Let’s be honest: all-inclusive resorts can be a bit polarizing. Some love them and return year after year (or dream about it); some find the entire idea of such a packaged vacation abhorrent. It’s true that there are a lot of pros and cons to all-inclusive resorts, and it can be hard to decide whether the experience they offer is worth your hard-earned money and precious vacation time.
For those who are unfamiliar, an all-inclusive resort is one where the vast majority of your expenses – accommodations, food and drink (including alcohol), some activities, and more – are all included in the price of your vacation. While off-property excursions, some top-shelf liquors, spa treatments, and other special exceptions may apply, for the most part, you pay one per-night price and don’t have to worry about taking out your credit card for the rest of the trip. All-inclusive resorts are often located in tropical destinations, most commonly in the Caribbean and Mexico, but can be found across the world.
As I’ve shared before, for a long time, this kind of vacation didn’t hold much appeal for me. I looked at the pros and cons of all-inclusive resorts and saw mostly cons, plus they didn’t fit my vision of myself as a traveler, not a tourist. (Ugh, early 20’s me was a travel snob.) My perspective changed, however, when M and I decided to spend a long weekend at an all-inclusive resort in the Dominican Republic to celebrate my 30th birthday. I won’t say that I was fully converted into an all-inclusive resort fangirl – the following list of pros and cons is very honest and based on my own experience there and elsewhere – but I definitely came to understand the value and appeal of indulging in this sort of vacation.
If you’re considering traveling to an all-inclusive resort, check out the list below to see if it’s the right choice for you. Just as with my pros and cons of cruising, I hope these points will help you visit the tropics in the best way possible!
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PRO: They’re beautiful and feel like the epitome of taking a vacation.
This is probably one of the most attractive qualities of all-inclusive resorts. They’re designed to feel like paradise, and most of them succeed to at least some degree. Most Caribbean all-inclusives are filled with some combination of swaying palm trees, lush green vegetation, bright tropical decor, picturesque beaches, and lovely pool areas. They want you to feel like you’ve stepped off the plane and into a dream, one where the stresses of home melt away as you’re surrounded by everything that a tropical beach is supposed to be.
We certainly felt that on our island getaway in Punta Cana. Everything, from our room to the beach to the common areas and restaurants, was beautiful and beautifully decorated. It felt special and romantic and exotic, which was just what we were looking for. It’s hard to feel glum in a place that’s designed to emulate paradise.
CON: The food often isn’t great.
On the other hand, one of the biggest complaints against all-inclusive resorts is that the food is often just so-so. Because everything is included, there’s no higher price tag for higher-quality menu items like you’d find in a restaurant. Thus, there’s not really much incentive to make any particular dish – or the food offerings in general – stand out.
(To be fair, some people have the same complaint about the food on cruise ships. It may depend on the cruise line and your own personal tastes, but personally I have found that cruise food far surpasses the food at all-inclusive resorts.)
While we couldn’t complain much because it was included in the price of our room, the quality of the food was one of M’s and my few disappointments on our trip. It wasn’t bad, but it didn’t really wow us or have much flavor. It was simply fine.
PRO: All-inclusive resorts can be a cost-effective way to vacation.
One of the great things about booking a stay at an all-inclusive resort is that you have a near-complete vision of your vacation’s cost before you even step on the plane. When so many of your major expenses – lodging, food, activities, and often even airfare – are already paid for, the chances of you exceeding your vacation budget or encountering a surprise major expense are low. Sure, you might spring for a massage or book a jet-skiing adventure, but for the most part, you don’t have to worry about fitting a bunch of variables into a budget over the course of your trip.
Depending on the island, kind of resort, and time of year, all-inclusive resorts can also be very economical. It’s not unusual to see prices lower than $150 per person per night, which is a pretty good deal when you consider that that includes all food, alcohol, activities, and your room. (That means a couple could take a week-long vacation for just over $2,000, excluding airfare.) Granted, you can always pay a little more for a better room, better amenities, a better resort, or a more upscale island/location, but it’s nice to know that you can book a tropical vacation and not break the bank.
CON: It’s not easy to authentically experience much local culture.
If you’re looking to immerse yourself in a local culture, learn more about another country, or practice your language skills, an all-inclusive resort may not be for you. These places are designed to be a world unto themselves, and plenty of people who visit them don’t set foot off the property for the duration of their stay. Honestly, there aren’t many reasons why you would need to leave apart from going on an excursion or just wanting a change of scenery.
In addition, most of the guest-facing staff speak English by default because of the international (and largely American) clientele. Signs are in English, there are a lot of familiar food options, and you can usually pay for souvenirs and other incidentals with American dollars. At many resorts, it can feel like you’re just visiting another part of America that happens to have palm trees and a few splashes of local color or patterns in the decor.
On my 30th birthday trip, M and I were surprised to see that the lack of local culture extended to the food offerings. We knew that the resort would probably be pretty insular, but I figured there would at least be plenty of Caribbean fare. (Your girl could live on beans, rice, and roasted pork.) Imagine my surprise when we arrived to find that the restaurants on site were Italian, French, hibachi/Asian fusion, and Mexican. Aside from a few dishes at the all-day buffet, the rest of the food had nothing to do with the place we were visiting.
PRO: All-inclusive resorts are a low-stress way to vacation.
