Visit Chicago on a Budget: 23 Cheap Things to do in Chicago

After our month-long Route 66 roadtrip this summer, we planned for a few days to explore Chicago, Illinois. We LOVE New York City, so were looking forward to exploring another large and bustling city. And it helps that Chicago is known for a couple food items we’re fans of… hotdogs and pizza! As a budget traveller, I always look for budget friendly and cheap ways to explore new places. Chicago is a city ripe with budget-friendly options, so I’ve put together this list of cheap things to do in Chicago! Take a look, and make note so that you can plan your visit to Chicago on a budget!

 

 

Cheap Things to do in Chicago

1. Eat at Portillos

2 words: CHICAGO DOG. I didn’t even know this was a thing until I arrived in Chicago. But now that I do, it has become my personal mission to make sure everyone tries one! Yes, they are THAT delicious! Without a question, this is my top recommendation for cheap things to do in Chicago!

So, a Chicago-style Dog is typically a boiled vienna hotdog, served in a poppyseed bun. (yes, the poppyseeds are important!). It is then topped with a generous amount of mustard, relish, diced onions, tomatoes, 2 ‘sport peppers’, a dill pickle wedge, and celery salt. And NO KETCHUP! Seriously, it’s basically a sin to add ketchup in Chicago.
Full disclosure.. I HATE mustard, relish and pickles. So I was a little skeptical on trying something that was pretty much full of things I hate. So I compromised and opted to ask for no pickle, and half the mustard and relish.
OhmiGAWD I am officially a convert!! These babies are amazing!

Portillo’s is a seriously funky establishment. You feel like you’re walking into a little town when you enter. If you’re lucky, there will only be a few people in line. But even if it’s packed, they work hard to take your order quickly. And I promise, it’s worth the possible wait!!!

FOODIE TIP: Try their chocolate cake shake ;). I’m sorry, and you’re welcome. 

 

2. Go for deep dish pizza

There are a few things Chicago is famous for, and the most popular one is deep dish pizza! Now, if you didn’t know, Chicago does pizza differently. Crust goes on the bottom, as it should. But then, they add cheese BEFORE the sauce! We tried 2 different restaurants… Pequod’s, who are famous for their ‘burnt cheese’ crust (pictured to the right), and Lou Malnati’s, who is just plain famous. To be honest, neither were our favourite… We’re pretty hooked on NYC thin crust! But given that it’s a MUST TRY in Chicago, I definitely have to include it in my recommendations. Given the options, I prefer Lou’s over Pequod’s. BUT, Pequod’s has an awesome $5 lunch special that really makes trying them a ‘can’t lose’ situation (and you know how much I love a good deal!).

 

3. Walk Navy Pier

I’ll be honest, this wasn’t our favorite thing to do in Chicago. While Navy Pier is a great place to see the sunset over the skyline, the rest of it is mostly overpriced restaurants and souvenir shops. We are glad we made the walk down to the end, as it is a nice walk with all the boats docked along the walkway, but I don’t feel a need to go back. BUT, it truly is worth a visit, even just to say you’ve been there. Go for sunset and you won’t be disappointed!

 

4. Get a transit pass

Driving around downtown can be terrible, depending on what time of day you head in. But even if traffic is decent, parking is horrendous!! It’s hard to find, and seriously a fortune (one place wanted to charge us $28 for a 20 min stop!). So I highly recommend public transportation! The train and bus system is excellent and your pass works for both. We tend to go for unlimited passes, because they let us travel around without having to check our balance, and it always proves to be cheaper than paying by the trip.

 

5. Take an architectural boat tour

Everyone I asked about what to do in Chicago told me I HAD to go on an architectural boat tour of the city. And having done it, I definitely agree with the recommendation! It’s a great way to see the city from a different angle, and we learned quite a bit about the buildings and the city from our guide.

Before you book, make sure you look for discounted tickets on Groupon. We booked tickets with Chicago Line Cruises and saved about $10 each! TIP: Start watching Groupon ahead of time, and use a 10% off coupon or $ off discount to save even more!

 

6. Have a giant potato at the French Market

Seriously, it was the size of my head!! Where else are you going to find a stuffed baked potato big enough to feed you for 3 meals?! (Seriously though.. Where else?? Because if I can eat this somewhere else, I need to add it to my travel list!) While you’re there you can take a wander around the market and pick up some goodies to take home. It’s not a big market, so you won’t spend hours there. But it’s a nice little walk around inside, and worth the stop!

 

7. Tour a brewery

Chicago has an amazing microbrewery scene, so it’s no surprise that this makes my list of cheap things to do in Chicago. We took a free tour at the Haymarket Pub & Brewery. It’s a small microbrewery west of downtown, and it was a great stop after the Maxwell Street Market! There are several brewery tours in and around Chicago, so pick one and enjoy!

TIP: Check out this post about some of the brewery tours offered here!

 

8. Get a view of the skyline

Like many cities on a waterfront, the skyline is best viewed from the water. 2 of the best options in the city are at Navy Pier and on the drive to the Adler Plantetarium. Both are easy to get to from downtown, whether you’re driving, taking transit or walking.

