No blogger will ever write the definitive post on the Cancún-to-Mérida route. This is not my attempt to write it. But I did want to document our experience, because for all the online research I conducted to prepare for it, it wasn’t quite what I expected it to be.
We usually take Continental/United from LaGuardia to Houston, then to the Mérida airport. It’s a 12-hour haul, but we like the airline and the lively Terminal E in Houston. We even switched credit cards so we can get access to their two — two! — private lounges at the airport. So we’re not suffering, but it’s tedious, and I hate arriving in Mérida so late, around 9 or 10, with the day practically over.
So for the last trip, we decided to try the Cancún route. I was happy to spare myself the nightmare of changing planes on an international flight, in which we have to claim and re-check luggage and worry about missing flights while waiting for immigration, customs and security. Spending less time in the air seemed less stressful, too. Just land, hop a bus, and you’re there.
From New York, on our travel day, American Airlines leaving JFK had the best itinerary and price, so that’s what we chose. The flight cost about the same as the Continental route through Houston. Add in the bus, and we paid a little more (480 pesos per person, each way), but I really wanted to get this route out of my system, and maybe get in to the city before dark for once.
The comparison will mean more to people leaving from New York, but here’s how it went:
I had gotten accustomed to our homely little LaGuardia airport. For an airport serving the Big Apple, it’s surprisingly dumpy, but LaGuardia is also small enough to allow travelers a quick in-and-out. I can spend all day trying to find my way out of the larger, swankier JFK, but getting my luggage and a shuttle to the off-site Airpark lot is pretty swift at LaGuardia. As long as the pilot can navigate its scary runways and avoid landing our plane into the water, I’ll take LaGuardia any day. But it seems direct flights to Cancún tend to come from JFK. (We won’t consider the Newark airport unless there’s a gun to my head.)
The JFK-Cancún flight went well. It’s high season for Cancún, although not yet Spring Break time, so I expected a plane of high-spirited partiers. This was happily not the case. But American’s plane seemed less up-to-date than Continental’s, and its food choices were more limited. Their Boston Market turkey sandwich was soggy. Few passengers pulled out their credit cards for the food cart. Continental’s food card is much more popular, with a full selection of fairly decent wraps, salads and sandwiches. Their Asian noodle salad is pretty good, as is their tapas snack box.
As we approached our destination, I got my first big payoff. Flying over the Peninsula in the daytime was a treat. We could see miles and miles of green landscape, and the resort areas along the coast. It’s been years since I’ve been able to spy the lovely turquoise of the Caribbean sea. Once we landed, the Immigration stations were well staffed, but it seemed a number of planes had landed at once, so the lines were long. Officials pushed travelers along fairly efficiently, it seems.
Once we got our bags, we found ourselves in Terminal 3 as expected. Here is where you either get a shuttle van, running twice daily, that runs directly from the airport, or a luxury coach that departs from downtown, reached by another luxury coach. But the indoor ADO bus kiosk wasn’t where we expected it. I was prepared for the shills competing with ADO, so I was probably a little defensive when someone was actually trying to help me find the ticket station. The kiosk was a tiny podium outside by the parking lot. Its sign had PLAYA DEL CARMEN in the biggest type, which mislead us. The very polite woman at the podium sold us tickets to the Fiesta Americana stop in Mérida. (Another advantage to landing in Cancún: more English is spoken.) We were in time for the direct shuttle, but the Platino bus, its most luxurious, seemed more comfortable, so we chose that. Despite requiring a half-hour jaunt to the bus terminal, we weren’t losing any time. The Platino was scheduled to leave only 15 minutes later than the shuttle van.
When we arrived downtown, the passengers were left to fend for themselves to retrieve luggage. Paul had to crawl in to find our bags, way in the back of the cargo hold. I thought that was odd. I had never been to Cancún, so I was somewhat interested in seeing its downtown. Trust me, there’s nothing to see. The bus terminal was OK, but the nondescript, over-air-conditioned VIP room reserved for ADO Platino and first-class riders was nothing to write home about, either. Anyway, I saw it.
When the Platino bus arrived, I couldn’t believe it. We were treated like rock stars. Passengers were handed a beverage, and a package containing eyeshades, hand sanitizer, headphones and candy mints. On board, we found airline-style restrooms and a self-service coffee bar. The drivers’ area was blocked off, much like an airplane cockpit would be, so we couldn’t see out front. Curtains by the seat were closed. The seats had a ton of space in which to stretch out, using fold-down foot rests. However, we soon discovered the seats were oddly uncomfortable. You could never really sit up straight, and the chairs were too squishy to offer back support.
The sun set about 45 minutes in to our trip, and my mind was too frazzled for a book, too wired for a nap. Then I found my personal seat-back television wouldn’t work, so I listened to my own tunes on my iPhone during a long, long ride on a dark, bumpy highway. Luckily, the seat had an electrical outlet to keep the phone charged.
I’ve heard over and over how smooth the carretera would be, but our bus felt like an airplane in constant turbulence. At one point, the driver stopped for a break, but passengers weren’t invited to get off to stretch. They didn’t seem interested, anyway. We had the randy lovers behind us, necking and giggling; we had the gamers deeply involved in perfecting their strategy; and we had a chatty Cathy who was attached to her cell phone; and the rest were somehow able to doze almost the whole time.
It was a relief to finally get in to Mérida, four-and-a-half hours later (and six hours after landing in Cancún). But first we had to drop off passengers in Alta Brisa. At the Fiesta American Lot, it was easy to find a cab which took us swiftly to our hotel. I miscalculated when I thought flying to Cancún would get me in to our city in daylight. This was yet another long haul. So, door to door, which route was quicker, Houston or Cancún? Cancún was, but by only about an hour.
Back to that kiosk in Cancún: We bought a round-trip ticket, and our return trip was aboard that shuttle van, taking us directly from the Fiesta Americana station at 10 a.m. to the airport, bypassing the downtown terminal, and leaving us plenty of time to make a 5:10 p.m. flight. The shuttle van had those strangely awkward seats, but the ride was smoother, and I enjoyed seeing the countryside in daylight. Movies played on a single TV screen (“Killers” with Katherine Heigl and Ashton Kutcher, in English with Spanish subtitles). Halfway through, we took a break at a pretty decent highway rest stop, which had food and bathrooms. We bought cappuccinos, which were actually pretty good. (Or maybe we were just happy about getting a break.) Somehow, I found the shuttle van more enjoyable, even without all those extras like eye masks and beverages.
I can offer one tip for shuttle passengers. You are assigned seats, but it seemed most everyone sat where they wanted. If you can, choose your seat carefully and avoid the rear, where you could find yourself over the wheel well, which will compromise your leg room considerably. There was not VIP lounge at the Cancún airport, but we didn’t miss it. Bubba Gump’s had free wifi and excellent fried shrimp. And Bubba Gump’s was a better place to wait for a plane than that weird glassed-in gate we’re sequestered in back in Mérida.
So which is better? It was kind of a wash, but I’d prefer taking Continental/United through Houston, despite the headaches of changing planes. I thought the airline had better amenities, and loyalty to one airline pays off when your points start to accumulate. But a super-saver fare via Cancún would get my attention, especially since I’ve gone through the drill once and the routine is somewhat familiar. I’ll be monitoring the rates on Jet Blue’s site this spring.