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 ūüôā 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 ūüėČ
Excellence Punta Cana РBeautiful, adults-only resort.  Amazing food & my favorite stretch of beach.
Iberostar Costa Dorada РSmaller, 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 ūüôā

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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NCL Breakaway… Beautiful Ship, but the Extras Can Add Up!

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Three weeks ago today, I woke up to this beautiful sunrise from my balcony on the Norwegian Breakaway. This was a last-minute booking, as my husband had to work, but my 10-year old son was off from school so I decided to take advantage of his vacation days & hit the high seas!

Departing from New York City, the Breakaway is NCL’s newest & largest member of their fleet. Sailing with almost 4,000¬†passengers,¬†this¬†is the biggest ship I’ve been on & I was worried that I’d spend most of¬†my week clutching the¬†map. I was¬†pleasantly surprised however,¬†by the ship’s easily navigable layout. And the crowds¬†only became a¬†problem when looking for the ideal lounge chair up on the pool deck or when trying to get on or off the boat (we spent almost 1.5 hours in line to get off the ship in NYC!).

There were several promotions available when I booked this sailing, however they did not apply to the “Balcony Guarantee” category we selected¬†because of its great price. For almost double the cost of our reservation, I could have chosen¬†our specific¬†balcony cabin location¬†& received¬†2 of the following free perks: 3¬†dinners at their “specialty” restaurants, an all-inclusive drink package, free wifi or prepaid gratuities. Honestly, when traveling with a 10-year old, I really didn’t think those upgrades would be worth the extra cost, so I stuck with our base fare of $649 per person and hoped for the best.

We did ok with our cabin assignment… On a “Guarantee,” the cruise line picks a cabin for you, in the category you select or higher, and you’re notified of the cabin number a few days before sailing. We ended up on Deck 11, which was very centrally located, but all the way forward on the port side. No complaints… it had a balcony and that’s all I really wanted for this trip! Our cabin attendant, Ruby,¬†was wonderful and the little extra walk to the very front of the ship was not a big deal (and always made it easy to find our room!).

Unfortunately,¬†to really experience all this ship has to offer, you need to shell out some extra cash, and be prepared to make reservations for everything – even the shows! The¬†promos that NCL was offering clearly would have enhanced¬†our experience,¬†but we kept to our budget and still managed to have a great time. Here’s my take on whether the promotional perks that I skipped were really worth it…

DINING – There are 3 complimentary main dining rooms on this ship, each with a different atmosphere, but all offering the¬†exact same menu. There is also¬†a huge buffet restaurant on Deck 15 with¬†food literally available all day long. I have always been pleased with the quality & selection of the food in these “inclusive” venues without feeling like I had to spend extra money to get a better meal at one of the specialty restaurants. On this cruise, however, I was a little disappointed. The buffet was very good & full of options, but the dining room meals were just ok and the service was spotty at times. The menu lacked creativity & variety and there were several nights that I couldn’t really¬†find anything that appealed to me. I truly look forward to my evening meal on a cruise (it’s the actual highlight of my day… can you say “foodie”?), but many nights here I was disappointed.

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La Cucina, the beautiful Italian specialty restaurant.

The specialty restaurants (some being a set price per person, others with¬†an a la carte menu) received rave reviews and the selections all looked delicious. There were options for steak, seafood, teppanyaki, sushi, Brazilian, & Italian (which I was tempted to try as the prices weren’t too bad, but I couldn’t get a reservation ūüė¶ )We did try the sushi restaurant for lunch on our last day & it was amazing.

Bottom line:  If you want to eat well on this ship, (and by that I mean quality, not quantity), pick the specialty restaurant promotion or purchase one of the dining packages & make all of your reservations online before you leave, to insure entry into your favorites.

DRINKS – This area was interesting to me. On every cruise I’ve been on, there have always been an abundance of waiters walking around trying to take your drink order. As soon as you¬†walk on the ship, they are usually pushing the “drink of day” and I usually get one… lol! Not the case here. No welcome drink as you boarded, no waiters to be found in the pool area,¬†and in the dining rooms I was only approached once. Now that so many people are opting for the all-inclusive drink package, apparently they’re no longer hungry for that money. So for those of us who would like to¬†have a drink here and there, and¬†actually pay their outrageous prices, you’ll have to find a bar & wait in line.

