Cancun International Airport

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A First-Time Traveler's "What to Expect" Guide to Cancun International Airport (CUN)

Dec 8, 2009 (Updated Dec 9, 2009)
Review by  
Rated a Very Helpful Review

Pros:Modern airport with a lot of flight options

Cons:Timeshare salesmen in the airport, expensive (and sometimes complicated) ground transportation, constant construction 

The Bottom Line: Cancun International Airport (CUN) is your gateway to Mexico's beautiful Caribbean paradise. Here's what to expect at the airport...

Cancun International Airport is the second busiest airport in Mexico and the busiest tourist-oriented resort airport in the Caribbean region. Last year, more than 12 million passengers (most of them first-time international vacationers) passed through its halls and jetways. Planning a vacation to the beautiful, sunny, warm white beaches of Cancun is a great idea....but maybe you're just a LITTLE worried about how things work when you get there. This review is a gentle overview that (I hope) will help ease your worries and maybe even speed you along with a little less hassle, getting you out of the airport more quickly and onto those beaches where you belong.

What to Expect at CUN: The High-Level View from 30,000 Feet...
Cancun International Airport is a very modern facility that's large and that basically feels like any other big airport anywhere else in the world. But there's some significiant differences between CUN and every other big airport.

* few travelers doing onward connections
* few business travelers
* few experienced travelers
* high percentage of charter flights
* very high percentage of flights are international
* many first-time international travelers
* many families and groups, almost no individual travelers

These differences help explain why some things seem strange to experienced travelers --- CUN sometimes seems a bit different from other airports (it's certainly a different feel from any other airport I use in Mexico). The differences aren't necessarily bad though, and some of them make it a much kinder, gentler airport for the inexperienced traveler. Arriving and departing at Cancun International Airport is nothing to be worried about.

What to Expect When You Arrive at CUN...
Cancun is a spectacular tropical paradise, and to remind yourself why you booked your vacation in the first place, just look out the window on your approach. Aren't those turquoise waters spectacular and can't you just picture yourself out on one of those beaches, with a frosty margarita in hand as you lay back in a hammock under one of those palm trees?

Oh yeahhhhh....

But first, you have to:
* fill out your immigration form and customs declaration
* get through the immigration checkpoint
* get through the customs checkpoing
* run the gauntlet of timeshare sales maggots outside the arrival gates
* pick up a bag full of brochures and discount coupons from the sweet young girls who work for the tourist board
* find your bus, shuttle, or taxi if you pre-booked, otherwise, choose your ground tansit and pay the fare
* enjoy the ride to your hotel

Immigration and customs forms are no big deal. Every country you ever travel to internationally is going to want you to fill them out. Now that you've managed to break free of the small minded U.S.-only mindset, you can revel in the feeling of liberation and the wonders of a wider, more interesting world. Be sure to fill out the forms when the stewardess gives them to you on the plane! One of the biggest mistakes first-time visitors to Cancun make is figuring that they'll wait until they get into the airport so they can ask the immigration officials questions and borrow a pen from them. Don't laugh. Cancun has some of the longest, slowest immigration lines of any international airport you've ever visited, and the reason is simply a WHOLE lot of inexperienced travelers who do exactly those kinds of things. If everyone arriving internationally knew what they were doing, the lines would whiz along faster, like the ones in Mexico City (MEX) do because they tend to get the experienced business travelers there. Every airport gets the occasional family of travelers using their passports for the first times in their lives --- it's just that at Cancun that demographic is almost EVERYBODY standing in the long, serpentine immigration line.

You shouldn't have any problems getting past the immigration checkpoint within a minute or so, provided you filled out the form correctly before your turn to show passports and forms to the agent. This might have been a problem in the past, but with draconian security being the norm these days, the airline would have checked your papers before they ever let you on the plane. So the chances of getting refused entry these days are nil (assuming you're not an internationally wanted criminal with warrants that will set off alarms as soon as your passport gets scanned).

The Customs checkpoint works a bit different in Mexico than it does in the U.S. When you go through a Mexican Customs checkpoint, there's a traffic signal. You press a button and it gives you a green light or a red light. Green means go on through and you're on your way. Red means the Customs agents will actually look at your declaration form and will ask you to open your bags for a quick hand examination.

Customs inspections are no big deal. They typically take 1 minute, unless you're a first time traveler who needs to ask some questions or be prompted to unzip each bag for the inspector to peek inside. You might be asked questions about what you're carrying. When you enter Mexico at a land checkpoint, they're always worried about whether you have guns (I don't know any Texans who don't). When you enter by air, they're often more worried about how much cash you have (over $10,000 is supposed to be declared --- same rule as entering U.S.) I know many Texans who only WISH they were traveling with $10,000.