 

9. Pose at the Bean

Can’t leave the Windy City without having the quintessential tourist experience at the Bean at Cloud Gate! It’s always pretty busy around there, so you’ll have a hard time getting tourist-free photos. But if you feel so inclined, get there around 6:30am for your best chance at some! The bean is just a few minutes from the Crown Fountain, Buckingham Fountain, Navy Pier and a Garrett’s popcorn, so make an afternoon of it!

 

10. Play in the water at Crown Fountain

This is a fountain that we just stumbled upon one afternoon, and it’s a pretty funky place to visit! It features a big screen at either end of a courtyard. The screens feature a face making different faces, and every few minutes they turn into a fountain. Hard to describe, but definitely worth a stop on your way to Cloud Gate!

 

11. See Buckingham Fountain

Buckingham Fountain in Grant Park is one of the largest fountains in the world, so definitely a must see while you’re here! The fountain pumps more than 14000 gallons of water every minute during its hourly light and water shows! It operates mid-April to mid-October, so be sure to fit it into your schedule if you’re looking for things to do in Chicago during those months.

 

12. Get a view from the top

Chicago is home to two 100+ story buildings that both offer a beautiful view of the city. Head to the John Hancock Tower to view the city from the lounge of the Signature Room on the 96th floor, the Signature Room restaurant on the 95th floor (food/drink purchase required at both of these), or the 360* Observation Deck on the 94th floor. Form 1000 feet up, you can see 55 miles on a clear day, and 4 states! If you’re brave, try the new ’tilt ride’ on the observation deck!
Or head the the 103rd floor of the Willis Tower to step out out on the ledge on the Skydeck! Both towers offer an amazing view, but make sure to go up on a clear day or you might be disappointed!

 

13. Try some Garrett’s popcorn

You can’t leave Chicago without trying some REAL Chicago Popcorn Mix! If you haven’t been living under a rock the last several years, chances are you’ve had some of the famous blend.. A wonderful mix of cheese and caramel coated popcorn. Whether you have or haven’t, you can’t leave the city without stopping in for a sample and a bag to take home!

Fun Fact: the name ‘Chicago Mix’ has actually been trademarked by a St Paul, Minneapolis candy store! Having been sued a few years ago for their use of the name, Garrett’s actually doesn’t call their mix ‘Chicago Mix’ anymore!

 

14. Visit the Pilsen neighbourhood

If you’re a fan of street art (which I am) and Mexican food (which I definitely am) Pilsen is an awesome neighbourhood to visit! Head down for an afternoon wander and grab dinner at one of the many local Mexican restaurants! Don’t forget to have a churro!

 

15. See the Route 66 start & end sign

This was actually one of our main stops in Chicago, because we were in Chicago to finish our Route 66 roadtrip. Because Route 66 used to only be a single lane in either direction, and the streets are now one ways, the start and end points are actually a block apart.

The start and end points are downtown, right across from Grant Park and Cloud gate, so this is a great place to start a day of wandering around downtown!

 

16. Get a ‘Depression Dog’ at Gene & Jude’s

For those that aren’t into the ‘dragged through the garden’ style of the Chicago Dog, the original ‘depression dog’ might be more appealing… This dog was potentially the ORIGINAL version of the Chicago dog, and it comes with much less toppings- typically just mustard, onions and sport peppers. And possibly some relish… But still NO ketchup! But wait…. The most important topping? French fries! You’ll get them piled on top or wrapped up with the dog as an all-in-one meal. If you’re a foodie, this is definitely a worthwhile stop on the Chicago food scene! Henry’s Drive In gave this meal the tagline ‘it’s a meal in itself’, which couldn’t be more accurate! Add this to your plan for visiting Chicago on a budget!

 

17. Visit Monster Toys

There isn’t much to see here (sadly there’s no actual toy factory to go into!), but if you’re looking for a cute photo op (and have a car or an unlimited bus pass) it’s an easy and quick stop to make! Look close… You might miss it!

 

18. Wander around the Chicago Botanic Garden

Chicago’s Botanic Garden gives a nice break from the bustling city streets. Walk through the gates and you’re stepping into a whole different world! Catch here is that it’s actually a ways north of downtown.. about 40 minutes by car or 90 minutes with transit. So while it IS a great thing to do in Chicago, be prepared to dedicate a whole day to the Botanical Garden.

 

19. Score some deals (and sweet Mexican food!) at the Maxwell Street Market

Maxwell Street Market is a once a week market every Sunday. The street shuts down to vehicle traffic, and vendors and shoppers take over the 2 block span of Maxwell Street. Vendors are mostly ‘flea market’ style, and you’ll find a full block of Mexican food stand and trucks. You won’t spend more than an hour or 2 here, but it’s a fun start to your Sunday! And there’s a Portillo’s a few blocks away, so head over there for lunch ūüėČ

 

20. Walk the Chicago Riverwalk

Whether you want to just go for a walk, or grab a bite or a drink, Chicago’s Riverwalk is the perfect place to do this. You’ll be surrounded by stunning, world-class architecture, and have amazing views of the city. Several river cruises depart from along the Riverwalk, and there is a water taxi you can take to get to a different section. Spend an hour or an afternoon… But definitely add this to your list of things to do in Chicago on a budget!