Bottom line: ¬†If you get the drink package, you’ll have plenty of¬†places to wet your whistle. There are uniquely themed bars¬†for¬†martinis, beer, whiskey, margaritas and more. But the all-inclusive packages are pricey…¬†averaging around $400 per person for the week. However, a single glass of red wine was over $10, so you’ll make your money back in no time. It truly depends on how many days you’ll be on the ship (vs in port) and how much you think you’ll drink each day. To me, this one is still a toss-up.

WIFI – We sailed on Carnival last year and paid approximately $60 for 120 minutes of internet access. It was fine… no file size limits and easily trackable minutes.¬†This ship only offered “per megabyte” plans, not minutes, or you could purchase an unlimited plan for $210 for the week (almost 1/3 the cost of my cruise!). I finally broke down on the 4th day¬†&¬†bought the 300mb plan for¬†$59, but was afraid to upload any pictures or even scroll through Facebook or Instagram for fear of using up all my MBs!

Bottom line:  If you need to keep in touch with the outside world, this perk may be worth it, or plan to cough up over $200 to stay connected.

GRATUITIES – This is that little bill that they tack on to your account each day to cover the tips of all the people who serve you during the week. ¬†In the old days, they gave you actual envelopes that you filled with cash and handed directly to those people providing you with the service. Now it’s simply charged to your¬†account, at the rate of $13.50 per person, per day. For a 7 night cruise, we paid $189. If you’re not happy with this amount, you can go down to Guest Services and have it adjusted, but then you’d really just look like a big jerk. ūüėČ

Bottom line: ¬†This is a set fee, so you know the cost right from the start. It would be the least valuable add-on offered, but if you didn’t need the wifi or you aren’t big drinkers, it’s a nice perk.

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In front of The Breakaway in Nassau.

All in all, we had¬†a great time… our trip was fairly low-key, focusing on activities for the kids (although none of the kids we met were overly thrilled with the kid’s club) and not participating in too much of the ship’s nightlife. The itinerary was unfortunate as our beach day at NCL’s private island was cancelled due to damage from Hurricane Matthew & our late arrival into Nassau only gave us a few cloudy hours of beach time on shore. Our best day was in Port Canaveral, FL when we chose to just stay on the ship & enjoy the less crowded pool areas.

As for NCL’s concept of “Freestyle” cruising,¬†I’ve realized after taking this trip, that the structure & formality of a traditional cruise vacation is something I actually enjoy! I missed¬†getting dressed up for dinner, getting to know my servers in the dining room, looking forward to¬†each meal¬†without¬†having to make a reservation or pay extra & being able to¬†decide last-minute if we wanted to attend¬†the main¬†nightly show (at no additional charge!). As for the food, I certainly ate my fair share, but I just didn’t find the high-end options in the dining rooms that I’m used to.

Bottom line: This is a gorgeous ship with tons to offer. The public areas are beautiful and¬†everything¬†is new and spotless. Kids will have plenty to do¬†during the day, but if they’re not into the Kid’s Club, finding something to do at night will be a bit of a challenge. For the adults, there seem to be enough bars, shows and¬†of course the casino, to keep everybody busy. Our particular itinerary wasn’t great, but the usual¬†route should be adequate for most. Don’t rule this one out, especially with the convenience of leaving from New York, but it’ll be tough to find a bargain if you want to take advantage of all this ship’s extras.

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Babies in the Back?

plane.jpgTaking a baby on an airplane seems to be the thing parents fear most when traveling. What happens if they cry? Or they don’t sleep? What about their ears? I faced all of these fears on my son’s first flight to Florida when he was just over 2 months old, but I went for it & with a little bit of prep, everything went smoothly.

My first piece of advice is this… When flying with infants or young toddlers, book your seats as far in the back of the plane as possible (the last row is truly ideal). This gives you the most privacy if you’re nursing, you won’t have the entire plane watching you if your child starts crying or acting up and if you need to walk around a bit to calm your baby down, you’ll have more space & less of an audience. It also keeps you closest to the bathroom for clean-ups & closest to the kitchen for heating bottles, rinsing cups, getting extra snacks, etc.