After you clear Customs, you exit the controlled security area into a de-militarized zone of slimeballs, sleazebuckets, "helpful transportation advisors", etc. All of these are timeshare salespeople, or worse. If any of them offer you a "free ride to your hotel", laugh in their face --- they are timeshare salespeople who would LOVE to have your ears captive in their vehicle for the 2-hour ride over to Moon Palace (which incidentally, if you happen to know Cancun, is practically adjacent to the airport) or some similar timeshare resort.

There are two basic rules of thumb when running the gauntlet of timeshare maggots in the Cancun airport:
1) just say no --- no matter what the deal or the come-on, refuse
2) see rule 1

There are only 2 kinds of people you want to talk to among that big throng of humanity outside the arrivals door:
1) the legitimate shuttle driver you previously contracted with (with your name on a placard and/or your name already on his list) --- if you booked a package deal, like through FunJet or Apple Vacations, look for the official uniformed rep with a legitimate logo'd placard (don't worry, they're always legit because the tour companies are well organized in Cancun and they're aggressive about making sure their clients don't get waylayed)
2) the sweet young women, often dressed in Mayan or regional costume, handing out FREE bags of discount coupons (these coupon books actually CAN save you a boatload of money over the course of a weeklong vacation

If you booked the package deal through a travel agent, you're probably already on a bus and headed down the road to your hotel. If you didn't, you need to figure out how to get to your hotel. There's several options.

What to Expect From Ground Transportation at CUN...
Cancun Airport is weird in its taxi operation. You don't just a hail a cab outside. Besides, most travelers will catch a bus or a shuttle van --- not a taxi. Here's the basic options:

* shuttle van / colectivo : you pay per passenger and you'll be put in a van full of strangers who likely are headed in the same rough direction as you are (at least you hope that's why the shuttle guys asked you what hotel you're going to). This is the best tradeoff in price / time for most travelers who are alone or traveling as a couple. It's a great option for everywhere in the Cancun hotel zone, plus to get over to the Isla Mujeres ferry docks (if the operators don't want to go all the way, just take the shuttle to anywhere in the hotel zone or downtown and then catch the local city bus over there for a few pesos --- SOME of the R1 buses go all the way to the docks, but look for "Isla Mujeres" or "Puerto Juarez" on the windshield or side of the bus) 
* taxi : private airport taxis can be arranged in the airport, but prices are very high --- it only works out cheaper than a shuttle van if you have 3 or 4 people riding together. Expect to be gouged for US$50 or more to hotels on the Kukulkan strip.
* bus : There's a couple of first-class bus lines (like ADO) operating in the Cancun airport. This is the fastest, cheapest and most comfortable choice for travelers going to downtown Cancun, Playa del Carmen, Cozumel, and most Riviera Maya resorts. I've heard these buses cost $6 or more from the airport to Playa del Carmen, but I'm not sure why, since the same buses can be taken from the downtown Cancun bus station all the way into Playa del Carmen for just 42 pesos (US$3.50). Even if it is $10 from the airport though, it would still likely be your cheapest, most reliable transit option.
* rental car : Most of the big name rental companies have desks in the Cancun airport and renting a car in the Yucatan region of Mexico is usually painless and troublefree. This can be an especially good option for many of the Maya Riviera resorts, which are often in the middle of nowhere with limited (or expensive) taxi service. Having a car can open up great daytrip possibilities too, and for a family trip, you often pay for the entire weeks rental just saving shuttle or taxi fare to and from the airport.

Be aware that there are several tour operators that have shuttle services (buses or vans) to and from the Cancun Airport. These are licensed and regulated and are trustworthy and often quite affordable options. You usually have to reserve their services ahead of time, but when you do, you can expect better, more personalized service at a lower cost than using the colectivos or taxis.

Fares can vary considerably, and unfortunately, they aren't dependent only on distance. A 5-minute taxi ride to a nearby resort like Club Med or Moon Palace can easily cost you $30 while another person pays $10 for a 60-minute shuttle ride all the way to Playacar. It can be complex and it can require a bit of up-front planning. Sure makes you miss those fixed price taxis at New York City airports, don't it?

The airport is located at the lower end of the Cancun hotel zone, at Highway 307 (the main route along the Quintana Roo coast). It's about 5 minutes to Club Med, a 20 minute ride to Punta Cancun, where hotels like the Fiesta Americana Coral Beach are located, it's 30 minutes to downtown Cancun, and its one hour to Playa del Carmen. Whether you think that's convenient or not depends a lot on where you're staying.

What to Expect If You Need to Connect for Onward Travel at CUN...
Most people don't do connections in Cancun, but maybe you're one of the few. It is possible to take air shuttles to nearby destinations (especially Cozumel) and its quite possible that you flew into Cancun because you were able to get a killer airfare deal there, but you really want to visit an inland city or some other destination that's hard to reach via flights outside Mexico.

