Tips for booking an all-inclusive vacation

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Looking for a getaway that’s easy to book, takes the guesswork out of day-to-day planning and keeps your credit card tucked safely in your wallet throughout? Try an all-inclusive resort. Some travelers may turn up their nose and buy into the old stereotype: meager accommodations; mediocre, all-you-can-eat buffets; and 24/7 parties with scantily clad guests over-imbibing amid a 1980s summer camp vibe. Don’t make that mistake. All-inclusive resorts have evolved.

“If you are new to all-inclusives, now is a good time to visit one,” says Christina Jelski, senior editor for hotels at Travel Weekly, a trade publication. With big, traditional hotel chains such as Marriott and Hyatt moving into the sphere, resorts are raising the bar. “We’re seeing a ton of premiumization brought into the all-inclusive category as resorts focus on delivering a five-star experience.”

The shuttering of resorts worldwide during the pandemic gave them time to renovate and re-create themselves. Many in Mexico and the Caribbean now include luxury suites, private beaches, water parks and even butler service. The greatest transformation, Jelski says, has been the food, as resorts start to favor quality over quantity. Although the bountiful buffet remains an all-inclusive staple, upscale restaurants that pay attention to detail and ambiance are becoming the norm. “I’m blown away by the options, emphasis on local cuisine and diversified dining experience,” she says.

Travelzoo Senior Editor Gabe Saglie is an all-inclusive fan. He and his wife, Renee, who live in Los Angeles, have vacationed at more than a dozen resorts over the past 20 years, leaving their three children with their grandparents. “We usually head to Cabo San Lucas when we’re in the mood,” he says. The Mexican city is “easy to book, easy to plan and easy to unplug and lay on the beach with no worries about where to eat or what to do.”

An all-inclusive vacation is just what it sounds like: You pay upfront for a package that includes your room, meals, gratuities and perks such as health clubs, nonmotorized water sports, yoga sessions, kayaking and salsa lessons. Once you arrive at the resort, you never have to leave the property. “Your biggest decision is: ‘Do I want my cocktail frozen or on the rocks?’ ” says Lauren Doyle, president of Ensemble Travel Group’s the Travel Mechanic in Raleigh, N.C.

Doyle says you should expect to pay about $200 per person per night for a decent all-inclusive. “You can find ones cheaper than that, but I wouldn’t book myself or clients in them.”

For many, an all-inclusive is the ideal getaway. Here are questions you need to consider before booking.

What kind of property appeals to you? An all-inclusive resort is much like a cruise ship. If it’s not a good fit, you’ll regret your choice. Properties are designed to cater to certain travelers, such as singles, couples, families, members of the LGBTQ+ community, the adventurous, luxury-seekers and those who prefer adults-only surroundings. Consult a travel adviser; one who has personally visited multiple properties in various destinations can help narrow your options.

What do you want to get out of your vacation? “If your goal is to get somewhere, unwind and be able to ‘turn off’ the world the second you step off the plane, an all-inclusive vacation could be a good choice,” says Kristin Jaffe, CEO of Winkaffe Global Travel in Columbus, Ohio. However, if you love to explore a destination — rent a scooter, hike to a volcano, eat lunch at a local spot, go river rafting, then grab a drink before heading back to the resort — an all-inclusive might not be the best fit, because you will essentially be paying twice for meals and activities, says Roland Alonzi, an Atlanta-based specialist in travel and tourism public relations who represented Jamaica for seven years.

If you’re looking for a place for a family or multigenerational vacation, all-inclusives fit the bill, Alonzi says. “You can do things together or each go your own way and regroup later,” he says. “Family-oriented resorts have kids’ clubs, so adults can do what they want and rest assured the kids are in good hands. Plus, the kids can grab a burger, hot dog or quesadilla whenever they want, and you don’t have to shell out $22 to room service.”

Although many vacationers are content lounging on the beach with a margarita in hand, travelers seeking a more curated experience may prefer to opt for a luxury all-inclusive emphasizing wellness or adventure. But you will pay more. High-end boutique resorts with butler service, five-star restaurants and even private plunge pools are much more expensive — $750 to $1,000 per person per night — but the amenities and service you get match the price point. Jaffe recently stayed at an all-inclusive, wellness-focused resort in the mountains of Costa Rica, where she got to climb a huge tree to a canopy overlooking the mountains, indulge in spa treatments and dine on delicious, healthy food. “There were maybe 30 people staying on property, which gave it a really exclusive feel,” she says.

Is it truly all-inclusive? The term all-inclusive can be misleading. Sure, your package covers the basics, but what else? An adults-only resort may offer a romantic sunset catamaran cruise and candlelight dinners, while you might be able to go zip-lining, hike jungle trails or explore an underground cave at a property for the adventurous. With rare exceptions, however, you’ll pay extra for spa treatments, golf, off-property excursions and some upscale restaurants, all of which can add up fast.

How isolated is it? As noted, all-inclusive resorts are designed so you never have to leave the property, and many travelers revel in the idea of vacationing within a “bubble.” But the drawback to staying in a secure compound is you don’t always get to experience authentic local culture or patronize area restaurants. One person’s private paradise is another’s minimum-security prison. Ask how close the resort is to town and whether there is easy access or a resort shuttle.

Can you get two experiences for one? Certain brands build multiple resorts in the same destination, each aimed at different audiences. Stay at one and gain access to the restaurants and amenities at others. For example, you can leave the children at your family-friendly property and go next door for an adults-only gourmet dinner.

How will you get to and from the airport? “It can be the Wild West outside some international airports, and drive times to resorts can be up to an hour,” Alonzi says. “That can get pricey, with some cabs or shuttles charging $100 or more.” Inquire whether airport transfers are included in your package or whether you can pay an additional fee to have the resort transport you.

Is tipping really included? Even if a resort promotes a no-tipping policy, a savvy traveler will still take a wad of dollar bills. “Tipping is a way of recognizing people good at what they do,” Saglie says. “At the end of the day, a few bucks, given on Day 1 or 2 to staff you keep bumping into, goes a long way in making the experience better.”

Does it make financial sense? Although an all-inclusive may be cost-effective, it doesn’t always save you money. You may want to compare an all-inclusive’s nightly rate with that of a nearby traditional hotel with similar amenities.

Avid travel blogger Nicole Hunter of Go Far Grow Close had an “aha” moment after a less-than-stellar all-inclusive Cancún getaway prompted her to price out a traditional hotel stay in the same area in Mexico less than a year later. Her conclusion: She was overpaying for the all-inclusive. “There’s nothing wrong with all-inclusives,” says Hunter, who’s based in Vancouver, B.C. “However, you are paying for what you want to do, but also what you don’t want. If they offer free tennis lessons and you don’t play, your rate includes the costs of the tennis pro and court upkeep.” The same is true for unlimited alcohol. If you aren’t a big drinker, you are paying for a perk you won’t use.

Account for lodging, food, alcohol, activities and ground transportation to determine which costs more. Then, decide which makes more sense for you, your budget and your vacation expectations.

Daily is a writer based in Denver. Her website is dailywriter.net.

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