Beach Buyer’s Guide to All-Inclusive Vacations

If you want a hassle-free vacation, then an all-inclusive vacation is for you. But whether you’re looking for Adults-Only, Family-Friendly, or somewhere in between, there are a good number of questions to ask before you book in. So, let’s start at the top.

FOOD & DRINKS

Are you a Foodie and spirits aficionado? If so, here are a few things to consider:

Lunch at Paradisus Los Cabos, Mexico
(Lunch, Paradisus Los Cabos, Mexico, photo by: instagram.com/ivanatatooart.)

Is a variety of cuisine important?

If this is true for you, then you’ll want to consider higher-end or mega resorts – 3+ resorts nestled together. They have a greater selection and can include Mexican, American, Italian, Asian and French. Sometimes you’ll find destination-specific food–like Jerk Chicken in Jamaica, fried plantains in the Dominican Republic and so on. Medium to small/boutiques have a variety, too. In fact, there are times when the menu will change every night. For kid-friendly menus, stick to Family-Friendly resorts. If you are gluten-free, vegetarian and vegan, you’ll be happy to know that more and more resorts offer these menu choices. Lastly, if you want to splurge on lobster or chef’s specials, know that there’s generally always an up charge. If you still need more info, you can call the resort and get a full meal selection.

Do you like to have nice, sit-down meals aka dine a la carte?

“A la carte” is French for “by the card,” which further translated means this: you can order anything you want for any course, as opposed to the food items being part of a set meal or a buffet. Luckily, many resorts have a la carte restaurants, where you can enjoy being served. However, at some places, you’ll have three courses, but are limited to one choice per course. For instance, you can’t order two appetizers for your dinner. If you don’t want to eat a three-course meal, there are some restaurants that serve nothing but small plates. If this is important to you, just check with the resort.

Main course, 2017 Noble Beach Prize Winner for Most Divine Dining, Azul Sensatori Mexico
(Main course, 2017 Noble Beach Prize Winner for Most Divine Dining, Azul Sensatori Mexico, photo by: D. Studebaker.)

Are you more comfortable with buffets?

If you’re good with buffets, then you’ll be a happy beacher no matter where you book–most places have them. Some even have live-cooking stations that change every day.

Desserts, 2017 Noble Beach Prize Winner for Most Bodacious Buffet, Paradisus Playa del Carmen, La Esmeralda, Mexico
(Desserts, 2017 Noble Beach Prize Winner for Most Bodacious Buffet, Paradisus Playa del Carmen, La Esmeralda, Mexico, photo by: D. Studebaker.)

Do you like to choose when and where you want to eat?

There are a few different scenarios you’ll find when looking into this whole noshing-a-la-carte-thing at all-inclusive resorts:

  • At a good number of resorts, reservations are not required and you generally won’t have to stand in long lines to be seated.
  • Before your trip, some resorts allow you to call or email ahead of time and make your reservations.
  • At some resorts, you can make reservations for dinner when you check in, or you can talk to the concierge when you arrive. Tip: if you have to make reservations in the morning for dinner, get up early because the tables go quickly.
  • Based on the resort and how you book in, you may be limited to a specific number of times you can eat at an a la carte–without an extra charge.

However, if making sure that you get to eat at all the restaurants you want to while you’re on vacay is important to you, be sure you check this out before you choose your resort. You don’t want a meal-time buzzkill in beach paradise.

Bob Marley, Secrets St. James, Montego Bay, Jamaica
(Bob Marley, Secrets St. James, Montego Bay, Jamaica, photo by: one of our True Beach Lovers.)

Do you prefer top-shelf liquors or are house brands okay?

Let’s start with house brands: they are included when you stay at all-inclusive resorts and for these, there’s no limit. Time to party. However, if you want to order top-shelf liquors, there might be an up-charge, depending on the resort. If you want fine wines, as opposed to house brands, the general rule is that it will cost you. Finally, there are all-inclusive resorts where you can get top-shelf liquors for no extra charge.

Margarita, Breathless Riviera Cancun, Mexico
(Margarita, Breathless Riviera Cancun, Mexico, photo by: instagram.com/tammystravel.)

Here’s something else you should know: many resorts don’t have liquor in the room. And if you order a cocktail via room service, it might take a while to get there, at which point, your gin and tonic might be watered down. However, generally, there is beer in the fridge, except perhaps in Family-Friendly resorts. All this is to say that if cocktails are important to you, make sure you investigate your options before you book your hotel.

Is 24-hour room service something you can’t live without?

There are a wide variety of scenarios with this feature. For instance, at some resorts, you’ll enjoy free 24-hour room service with a great menu. Others might offer a limited menu and/or charge between certain late-night/early morning hours. And there are some hotels that don’t offer this at all.

BEACHES

Swoon. The beach. This is why you have packed up and left reality. However, there’s a variety of things to think about–dig into.

Punta Cana beach
(Punta Cana beach, Dominican Republic, photo by: instagram.com/may_hdzlimon.)

Here’s a way break it down – get the lay of the sand.

Does size matter?

