Sprawling pools, expansive beaches, lush landscaping, lots of dining options, water activities, and unlimited beverages: an all-inclusive resort can definitely be an attractive option for a vacation. But is it really the right choice for you? We take a look at what an all-inclusive resort is, what’s included, hidden charges, how to go about picking the right one and how to decide if you, in fact, might want to do your vacay another way.
What Is an All-Inclusive Resort?
Just like its name suggests, a resort categorized as “all-inclusive” means that for the most part everything is included with one set price. This means that once you book and pay for your trip you won’t have to pull out cash or credit cards to foot the bill for things along the way. At the minimum, all-inclusive resorts feature accommodations, three meals a day, beverages (alcoholic and otherwise) and gratuities. These types of resorts are usually but not always located in tropical and beach destinations, especially Mexico (Cancun, Riviera Maya, Cozumel, Puerto Vallarta, Los Cabos, and Riviera Nayarit), the Dominican Republic (Punta Cana, Puerto Plata, Cap Cana, and La Romana) and Jamaica (Montego Bay, Negril, and Ocho Rios). But they can also be found in other spots like Turks & Caicos, Aruba, The Bahamas, and St. Thomas. Because of their oceanfront location, they may also include non-motorized water sports such as stand up paddleboards, kayaks, snorkeling equipment, Hobie Cats and windsurf boards. When the sun goes down you’ll be able to partake in nightly shows and other entertainment, a discotheque, casino, and shopping.
Popular Chains of All-Inclusive Resorts
When it comes to all-inclusive brands, the ones with the most name recognition are the adults-only Sandals which is often frequented by honeymooners, and Beaches, its family-friendly sibling. Because of their popularity, however, you can find all-inclusive resorts at every price point. At the lower, more wallet-friendly end are chains like Club Med, a French-headquarter company launched in 1950 that operates 70 resorts around the world. Mid-range are those like Barcelo, Iberostar, and Riu. And in the high-end category are Vidanta, Grand Velas, Mélia, COMO and Dreams. And then there are truly luxurious accommodations like Constance Moofushi and Lily Beach Resort & Spa, both in the Maldives, Samabe Bali Suites & Villas in Bali and The Royal Hideaway Playacar in Playa del Carmen, Mexico.
What to Consider When Choosing an All-Inclusive
Though all-inclusive resorts share a lot of common amenities and features, not every resort is created equally. Keep in mind that the gorgeous panoramic photos on a resort’s website might be more of a marketing ploy than a completely accurate representation of what you’ll actually encounter when you arrive. Some resorts touted as being “oceanfront” are actually set back a bit from the beach, meaning you won’t get a view of that sparkling turquoise water from your room or maybe even from the pool. Plug the property’s address into Google Maps so you can see exactly where it’s located. If food is an important part of your vacation, look for a resort with a variety of dining options and confirm which of those are a buffet and which are à la carte. Note that à la carte restaurants often require reservations, which you should make after you check-in; sometimes resorts will also restrict the number of à la carte restaurants that you will be able to go to depending on the length of your stay. If you have children, you may want to stay at a resort that offers childcare, a kids’ camp, waterslides and nature, and cultural activities. Finally, think about whether you consider yourself a “beach person” or a “pool person.” Most resorts have both, but the size and number of pools can vary greatly and may or may include an adults-only pool, infinity pool, family-friendly pool, swim-up bar, quiet pool, lap pool, and waterslide complex. Likewise, the beach might be wide and super inviting, with sugary sand, lounge chairs aplenty and palapas (straw huts), umbrellas or palm trees for some needed shade. Or it might be small, narrow and rocky, with water that’s on the murkier side instead of crystal blue. Read reviews and photos from guests who have stayed there.
Hidden Charges and Premium Upsells at All-Inclusives
Believe it or not, there are things that might not be included at an all-inclusive resort. Dining at the most premium restaurants might incur an additional fee per person. If you want to hit the spa for a massage you will have to pay for it--and you might also have to fork over a day fee to use the facilities like the sauna and jacuzzi. If there is a casino you will obviously have to use your own coin to gamble. The resort may offer activities like snorkeling boat tours, sunset cruises, parasailing or eco-tours, which can be fun but pricey add-ons. And even though gratuity is typically included, you may decide to give a little extra for great service at dinner or to get staff to notice you at the busy swim-up bar. Speaking of the bars, if you request premium liquor brands or wines you might end up with a charge to your room; ask your bartender to clarify which are included and which are extra. That also goes for the minibar in your room and room service.
And then there is the trend of “club level” or “concierge level” accommodations, a premium upsell that you’ll encounter at an increasing number of resorts that include amenities and niceties not available to “regular” guests. Book this option and you might have access to a concierge lounge for check-in that’s stocked all day with drinks and snacks or light meals and a place to relax or work. It might also give you access to additional restaurants (or premium ones at no additional charge), top-shelf alcohol, upgraded accommodations, a designated section of the beach and/or pool, free entry to the spa facilities and free Wi-Fi. Resort staff will be able to identify you because of a different color wristband; check to see what is included and decide if this makes sense for you.
Half-Board vs. Semi-Inclusive
Though this can vary from resort to resort, half-board might mean that breakfast, dinner, and non-alcoholic drinks are included, while semi-inclusive might mean three meals a day, unlimited non-alcoholic beverages and limited alcoholic drinks (after a certain time of day, for example.) This can be a good option for those who don’t drink or guests who want to explore dining around town rather than be stuck at the resort for every one of their meals. Check with the property you are considering to see exactly what these terms mean.
Getting the Most Out of An All-Inclusive Stay
If unlimited drinks are a deal-breaker for your vacation, you’ll love being able to try all the Daiquiris, wine spritzers and local brews you want without getting a bar tab at the end of the day. But one complaint guests at all-inclusive resorts sometimes have is that drinks taste watered down. If you are looking for something boozy and stirred, try hitting up the lobby bar which tends to have the most premium selection. And if call brands are included with your package, ask for your favorite gin for a G&T or preferred rum for a Mojito. Pina Coladas (and frozen tropical drinks in general) tend to taste better with aged or dark rum than with white; ask for a float of additional rum on top of your drink. Order locally-produced beers and spirits to get a taste of the culture. And don’t overlook less-ordered ingredients like Campari and Aperol (for a spritz that’s a welcome break from all that sugar). You might want to take a stack of dollar bills or local currency to tip bartenders. Finally but importantly, be mindful of overconsumption, especially in the hot sun. Drink plenty of water, make sure you are eating enough and indulge in your favorite sip—but in moderation.
The Bottom Line: Is An All-Inclusive for Me?
If the idea of paying upfront for a vacation and then not having to worry about additional fees or charges appeals to you, you will probably be happy at an all-inclusive resort. Ditto if you have children who want lots to do or teenagers who are always hungry. And again, if you just want to lay on the beach all day with a drink in hand, not having to pay for every beverage makes a trip like this an easy sell. If on the other hand you like to explore an area rather than stay put, you might want to select a different option. It’s hard to justify going off-property to enjoy meals and drinks in town because it’s basically double-paying. In that case, maybe a semi-inclusive or regular hotel or resort might work better.