Unlimited. What a great word. It's a word that sings in my ears, especially while planning a vacation. Beachside margaritas, moonlit meals, snacks around the clock, and an assortment of activities that cater to anyone and everyone, all included in the price of a hotel stay? Well, that's enough to send most of us sprinting for our closets, pulling our luggage down from the highest shelf, and begin packing our bags immediately. But there is a lot to consider when planning a vacation. While all-inclusive hotel experiences offer many perks, there are also drawbacks to staying behind the gated walls of a resort that literally has it all.
Disclaimer: I have stayed in five-star luxury all-inclusive resorts in Southeast Asia. These resorts are either positioned perfectly within city limits or nestled away deep in the jungle. They often come with personal butler service, offering delectable cuisine and outstanding amenities, but they also do not come cheap. This post strictly compares the pros and cons of the countless all-inclusives that line the ocean in the Caribbean and other popular beach destinations.
- Everything Is Included: The biggest perk of staying at an all-inclusive resort is being able to leave your wallet in your hotel room's safe. As soon as the staff sees that coveted neon wristband strapped to your arm, there is nothing you can't do. Hit the pool or beach, take an ice cream break, and sip on a piña colada whenever you please. There's something to be said about having everything at your fingertips without needing to stow your cash deep in a beach bag, fearing it may get stolen.
- Convenience: All-inclusive resorts are highly convenient. They are typically located close to a major airport and provide round-trip transportation from the runway to hotel grounds. Forget the hassle of renting a car or finding a cab, these modes of transportation are not necessary if you plan to spend your entire vacation on the resort grounds. Lounge chairs, pool towels, and umbrellas are available at all of the resort's swimming holes, and while you're lounging at the beach or pool, there's no need to get up for a drink, as servers are always on call, collecting orders for any beverage that you desire.
- Food and Beverage: Food and drink are constantly at your disposal at all-inclusive resorts. Buffets are open for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Not to mention the poolside grills, ice cream shops, and specialty restaurants that often include Asian cuisine, seafood dinners, and all-American steakhouses. Feel like staying in for the night or eating breakfast in bed? A fully stocked minibar and room service are available 24 hours a day at most resorts.
- Activities: Like action? All-inclusive resorts might be the perfect place for you. They offer a wide array of activities for all of their guests. From oceanfront yoga and water aerobics to nightly entertainment and occasionally casinos, there is truly something for everyone. Special activities exist for your little ones as well, so while they're hanging with kids their own age, you can grab a paddleboard or kayak and hit the high seas. Certain activities like jet skiing and spa treatments generally come at an additional cost but in many cases are worth the price.
- Economical: When you plan a vacation, going over budget is an easy thing to do. Not only do you need to take into consideration hotel and flight costs, but also you must consider how much money you plan to spend once your feet hit the ground at your chosen destination. You need to set aside money for food, activities, shopping, and souvenirs. Booking all-inclusive eliminates worries of breaking the bank. Once the purchase button is pressed, you know how much your vacation will cost. Many packages even include airfare, making the deal that much sweeter.
- Good For First-Time Travelers: New to traveling and nervous about planning a vacation on your own? Going all-inclusive is a perfect option. Simply book your dates, board that plane, and upon arrival, you will realize you never have to leave the resort. All-inclusive hotels come in all shapes and sizes. Some are family-friendly, while others are strictly for adults and couples. Find the one that suits your needs and rest assured the only thing you will worry about is how to split your time between relaxation and action-packed activities.
- Less Authentic: Many all-inclusive experiences are less authentic than staying in a hotel in the center of the city. These resorts cater to the masses and provide their clientele (mostly from North America and Europe) with food, activities, and accommodations they find appealing. The food, which tends to be mediocre, won't necessarily reflect the cuisines perfected by your chosen destination. Instead, be ready for pizza, pasta, and other standard fare. Putting food aside, many people choose not to leave the resort. When you stay put, you are not offered the opportunity to experience the destination's culture. If you do want to leave the hotel, it might take a while to truly escape the resort-like atmosphere. Since many all-inclusive hotels are bundled together, it can sometimes be a bit of a trek to get to an authentic neighborhood and is probably not within walking distance.
