They claim to save you time and, most importantly, money, but are even the best bang-for-your-buck all-inclusive resorts really worth it? The answer depends on your vacation style. Discover what all-inclusive resorts actually include—and don’t include—to help you figure out whether this popular vacation option is right for you.
What Does All-Inclusive Mean?
All-inclusive resorts come in all shapes and sizes, and despite the name, they don’t necessarily include every conceivable vacation expense. Some let you book airfare along with your accommodations, so you only pay once for the entire vacation. Many include things like meals, drinks, airport transfers, gratuities, entertainment, and activities, but not airfare. Common exclusions include spa treatments, purchases at the resort shop, off-site excursions, and some premium activities.
Read the fine print of your package before booking and find out what’s included. If you’re paying for unlimited scuba diving (an activity quite pricey on its own), take advantage of it—you’re paying for it anyway. The same goes for food and drink. Don’t book an all-inclusive if you’re not planning on eating or drinking your way through the week. If all-you-can-eat buffets and top-shelf liquors are key to a good time, make sure your package includes them. If not, they can increase your price considerably.
Who Should Book an All-Inclusive Resort?
Certain types of travelers benefit from all-inclusive resorts as opposed to other vacation options, particularly those who want to set a budget and stick to it, or those who are looking for an adults-only all-inclusive experience on the beach. Unlike many other types of vacations, an all-inclusive resort rolls the vast majority of your trip costs into a single up-front price. There are relatively few hidden fees, and you may not even have to worry about tipping. Quite literally, you could leave your wallet at home and still live like a king.
Even if penny-pinching isn’t on your agenda, this type of worry-free spending has a certain appeal. After all, you’re on vacation and you shouldn’t have to think about anything stressful, least of all money.
Others who benefit from all-inclusives are people who like to stay busy. In addition to accommodations and meals, all-inclusive resorts typically include a slew of on-site activities ranging from fitness classes to tennis and beach volleyball. If you’re not going to take advantage of them, this vacation option might not be worth it.
All-inclusive vacations typically will not save you money if you want to spend most of your time exploring the destination, eating in local restaurants, and otherwise spending time off-resort. Travelers interested in this type of vacation experience should consider staying in a hotel or rental property instead, as most all-inclusives don’t allow you to experience much outside the confines of the resort unless you pay extra.
Finding the Best All-Inclusive Vacation Packages
So where do you look for all-inclusive packages? All-inclusive chains like Sandals, Barcelo, Beaches, Iberostar, Couples, and Club Med offer their own packages, but most are land-based (some include the option of air for an extra cost). Online travel agencies like Expedia, CheapCaribbean.com, and Apple Vacations offer good deals as well as the opportunity to incorporate air travel into the price. Booking all-inclusive vacation packages through one of these online agencies is easy, convenient, and often not much more expensive than booking the air and hotel elements individually.
Choosing an All-Inclusive Resort
There seems to be a limitless array of all-inclusive resorts, so while booking may be easy, deciding which is best suited for your needs can be bewildering. All seem to offer quality accommodations, endless activities, and great food. But there are differences.
In general, couples looking for romance and quality time together will want to consider adults-only chains like Sandals, Secrets, or Couples. Families will be interested in Beaches, Grand Velas, or Sunscape, while fun-seeking singles can party till dawn at the clothing-optional Hedonism II or at certain Club Med properties. Chains like Riu, Club Med, and Iberostar offer a range of options for all ages.
For a good rundown of your options, see The Ultimate Cheat Sheet for All-Inclusive Brands from Oyster, SmarterTravel’s sister site.
What’s Included at Five Popular All-Inclusive Resorts
To help you answer the question “What do all-inclusive resorts include?” I’ve gathered details on five highly rated all-inclusive resorts in beachfront locations. Read on for a sampling of what all-inclusive resorts offer—and what they don’t.
Sandals Montego Bay
This adults-only all-inclusive property in Jamaica was Sandals’ first resort.
What’s included: Accommodations, meals and snacks at 12 on-site restaurants, unlimited drinks, airport transfers, scuba diving for PADI-certified guests, various watersports including snorkeling and kayaking, various land activities including tennis and beach volleyball, entertainment and live shows, Wi-Fi, gratuities and taxes, and even a free wedding (with three-night stay).
What’s not included: Spa treatments, gift shop purchases, optional tours, phone calls, scuba certification courses, and medical treatment.
