All-inclusive resorts and getaways sound lovely, don't they? All you have to do is show up, and everything, from your meals to your activities, is paid for. But are these vacations really as convenient and relaxing as they seem? Some are and some aren't, and the value they offer depends on the goal of your trip and the experience you're seeking. To help you decide if you should ditch the pay-as-you-go vacation in favor of an all-inclusive, several travel experts and bloggers shared their tips for determining when an all-inclusive makes sense for your wallet.
While the meaning of "all-inclusive" can vary by resort or trip, the label generally indicates that the cost of accommodations, meals, drinks, plus some activities and entertainment are bundled into one rate. It can also expand to include airfare, alcohol and all activities. This ability to calculate all vacation expenses upfront is often the reason why all-inclusives are a top pick for budget travelers. But even luxury properties are starting to catch on to the trend.
Kyle McCarthy, co-partner of Family Travel Consulting, said she is seeing expansion in the all-inclusive field at many price points with brands like Hilton and Hyatt getting in the game. Summer Hull, who runs the Mommy Points travel blog, recently stayed at the all-inclusive Hyatt Zilara Rose Hall with her family and used loyalty points to pay for her entire all-inclusive vacation.
Meanwhile, some brands have also upped the ante by appealing to luxury travelers. For example, Fiji's five-star Laucala Island Resort adds a robust children's program, a dive center, horseback riding, an 18-hole golf course and more to its standard all-inclusive package. Also, the new Club Med Finolhu Villas in the Maldives features private pools, personal butlers, iPads, sailing lessons and more.
But after weighing the costs of an all-inclusive versus a self-organized trip, many travelers may find they can save more by paying as they go. By packing snacks and breakfasts, letting a younger child share a meal with a parent, and choosing quick dining options, families may save significantly over a packaged deal.
"Anyone who wants to stay in their chaise lounge with some sunblock and a good book will find a better value at an a la carte hotel," McCarthy said. She also advised approaching inexpensive packages with caution. "Chances are good that the food or alcohol will not be the best quality, and sometimes the sports equipment is not good quality or well maintained," McCarthy said.
If you hope to experience more than just your resort on vacation, then staying at an all-inclusive, where there's little incentive to leave the property, may not be the best fit. "You may miss out on great local cuisine and attractions, because [of] the temptation to never leave the resort where everything is already paid for," Hull said.
But according to McCarthy, some top all-inclusive brands are making more of an effort to showcase the destinations they call home, featuring local cuisine and artwork, offering language and culture classes, and even providing off-property experiences. Palace Resorts, for example, provides guests with a resort credit to use for guided day trips. "The best of the all-inclusive resorts feel more like a private club with great service where you can customize your experience, rather than a mass product vacation," McCarthy said.
Low all-inclusive rates make it easy to forget about extra fees that often throw off a vacation budget. When booking, ask if there are any additional expenses not included in the advertised rate, such as resort fees, Wi-Fi charges and mandatory gratuities. It's also important to understand what happens if you're forced to cancel the trip or cut it short. Are you out the entire all-inclusive cost — meals and all? Consider purchasing travel insurance in case of cancellation or other problems. Jim Grace, founder, president and CEO of InsureMyTrip.com, recommended a comprehensive policy, which he said costs about 4 to 8 percent of the total trip.
"I always tell travelers when booking an all-inclusive vacation to be wary when a travel agent or the resort offers some kind of travel protection," Grace said. "For example, it may be pretty expensive and still not cover your airfare." Sites like InsureMyTrip.com let you compare plans and pricing from up to 25 different insurance companies.
Whether or not you choose to go all-inclusive, ensure the experience will meet your family's vacation expectations. "We recommend that travelers do their homework online, read review sites, network with friends and travel agents to find the right fit for their needs," McCarthy advised.
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