 

21. Wander the Magnificent Mile

North Michigan Ave, or the Magnificent Mile as it is known, is home to many of the areas top places to shop. Budget shoppers will agree that most of the stores don’t qualify to be on a list of cheap things to do in Chicago, but if you don’t go inside, it still makes for an entertaining (FREE) afternoon! The views are impressive, and worth the time. Several of the tallest towers in the United States call this street home, so be sure to look up! Pop into Lindt chocolate and Garrett’s Popcorn Shops for a free sample ūüėČ

 

22. Take a free guided walking tour

One of my favorite things to do in New York City is to take a free guided walking tour with Free Tours by Foot. So, naturally, when we got to Chicago I had to check out if they were in this city, too. And they are! You can choose from a variety of guided tours around the city. As the name implies, the tours are completely free. You just decide at the end whether to give your guide a tip. We generally tip $5-20, depending on how long the tour is, how much we enjoyed the tour, and whether we both attend or not. If you’re wanting to learn about the city of Chicago, these tours should definitely make your list of cheap things to do in Chicago.

 

23. Count the bricks on the Tribune Tower

The Tribune Tower is on the south end of N. Michigan Ave, or the Magnificent Mile. It was built in 1925, after a contest was held to design the building. The base of it is dotted with stones and bricks from historically important sites around the world, brought back by correspondents for the Chicago Tribune newspaper in years previous. There are a total of 149 of these relics on the building. We had fun walking around it and seeing where each came from! Portillo’s is only a 10 minute walk away, so head over there for lunch afterwards for one of our favourite cheap things to do in Chicago!

 

 

Now… it’s time to start planning!

I hope this list helps you make the most of your time in Chicago, and helps you to stay on budget when planning your visit to the city! There are many cheap things to do when visiting Chicago on a budget, these are just our favorites!

Do you have an idea for cheap things to do in Chicago? Leave a comment below so that I can add it to my visit for my next visit!

 

 

 


Best Restaurant Deals: Secret Tips to Save 60-90% EVERY TIME You Dine Out

My teen and I have been travelling full time for over 2 years. We live on a really small budget, so have gotten pretty good at finding the best restaurant deals over the years. Ask anyone who knows me, and they’ll tell you I’m queen of low budget travel! We’re just getting started on our second 3 month road trip¬†around the USA, so I’ve been hard at work finding deals to help us stretch our budget!

I’ve always been a fan of Groupon, but had NO idea how much better it is in the US until we got here from Canada. There are WAY more businesses offering deals, and SO many discount opportunities within Groupon itself. Groupon also just recently launched Groupon+, which is a program that offers cashback on purchases made with your linked card. So combine that program with the deals available for purchase, and you’re really looking at the best restaurant deals out there!

When grouponing (ya, I invented a new word. let’s just roll with it.), there are a few tricks that will help you make the most of your potential deals and get the best restaurant deals possible… I’ll share them with you here, along with some examples of how these tips have led to some great deals for us!

 

1. Research the business

I always check out the menu and social media accounts of the prospective purchase. Just because a Groupon offers a $25 credit for $10, doesn’t necessarily mean it’s¬† a good deal. Maybe an entree is $18.. then I’m still having to fork over an extra $15 to pay for Seth’s meal.. so, not a good deal. And you all know I love my deals!

I’ve also encountered some deals that after researching and reading reviews, I’ve decided not to buy. Reviews are subjective, obviously, so some complaints may not matter to me. But if a business has multiple complaints about something that might bother you, it might not be worth buying the deal.

I’ve heard from some people that they’ve bought a Groupon, just to find out the business had shut down! Groupon will refund your purchase if this happens, but it’s still a pain to deal with. Often a quick google will tell you if this is a possibility.

 

2. Watch your email for coupons

Wait until you get a good offer from Groupon in your email. They’ll often have 20% off sales, and every now and then you’ll luck out and get a code for 50% off one deal, or $10 off an $11 purchase. Hint: this is why you keep a wishlist ūüėČ

I received a $10 off code this week, so I opted to use it to buy a $20 credit from a restaurant, for just $1!

Another cool perk to staying on their email list is the ‘invite only’ deals that will come. Usually around once every 2 weeks, you’ll get an email offer for a gift card. We’ve gotten ones for CVS and¬†Starbucks so far! Usually they are $10 or $20¬†cards for half price.

Groupon sends A LOT of emails… but watch for ones like this!

 

3. For the best restaurant deals, check if they offer deals on specific days

Check the restaurant website, Yelp, and TripAdvisor for any sign of specials or a happy hour menu. Many will offer a happy hour or daily or weekly special. While you likely can’t use your Groupon for happy hour or any specials (see #7), you may be able

Even paying for our tacos as extra, our bill was still only $6, plus the $3 that the Groupon cost.

to order and pay for those separately or in addition to what your Groupon covers. So, if your Groupon covers $20 of food, you may be able to get happy hour drinks and just pay for those, using your Groupon to cover regular priced items. Make sure to ask the restaurant if they allow this.. We have encountered it both ways!

Taco Tuesday is always a good day! This restaurant wouldn’t allow us to use our $20 Groupon (purchased for $3) towards their Taco Tuesday specials, but they had no problem with us paying cash for those, and using the Groupon towards regular price fare!

4. Tip on the PRE discount bill

Don’t be cheap. Just because you got a great deal doesn’t mean your server/stylist/whatever should have to be shortchanged for it. They work just as hard, even if you got a great deal.