I also remember being really¬†concerned about my little one’s ears. Since they can’t “yawn” or chew gum to keep to keep their ears clear, plan to nurse or give a bottle during take-off and landing when the cabin pressure changes the most severely. The sucking keeps the babies ears regulated and avoids the painful “popping” that can occur at these times. Even a pacifier will do the trick. For older kids, a lollipop works wonders.

There are a few items you should¬†definitely pack to ensure a smooth experience…
– An extra change of baby clothes (in case of an unexpected “explosion”)
– Ziplock baggies (perfect for dirty diapers, soiled clothes or anything “wet”)
– A large, tumbler-style cup (have the flight attendant fill it with hot water before you take off and drop your bottle or food in it for heating)
– ¬†Wipes… and more wipes! ¬†Good for everything from wiping down the armrests to cleaning up the baby.
Р Favorite blanket or stuffed animal (or whatever item comforts them to sleep)
– ¬†Baby Benadryl or Tylenol (as a last resort… and I say this jokingly, however it’s sometimes a necessity if they have any kind of congestion, allergy or teething pain that can be accentuated by the cabin pressure.)

Being prepared for every scenario is obviously a good strategy, but don’t go into it fearing the worst.¬†Flying is amazing and the staff & crew are usually more than happy to help you out.¬†The key is to start early and get them used to the process¬†– in fact, fly as much as you can before they turn 2 & you have to¬†buy them their own seat!

P.S. ¬†I know sitting in the back of the plane sounds awful… and it also means you’ll be the last ones off. ¬†Don’t worry.. chances are your baby will have JUST fallen asleep about 10 minutes before you landed & your gate-checked stroller is going to take its sweet time making its way out of the cargo hold… so there’s really no rush ūüėČ

 

Here’s my little guy… he’s an easy, seasoned traveler now & has racked up some serious miles over the past 10 years, but he still starts out every flight like this… Safety first!¬†Lol!

 

 

I Love to Cruise, But I Hate the Packing!

ourshipDon’t get me wrong… I love a good cruise.¬† The blue water, the exotic ports, the amazing food – it’s all fantastic.¬† There is one thing, however, that I wish I could somehow avoid… THE PACKING!

Packing for a cruise is difficult for several reasons.¬† First of all, there is some formality to these trips. Eating in the “Main Dining Room,” which I thoroughly enjoy, requires a dress code, and depending on your cruise line, that can vary from nice shorts to a suit & tie.¬† And if you’re sitting at an assigned table, where you’re going to dine with the same people every night?¬† That certainly means no repetition of any part¬†of your wardrobe.¬† Luckily, we choose the flexible dining option where we enjoy a table for 3 and can wear the same black pants a few times without worry.

During the day, there are other obstacles.¬† Walking around the ship is a bit different than just hanging out at a beach resort.¬† You really need an “outfit” versus a “cover-up” over your bathing suit. ¬†This is especially true if you’re planning to eat lunch inside or want to hit the casino for a few rounds as you’re passing through (and it always seems like we’re passing through, no matter where we’re going!)

Then there are your Port Days… something to wear while sightseeing, or shopping, and then something for the beach. ¬†You need to pack a beach bag, possibly a few sand toys for the kids and a whole numerical range of sunscreen. ¬†And don’t forget you’ll still need another outfit for dinner that night!

Planning to hit the gym during your cruise?¬† Add that stack of work-out clothes and those special sneakers to your pile. ¬†And I haven’t even touched on shoes yet! ¬†Dress shoes, sandals, flip flops, water shoes for the beach… ¬†And the toiletries, and the first aid supplies, jewelry, toys, books, cameras, all the chargers, a power strip (cause there are never enough outlets), and don’t forget the “Rum Runner Flasks” to smuggle on a few cocktails!

So as our upcoming¬†cruise rapidly approaches, I’m in that state of packing-hell, with piles of clothes and accessories taking over my home office, and the stress of fitting it all in the suitcase yet to come… oh and did I mention that we’re sailing on Halloween? ¬†And that my son is a Giant Hot Dog? ¬†That’s right… find a place for that costume in your suitcase!

All complaints aside, soon I’ll be on my balcony with my coffee or cocktail in hand, watching the sun rise & set over the ocean… and it’ll all be worth it!!!

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!!!