I spent last weekend at the Hacienda Tres Rios, one of the many all-inclusive beach resorts on the Riviera Maya that line Mexico’s Caribbean coast, from Cancun south toward Tulum.
One of the biggest travel questions I get from friends is whether or not they should choose an all-inclusive resort when they travel to Mexico or the Caribbean. And my answer to them is always, it depends on what kind of vacation you want.
So with that in mind, I’ve drawn up a quick list to help people determine if an all-inclusive resort is right for them. This is by no means a comprehensive list. It’s also admittedly subjective, based on my experiences, and there’s always exceptions to any generalities. And I’m not trying to say that one type of experience is necessarily better than another, so let’s leave that discussion off the table for now.
Whew, disclaimers over! Here goes….
You might like an all-inclusive resort if:
1. You want to go on vacation mainly to relax. Let’s face it, many of us work so hard before our vacation that all we want to do for a few days is veg out. All-inclusive resorts usually have several pools for lounging, many with poolside drink service and swim-up bars. When I stayed at the Royal Resort in Playa del Carmen last year, they even had a staffer wheeling around a cart with cool towels, frozen grapes, sunblock and trashy magazines.
2. You don’t want to think about transportation issues. If driving in another country freaks you out, an all-inclusive resort is a good way to avoid those hassles. Most resorts will set up airport transfers and transportation for you, either for an extra fee or included in the price. Many all-inclusives have activities to keep you occupied on site (Tres Rios has snorkeling and kayaking available, for example), and most have their own in-house concierge service that will book tours for you if you do want to leave the property (although bear in mind these prices are usually much higher than what you could find on your own outside the resort. The resort told us it would cost $180 per person for a driver down to Tulum, while local experts told us it would be easy to hire a taxi for under half that amount).
3. You are with a group. Planning a vacation with other people can be a frustrating experience, particularly if you already know that your travel styles are different. An all-inclusive resort allows people to do their own thing during the day, yet all gather in one place at night. And the fact that it’s open bar, all the time makes it a good choice if you know things are going to get rowdy.
4. You like knowing more precisely what your bill will be. The beauty of most all-inclusives is that your bill is just that – the price you pay up front includes not only your room, but all of your food and drink. Now that’s not to say that you can’t spend extra. At most resorts, for example, spa treatments have hefty surcharges unless you buy a certain package. And just as cruise ships have added special restaurants where you pay more for fancier food, some resorts have dining experiences that might carry a supplemental charge. To keep your bill within your expectations, ask your travel agent or the reservation agent exactly what you receive in your package and have them email it to you so you have proof in writing.
5. You like luxurious landscaping and amenities. If you’re the type who likes to roll up to marble floors, grand entrances and well-manicured grounds, you’ll be happy with most all-inclusive resorts (although sometimes that care doesn’t always extend to the rooms). It’s also nice not having to search for a spa, or entertainment at night, as many all-inclusives have shows. And some, such as Tres Rios, even have activities such as tequila tastings or cooking demonstrations.
Now let’s switch to the other side.
You might want to stay at an independent hotel if:
1. You want to go on vacation mainly to explore. If you’re the type who wakes up and wants to get out there and see something different every day, you won’t enjoy the more confined atmosphere of an all-inclusive. No matter how much the resort promotes its accessibility to outside activities, the reality is that it’s in your best interest to spend your time on property grounds in order to get the most for your money. It can feel like you’re in a bubble, surrounded by other Americans. And what’s the fun in that?
2. You prefer to have your own car or walk around. Most (although not all) all-inclusive resorts lie outside cities and more populated areas, which makes it a little bit harder to simply walk into town. And in Mexico, that means you might miss the paseo, that delightful early evening tradition where locals and tourists alike stroll through city streets and squares, to see and be seen.
3. You’re a foodie. This might rub resorts the wrong way, but I have yet to find an all-inclusive where the food was as good as what I could have found on my own, either on the street or in a nice restaurant. That was true again last weekend, where my husband and I unanimously agreed that our favorite meal was the one we enjoyed at Yax Che in Playa del Carmen. And if the thought of a breakfast buffet or food under heat lamps turns you off, you definitely want to avoid all-inclusives. And for those who worry about the safety of street food, listen to this: in the past two years, I’ve personally known more people to get sick off of hotel food in Mexico than anything eaten from a vendor or restaurant.
4. You prefer to pay only for activities, meals and drinks that you actually use. Even if I’ve enjoyed a visit to an all-inclusive, I keep wondering: could I have had just as good a time for less money if I would have done it on my own. The answer is almost always yes. That’s because I don’t care about many of the things that the resorts build into their prices, such as entertainment or activities (I’d rather choose these type of things on my own). And while I’m certainly no stranger to bar tabs, I tend to drink less than many of the people I’ve seen decimating the mini-bar at all-inclusives.
5. You like more personal interaction and local flavor. Sure, all -inclusives may have concierges or local artwork on the walls. But that’s not the same experience as staying at a small inn or B & B, where owners can give you personal recommendations for places to eat, beaches to explore and activities to try. I also find that the other guests at smaller properties are more apt to mingle and socialize than at the larger resorts.
At this point, you might be able to tell that I prefer smaller boutique and independent hotels to large all-inclusive resorts. But I draw the line at saying that philosophy works for everyone. As I said at the beginning of this post, if you think about what kind of vacation you want before you book, you’ll be likely to be satisfied with your choices when you get there.
If you have any other suggetions that might help people make a decision between an all-inclusive resort and a regular hotel, please do so in the comments!