How to Plan a Road Trip Through the Yucatan

If you’ve never taken a road trip in another country, you need to add it to your bucket list. We have done it a couple of times now, and I really enjoy it. Having a car gives you a lot of flexibility and makes moving from city to city much easier. The Yucatan is a very friendly and safe part of Mexico, so renting a car and driving was a quick and efficient way to get around. We only had about 2 weeks for our trip, so we wanted to spend as little time traveling as possible so we could see and do all the things on our list. There are a lot of ways to plan a road trip, but here are my tips for planning a road trip through the Yucatan.

Plan Your Trip Length

For most people, the duration of your travel is somewhat preset. If you work or have children or have other priorities outside of travel (I think this applies to most people), then you probably only have a limited number of days to dedicate to travel. This range could be any amount of time starting with a long weekend all the way up to months of travel. Depending on how much time you have to spend, this will determine how long your road trip will last. The longer you have to travel, the more places you will be able to visit and the more activities you will be able to participate in. However, don’t let your limited schedule discourage you from road tripping through the Yucatan. You can still have a nice trip with 4-5 days. Once you know how long you have to travel, you can begin planning the fun stuff.

Decide on Dates

Just like with the quantity of days, your dates may be limited as well. You may be a student trying to plan around school breaks, or maybe you are a professional trying to travel during your slow season at work. Whatever your situation is, you will need to decide on dates that work best for you. The weather in Mexico is warm all year round, so there are no limitations when it comes to playing in the sun. However, when you go will determine what kinds of crowds you will face, what kind of prices you will pay, and what kind of activities will be most fun.

There are two main travel seasons in the Yucatan, high season and low season. Both have their advantages and their disadvantages, so you’ll need to figure out what matters to you most.

High Season: November – April

High season begins around November and ends around April. For a lot of people, they choose to travel during this time because they are trying to escape the cold, they have time off for the holidays, and the weather is really pleasant in the Yucatan around this time. This is what is known as “dry season” because there is minimal rain and maximum sunshine. We visited in January and it only rained once while we were there. It was a little too chilly to get in the water at the beaches and we had to wear wet suits while scuba diving, but the weather was perfect for walking through the cities and hiking through ruins.

All of this sounds great, but there are still a few disadvantages. One disadvantage is everything costs more. All of the hotels and tour companies know this is when tourists will arrive, so they increase their prices. Sometimes it is only 15-20%, but depending on where you stay and what activities you want to do, prices can increase up to 50%. It is still possible to travel on a budget even with inflated prices, but you have to work a lot harder at it and give up some of the luxuries you may be able to afford if you were traveling in the off season. The other big downside of traveling in high season is dealing with all of the other travelers and tourists. The beaches are more crowded, the hotels are more crowded, there is more traffic, and the attractions are more crowded. When we travel to remote places, we don’t like to share a “secluded cenote” with 1000 other people and we don’t want to have our pictures of Chichen Itza overrun with other visitors. If you play it smart and plan accordingly, you can minimize this frustration, but you’ll never be able to completely avoid it.

Low Season: May-October

Low season begins around the End of April and lasts through the end of October. The weather in the summer is extremely hot and muggy and there is a much greater chance of rain during this time. Hurricane season is from June 1 through November 30, but don’t let this stop you from visiting during this time. Just because it is hurricane season does not necessarily mean there will be hurricanes during your visit. There will still be plenty of sunshine, and a little rain can help keep you cool if you are out hiking in the heat. We traveled to Belize in May 2016 and it was actually really nice. It isn’t the Yucatan, but very similar weather. The weather was really hot, but bearable, and we had so many excursions all to ourselves.

If you don’t mind the extra heat and want to travel on a budget, low season is the way to go. Everything tends to be cheaper and the crowds aren’t as hectic. You can move at a slower pace and you can get a feel for the true culture of the Yucatan. You also have a lot more flexibility with lodging and activities because most places won’t be booked in advance. Everyone is different and has to make their own decisions about what is important. For me personally, I’ve traveled both ways and I tend to enjoy the low season a lot more. I can deal with worse weather if it means less crowds.

Create a Budget

For most people, the two things that will most likely be the limiting factors of your travel are vacation days and your budget. A lot of people think that traveling around the world is an expensive hobby, but it doesn’t have to be. If you are traveling from the U.S., Mexico can extremely affordable, but it can also be an expensive, luxurious vacation. This is why you need to budget. I’m not going to go into the ins and outs of budgeting and personal finances in this post, but there are a lot of resources out there to help with this. It is up to you to set your budget and figure out what you can afford. Regardless of your budget, there are a lot of ways to save money on a trip like this, and here are just a few.

Travel in low season.

As I mentioned above, traveling in off season can save you a lot of money. The weather isn’t as good, but the prices are much lower and the crowds are much more sparse. It’s a lot easier to find a bargain when hotels aren’t booked full.

Stay in an Airbnb or a hostel.

Airbnb has become one of my favorite ways to travel. I love getting the opportunity to immerse myself in the local culture while also saving a ton of money. Win-win!! Typically, Airbnbs are MUCH cheaper than traditional hotels, and this is definitely true if you get out of the resort areas. The more basic the accomodations, the usually, the cheaper the price. If you’ve never used Airbnb, you can save $40 on your first visit by going here.

