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How to Get the Most for Your Money at an All-Inclusive Resort
Once the very definition of a budget vacation, all-inclusive resorts have evolved away from the stereotype of buffet dining, no-name drinks and cheesy entertainment.
Popular in the Caribbean and Mexico, these “pay one price” resorts are popular with travelers who need to know exactly how much their trip is going to cost in advance.
All-inclusive plans vary somewhat from resort to resort, but generally speaking, you’ll pay a fixed price for your room, food, drinks, entertainment and activities.
Some all-inclusive chains, like Sandals, even include gratuities in the price, with a “no tipping” policy in effect.
You can still find a bargain-priced all-inclusive resort, of course, but your choices now span the entire range of vacation options, right up to five-star luxury. No matter how much you pay to get in the door, here are some pro tips on getting every last drop of fun out of your all-inclusive experience.
Go for the Best Food
Most all-inclusive resorts have a main restaurant where they hope you’ll take most of your meals. Quality can vary, and although I’ve had some really good buffet meals at resorts in the Caribbean, the experience is often enhanced with a few a la carte options that you should try.
At breakfast, for example, make a beeline for the omelette station, a made-to-order dining experience that’s become pretty standard at Caribbean all-inclusive resorts. Ditto for carving stations at lunchtime.
All-inclusives almost all now offer “specialty restaurant” dining included in the price of your vacation, which you should also take advantage of to get the most for your food dollar. Typical options include Asian, Italian, steak houses and seafood.
Smart travelers will understand that when you’re in the islands, seafood is the surest choice for fresh food and good value — although the specialty restaurants at your resort will at least make an effort to step up the dining options and service from what you’ll get at the buffet.
Make your dining reservations as soon as you can after you arrive to make sure you get to try all the different cuisines you want!
Eating as local as possible is another good strategy when you’re at an all-inclusive: during a recent visit to the Sunset at the Palms resort in Negril, Jamaica, for example, I feasted on the fresh ackee and salt cod during breakfast at the Palm Grove Restaurant rather than the usual bacon and eggs — a nice taste of the islands to go along with a little sun and rum on the beach.
And it was more than worth the trip out to the private island at Sandals Royal Caribbean in Montego Bay for a jerk chicken lunch that blew away the burgers and fries at the grill back on the mainland.
Drink Like a King
All-you-can-drink beer and cocktails might just be the biggest selling point of all-inclusive resorts, especially when you consider what your corresponding bar tab might look like back home.
The drinks list at a typical Caribbean all-inclusive beach bar will be dominated by fruity drinks with funny names (the Panty-Dropper comes to mind) mixed with inexpensive, bottom-shelf booze. That’s not always a negative — when you’re downing sugary drinks in the sun, the liquor isn’t always a big factor: if it tastes good, who cares?
But when quality counts, remember the rule about going local: In the Caribbean, for example, the beer on draft is a good call because it’s usually the same brand (Red Stripe, Carib, etc.) that you’ll get anywhere else on the island.
The same is true for rum: ordering a rum drink means better odds of a quality mixer (like Appleton’s rum in Jamaica) than if you’re getting something made with gin or vodka. In Mexico, apply the same rule, but substitute tequila for rum.
Also, don’t hesitate to ask for “call” drinks if you see something you like behind the bar — bartenders are usually happy to mix your rum punch with something better than the no-name firewater.
Take in the Entertainment
Of course there are good reasons to stay in your room at night, but do make a point to come out for the show at least once during your stay.
Yes, it can sometimes be a tired lounge act, but in my experience the bands and performers who work at these resorts are quite talented — a reflection of island culture where music and performing are highly valued.
In islands like Jamaica, for example, reggae is an art form that won’t get shorted at your resort. At Sunset at the Palms I heard a great local band perform “mento” — the Jamaican folk music that provides the roots of reggae.
Don’t Skimp on the Activities
One of the most underutilized parts of all-inclusive resorts tends to be the activities calendar.
Every all-inclusive has an activities staff — usually enthusiastic young people whose job it is to run the trivia contests and get the pool volleyball games going.
But resorts also offer a variety of free classes, from cooking to local crafts, as well as morning yoga and other activities that you should make a point of signing up (or showing up) for.
Likewise, it’s always a little surprising to see how much water sports equipment — kayaks, stand-up paddleboards, Hobiecat sailboats — sit unused all day at an all-inclusive resort.
Non-motorized watersports are always included at an all-inclusive, so don’t be shy about getting out onto the water. During our Sandals Royal Caribbean stay, for example, the watersports staff gave us not only a sailing lesson but also a guided tour — all free of charge.
Remember, you’ll pay the same price as your neighbor at an all-inclusive for food, drink and play, but taking full advantage of what’s included can make all the difference between a run-of-the-mill vacation and a premier experience.
Bob Curley is a freelance travel writer who specializes in the Caribbean. His work can be found at Tripsavvy.com, Coastal Living, Wedding Style magazine, and on his Honestraveler.com site.