What you need to know is that there are 3 terminals at Cancun International Airport and they are not connected via easy walkways or enclosed corridors. You get between them using the free airport shuttle bus.

Terminal 1 has recently been "the charter terminal" and it is also where the small air shuttles operate (Mayair, Aerotucan etc.) --- double-check this info with airport ground staff though (the shuttle driver will know) because the airport authority was recently doing renovations on Terminal 1 and it may or may not be open when you arrive. Expect few services available in this terminal.

Terminal 2 is where Aeromexico, Click, Mexicana, Interjet, Magnicharters, Vivaaerobus, and Volaris operate. Most domestic Mexican flights depart from this terminal. Expect most airport services in this terminal, but with fairly basic variety or selection. (Some international flights also depart Terminal 2).

Terminal 3 is the new terminal building, and that's probably the one you'll use when its time for you to head for home on any of the major international carriers. Expect a full range of services in this terminal, including several food options, more stores, etc.

One of the weird oddities of Cancun International Airport is how FEW big international carriers you find relative to the HUGE number of international charter carriers. From the U.S., you'll find carriers like Continental and American there....but you're almost more likely to see more aircraft at the gates for Sun Country, Spirit, USA3000, etc. Almost none of the major European airlines fly direct to Cancun, even though there are numerous daily flights to virtually every major city in Europe --- you just have to look for Belair or Condor flights to Germany instead of Lufthansa, Novair to Oslo or Stockholm, XL Airways or Corsairfly to Paris, Monarch or Thomas Cook to the UK, Neos to Italy, Edelwiess to Switzerland, and so on and so forth.

What to Expect When You Depart CUN to Head Home...
Unless your tour operator or airline specified a different time to be at the airport, the Cancun Airport generally advises travelers to arrive 2 hours before departure. Once there, checkin can be slow though security is generally not too difficult or cumbersome. First-time international travelers may be surprised to find that security is often tighter in Cancun (and most Latin American airports) than it is back home. You are likely to have your baggage hand-searched, although this is usually done in front of you before you check baggage so that you can then lock, and possibly seal, your luggage. This is much more secure than the U.S. practice of having TSA agents randomly search (and steal) your stuff in a backroom somewhere --- it's also just plain better security because it's more consistently done, with most airlines searching 100% of all checked baggage. Hand baggage is also likely to be hand searched when you pass into the boarding area and/or when you board the aircraft (I've seen it done both ways).
Some travelers find the higher security levels to be annoying, but they do provide assurances that passenger safety is taken seriously, plus travelers should be aware that many drug trafficking gangs operate in Mexico. The police are at least as interested in apprehending drug traffickers as they are finding weapons. We may not like guards poking around in our suitcases, but I'm sure we all like being safe and we all like seeing criminals put behind bars.

Terminal 3 is where most of the international commercial flights will depart, and it's a modern, new terminal that's totally state of the art --- just opened up 2 years ago! There's a lot more services, stores, and eateries to choose from than there were in the old terminal, and you'll recognize names of Cancun classics like Senor Frogs as well as greasy American fast food dives like Burger King. A little bit of something for everyone...

Bottom Line...
I hope I've given you some useful info about what to expect from the Cancun airport and that you have an idea of how things work. Cancun is basically a pretty good airport to use, and pretty friendly to the casual family or group traveler. I personally don't like Cancun's airport because it DOES get so many first-time newbie travelers who make the immigration lines take forever, and I don't like the expensive, highly regulated ground transportation options --- but that's just me. Your mileage will likely vary.

If you've ever been on a Mexican beach vacation, chances are excellent that you're familiar with Cancun International Airport (CUN). It handles more international tourist traffic than any other resort area in Mexico and its the 2nd busiest airport in Mexico (only Mexico City International handles more traffic). It's also an airport that's changed quite a lot over the years. The first time I ever flew into Cancun, there was but one runway and one single terminal building. Hard to believe there was a time like that. But Cancun has grown, resorts have sprung up along the entire Riviera Maya, all the way from Cancun to Tulum, and it takes a lot of airplanes to carry enough tourists to fill all those resorts. 12.6 million tourists, to be exact --- since that's the number of people who flew into Cancun in 2008.
Passenger traffic is supposedly down by about 9% in 2009, and that doesn't mean the Cancun airport is noticeably easier to deal with. It's still Cancun International Airport, for better or worse.

More often worse, in my opinion. I've never particularly liked dealing with the Cancun airport. It's one of the most obviously modern facilities in Mexico, but it's still crowded, it's still got some of the slowest immigration and customs lines of any airport in Mexico, it's still got expensive ground transportation, and it's still got throngs of slimy timeshare sales maggots and sleazy "service providers" hanging around the arrival area, ready to pounce on unsuspecting visitors.

Recommend this product? Yes

Best Suited For: Families
Best Time to Travel Here: Dec - Feb

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