Planning a vacation can be tough. You have to figure out not only the logistics of the trip but the budget as well. That can be hard if it’s a new place and you’re not sure how much everything costs.
It’s that very time-consuming headache that lures many travelers to book an all-inclusive hotel. But is it worth it?
We analyzed the pros and cons, made a cost-benefit comparison, and chatted with experts about when you should book an all-inclusive hotel or pay as you go.
Pros of an all-inclusive hotel
There’s a reason all-inclusive hotels are a thing in travel. Here are some of the benefits of booking a hotel package:
Food and drinks (sometimes alcohol) are typically included. “You can leave your wallet in the room and not worry about overspending,” said Heather Ebert, travel expert for MissTravel. “Additionally, the endless breakfast, lunch, and dinner buffets — along with specialty dining options — offered at all-inclusive resorts are great for families traveling with kids who are picky eaters or have growing appetites.”
If you’re a first-time traveler or are traveling with kids, you might feel safer staying at an all-inclusive resort rather than crashing at an Airbnb and roaming a small city alone.
Many all-inclusive resorts are close to major airports and big cities, said Ebert. If you’re visiting a place like the Caribbean, you’ll find many resorts have private access to the beach.
You don’t have to plan out meals or activities when they’re included. Some packages even include logistics such as flights and airport transfers.
If scuba diving or kayaking sound like activities you want to do on your vacation, paying an all-inclusive rate is best for you.
You’re never surprised by your bill at the end of the trip. The convenience factor of not having to carry around your wallet could be reason enough for some to go the all-inclusive route.
RELATED: Best All-Inclusive Resorts in US
Cons of an all-inclusive hotel
While there are many positives to booking an all-inclusive hotel, there are some downsides, according to Ebert:
If you’re interested in seeing what the native culture is like, a resort won’t provide that. Considering most resorts are situated together, you’ll have to travel quite a distance before reaching local villages and neighborhoods.
To reap the benefits of an all-inclusive rate, you’re pretty much confined to the resort. Otherwise, you’re wasting money. Everything from dining to activities is on the property, so you don’t have the flexibility to go where you want and do what you want.
If tasting the local cuisine is on your to-do list, you won’t get that experience from the food at an all-inclusive resort. “Most resorts cater to American and European tourists, so you’ll most likely find the same food you eat back home,” said Ebert.
At some resorts, bottled water and soda are priced the same as ordering an alcoholic drink, so you could end up saving more with the option that isn’t all-inclusive.
Cost-benefit analysis of an all-inclusive hotel
Not surprisingly, there are a lot of variables that go into the pricing of a trip, making it difficult to understand if an all-inclusive option is better than a pay-as-you-go choice. Let’s look at some examples.
Isar Meitis, president of Last Minute Travel, pulled two options in Cancun to compare:
Jen Pellerito, travel writer and creator of Jen on the Run, did an analysis using an Expedia search for resorts in Cancun for seven days (Aug. 24 to Aug. 31, 2018).
Pellerito said the total cost for an all-inclusive resort in Cancun is about $2,100. A similar four-star resort, not all-inclusive, is cheaper upfront, totaling about $1,400. That’s a $700 difference.
But if you are planning on having three drinks or more per day, plus three meals a day, it could average about $100 a day, according to her calculations.
How to make sure you’re getting the best deal
Start by looking at the fine print to see everything that is included as all-inclusive. Then ask yourself these questions:
Does it cover everything you would want to do on the trip (for example, an excursion off property to see a local site)?
Does it include things you wouldn’t use (for example, if it includes alcohol but you’re not a big drinker)?
Is tipping included?
Do you want to stay on the property for the entire trip? Do you want to explore the local culture?
Are you a picky eater who would appreciate the choices offered on an all-you-can-eat buffet? Or are you a foodie who wants to taste the finest local cuisine?
Make a spreadsheet of the costs you would incur if you paid for the trip a la carte. Be sure to compare apples to apples (if the all-inclusive option is a four-star resort, price a four-star hotel for comparison). Add up the columns to find out whether all-inclusive is the better choice financially.
Be aware of hidden surcharges at all-inclusive resorts, warned Shylar Bredewold, owner of Odyssean Travel, a small travel agency.
There could be resort fees, local taxes, or administrative costs, as well as charges for using a safe in your room or choosing premium liquor. Some resorts even carry an added insurance cost for unescorted visitors younger than a certain age. You’ll want all those details hammered out before booking.
Also, see what other resources you have to bring your costs down. Your credit card might offer travel discounts, for example, that could make a hotel option more affordable.
But sometimes cost shouldn’t be the only determining factor in your trip. If you want to experience the sights and sounds of the local community and eat and drink as the locals do, going with a non-all-inclusive option is a better bet.
Is an all-inclusive hotel the right option?
According to the data and experts, all-inclusive resorts are generally a better value for your money. You can often book a reservation at an all-inclusive resort for about the same as you would at an a la carte property.
But at an all-inclusive resort, your food, drinks, and activities (depending on the property) are included. Amenities such as Wi-Fi are often included as well.
“If you don’t plan on leaving the resort and if you plan on enjoying a lot of food and drinks while you’re there, it makes sense to go with an all-inclusive resort,” said Pellerito. “If you want to explore the surrounding area and don’t drink a bunch, then a regular resort will likely be the more affordable option.”
In a nutshell, you have fewer things to worry about with all-inclusive packages. If relaxation and simplicity are top of mind, all-inclusive would be a better choice. But if experiencing the local food and cultural scene is important, you can likely find a pay-as-you-go option that works in your budget too.