Check Prices for Sandals Montego Bay in Montego Bay
Club Med Columbus Isle
Located in the Bahamas, this resort from Club Med, a pioneer of the all-inclusive experience, caters to couples and families alike.
What’s included: Accommodations, airfare, meals and snacks, drinks, snorkeling, windsurfing lessons, sailing lessons, water skiing and wakeboarding lessons, kayaking, paddleboarding, beach volleyball, bocce ball, table tennis, fitness classes, access to weight room, swimming pool activities, tennis lessons, children’s club, Wi-Fi, Club Med membership fee, taxes, and gratuities.
What’s not included: Spa treatments, local excursions, fishing, cycling, kitesurfing, and scuba diving.
Check Prices for Club Med Columbus Isle in San Salvador
This family-focused resort in Jamaica has just about everything, from a kids’ program to a water park.
What’s included: Accommodations, meals and snacks at nine on-site restaurants, unlimited drinks, airport transfers, kids’ camp program, scuba diving for PADI-certified guests, various watersports including snorkeling and kayaking, various land activities including beach volleyball and tennis, access to Pirates Island water park, teen club, Xbox play lounge, entertainment and live shows, access to Certified Autism Center, gratuities, and taxes.
What’s not included: Spa treatments, optional tours, gift shop purchases, phone calls, scuba certification courses, golf caddies, medical treatment, and transportation anywhere besides the airport and neighboring partner resorts.
Check Prices for Beaches Negril Resort & Spa in Negril
Iberostar Selection Playa Mita
This resort on the Pacific Coast of Mexico caters to guests of all ages.
What’s included: Accommodations, meals and snacks, unlimited drinks, entertainment and live shows, non-motorized watersports, taxes, Wi-Fi, and tennis.
What’s not included: Transfers, golf, scuba diving, off-site tours, and babysitting.
Check Prices for Iberostar Selection Playa Mita in Punta de Mita, Mexico
This luxurious, adults-only resort is located in Guanacaste, Costa Rica.
What’s included: Accommodations, meals and snacks, unlimited drinks, 24-hour room service, pool and beach wait service, fitness classes and facilities, a variety of land activities and non-motorized watersports, entertainment and live shows, Wi-Fi, calls to U.S./Canada/Mexico, taxes, and gratuities.
What’s not included: Off-site excursions, golf, casino, spa treatments, dinner for two on the beach, and romantic extras such as premium Champagne or chocolate-covered strawberries.
Check Prices for Secrets Papagayo Costa Rica in Gulf of Papagayo, Costa Rica
Tips for Booking an All-Inclusive Resort
Here are a few final things to keep in mind before booking your vacation:
- Price is often relative to quality. If it seems too good to be true, it probably is. Read reviews of the resort by past guests on sites such as TripAdvisor (SmarterTravel’s parent site) so you know what to expect. However, it’s possible to get an amazing—and legitimate—deal, especially if you’re traveling at a less popular time of year, such as Caribbean hurricane season.
- Look for deals. Most resort websites have a “specials” or “deals” section that includes promotions such as free nights, credit toward flights or resort spending, or discounts for military personnel.
- Know what you’re getting into. Check to see what’s included in the price, so you don’t incur any additional costs that you’re not prepared to pay for.
- Don’t go for the filet mignon if you really just want the hot dogs. There’s no point in paying for things you won’t use or do, so take that into consideration when evaluating packages.
- Always have a way out. Ask about cancellation policies, and look into travel insurance, especially if you are booking through an online agency.
Whatever you do, enjoy yourself. It’s vacation—and you’ve earned it.
What to Wear at an All-Inclusive Resort
Women’s Romper/Swimsuit Outfit
Men’s Swimwear for Punta Cana
Swimsuit for Women to Wear on the Beach
Men’s Swimwear for Hawaii
Women’s Casual Day Outfit
Swimsuit/Casual Men’s Outfit for a Cruise
Women’s Casual Dress Outfit for a Lake Town
More from SmarterTravel:
- The 10 Best All-Inclusive Resorts in Mexico
- The 7 Best All-Inclusive Resorts in Europe
- The 12 Best All-Inclusive Resorts in the United States
Editor’s note: This story was originally published in 2008. It has been updated to reflect the most current information. Sarah Schlichter contributed to this story.