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Are all-inclusive vacations a better deal than DIY adventures?

is an all-inclusive resort a good deal?
November 06, 2016

By Thomas Muellner

All inclusive vs do-it-yourself vacations

After putting in long hours at the office for months on end, there’s no better reward than a vacation. Sunshine, frozen cocktails, sandy shores – you know you deserve it. 

But whether you’re flying solo or bringing the whole family along for the ride, it can be tricky to decide whether it’s better to plan a trip on your own or book an all-inclusive vacation package. 

If you don’t consider the true cost of each, you may find that your trip is financially shipwrecked before it even starts. Before punching your ticket, be sure to keep these common vacation issues in mind. 

Defining “all-inclusive”  

Your parents may have warned you growing up: If something sounds too good to be true, it probably is. In a way, the same adage applies to all-inclusive travel deals.

While many vacation packages offer great value and provide truly luxurious experiences, it’s important to understand that “all-inclusive” does not necessarily mean “everything is included.” Believe it or not, you may be reaching into your pocket during your all-inclusive trip, or doing without certain amenities, as a result.  

Generally speaking, all-inclusive resort vacations and all-inclusive cruises include lodging, food and basic drink service for the duration of your stay or journey. They may also include airfare if you book through a travel agent or travel website. However, there’s no universal standard for the term; what’s included for free at one resort may be an upcharge at another. 

When booking your trip, make sure to read the fine print and ask questions to make sure you know exactly what you’re getting.

What’s not included in the deal  

Though your all-inclusive resort may offer access to six swimming pools, complimentary hula dance lessons and a 24/7 ice cream sundae station, there’s a good chance you’ll still need to fork over some extra cash to take advantage of everything the destination has to offer. A la cart activities or “excursions” (e.g., parasailing or jet skiing) that are often advertised online and in brochures typically come with a cost. Likewise, beachfront rooms and top floor suites may require a premium fee.  

Moreover, one of the most noticeable omissions from all-inclusive packages is premium alcohol. Unless it’s specifically stated, expect to be limited to well spirits, wine and beer when you head to the bar. If you’re used to top-shelf liquor at home, a week drinking from the rail may leave a bad taste in your mouth. 

Beyond booze and activities, be on the lookout for extra expenses connected to your trip. For example, airport transfers, room service and Wi-Fi may or may not be included in the price of admission. 

Perks of an all-inclusive stay  

Outside of unexpected fees, there’s a lot of good to be said about all-inclusive vacations.  

Because of their cooperative nature – guests sharing a wide range of amenities – all-inclusive resorts and cruises provide unique access to activities, food options and services guests may otherwise be unable to afford or even find on their own. Few venues allow you to choose whether you want to swim with the dolphins, zip line through the jungle, learn how to snorkel or take a day at the spa on a whim, let alone have everything from filet mignon to mac ’n’ cheese just footsteps away for dinner. 

Another benefit of booking an all-inclusive trip is that it’s paid for up front. Even with add-on expenses, the bulk of your trip is accounted for before your feet hit the sand. This can be helpful for long-term planning and can reduce anxiety over conversion rates, carrying cash on the road and figuring out local tipping customs. Whether you opt for an exclusive five-star hotel or a family-friendly budget resort, you know what you’re signing up for.  

But above all, resort-style getaways aim to take the stress out of vacations. From airport logistics to scheduling activities, the work is done for you. You need only to relax and soak up the experience.

Reasons to chart your own path 

While frosty piña coladas and postcard-perfect beaches are a tempting prospect, they’re not everyone’s cup of rum. If a budget-friendly road trip or urban adventure is more up your alley, an all-inclusive resort may not be the best fit. In fact, you’ll likely be hard-pressed to find an all-inclusive option that’s not a typical beach getaway.

In addition to having limited options in terms of destination, the structure of all-inclusive trips can leave some feeling tied down to their hotel or resort compound with little opportunity to experience true local flavor. Even if it’s relatively easy to go into town, you may feel like you’re paying twice by eating out or stopping for a cold one beyond the resort walls.  

Conversely, if you don’t mind putting in the legwork, or even enjoy the process of discovering a foreign locale, a DIY adventure can be just as enjoyable and economical as an all-inclusive vacation.

Online travel sites have helped level the playing field over the past decade, making it easy to book flights and hotels, as well as read reviews about activities and restaurants from fellow traveler literally anywhere in the world. What’s more, because you control the agenda, you choose where to splurge and where to rein in expenses.

Making the right vacation decision 

At the end of the day, the purpose of a vacation is to come home happy and content about the experience. If you already have a strong preference for or against all-inclusive trips, do yourself a favor and let that be your guiding force. 

On the other hand, if you’re open to both vacation types and are simply looking to maximize value, determine your ideal “all in” budget and lay out an agenda for each style of trip. Be sure to factor everything that is and isn’t included in the all-inclusive option and think about the things that’ll give you the most pleasure while away.

With a little bit of legwork, not only will you better understand the true cost of your trip, you’ll be able to rest easy knowing that you made the right choice before saying bon voyage.