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All-inclusive hotels and resorts have become a Caribbean institution. From exclusive private island retreats to family-oriented resorts, all-inclusives offer some appealing advantages to vacationers looking for a low-hassle get-away. But not all-inclusives offer the same bang for the buck. Comparing them can be a little like comparing apples to oranges. Considering the following issues can help you decide if an all-inclusive is the right Caribbean vacation choice for you.
Cost Considerations of an All-Inclusive Resort
The biggest advantage of an all-inclusive is that visitors know the cost before they arrive, and they don’t have to dig into their pockets or hand over a credit card every time they want to do something. Or at least, that is the general idea. In reality, some all-inclusives are more inclusive than others. Here are some questions to ask before signing on the dotted line:
Are gratuities included? Some all-inclusives, such as Couples Resorts in Jamaica, do not permit tips. At other resorts, tips are expected or added to the bill. And some resorts leave it up to the guests.
What about drinks? Here again, what is included differs from property to property. Soft drinks are usually included. All-inclusives may cover premium drinks, and provide a complementary in-room mini-bar. But at some resorts, the covered alcoholic drinks are limited to drinks made with lower-quality liquor and lower quality wines; if you want the top-shelf stuff, you’ll pay for it.
Airport transfers. Getting to and from an airport can eat up a couple of hundred dollars, especially if it involves a boat or a long ride. Does the resort cover the cost of getting you there? (Note that even at the most inclusive all-inclusives, tips for drivers are generally not covered.)
Activities at All-Inclusive Resorts
At Caribbean resorts, activities revolve around water sports, although there may be a range of other offerings — everything from A.T.V. riding a to zip-lining. Activities are divided into those that can be done on-site, and those that are done off the resort property. Here is where “all-inclusive” can mean very different things.
In most cases, on-site activities are included in the cost of the vacation. These usually include a variety of pursuits that don’t require expensive equipment or supervision (table tennis, basketball, tennis, snorkeling). It may also include free equipment for kayaking, stand-up paddle-boarding, sailing, and bicycling, as well as activities that require instruction or staff. At Couples resorts in Jamaica, for example, scuba diving is included, which makes this resort a fantastic bargain for avid divers. However, if you just plan to sit on the beach and read a book, an all-inclusive that covers high-end activities may not be such a bargain.
Check not only on cost, but availability: If the activities you want to do are only offered once or twice a week, and conflict with travel days, you may not even get to do them.
Spa treatments are almost always extra. Most resorts run daily specials on certain treatments, so check the resort’s activities bulletin and spa schedule.
Baby sitting and children’s activities are sometimes included, especially at resorts that market to family travelers. Policies differ: At some resorts, parents can leave children only if the parents remain on the property. Sometimes, private nannies are available, but this usually costs extra.
Off-site activities are generally not included, although some resorts cover certain activities or provide transfers into the nearest towns. In many cases, resorts have relationships with preferred outfitters who arrange adventure excursions such as hiking, sailing, and bicycling touring. For example, at Coconut Bay, an all-inclusive in St. Lucia, an adventure desk books off-site activities.
Dining Options at All-Inclusive Resorts
The decision of whether or not to stay at an all inclusive may well hinge on the property’s dining venues. Many travelers like going into town and eating at local restaurants, or trying out street and beach food. Resort food can be bland for adventurous diners. On the other hand, eating at the resort is convenient, requires no travel arrangements, and minimizes the risk of food and water-borne illnesses, which can be a problem when eating locally in parts of the Caribbean. The convenience can be an issue if the resort is located on a private island or other out-of-the-way spot.
The most common dining arrangement at an all-inclusive is a large buffet (at least for breakfast and lunch, and sometimes for dinner, as well), a sit-down restaurant, some small outdoor snack venues, and a specialty restaurant (or two, depending on the resort’s size). If you are a gourmet diner, you may want to check restaurant reviews to find out:
How many dining options will you have?
Yes, there’s a specialty restaurant that gets top reviews, but how difficult is it to get reservations? Are people routinely turned away?
Are there specialty theme nights with buffets and parties by the pool?
What about snacks by the pool?
If you have kids, are there kid-friendly eating options?
Safety at All-Inclusive Resorts
Safety and piece of mind are two more advantages when booking all-inclusive Caribbean vacations. Some islands have disturbingly high crime rates, and tourists can be prime targets for petty theft or worse. In Jamaica and the Dominican Republic, for example, many all-inclusives are actually located within guarded compounds. While this segregates visitors from the place they are traveling to, it can offer peace of mind to inexperienced travelers, especially in places where there is a great wealth disparity between tourists and locals, and where crime rates are high.
All-inclusives aren’t for everyone: Die-hard adventure travelers who like eating street food and staying in independent lodgings may find them too distanced from island culture. Indeed, it is possible to arrive at an all-inclusive in Jamaica and, but for the trip to and from the airport, never see anything outside of the gates! But it’s also possible to make the effort to go into town, take some side trips — and then spend the rest of the vacation lounging on the beach, without ever having to touch your wallet. And
, as they say, is priceless.
Photo Credit Ashley Burton
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