Taking an annual vacation is important. Excessive work hours and days lead to burnout, reduced employee engagement, higher absenteeism, lower production, and higher costs. A 2016 Harvard Business Review article notes that employees who took more than 10 vacation days per year were almost twice as likely to receive a raise or bonus within three years.
Yet despite the benefits, nearly one-half of Americans did not take a vacation in 2017, often citing the high cost of travel as the primary reason. Recognizing the need for an affordable vacation, managers of many destination resorts have added an “all-inclusive” option to their offerings, allowing visitors to pay a single price for a room, meals, and other amenities while at the resort.
Are these packages really a good deal? Here’s a closer look.
The Rise of the All-Inclusive Resort
Cruise ships have long offered all-inclusive options. Cruise travelers can choose the size and location of their cabin and meal options to fit their budgets and pay a single fare for accommodations, meals, and access to the ship’s physical, cultural, and entertainment offerings. It’s no doubt one of the reasons cruise ship vacations are“the fastest growing part of the vacation industry,” according to PR Newswire. Resorts are following suit, increasingly using an all-inclusive price strategy, hoping that its simplicity and convenience will boost their sales.
For years, resorts predominately offered a-la-carte pricing — what many call a “European Plan” — in which rooms, meals, and recreation activities were separately available at the option of the guests. The first step to a single basic rate for everything was the introduction of the “American Plan,” which combined room and meals but did not include recreational activities or entertainment.
Club Med pioneered one flat price for everything in 1950 with the opening of its first resort at Palinuro, Salerno Italy. Designed to appeal to young people, guests stayed in straw huts on the beach, sharing communal meals and showers. In the 1990s, the company upgraded their offerings in meals and recreational activities, especially for families. For example, children could attend a circus school run by Cirque de Soleil or take snow skiing lessons from a professional ski instructor while their parents relaxed in a luxurious spa. The company continues to offer all-inclusive prices, albeit at significantly higher rates.
The success of Club Med and similar resorts encouraged the use of all-inclusive pricing by other vacation properties. By the mid-2000s, most luxury resorts had embraced a single-price option for guests. For one price, guests could stay in high-end facilities that included state-of-the-art spas, award-winning food, alcohol, and luxurious rooms with ocean views. At the end of 2016, U.S. News & World Reports estimates, there were at least 300 all-inclusive resorts in the Caribbean and Mexico with facilities ranging from modest to high-end. Some (such as Sandals) cater to an adult crowd, while others (such as Viva Wyndham) focus on families.
What “All-Inclusive” Means
Potential vacationers should be aware that the term “all-inclusive” has different meanings in different resorts; there is no universal agreement about what is and isn’t included in the single price. Also, some resorts may include taxes and gratuities in the price, while others do not. These costs alone can add 10% to 12% to the final bill at checkout.
Oceanside resorts typically charge extra for greens fees, spa services, motorized water sports, deep-sea fishing, scuba diving, off-resort excursions, and even Wi-Fi service. Fine dining choices in the resort and off-resort excursions may come with extra fees. Some packages might include discounted airline tickets and transportation to and from the destination airport.
In other words, be sure to read the fine print of a reservation before signing to understand the limits of the offer and avoid upcharges at checkout.
All-Inclusive vs. Unlimited
While some resorts offer an all-inclusive price as well as unlimited access and use, most do not. You might be restricted to bar liquor, buffet meals, or limited times or visits to some amenities. If you like top-shelf liquor and high-end meals, the ready availability of shuttles outside the resort, or intend to visit the spa after midnight, you should limit your travel to five-star resorts such as the Explora Patagonia or the Grand Velas in Mexico. If you plan on pursuing outdoor activities, confirm whether the costs of lift tickets, greens fees, or admission tickets are included in the all-inclusive price.
Resort operators know that a single universal package won’t fit all visitors. As a consequence, they develop different packages, even for all-inclusive prices. The breadth of choices appeals to a broader customer base and leads to fuller occupancy.