Disclaimer.. This article pertains mostly to the US, where the tipping culture is alive and kicking. I realize that many other countries don’t participate in tipping in the same manner, so use your judgement.

Tip on your PRE DISCOUNT bill

5. Keep a ‘wishlist’

If you’re not needing to buy something specific, stockpile your wishlist so that when you get a great discount emailed to you, you have a ready-to-buy list of stuff you’ve already vetted.

All of this was only $3!!

 

6. Share your Groupon referral code

Every Groupon account comes with a unique referral code for you to share. Each time a new user buys a Groupon through your link, you earn $10! This appears as a credit in your account, and can be used towards your future Groupon purchases.

 

7. Read the fine print

Only $5 on top of the $7 Groupon for this amazing spread!

Many Groupons have fine print that specify what days or times it can be redeemed- like no using it during happy hour or in combination with any other special.

Often when the Groupon offers multiple vouchers for one price you can only use one voucher per visit, so be prepared to make multiple trips to the one location if you buy this style of offer.

When I bought one for a haircut in Phoenix the fine print specified that it could not be used with 3 specific stylists. So be sure you can comply with the fine print, so that you aren’t surprised when you try to redeem!

This restaurant allowed us to use the Groupon during happy hour, so each plate only cost around $5! Because we got the $30 Groupon for just $7, we got an AMAZING amount of food! My only regret… Only buying one Groupon!

 

These donuts came from a Groupon that offered 2 vouchers, each worth $10 each. They couldnt be used together, so 2 visits to the store were needed to redeem. We werent complaining, though!

8. Have more than one account

Because not every promotion is sent to every registered email, it can pay to have more than one account open to receiving emails. Namely the offers for a half price giftcard, the $10 off discount and the 50% off codes. Often those only get sent to select accounts. So if you’re a deal hunter like me, more than one account increases your chances of receiving these deals!

 

9. Get a free Swagbucks account to collect cashback from each purchase

This won’t make you rich, but every cent adds up! When you sign up to swagbucks, you’ll be prompted to add the icon to your browser toolbar. If you do this, you will get a prompt to activate a coupon each time you go to buy a Groupon. The points this will accumulate can be cashed out for giftcards and cashcards at certain levels- giving you an even bigger discount overall!

Activate the code on your FREE Swagbucks toolbar to earn points with every purchase

 

10. Before paying any entrance fees or admissions, search to see if they have a Groupon online!

We’ve lucked out many times and saved anything from a few dollars to 50% just by doing a quick google before paying!

We even saved $5/ticket for a local Gamers Expo, just by searching for tickets online first!

 

Shopping for restaurant deals with Groupon is a pretty straightforward process, but there ARE some secrets that can help you make the most out of your account! I hope the ones I’ve shared help you to find some of the best restaurant deals in your area. If you have any other tips that I haven’t covered, let me know in the comments! I’m always looking to improve my game!

 

 

Day trip to Isla Mujeres: Organized Tour vs DIY

Isla Mujeres is a beautiful island just off the shore of Cancun, Mexico. It’s only 13km long and less than a kilometer across, so can easily be explored in a single day, making it a popular day trip from Cancun or Playa del Carmen. Isla Mujeres is characterized by stunning white sandy beaches, brilliant blue waters, picturesque rocky cliffs and roads that are mostly filled with golf carts.

We’ve visited Isla Mujeres a few times in our time in Mexico, and each time has presented a very different, though amazing, view of the island. Whether you are planning an organized tour, or wanting to visit the island on your own to explore, you are certainly in for a fantastic day!¬†

 

Organized tour

We’ve taken an organized tour twice to Isla Mujeres. Both times were with¬†Cancun Sailing, based out of Marina Chac-Chi in the Cancun hotel zone. They do offer hotel pickup from anywhere in Cancun or Playa del Carmen, which was a nice option.

While you wait for your boat to be ready, you can take a picture with the Cancun sign!

The tour includes a catamaran ride to Isla Mujeres, a guided tour to snorkel the reef and the MUSA Underwater Museum, a buffet lunch, 1.5 hours to explore the island, and a catamaran ride back to Cancun. They also include an open bar on the catamaran and at lunch. If you ask at check in, you may get to go on a boat that also offers spinnaker flying, should¬†the weather be ideal. We haven’t been so lucky yet ;).

In the morning you’ll arrive at Marina Chac-Chi to check in for your tour. The marine park fee of $10usd is not included in your tour price, so this is where you’ll pay this fee. Hint: pay in pesos and it’ll be a bit cheaper.

Once you’ve paid, they will give you a snorkel and you will wait on the beach until your group colour is called. When it is, you will gather with your group, hear a few instructions, and get ready to board.

While you’re waiting, you will likely be approached to buy ‘required’ reef-safe sunscreen. NO, this is not required!!! You can go without, but I recommend buying it ahead at Walmart.. it will be a fraction of the price!

At the marina

 

On the Catamaran

When it’s time to board, we like to try to¬†
get at¬†the front of the line, so we can sit at the front of the boat. However this backfired the second time, when the waters were wavy enough that the boat rocking made me sea-sick. So be aware! Sit towards the back if you’re worried about this.

Our first trip we sat on the nets and it was breathtaking. The water was the most stunning shade of turquoise, and the bright blue sky made it the most perfect day. Sitting at the front of the boat on the netting proved to be the right choice that day!!

