Are All-Inclusive Resorts for You?

All-inclusive resorts are found all over the Caribbean plus parts of Mexico and Latin America, and whether they’re luxury, affordable, adults-only, couples, family, or any other flavor, they offer good value – at least sometimes. I recently returned from Mexico, where four Real Resorts(pronounced “ray-ALL,” Spanish for “royal”) in Cancun and on the Riviera Maya are offering discounts of 20% or more for any dates from December 24, 2010, through 2011. My in-box regularly beeps with offers from others, such as Breezes resorts -- last time I looked, Breezes was offering every third night free. Tempting, but is an all-inclusive the right place for you? Let’s find out:

What’s really included in all-inclusives? All meals, most drinks, and enough sports, activities (such as volleyball at the Royal Playa del Carmen, right), and entertainment to wear out the Energizer Bunny; most all-inclusives slap a wristband on you (below, left) to indicate that you’re entitled to all those goodies. Plus, you don’t spend a bundle on sightseeing tours, as you might on a cruise, since you’re not waking up on a new island every day. So there are no surprises: You know in advance what the vacation will cost. You needn’t rent a car, either: The idea is to have everything you want in one place. Furthermore, some family-oriented all-inclusives, such as Real Resorts’ Gran Caribe (Cancun) and Gran Porto (Playa del Carmen), let two children per couple stay free in many of the rooms.

What isn’t included? Usually premium drinks like single-malt scotch, spa treatments, golf, scuba diving, sports that involve vehicles (waterskiing, deep-sea fishing), and sightseeing tours. But there are occasional exceptions: diving, normally an expensive activity, is included atBeaches resorts.

What kind of vacation do you crave? If you want to play sports all day, have fun at the poolside contests, or just keep the drinks flowing, you’ll love all-inclusives. But if you like to explore, eat at local restaurants, party at local jump-ups, or just lie on the beach with a book, then why pay a tab that includes all those meals, drinks, games, shows, sports, and such?

What does it end up costing? Low-season rates at Real’s Royal (adults-only) resorts start at US$174* per person, which is $348 per suite. That’s not exactly beach shack prices, but these accommodations are genuinely luxurious and, again, you needn’t spend any more for surprisingly first-rate meals (including room service), drinks, entertainment, yoga class, dolphin swim…. Off-season rates at Real’s family resorts start at US $284 for a family of four (something to keep in mind if you have kids — you know how much just one meal out can cost you). Some lower-end all-inclusives such as those in Occidental‘s Allegro brand, meanwhile, can start as low as $110 per person. And there are increasing numbers of high-end luxury all-inclusives such as Sol-Meliá’s Paradisus brand where nightly rates can run $600 or $700, even in September.

curtain bluff, antiguaAre all “luxury” all-inclusives alike? Not by a long shot, because any company can use the word “luxury.” Besides, even bona-fide luxe resorts owned by the same company aren’t identical. For example, the Royal in Playa del Carmen offers sailing (my passion), but its sister in Cancun doesn’t; free golf (not my passion) is included with some rooms but not others. In addition, resorts like the LeSPORT spa hotels and theBitter End Yacht Club in the BVI serve clients with specific interests. Large luxury all-inclusives can feel like cruise ships on land, while some smaller ones, like Curtain Bluff in Antigua (right), boast a country club ambience. Singles are welcome at Real’s Royal resorts but not atCouples Resorts, while same-sex couples should probably do some research as to where they’ll feel more comfortable (for the most part, this tends to be more dependent on destination than on resort brand).

What’s the difference between adults-only and family resorts owned by the same company? Mostly, the amenities and the restaurants. Guest suites at Real’s Royal resorts have sophisticated color schemes and amenities like en suite Jacuzzis, while Real’s family resorts feature convertibles. The entertainment can get a bit risqué at adults resorts (I lovethe dancers’ costumes at the Royal Playa del Carmen), whereas family resorts devote a lot of capital to water parks and kids camps. While upscale adults-only resorts boast fine dining, as at the Royal hotels’ Maria Marie’s and Chef’s Plate, family resorts lean more toward child-friendly food and buffets.

real resorts Gran Caribe, CancunAren’t the family resorts noisier? Not necessarily. Whereas the poolside drinkers and Club Med-style contests may make poolside one big party at some adult resorts, more than a few family resorts, like Cancun’s Gran Caribe (left), have at least one pool area that isn’t near the children’s facilities, so poolside can actually be pretty serene.

In that case, would it make sense for a couple to stay at a family resort? A lot of couples do. Beaches family resorts offer adult sports like golf, tennis, diving, and imbibing, but the rates per person tend to be lower than at the same company’s grownups-only Sandals resorts, and that’s typical. Some couples who stay at Real’s family resorts use the money they’re saving on the hotel bill to go out a few times and enjoy the town. Now that’s an idea.

*For equivalents in other currencies, see Tripatini’s Currency Desk.

First and last photos by Ed Wetschler.