To be competitive, most destination resorts such as Disney World in Orlando, Florida and Canyon Ranch in Tucson, Arizona offers tiers of all-inclusive packages, with prices depending on your preferred facility and room, meal plan, and which attractions on the property you plan to visit. For example, a 2019 Disney World visitor can choose the length of stay, the facility (ranging from $99 per night for a value hotel room to $584 per night for a deluxe hotel room), three levels of meal service with restaurants ranging from fast food to fine dining, and admission to one of the four theme parks each day.
Advantages of an All-Inclusive Vacation
All-inclusive pricing is popular with resort guests and resort owners around the world. Visitors favor the single price for a full resort experience, believing they’re getting a bargain, while resort managers reap the benefits of increased occupancy and the opportunity to spread fixed costs over a larger guest population.
The advantages of the single-price strategy for resort guests include:
Rather than spending hours researching prices for rooms, restaurants, and attractions or worrying about additional expenses, an all-inclusive resort is one-stop shopping; simply select the resort and the time you want to visit. Once you’re on site, you can spend your days and nights partaking in activities or lying on the beach watching the waves and drinking your favorite beverage without worrying about incurring extra costs.
Great deals are generally available in most destinations, whether you’re buying a package from a tour operator or the resort itself. Seasoned travelers and professional travel agents know when to book for the best deal and what “extras” you can negotiate into the price. Families with young children find that all-inclusive resorts are easy on the budget because beach activities, kids’ clubs, and entertainment are included in the price.
3. Peace of Mind
When you book a vacation at an all-inclusive resort, you pay for nearly everything in advance. There are no worries that you’ll come home and find a fistful of credit card bills you’ll remember long after you’ve forgotten your vacation.
Luxurious accommodations — furnishings, bedding, beach umbrellas and towels, and amenities such as private pools and spas — are included in the package. In many cases, discount airline fares are available through the resort as well as transfers to and from the airport.
All-inclusive resorts are located around the world, are in most cases open throughout the year, and offer diverse activities from water sports to snow skiing to animal safaris. You can get in shape, veg out, learn a new skill, or socialize — whatever your interests, chances are there’s an all-inclusive resort for you.
6. Compatible Resort Companions
Most resorts separate adults from families when assigning rooms to ensure that families aren’t disturbed by noisy partygoers, while adults don’t have to share space with overactive children. Each group can participate and socialize in activities designed for them.
Engaging in on-site activities is hassle-free. You don’t have to take out your wallet or worry over the cost of the bill each time you eat a meal or use an amenity; you can simply relax and enjoy.
Some popular resorts are located in countries with civil unrest or high crime. While most resorts have in-house professional security forces and controlled access to their property, the variety of activities offered by an all-inclusive resort often eliminates the need to venture outside resort grounds.
Criticisms of All-Inclusive Vacations
Many experienced travelers avoid all-inclusive pricing, claiming that the strategy is more marketing hype than actual benefits. Their complaints include:
1. Unmet Expectations
The adage that you get what you pay for is generally true whether you’re staying at an all-inclusive resort or making your own arrangements for rooms, meals, and amenities. Whether an all-inclusive experience proves to be satisfactory or a ripoff largely depends on your expectations for the stay.
It’s unrealistic to think you’ll have a champagne experience on a beer budget; it’s better to expect a premium-beer-and-barbecue atmosphere.
2. Food & Drink Quantity vs. Quality
All-inclusive resorts tend to rely on self-service, all-you-can-eat buffets, poolside grills, and ice cream parlors. Liquor, wine, and beer are likely to be non-premium brands. Fine dining, if available, generally requires add-on charges. Because resorts expect guests will overindulge in food and alcohol, those who eat less than average may actually pay more than they might pay by dining a la carte.
All-inclusive resorts are often mega-sized, handling hundreds of guests simultaneously. As a consequence, securing an ideal beach spot or seats at the buffet is a competition, with the more popular locations quickly taken by those willing to come early and wait in line. In family-targeted areas, the noise from laughing, crying children may be overwhelming for an adult.
4. Scheduling Conflicts
The number of people leaving and arriving on shuttle buses may delay departures to the airport, requiring guests to plan on early exits. Lounge chairs and beach umbrellas may be limited and distributed on a first-come, first-served basis.
