All-Inclusives… Yay or Nay?

20170801_063332I was inspired this morning by this great list of all-inclusive resorts published by Caribbean Journal. Some I have visited before & some have been on my bucket list for quite some time. I’m a huge fan of the all-inclusive concept & have been checking them out regularly since 1998 with our 1st trip to Sandals 🙂 They’re certainly not for everyone, but the ease with which they operate, and all they have to offer, makes them a no-brainer in my book.

Sandals Royal BahamianI’ve been to Sandals, Beaches, Excellence, Melia, Iberostar & several other all-inclusive chains, big and small. Over the years, I’ve come to appreciate the more laid back, less cookie-cutter resorts, without an overwhelming number of activities or the invigorating “party” atmosphere. It could just be that I’m getting old, but I like to think at this point in life, I’m more than capable of entertaining myself… lol. Don’t get me wrong, I always love some local, live music in the evening & I’ll never pass up a good snorkeling or boating excursion. But usually I’m just there to relax, read my book on the beach, do a little sightseeing & enjoy a delicious meal each night!

The beauty of an all-inclusive (AI) lies in its simplicity… one-stop-shopping if you will. Pick your resort & then enjoy everything a small beachside village would have to offer, without ever having to leave the property. You’ll have the option of fine dining from all nationalities, shops, a beautiful spa, a gym, a water sports center & more. Easy peasy.

Pineapple Beach Club

Perfect local entertainment!

With that said, it becomes more a matter of personal preference when selecting the perfect AI. For me, it’s all about the beach & the food. I don’t need a super luxurious room, a fancy spa or lots of theater-style shows, but those amenities are important to some, and widely available.  I enjoy a good “adults-only” resort (or at least an adult “section”), but when traveling with my son, I need to adjust our requirements a little and include a good pool & an active kids club.

AIs are found mostly in Mexico and the Caribbean with an extreme number on the Yucatan Peninsula & in the Dominican Republic. You definitely get what you pay for, however sometimes the brand name alone, dictates a higher price but not necessarily a better experience. It’s important to read reviews & be clear on what type of resort you’re looking for. Here are a few things to consider:

Size of the resort.  AKA… how far do you want to walk to the beach or to dinner.  Layout plays a part here as well… some resorts lie parallel to the beach, while others form a long, perpendicular strip from the main road to the sea.  Another trend seems to be combining multiple properties into one, creating a huge mecca of dining options, pools, etc.   It all depends on what you need to keep you entertained and your mobility level.

Variety (and quality) of restaurants. If a buffet for breakfast & lunch and a few a la carte options for dinner are sufficient, any AI will do.  However, if you want access to room service, need to order breakfast off a menu or would like a high-end French meal for dinner, you’ll need to stay on the upper end of things. Some of the smaller resorts may only have 2 or 3 restaurants, but if their focus is on quality, you should still receive an excellent variety of fresh & creative food.  Some of the best food I’ve had at an AI was at the Excellence Punta Cana last year… here’s just a snapshot of the types of items available at the BREAKFAST buffet!

Room accommodations.  Do you want to be next to the ocean? Do you need your own swim-out pool? Are 2 beds a requirement?  As with all resorts, most AIs offer a large variety of rooms and the cost will most likely be determined by the view & proximity to the beach.  Many AIs now also offer an exclusive section (usually adults only), that includes a private stretch of beach, select restaurants and other upgraded amenities – it’s up to you to determine if this extra expense is necessary.  Reading resort reviews on TripAdvisor or other trusted sites, is the best way to find this out for each particular resort.  Here’s a perfect example… our room at the smaller, Pineapple Beach Club in Antigua wasn’t the most luxurious, but it literally sat on the water, with a huge balcony… I couldn’t have asked for anything better!


Location.  Do you want to explore the town/culture/sights or just stay put? Some of the best resorts are often farther from any centralized “downtowns” or local hot spots.  Consider your sightseeing needs when making our selection.  Also, depending on the length of your stay, you’ll want to consider the drive time to & from the airport.  In Cancun, for example, most resorts are on the main strip, with a quick, 20-min ride from the airport.  If you venture out towards the Riviera Maya area, however, you’re looking at 45 mins to an hour.  For shorter trips, the closer the better, but if you have the time, the ride is often worth it.

All-inclusives offer something for everyone and are often easier when traveling with kids or a larger group. It’s also nice to pay for everything up front & not have to worry about extra expenses once you arrive (other than trips to the spa, gift shop or unplanned excursions). Personally, I like to make as few taxing decisions as possible when I’m on vacation, so the concept works wonderfully well for me.  The only way you’ll know for sure, is to do your homework, get recommendations from friends & try it out!

