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USA TODAY travel reporter Dawn Gilbertson traveled to Cancun, Mexico, to see how the coronavirus pandemic has changed spring break for 2021.

USA TODAY

CANCUN, Mexico — There was a knock on my hotel room door around lunch time.

I hadn’t ordered room service so figured it was someone delivering the results of a rapid COVID-19 test taken that morning as required by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention ahead of my return flightto the U.S.

Dressed in full personal protective equipment, the Fiesta Americana Condesa resort employee fit the bill.

But he wasn’t there with my test results. He was there to clean the room.

“Sanitation?” he asked, before coming in to spray and then mop.

The coronavirus pandemic has changed housekeeping and more in Cancun and other tourist destinations. But some things remain the same.

‘We got bored and wanted to go on a trip’: Tales from a pandemic spring break in Cancun, Mexico

An employee at the Fiesta Americana Condesa Cancun, an all-inclusive resort in Mexico, sanitizes a guest room. (Photo: Dawn Gilbertson, USA TODAY)

Here’s a look at what’s changed and what hasn’t in the popular beach getaway, based on a four-night stay in mid-March as part of a USA TODAY reporting trip to see what the destination was like during spring break amid a pandemic. Practices and policies will vary by hotel and attractions. 

5 things that have changed about a Cancun vacation during the coronavirus pandemic

1. Masks are a must in many places, including the airport; airport shuttles and taxis (though my driver to the airport wore his under his nose); and while entering or walking around hotels, restaurants and attractions, including the pool. With some U.S. states abolishing mask mandates, travelers may think the same rules apply on vacation.

2. Social distancing stickers are on floors everywhere you turn, if not always followed. 

3. Buffets come with a side of service. The all-inclusive vacation staple is still offered at Cancun hotels, unlike in Las Vegas, where they have largely disappeared due to the pandemic. At the Fiesta Americana, employees serve guests from the chafing dishes instead of letting them scoop out their own food, with acrylic barriers separating the two. Fruit, granola, pastries and other items that are usually out in the open are now individually wrapped. 

Guests visiting the buffet at the Fiesta Americana Condesa Cancun, an all-inclusive resort, are served by employees instead of serving themselves, one of many pandemic safety measures. (Photo: Dawn Gilbertson, USA TODAY)

4. The poolside towel stand has gotten a COVID upgrade. At Fiesta Americana, towels are handed out in plastic bags, two per bag.

5. Tours and other activities are less packed, for now at least, due to capacity limits and fewer vacationers than before the pandemic. The Saturday night sunset cruise I booked to Isla Mujeres had plenty of room on the upper deck to spread out or dance. That doesn’t mean visitors won’t feel crowded at some point during their excursions. The shuttle bus to and from the boat, a 40-minute trip, was full.  

5 things that haven’t changed in Cancun

1. All-inclusive resorts, where guests pay one price for a room; meals; and drinks, including alcohol, remain a great vacation value. But upselling is still on the table. I didn’t encounter any high-pressure sales tactics at Fiesta Americana, but the items with an extra charge are never out of sight. At the resort’s seaside seafood restaurant, the chalkboard menu for premium items, including octopus and crab legs, had twice as many items as the regular menu, which feature tacos and ceviche. 

2. Daily housekeeping is still available and not just by request, as it is in many hotels in Las Vegas and other U.S. destinations as a health safety measure. Resort manager Cesar Fallardi, director of operations for The Grand at Moon Palace all-inclusive resort, laughed when asked about whether guests are hesitant to have their rooms cleaned during the pandemic. “If we do that upon request, we’re going to be full of requests,” he said. Not only do they want daily housekeeping, he said, they still call the front desk to ask for specific cleaning times.

3. Timeshare pitches abound. The age-old tourism gimmick/staple, a timeshare presentation in exchange for free activities or other perks, remains. Minutes after I booked my stay at Fiesta Americana, I had an invite to its vacation club in my inbox. The hotel lobby had a steady stream of vacationers in meetings with salespeople. 

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3. Pool-chair saving is still a thing for travelers set on a prime spot at the pool. Before the pandemic, some hotels and resorts around the world tried to cash in on pool-chair envy by adding fees to reserve a spot.

5. Taxis are relatively pricey. I made the mistake of not reserving airport transportation in advance and ended up paying triple the amount I paid for a shuttle previously. And that was after negotiating with several vendors. There’s no order to fares, either. I paid the same price to go 30 miles as I did 10 miles, on two trips within 90 minutes of each other: $30. Negotiate before you get in. Also, make sure you have cash (dollars or pesos). The driver who took me to the airport didn’t have a credit card reader, and I didn’t have any cash left, forcing me to run into the crowded airport to an ATM with high fees while he waited at the curb.

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