5. Limited Cultural Experience
Resorts are designed to encourage guests to stay on site. Leaving one resort often means entering another with little differentiation. Even arranged tours are unlikely to give a glimpse of the authentic culture of the country. If your goal is to have a “real” view of a country and interact with its typical citizens, all-inclusive resorts are less-than-optimum choices for a visit.
6. Upsell Pressures
Many all-inclusive sites offer add-on amenities — such as premium liquor, fine dining, off-site excursions — for an extra price that’s added to the bill at checkout. As a result, resort staff might be aggressive in their efforts to encourage guests to buy additional or upscale services.
How to Save on an All-Inclusive Resort Vacation
You can avoid the upsell pressure and still participate in amenities without breaking the bank by a little effort and forethought.
1. Be Flexible
Airlines and resorts frequently offer special pricing with considerable savings. While changing the times of a visit may not be possible for families, individual travelers may have the opportunity to make adjustments in their plans to save money.
2. Bundle Services When Savings Are Available
Many resorts share promotions with airlines and other travel companies. Be sure to check whether it’s less expensive to make independent travel arrangements or book through the resort. Be sure to consider the costs of transportation between the airport and resort if it’s not included.
3. Vacation During the Resort’s Offseason
Beach vacations are most popular during the months of December through April when people are escaping the cold, icy winters of the north. Conversely, winter resorts are most popular when snow is on the ground and the slopes attract hordes of skiers. Family resorts are most crowded during periods when schools are out. Resorts are most likely to reduce prices or add amenities at no extra cost if you’re able to visit in their offseason.
4. Contract Directly With the Off-Site Activity Sponsors
If your vacation includes tours, excursions, or unique experiences, consider researching and booking on your own. Resorts typically steer guests to the external services for which they receive a fee, not necessarily the best or the least expensive. Take the time to learn about the areas surrounding the resort to determine whether you want to travel off-site. It may be possible to book the same excursion offered through the hotel for a lower price by going directly to the provider.
5. Travel in a Group
Being able to book a number of guests through the same booking saves the resort considerable administrative time and expense, which they may share with the guests. Before going to an all-inclusive resort, learn about any discounts or extras they offer to groups. Traveling with others can save money and increase the stay’s fun.
6. Bring Your Own
If you want premium liquor and it’s not included in the base cost, bring your own from home or purchase it off-site and enjoy cocktails in the comfort of your room. Similarly, bring any personal care items you will use — especially tanning lotion if you’re visiting a beach — rather than purchasing them in the resort commissary.
7. Travel Agents vs. Booking Sites
Should you use a travel agent or do it yourself through an online booking agent? It depends. The best travel agents can save you the time and trouble of searching through multiple options and should be aware of any special deals that might apply to your trip. In many cases, the fees they charge are recovered from the advantages or discounts they secure on your behalf.
However, not all travel agents are the same; quality varies from agent to agent. If you use an agent, try to find one who has worked with someone you know and trust. Agents who serve your employer are a good place to start since they have a vested interest in your satisfaction.
Online travel agents are essentially computerized databases that lack a personal touch and the ability to customize your trip. They’re generally less expensive than a travel agency but require you to seek out the best deals. Using a site like Priceline to get the lowest price can require blind booking, or not knowing the name of the airline, hotel, or resort until after you’ve booked it. Before making any reservations, be sure you understand the limitations of the provider’s contract, including cancellation policies.
I have stayed at both all-inclusive and a-la-carte facilities with my children and with other adults. When traveling with my family, the experiences were universally above and beyond my expectations, possibly because my kids always enjoyed the visit. My experience with other adults has been mixed: pleasant surprises in some cases and feelings of being ripped off in others.
The experience at an all-inclusive resort is similar to that of a cruise vacation, minus any seasickness. If you enjoy the many ship attractions and entertainment, the odds are that you’ll enjoy an all-inclusive resort. Just be sure to check previous visitor comments carefully and have realistic expectations for your stay.
Have you stayed at an all-inclusive resort? What did you like or dislike about it?