Morelos (25-minute drive from the airport)
Swim! Hang! Eat! Be!
Jan 17th: Barrier Reef Snorkel Tour: $35
Jan 18th: Cenotes:
Siete Bocas (Carr. Pto. Morelos-Vallarta Km. 16, no phone, 8 am-4 pm daily, US$10 including life vest), so named for its seven openings (or “mouths”).
Lucerno Verde (Carr. Pto. Morelos-Vallarta Km. 17, cell. tel. 998/224-3731, 8 am-5 pm daily, US$5 including life vest), an open-air cenote surrounded by huge tropical trees.
Days 4 to 8: Bacalar
Bacalar was the furthest destination from the airport, but definitely worth the drive. This small town is located on Laguna de Bacalar (also called Seven Colors Lagoon) and is known for its clear turquoise waters. We rented a canoe and paddled around to all of the different inlets, which ranged in color from bright blue to dark green. It was unlike anything we had ever seen before!
Jan 19th: Check into Airbnb at 3 pm, take out a kayak and enjoy the lagoon.
Enjoy some Mezcal at Damajuana.
Jan 20th: Soul & Brunch At Selva Restaurant 9am
Visit The Kohunlich Ruins One Hour Drive from Bacalar, $5
(Another Nearby Ruin Option: Dzibanche)
Take a Kayak out to the mangroves of Lake Bacalar
Jan 21st: Cenote Azul
Jan 22nd: Transition Day, leave at 10 am. 3.5-hour drive to Playa Del Carmen
Days 9 to 13: Playa Del Carmen
Playa del Carmen is a major city in the Yucatan located 1.5 hours south of Cancun. Although it's much more developed than Bacalar, we found that there was still a lot of Mexican culture to be experienced. We spent our days here lounging on the beach, shopping in the markets, and exploring the nearby nature.
Local Beach Day
Jan 26: Tulum Day Trip: 1. Eat Seafood At Chamicos Restaurant 2. Playa Paraíso
& Las Palmas Public Beach 3. Dinner at Gitano
Jan 27: Day trip Sian Ka’an $50 per person
Transition to Cancun
Days 14 to 16: Cancun
Since we spent so much time along the coast in the previous towns, we decided to go inland and stay in the jungle side of Cancun to save money and get another perspective of this popular area. It was a great place to rest and soak in the environment and was a great launching point for a boat ride to the bird sanctuary on Isla Contoy.
Jan 28: Visit Isla Contoy
Jan 29: Hanging out at our cabin in the Jungle, relaxation
Jan 30: Departing Flight at 12:26 P.M.
The Bottom Line
With a little bit of creativity and planning, it is possible to travel to amazing places on a tight budget. By following the tips above, you can easily plan an unforgettable trip to Riviera Maya, Mexico for under $750.
This was the perfect vacation for recharging our batteries so we could return home and take on the rest of the year with a refreshed perspective. If you're looking for an affordable getaway, I hope this post has inspired you to think about how you can make it happen.
Have you ever been on a deep discount vacation? What tips would you add to this list? Share your thoughts in the comments below and happy travels!