Each tour has about 40-50 people on it. This sounds like a lot, but the boat is actually huge, so tons of room for everyone. As you can see in the photo to the right, many made themselves comfortable on the netting. You can see only one side of it, there is another net the same side out of the frame. And a large sitting area to the back of the image.

 

Time to Snorkel

After cruising across the channel and getting over to the island, the captain stops short and anchors so we can go for a snorkel on the reef and to the underwater museum, MUSA. The first time we did this tour it was AMAZING. Since the water was so clear we could see everything, including so many kinds of fish! Unfortunately the second time was terrible. Couldn’t see a darn thing. Future reference: if they say it’s too cloudy to see the underwater museum, assume that snorkeling in general isn’t going to be that great! (Maybe we’re spoiled though ;))

The unfortunate part here was that there are guides in the water with you, at the front and back of the group. They are there to make sure no one gets lost in the crowds of other tour groups in the same area. While understandable, it’s annoying to be constantly prompted to hurry up and stay with the group. Especially when you’re trying to take photos for Instagram and your blog ;). And when you are with the group, there’s so many people surrounding you, it’s not hard to feel claustrophobic! More than once I was nearly hit with an errant flipper kick or inexperienced front stroke. I do wish the boats spread out a bit more so we didn’t feel so sardined in such an obviously large ocean!

 

Ready for a Drink

After we finished snorkeling we got back in the boat and the drinks¬†started flowing. Naturally we couldn’t drink before snorkeling (liability and all that jazz), so we were (almost) all ready for something cool and alcoholic when we surfaced. The tour comes with an open bar, so the guides were running around serving drinks and beer for the 30 min it took us to get to the lunch spot. I didn’t even need to leave my spot on the net! It was great! This was also when the company photographer started making his rounds taking photos of each couple or group (I mentally prepared myself for the upsell later!).

 

Lunch Time!

When we got to shore we were greeted with the most beautiful place to sit for a meal. The view seriously can’t be beat. Unfortunately… the food could though. The buffet was perfectly average. Mashed potatoes, spaghetti, beans, rice, chicken fajitas and salad. Seth was thrilled to see spaghetti on the menu, and I really enjoyed the fajitas. other than that everything was pretty simple. Not terrible, but not amazing. Nothing I’d complain about with this view! And the best part was that the open bar continued through lunch.

Our second tour stopped at the Ice Bar for lunch, so if you wanted to pay around $20usd each you could get bundled up to enjoy a drink in their bar literally made of ice. Since we come from the land of ice and snow, we opted against that! Both tours also offered the chance to hold a shark to get a photo, but we’re not supporters of that sort of thing so we avoided the docks where they were doing that.

 

Ready to Explore Isla Mujeres

Following lunch, we hopped back on the boat to get to the main port of Isla Mujeres. It was only a 10 minute ride, but staff were quick to offer drinks again! (and really, who am I to say no?!)

They coached us to head to a golf cart rental place if we wanted one. Often they are sold out quickly, and since we only had 1.5 hours on Isla Mujeres before the boat would start back to Cancun, we’d want to start our hour rental quickly. So, following orders, we hopped off the boat and ran to the nearest shop. They still had a couple carts left, so we rented one for an hour, for $400mx. We were told it would take 50 min to get around the island, so we hopped on and away we went!

We started at the northern tip of Isla Mujeres, and headed south until we hit Punta Sur. There we spent a few minutes marveling at the number of iguanas wandering around, and enjoying the view. Seriously stunning! The rocky peak of the island is a beautiful contrast to the white sandy beaches so typical of the Caribbean.

From here, we headed back north, along the east coast of Isla Mujeres. This is a road that can’t be missed! So much so that I was disappointed we were in a rush, so the second tour we headed this way first.

By now, we were cutting it close for time, so he had to rush back to return the golf cart. Once that was done, we had a few minutes to get some photos on the beach before hopping back onto the boat.

We are accumulating quite the collection of photos with these colourful letters, and couldn’t leave Isla Mujeres without adding to it!

 

Once we got back on the boat, the drinks started¬†flowing again! We made ourselves comfortable on the net, and settled in for the sunset ride back to Cancun. During this time the photographer made his rounds offering the photos from earlier. He had a few options to share, including some prints in a themed folder, and a mini Corona bottle with your photo pressed on. Cute, but as full time travellers, not something we wanted to carry around. Many people took him up on it though, so I’d call it a neat souvenir from the day. I don’t remember the price, but I want to say it was around $25usd. I personally wish they would offer a USB stick with all the photos he’d taken throughout the day.

Cheers!

All in all, the tours were fantastic. Knowing what I do now about snorkeling in wavy, low visability water, I would reschedule if they said we couldn’t see the underwater museum. But other than that, I’d call the tour very worthwhile! And we are super budget travellers, so that’s saying something!

 

Next, I’ll talk about our DIY day trip to Isla Mujeres, so you can decide on the right option for you!

 

DIY Day Trip

When my friend from England arrived and was looking for a fun day, I HAD to suggest visiting Isla Mujeres! Since we wanted more freedom than the tour offers, we decided to go it alone this day. So we met up at the downtown Cancun ADO station, and got a taxi to Puerto Juarez. It was only $40mx, so super cheap. The roundtrip ferry was only $300mx, a savings of $20mx from buying 2 one way tickets. And they come with no time requirement, so it’s the obvious choice.