- Crowds: The sheer size of most all-inclusive hotels is an easy indicator of the insurmountable amount of guests at the resort, which can create a competitive environment. Making an all-inclusive vacation successful is a science. How many chairs do you want positioned together at the pool or beach? Well, if it's more than one, you better arrive early and claim your territory before the rest of the crowds come pouring in. Furthermore, if you want to eat at one or all of those specialty restaurants, you must make a reservation. These restaurants are extremely popular and likely a better option than one of the buffets. So make your reservations early — and not just early in the day. I suggest making all reservations, from specialty restaurants to spa treatments, upon arrival. This is the ultimate way to beat your competition.
- Noise: All-inclusive resorts can be extremely loud. Obviously, if you are staying at a family-friendly hotel, the sound of screaming, splashing, happy children echos for miles. Of course, there's nothing better than seeing your children happy and smiling, but the sound is ever present and becomes a consistent soundtrack during your stay. Conversely, if you choose an adults-only resort, there is often music blasting so loud you can barely hear yourself think. You also may have to deal with obnoxiously loud people who do not take the open bar for granted. We all might have a bit too much to drink from time to time, but I've seen some crazy, unflattering, and outright embarrassing behavior coming from seemingly responsible adults, not just the 21+ crowd partying on Spring break.
- Too Big: If you're looking for an intimate beachside vacation, an all-inclusive option is probably not for you. Sometimes the grounds are so large that shuttles exist to take you from your room to the beach or from the pool to the casino. There have been times I've actually gotten lost on resort property, needing to stop multiple times to ask people for directions. I love getting lost on the streets of a city I've never before seen, but getting lost at my hotel is more of an annoyance than a pleasure.
- You Don't Experience Where Are You: It is beyond easy to get wrapped up in the amenities of your resort, so there's a good chance you may never leave the property's limits. You may have an amazing experience and go home saying you loved, for example, the Dominican Republic. However, the reality is, you never really saw the Dominican Republic. You never ate true Dominican cuisine or interacted with locals other than the staff at your hotel. You didn't love the Dominican Republic, you loved your resort. Once you experience a few all-inclusive resorts, they all start to feel the same, regardless of whether you're in the Bahamas or Mexico. If you always stay all-inclusive, eventually it feels like you could be anywhere.
- The Fine Print: Read the fine print. Although your resort is all-inclusive, not everything is actually included. Every resort has its own list of amenities that come at an extra cost, but keep an eye out for things like off-property excursions, spa treatments, and motorized water sports. You might also find that many of these resorts charge an additional fee for the use of WiFi, telephone services, laundry, and certain top-shelf liquors. Before you book, make sure you fully understand what you're getting for your money and decide if the included amenities are worth it. Most of the time they are . . . but WiFi? Come on!
What to Do If You Go
You might think that all-inclusive resorts are perfect for you. Alternatively, you might think not in a million years. However, if you're smart about it, you can really experience the best of both worlds.
- Leave the Resort: Remember, just because everything is included doesn't mean you are under lock and key. The first thing to do is consider your location. Choose an all-inclusive resort that is not nestled miles away from a major city or village. Pick a destination that is a quick cab ride to local restaurants, shopping, and activities that will allow you to embrace the culture, get a taste of some history, and get a glimpse into everyday life at your destination.
- Ask For Advice: Not sure what to do or where to go? Ask. Talk to friends and/or family who have traveled to your destination before, and find out what they loved most about their visit. Also, be sure to visit blogs and websites that can recommend a multitude of activities that exist outside your resort. For even more thorough guidance, ask your hotel staff. Staff members are all locals and can often recommend surprising places to visit that even websites like TripAdvisor might not be aware of. Finally, don't forget to visit the concierge . . . that's what they're there for! Get out there and eat the most authentic food in town, meet the locals, and barter with vendors selling handmade goods at straw markets.
- Book Excursions: If you're uncomfortable venturing out on your own, there are plenty of excursions available to book that will whisk you away from the beach and bring you to ancient ruins, show you interesting museums, or even take you on a guided ATV tour. These excursions are extremely convenient since they usually begin and end at your resort. If you're feeling a bit more adventurous, rent a car and explore on your own. Grab a GPS or a map and hit the road, making your own adventure.
- Do Your Research: If you want to leave hotel grounds, it is absolutely essential to do your due diligence. I have visited locations where it is simply not safe to leave the security of the resort. Do your research before picking a destination. Make sure your resort is in an area of town that is safe to travel solo without the supervision of a guide. If you want to get out and explore new territory, pick a resort that is close to a popular town or city.