If you really want to save money and don’t mind giving up a little bit (or a lot) of your personal space, you should try staying in a hostel. Not all hostels are stereotypical party zones with big dorm rooms. Some actually offer private or double rooms as well as free breakfast and wifi at prices much lower than hotels and Airbnbs. They may be pretty basic, but you’ll need to ask yourself how much time you’ll actually be spending in your room. If you don’t mind sharing a dorm room, you can easily book rooms for under $10 USD per night. Savings like that can really add up over a week or two, plus you’ll get the opportunity to connect with other travelers and potentially make new friends.

Spend more of your trip off the beaten path.

Another really easy way to save money on your trip is to stay outside of the tourist zones. Typically, the further out you go, the cheaper prices get. This is also a great way to get to know the local culture. We spent a few of our days in Valladolid, and it was just a fraction of what we paid during our time in Tulum. There was less traffic, fewer tourists, and everyone was extremely friendly. The town was charming and there was an awesome cenote just a few blocks from our hotel. Don’t be scared to get out and explore the smaller towns, especially if you are on a budget.

Pick your Destinations.

Once you know your dates and have a budget, it’s time to start planning where you’ll stay. The activities you want to do will more than likely determine where you’ll want to spend most of your time. If you want to go scuba diving, you’ll need to be close to the beach, like Playa Del Carmen . If you want to visit Chichen Itza, you’ll want to be somewhere close to that area such as Valladolid or Izamal . If you want to immerse yourself in traditional Yucatan culture, Merida is the place for you. The Yucatan is full of adventure and has a wide variety of things to see and do. Each person is unique and will prioritize differently, but once you decide what is important for you, start picking your destinations.

Plan Your Route

Now that you’ve decided what you want to do and where you want to go, you’ll need to figure out what order to visit the cities and how long to stay. The amount of time you spend in a city will be determined by how much you want to do. We spent the most time in Tulum because we wanted to finish our diving certifications as well as visit the ruins, the beach, and cenotes. There are so many different ways to plan a road trip through the Yucatan, but here is how we planned our trip:

Our Itinerary

For our trip, we wanted to finish our SCUBA certifications, party for New Year’s, visit Mayan ruims, and spend some time in the colonial town of Merida.

Here is how we did it:

Days 1-2: We flew into Cancun and picked up our car and then made our way towards Playa Del Carmen. Since it was New Year’s weekend, it was very busy. We explored the town, partied, shopped, and ate a lot of tacos.

Days 3-7: After new years had passed, we headed on to Tulum. This was our base for SCUBA diving. We spent the first day exploring our hotel and the beach, 2 days diving, and the last  day exploring the town of Tulum and the ruins. I ended up getting extremely sick while we were here, so I also spent a lot of time taking mysterious medicine and laying in bed. It wasn’t ideal, but we made the best of it.

Days 8-10: The morning of day 7, we got up early and headed to Merida. It was about a 4 hour drive from Tulum, but we still had half a day to explore. Our visit was during Meridafest, so there were a lot of cultural activities happening all over town. If I could go back and plan my trip again, I would have spent more than 2 days in Merida. It is a beautiful city with a lot of character and I didn’t feel like we got to see nearly enough of it.

Days 10-12: Our last stop was Valladolid. We spent the first part of the morning in Merida, but made our way to Valladolid in the early afternoon. Our main motivation for stopping here was to be close to Chichen Itza. I wasn’t expecting much when I booked a couple of nights in this small town, but I really enjoyed my time here. Cenote Zaci was my favorite cenote of the trip and it is right in the middle of town. We were also only about an hour from Chichen Itza and it was closer to the airport than Merida. I would have liked to spend a few more days here, but we will have to add that to a future trip.

There are so many ways to plan a road trip, but this is what works for us. I hope you will try it some time and let me know how it goes! Have you taken a road trip before and have tips to share? I’d love to hear about them. Just leave them in the comments below. As always, feel free to reach out with any questions you may have. I’m always happy to help.

Happy Travels!

-xo Nancy

2 Replies to “How to Plan a Road Trip Through the Yucatan”

  1. Great suggestions! We love to travel, and the tips you mention are spot on! A few others ways we’ve saved and had amazing experiences because of:

    We look for free “community” events (festivals, art shows presented by local artists, street music, church services – We were asked to assist in delivering communion to archbishop of Dublin while visiting at a church service there. It was incredible.). It gives you the chance to interact with local people and have fun experiencing local culture for free (or at a very low cost).

    As educators, we enjoy volunteering at local schools, when appropriate. While visiting in the Bahamas, we taught a class in songwriting, judged a spelling bee, and participated in their literacy week celebration.

    We have also found that if we eat late afternoon, we can get the lunch price” on the menu (which is the same amazing food as you’d get at dinner, but at a lower cost), and then we eat a lighter dinner for less money, as well.

    If we’re traveling in a big city, we often purchase tickets for one of those “Hop On, Hop Off” tours. You can get them for different amounts of time (usually 1-3 days or so). We get to see the sites of the city with the information from the tour guide, and (here’s the money savings part) because you can get on and off at major areas around the city, we use it like a taxi service to get to and from different places for eating out, shows, etc.

    I love your blog. Great writing, great pics, amazing locations and tips for visiting!

    1. Thank you so much Bonnie! Those are all great tips too. I love that you volunteer at the schools. I think that would be an amazing experience. We also go to a lot of free events while we are traveling, but I didn’t think to mention that one. Community events tend to be a lot of fun and is usually very memorable. While we were in Merida, we went to some of the Meridafest events. We couldn’t understand most of what the announcers were saying, but that was part of the fun. I’ve never tried the “Hop on, Hop off” buses, but I’ll look into it sometime!

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