The boat ride over was only 30 min, and offered the same stunning views as the catamaran. The water was flat, and there wasn’t much of a breeze, which made for a pleasant ride. During the journey there was a band performing on the top level, which was cool to see.

 

Getting a Cart and Hitting the Road

Remembering the cautions of the guides of the catamaran tour, we knew that golf carts might sell out so that was our first stop when we¬†disembarked. We found that most shops had the same rates, so we weren’t picky about where we rented. The options were 1 hour for $400mx, or all day for $700mx. Since we had 3.5 hours until the rental shop closed, we opted for all day.

First stop was Playa Norte, which is said to be¬†one of the nicest beach in Quintana Roo. I have to say I agree! It was stunning! We didn’t have time to hang out here during our organized tour, so it was awesome to be able to park our cart and go for a swim. The water was SO calm here, it was perfect conditions for a float.

One thing that is prominent in Mexico is that
you’ll always see vendors selling things up and down the beach.¬†I’ve been to many different beaches, and this is something that is standard at all of them. However,¬†the vendors on this beach were different than those on the mainland. They were loaded with wares. One had so many woven bags, I’m surprised he was still upright! Another had a giant bag full of sarongs. We got drawn in by him… and ended up buying a few! They were more expensive than the mainland, but beautiful, so hard to resist. Nomad problems…. Trying to decide which sarong to buy ūüėČ

I think we stayed here almost an hour! Between the warm sun, the white beach, and the Caribbean blue water, it was hard to tear ourselves away! But… The rest of the island was calling…

 

Island Fun

From Playa Norte we headed up the east coast of Isla Mujeres. The west coast doesn’t offer as many views of the ocean, so this made the most sense to us as bloggers and instagrammers ;). Because we had lots of time to explore since we rented the cart for the afternoon, we stopped a few times to explore the shore and take some photos. The island is truly beautiful, and I was thrilled to have the time to explore it, compared to when we visited during the organized tour.

After a couple hours of exploration we stopped for a snack at the Joint on the west coast. It wasn’t the cheapest place, but we didn’t really expect it to be as it’s clearly a touristy place. The guacamole was delicious, and the fries were tasty (though definitely not homemade as the menu states!).

 

Drinks at Sunset

By the time we finished our snack, the sun was getting pretty low in the sky so it was time to head back to town and return the golf cart so we could find somewhere to watch the sunset. It sets to the north west of Isla Mujeres, so it seemed natural to head back to Playa Norte. This proved to be a great choice!! The sun was just getting low enough on the horizon that others were getting the same idea as us, but we managed to beat the crowd.

We found a bar at the far north west point that had decently priced drinks, and was perfectly positioned for a prime view of the sun meeting the horizon. So, we ordered drinks and settled in to enjoy the last bit of our awesome day on Isla Mujeres! As you can see
from the photos below, it was a stunning end to the day. Since watching the sunset over the ocean was one of the main goals of the day, we definitely called our DIY tour of Isla Mujeres a smashing success!

 

Once the sun had set, we walked around to look for somewhere to eat dinner. We found a really cute little place called Javi’s Cantina, and sat down for some guacamole and a drink. They had live music playing, which was a nice additional to our meal. The owner even popped out to say hello, and to welcome us to her restaurant!¬†Once we were done eating, we were all pretty tired so it was time to call it a day, and head back to the ferry terminal. It was pretty amazing how quickly downtown empties out after the sun goes down! Most restaurants and stores were already shut by now, and it was barely 8pm! The ferry ride home was smooth and quick, which was great. Would not be a nice ending if we had a rough ride back!

 

The Verdict

All in all, both day trips were excellent. If you have extra money, and like the idea of an open bar and snorkeling included with people taking care of all the details for you, go for the organized tour. But if you’d like to keep to a lower budget, and have more time to explore Isla Mujeres without a timeline, do a DIY day trip.

I’m glad we’ve had the experience of an organized trip. However, having done 2 already, I’d lean more towards planning (or not planning) my own day trip to the island.

I hope this helps you decide which trip would suit you! Have you been to Isla Mujeres? Do you have any suggestions on where to eat there? Share them in the comments so I have an excuse to plan another trip over! (like I need an excuse… ;))

Getting Around Playa del Carmen, Mexico

Probably the most confusing part of figuring out our journey through Mexico was getting around Playa del Carmen on public transit. Especially since we had never really used public transportation anywhere until we started travelling! There are a number of different options for getting around, so it took a bit to figure out which one was best suited to us. Turns out, as with much of everything in life, variety is the way to go!

The colectivo system can be intimidating for newcomers, the taxi system can be unfair, and the ADO buses seem great, but they appear to be an expensive option. But I’m here to break it all down for you, and take away the mystery! By the time you’re done reading, you should be confident in navigating public transit, and have no problem getting around Playa del Carmen!

Getting around Playa del Carmen

Colectivo

We found an empty colectivo!

The colectivo system is our favourite suggestion for getting around Playa del Carmen. A Colectivo is usually a van, sometimes an old bus, that¬†has been converted for public transport. There are no conventional seats, instead wood benches have been installed around the perimeter of the back. Patrons are able to sit on the benches (if there is still room), or stand in the center void. It is not uncommon to see 25 or more people crammed into the back of the van, with 2 people sitting up front with the driver, and children sitting on laps. If you have an aversion to physical contact, the Colectivo probably isn’t for you! But if you want cheap transportation, and don’t mind being close to people you don’t know for a short time, this is a method we highly recommend!