If you’re looking to escape the stresses of daily life, there’s not much better than jetting off to a place where you don’t really have to think about anything. You can sit back, relax, grab a drink, and enjoy the beautiful scenery without carrying a wallet or having any responsibilities. At an all-inclusive resort, everything is taken care of for you, making it easy to just relax.
It’s very freeing not to have to carry a purse or a wallet, make a reservation for dinner, or worry about traveling from one place to another on a jam-packed itinerary. Really, all you have to do is figure out whether your next hour will be spent by the pool, on the beach, grabbing food, or doing an activity. Even people traveling with their kids can find some moments of bliss, as lots of resorts offer childcare and children’s programming to give parents a break.
M and I spent hours reading on the sand, taking romantic walks along the water, and popping into restaurants when we felt peckish. The only stress I felt all weekend was when I looked at a restaurant menu and tried to figure out what to order… though M will tell you that that’s pretty much par for the course with me.
CON: They might not be a good fit for adventure travelers or non-drinkers.
Although staying at an all-inclusive resort can provide a nice respite, adventure travelers and those who like to be on the go may find themselves getting bored after a couple of days. As I’ve said, relaxation is the name of the game, and while resorts offer optional excursions and other activities, they’re not usually bursting with new experiences and exciting things to do.
Upon our return from the Dominican Republic, M and I agreed that a long weekend was the maximum amount of time that we would personally want to spend at an all-inclusive resort. Despite our intentions to take it easy, we didn’t even make it through the first full day without feeling the itch to explore. Happily, our long walk along the shoreline led us to a deserted section of beach with beautiful water, and returning there before dawn to watch the sunrise on our last day ended up being one of my favorite memories from the trip. We appreciated the opportunity to relax and did our best to stick to that plan, but spending any longer in one place without much to do would have had us going a bit stir-crazy.
Additionally, part of the appeal of an all-inclusive resort is that you can drink as much alcohol as you want at no additional charge (with the occasional rare exception for very expensive liquors). You don’t need to be a heavy drinker (or drink alcohol at all) to enjoy an all-inclusive resort, but you may not end up saving much money compared to just staying somewhere where everything is a la carte. The free-flowing booze can also result in quite the party atmosphere on some resorts, so make sure to check reviews of the places you’re considering if that’s not your scene.
PRO: They’re good for families and groups.
Just like cruises, all-inclusive resorts can be a great fit if you’re looking to travel with extended family, multiple couples, or another big group. Staying together at a resort gives everyone the freedom to have fun within the same confined space, meaning that you can spend as much or as little time together as you want and easily regroup when needed.
Also, because rooms come at different price points and configurations, all-inclusive resorts can accommodate a variety of budgets and group dynamics. Families can take advantage of the childcare options mentioned above, and there are activities available to suit a variety of interests. Finally, staying together in one place means that you don’t have to worry about transporting a big group from one destination to another, with the exception of the airport. (And even that can usually be easily arranged through the resort.)
CON: All-inclusive resorts may have a significant negative impact on the local community.
A final, major downside of booking an all-inclusive resort vacation is that the money you spend there may not be doing much good for the local community. In fact, you may even be adversely affecting it.
All-inclusive resorts have come under fire for everything from poor working conditions for local staff through low wages and short-term contracts to negatively impacting the environment thanks to water/food waste, pollution, and high energy consumption. Because there isn’t much motivation to leave the resort (and, in fact, you’re incentivized to stay because you’ve already paid for all the amenities), tourist dollars don’t make it out to small businesses in the surrounding community. Many resorts are also owned by multinational corporations, meaning that more money flows out of the country than staying in it to improve the lives of the citizens who are hosting you.
I’m not shaming anyone who chooses to stay at an all-inclusive resort, but it’s important to understand the greater impact of our tourism choices, particularly in low-income or vulnerable communities. Luckily, there are some ways to counteract these disadvantages:
- Tip generously, especially servers and housekeeping staff, as this money goes directly into their pockets and therefore to their families.
- Leave the resort occasionally to patronize local restaurants, and buy your souvenirs from shops in town rather than on the resort property.
- Book optional excursions directly through local vendors rather than through the resort.
- Upon your return, consider making donations to nonprofit organizations doing good work in the communities you’ve visited.
- Finally, and this should go without saying, but be kind, courteous, and respectful to the staff on the property. Greet them when you pass and thank them when they provide you with help or service. Learn and use a phrase or two of the local language, compliment the beauty of their country, and generally show appreciation for the privilege of your vacation and the work they’re doing to make it great. Staff can often be ignored or treated like they’re invisible – or worse, like servants – by guests, so showing that you acknowledge and appreciate the work they do can go a long way.
So there you have them: my list of pros and cons of all-inclusive resorts! I hope that these points are helpful as you decide whether or not a resort stay is right for you. Just remember, though, that like any group of hotels, all-inclusive resorts are not all created equal. Do your research (or have Full Life, Full Passport do it for you!), read reviews, fully investigate any travel deals, and go with your gut. Above all, though, don’t let yourself be travel-shamed. It’s your money, your time off, your vacation, and your decision on how you choose to relax and see the world.
Have you visited an all-inclusive resort? What did you think? Are there any pros or cons you would add to my list? Let me know in the comments!
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