Here are a few links to some of my favorites:

DOMINICAN REPUBLIC
Melia Caribe Tropical – Larger, well-established resort in Punta Cana.  Go for the upgraded “Level” if you’re leaving the kids at home 😉
Excellence Punta Cana – Beautiful, adults-only resort.  Amazing food & my favorite stretch of beach.
Iberostar Costa Dorada – Smaller, open-air resort on the north coast of the D.R.  Great food & service.

COSTA RICA
Flamingo Beach Resort – Experience “pura vida” at this laid back, boutique resort.  Soon to become a part of the Margaritaville chain… hoping that doesn’t spoil the atmosphere.  Here are some pics from last year’s visit 🙂

ANTIGUA
Pineapple Beach Club & Galley Bay – Both part of the Elite Island Resorts chain… Visited the quaint Pineapple this year (here’s my review), looking to try the more upscale Gally Bay soon!

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By Land or by Sea???

Before my son started kindergarten, our vacation schedule was fairly regular… 1 week away in April (NOT Easter Week) & one week in October (to celebrate our anniversary).  We usually selected 1 cruise and the other trip would be to an all-inclusive in the Caribbean.  Now things have changed… between school, soccer, baseball, my husband’s football schedule – I’m lucky to squeeze in one good vacation a year.  And the question always comes up whether to cruise or to stay put for the week at a beautiful resort.

Our Celebrity ship docked in Charleston, SC

Our Celebrity ship docked in Charleston, SC

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“Aft Balcony” view leaving NYC.

I LOVE to cruise.  To me, there is nothing better than looking out (from a large, stable, floating island) & seeing that beautiful aqua blue water all around me. The food is amazing & the ports provide unspoiled beaches & plenty of shopping.  A real win-win in my book.

Unfortunately, it’s gotten expensive with 3 full price fares, plus 3 higher-than-ever airfares. We’ve sailed on Carnival, Norwegian & Celebrity (our top choice) and usually base our trip on dates & itinerary, not so much on a specific ship.  A balcony cabin has become a “must-have” (the Aft Balcony being ideal) so I can take advantage of that water view the entire time. We eat & drink our fair share, make a few deposits at the Casino, see a couple of shows and my son takes advantage of the pools and the Kid’s Club.  It’s all good, as they say.

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The Ocean Sand & Blue Resort in Punta Cana.

All-inclusives are also amazing… pay for everything up front and then enjoy your week, wallet-free. Our introduction to this vacation style was on our honeymoon (almost 17 years ago) to Sandals in the Bahamas.  It was wonderful, and we went on to try their “Beaches” resorts in both Negril and Turks & Caicos.  Over the years we’ve found many comparable AIs (All-Inclusives) in Mexico and the Dominican Republic that offer the same concept for a whole lot less. The resorts are safe & beautiful, with amazing beaches, pools & activities.  You can literally do everything, or simply relax & do nothing, while looking out over impeccable grounds & a breathtaking seascape.

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Balcony view from the Paradisus Cancun.

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The Melia Caribe Tropical in Punta Cana – so nice I’ve been 3 times!

So how does one choose???  I love the “unpack once & visit multiple destinations” that a cruise offers, but sometimes it’s also nice to visit an island for more than 8 hours & really get a feel for the climate & culture.  The food is amazing either way (cruises – guaranteed, all inclusives need to be higher end).

Both offer entertainment… although a cruise will provide a more professional showing.  As for the beaches?  You can sample multiple spots on a cruise or stay on one beautiful stretch that you can visit all day, every day, while at a resort.  The pools will be a lot more inviting at an AI, although the newer, bigger ships are competing with wave pools, crazy water slides & even surfing.  If you need a spacious room, with a luxurious bathroom and tons of closet space, you’ll be better off with an AI, unless of course you can splurge on one of the cruise lines top notch suites.  You really don’t need to spend another dime once you arrive at your AI (other than a tour or 2 & some trinkets).  Cruises, on the other hand, do not include soda or alcohol, and they add a pre-set, per person gratuity to your final bill, so remember to factor that into your decision.

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Our Carnival Ship docked in Nassau.

It really is a tough call…  I love them both!  My son prefers a cruise & my husband is happy to stay put at one resort.  The winner this time around?  I just booked a cruise for November, on the Carnival Pride, leaving from Baltimore.  It became a matter of the perfect dates, a great price & a few good stops… Can’t  wait!!!