Crowded into a colectivo.. Standing room only!

Taking the Colectivo in Playa del Carmen

A colectivo ride generally costs $6 pesos a ride, though sometimes it’s $7 or $9. Children are usually half of that. There’s really no rule on when to pay, though most seem to hand it to the driver as soon as they step on. One of the more contrasting points we noticed, as compared to American/Canadian life, was the willingness of riders to pass their fare hand to hand from the back to front, and the trusting driver not even knowing who it came from.

Each van has the beginning and end points, plus a couple well known stops of the route marked on their front window. You can always ask the driver if he will be going near where you need to go. Knowing a bit of Spanish is good in this case, but most drivers do know a bit of English- enough to answer yes or no if you give them a location.

Colectivo queue on Ave 25. Note the writing on the windshields!

In Playa del Carmen, the main queue¬†for colectivos is¬†on Av 25, between Juarez and Calle 2. This is the beginning and end of all routes. If in doubt, go here to look for the right bus. Other than this queue you can catch a bus anywhere along any main road in Playa.¬†Stand on the sidewalk, watch for a bus with your neighbourhood on the windshield, and stick our arm out. If he doesn’t stop, the bus was full and just wait for the next one.

When on the van, keep an eye out for your stop- if you don’t know the area, it’s a good idea to carry a cell phone with GPS so you can track your location- and don’t hesitate to call out when you need to get off. A simple ‘Aqui, por favor’ (here, please) will do!

Tip: If you’re not sure which bus to take, spend a few minutes watching buses pass and looking at the names on the windshield. Look up their location on your GPS to see which one is near your neighbourhood. Colectivos stay on pretty main roads, so using your GPS and the signs on the windshields you should be able to figure out which bus to get onto.¬†

Cancun/Playa/Tulum Express

The queue to get to Cancun. On Ave 20 Calle 2

There is also a colectivo that runs between these cities.
They are $36-$40mx each leg, vs the $66mx to take the ADO, so they are a great option. These buses are much more comfortable than the colectivos that stay in town, as they are just 15 passenger vans with normal seats.

The queue for these vans in Playa del Carmen is on
Calle 2, between Ave 15 & 20. There are a few different companies that offer this route, and all will give you basically the same thing, so it’s up to you which one you choose. The one we take to Cancun is on the corner of Calle 2 & Ave 20, and the one to Tulum is lined up on the side of the Calle 2.

These ones are very straight forward. There are men calling their routes as you are walking down that street. Let him know where you are going, and he’ll tell you the price. Pay and find a seat. These ones won’t leave until they’re full, but they fill up quickly. We try to get a seat in the first row behind the driver, because it’s the closest to the air conditioning. These vans get HOT!

The line of buses that go to Tulum. On Calle 2, between Av 15 & Av 20

The bus that goes to Cancun will stop at Puerto Morelos or any of the hotels on the way, IF YOU TELL YOUR DRIVER. He won’t stop otherwise.

The bus that goes to Tulum will stop at the cenotes Azul, Cristalino & Eden, Akumal and Tulum Ruins. IF YOU TELL YOUR DRIVER. Again, he won’t stop otherwise. You can tell him this as you’re boarding, and he’ll likely remember. But you still want to watch to make sure.

 

ADO

The ADO (Ah-Day-Oh) bus is a very popular mode of transportation here in Mexico. It is a line of luxury coach buses, similar to Greyhound in the US.. though much nicer! Each bus has air conditioning, TVs playing movies, and plug ins for your electronics.

Prices for this bus line are very low, which make them an obvious choice for locals and travellers alike. We’ve taken the ADO all over Quintana Roo, and next month will be taking it 16 hours to Palenque, Chiapas!

To book an ADO bus, you can’t buy tickets online unless you have a Mexican credit card (and sometimes not even then!), so you can buy tickets from any ADO station. Depending on your route, you can either buy your tickets in advance, or buy them the day of your trip, depending on the popularity of the route. For example, the bus between Playa del Carmen and the Cancun airport leaves every 20 minutes, so rarely needs advance purchase. But the bus to Chiquila only leaves a few times a day, so you’d want to buy your tickets a few days in advance to make sure you get on the bus you want. You can check out the schedule online on their website.

Notes:

  • under 12 ride for half price of full fares. Sometimes your fare will be discounted, so the child’s price will not be half of that, however.
  • The ADO does have room for hand luggage in the bus, and compartments underneath for larger bags. Some routes will give you a tag to be able to pick up your bag, some won’t.
  • Your ticket will have a seat number on it. For trips to Puerto Morelos and Cancun the number means nothing. But for longer trips you’ll want to sit in your assigned seat.

Catching the ADO

In Playa del Carmen the bus can be caught from 2 different spots. The station on Avenida Juarez and 5th Ave is the main station. And the station on Av 25 & Calle 12 is the Alterna station. You can catch most buses from both stations, but check the online schedule to confirm. If you buy your tickets in advance, they will tell you which station you will leave from. Tickets for all routes can be bought at both stations.

You’ll want to arrive a few minutes early to catch your bus, around 15 minutes is sufficient. Look around for the signs to know where to watch for your bus. At the Alterna station, some buses pull up out front, and some are out back.

 

Taxis

Taxis are plentiful in Playa, so they are easy to catch. You can stand on a sidewalk in almost any neighbourhood and wave your arm and catch a cab. But there are some tips to keep in mind so that you don’t fall victim to the typical tourist overcharging that is commonplace here in Mexico.

A taxi driver will gladly take you anywhere you need to go. But they’ll try to charge you as much as they think they can get away with. When we first arrived, we were getting charge $100mx for routes we eventually learned should only cost $40mx.¬†The most important thing you can do is know the price of your route. You can find this by asking in an expat group, or checking the charts in this post.

Before getting into a taxi, ask the price to your destination. If it’s more than you know it should be, you can try to barter, or turn him down and look for the next one. Many will come back with a lower rate when they see you know what the price should be. If you catch a taxi from a ‘sitio’ ( a line of taxis waiting to drive you somewhere) the price will be higher than if you wave one down yourself.

 

Rental Car

Renting a car may seem like a simple solution to getting around Playa del Carmen, and very enticing when you see the rental prices online! But it’s a little more complicated than you’re used to in many other countries.

Those prices you might see online are deceiving. $1/day seems like a no brainer! But keep in mind that in Mexico you will be charged insurance upon pickup. This can add up to $1000mx/day onto the rental price.

Liability insurance is legally required in Mexico, and makes up about half of that daily fee. You can potentially decline the optional comprehensive insurance, and that is your call. Personally, I pay for it. In Mexico, if there is an accident and there is any dispute as to who caused it, all vehicles are impounded and all drivers can be jailed until an agreement is reached. Having this insurance enables your company to fight on your behalf and keep these things from happening. PLUS, we all know that insurance is there to protect in case something happens, so I’d rather that bill upfront than an expensive repair bill in the future! Your credit card MAY cover some of the insurance here. But you’ll want to contact them directly to find out, and be sure you have their coverage in writing when you arrive here.

Another thing to keep in mind is that driving is a little different here… Street lines and signs are mere suggestions. People cross the street everywhere, and drivers basically do what they want. So you do have to be hyper aware of your surroundings, and ensure you can pay 100% attention to the road at all times. And the volume of street bikes and bicycles gives another thing to always watch out for.

If you do choose to rent, I recommend booking ahead through Expedia (even if it’s a same-day booking), and going with Budget car rental on Calle 4 & Ave 10. I’ve used them several times, and have always had great experiences. They even saved our forgotten sunglasses for us!

 

So there you have it! A breakdown to getting around Playa del Carmen with public transit. I hope this helps you navigate the area!

Do you have any tips that I missed? Let me know in the comments!

 

Catching a Taxi in Playa del Carmen, Mx

The one thing there are more of than taco stands in Playa is taxis. They are EVERYWHERE! You shouldn’t have any trouble getting a taxi to pick you up in most areas. BUT there are some tricks to catching a taxi in Playa del Carmen that you might not know about. It’s not as simple as those metered taxis you’ve likely grown to expect! With the advent of Uber, we’ve gotten used to a different system of public transportation. But since Uber isn’t legal here (yet?), we’re left with the taxi system that those of us who live here have a love/hate relationship with.

To help you navigate using a taxi in Playa del Carmen, I’ve put together this list of tips!

Catching a taxi in Playa del Carmen:

  • If you don’t speak Spanish, have your destination written down to show the driver. It helps if you can pull it up on your map or smartphone if (s)he isn’t sure where it is.
  • If the first driver you flag has no idea where your destination is, take the next one.
  • They usually fit 3-4 people maximum, unless you can flag down a van. If you need to transport more than 4, the van will often charge almost double what a car would so catching 2 cars might be easier.
  • Tipping is not required especially if you don’t use the chart below. Drivers will often boost the fare for tourists. However, keep in mind that most drivers make barely a living wage, especially in ‘low season’ (April to October), so tip as you see fit.
  • Taxi stands, or ‘sitios’ always charge more than hailing one off the street. If you can, walk a block or two from the main tourist areas (like 5th Ave) to avoid paying 5-50 pesos more (depending on your destination)
  • Most drivers in the downtown will speak enough English to get you to where you need to go, but many won’t know enough to carry a full conversation.
  • If you don’t know how much your taxi ride should be, ask before you get in. If you wait until you get out to ask, you may be surprised with the fare.
  • Use the chart below- print it off for ease of use- to figure out your rate. Easiest way to avoid overcharging is to know the rate and just give it to the driver when everyone is out of the car. (The $35 peso routes are often quoted as $50-80 pesos if we ask. When we handed 35 pesos, nothing was said to the contrary.)
  • If you do ask the rate before getting in, don’t be afraid to wave for the next one if you don’t like the price. He’ll either lower his price, or drive away so you can bargain with the next driver.
  • If you are staying outside of the chart below, ask at your hotel what the price of a taxi will be.
  • Tourists often pay more than locals (this is true for many things in Mexico, thanks to a locals ability to bargain in Spanish), that is why knowing the price ahead of time or using the chart below is helpful.

taxi schedule

taxi schedule2

taxi schedule3

taxi schedule4

Do you have any tips to share? Any stories about taking a taxi in Playa? Comment with them below!