To some, very much so. To others, not so much. Some beaches in the Caribbean, Mexico and Central America are miles and miles long. Some are medium-length. Some are small. Some are inland coves. Some are deep–the ocean is a good walk away. Some beaches are short–you can dip right in. If a certain type of beach is important to you, and you are a beach person (as opposed to a pool person), then you should check this out thoroughly before you book.

Must the sand be a certain color and consistency?

The beaches in the Caribbean and the gulf/Caribbean side of Mexico are generally heavenly. The color of sand is (mostly) sugar-white–some is even pink. The consistency of the sand ranges from soft powdery sand to grainier/nubby. Some can even be rocky–you’ll need to bring your water shoes.

Pink Sand Beach Bahamas
(Pink Sand Beach, Bahamas, photo by: instagram.com/mallorysnow.)

The beaches on the Pacific side of Mexico tend to have more beige sand and it can be a bit coarse (again, bring your water shoes). In Central America, you can find a mix of beaches: white, cream and even black sand in a variety of granularity.

Do the waves need to be bluer than blue?

The water presents in so many glistening hues of beautiful blue in the Caribbean and Mexico. Everything from crystal clear to deep turquoise. In Los Cabos, the water is a gorgeous cobalt. In Central America, the colors of the waves are also varied: dreamy clear/aquamarine water to take-your-breath-away, intense turquoise.

Allegro Cozumel Mexico
(Allegro Cozumel, Mexico, photo by: instagram.com/krystallee_diver.)

Another thing to consider when you’re thinking of beaching is the wave quotient: is the water serene or rough? Will swimming be easy or too hard? Answer: if you see a RED flag that is flying near the lifeguard stand, don’t go in the water. This is the universal signal for “stay out of the water.”

Los Cabos generally does not have swimmable beaches–the undertow is too dangerous. Though, there are a few beaches where you can get in, swim, float–whatever. However, the natural beauty of Cabo and all you can do there more than makes up for this.

What about the vibe?

Adults-only beaches are pretty self-explanatory. However, some larger resorts might have variations on this theme: they might have an adults-only section that is crazy nuts with non-stop activities and one that is more about chillaxing–quiet and beach read-worthy. Family-friendly beaches are just that: full of families.

Beach, 2017 Noble Beach Prize Winner for Best Beach Bliss, Secrets Maroma Beach Riviera Cancun, Mexico
(Beach, 2017 Noble Beach Prize Winner for Best Beach Bliss, Secrets Maroma Beach Riviera Cancun, Mexico, photo by: D. Studebaker.)

There are other beaches that are clothing optional, if not au naturel. Some of these are wild singles havens. Luckily, most resorts clearly mark beaches with signage, so that there are no surprises, as in the case with the au naturel beaches. No one wants that kind of situation with kids on a family vacay. If you are looking for a very specific beach vibe, make sure you vet this before you book.

ACCOMMODATIONS

 When you’re away from your own comfy bed and familiar surroundings, what kind of escape haven are you yearning for? All-inclusive resorts have so many kinds of room configurations. If a particular type of room is important to you, then you’ll want to do a thorough investigation of a resort’s room menu before you make reservations. Here’s a way to slice and dice it.

Bedroom, Dreams Tulum, Riviera Maya, Mexico
(Bedroom, Dreams Tulum, Riviera Maya, Mexico, photo by: L. Mitchell.)

Does your room need to be a replica of your room at home or vastly different?

Let’s start at the top. If you have the resources, many upscale resorts have penthouses with balconies or terraces, as well as large suites with other bedrooms, living areas, bathrooms with exquisite sunken Jacuzzi tubs and rain showers. There are even Jacuzzis or plunge pools on the balcony or terrace. In some cases, you’ll have full kitchens and dining rooms.  Junior Suites with ocean views and/or swim-up entrances/exits are also popular at pricier spots. As you move down the room food chain, things get more basic, though for families, there are a few different options. At some resorts, there will be two adjoining suites: one for you, one for the kids, depending on how close (or not) you want them to be to you.  At other resorts, you can also book two rooms together in a shared portico. While you won’t have interior access, your kids/family members will be right next door.

Secrets Akumal, Jr. Suite, Riviera Maya, Mexico
(Secrets Akumal, Jr. Suite, Riviera Maya, Mexico, photo by: R. Sanchez.)

If you just want a basic room with a bedroom, bath and living area, there are plenty of those at most resorts. At smaller, boutique hotels, you should not assume that the rooms will be small; while most are good sized, a few are vast and luxurious. The main thing to remember: the more you pay, the more bells and whistles you’ll get.

Bret Michaels' Suite, 2017 Noble Beach Prize Winner for The Sweetest Suite, Hard Rock Hotel Riviera Maya, Mexico
(Bret Michaels’ Suite, 2017 Noble Beach Prize Winner for The Sweetest Suite, Hard Rock Hotel Riviera Maya, Mexico, photo by: D. Studebaker.

Is an ocean view a must-have?

A room with an ocean view. That’s the prize–what we’re looking for, right? At all-inclusive resorts, in addition to the coveted beach vista, you can also get rooms with views of the pool, the tropical garden (which is so lush and wonderful) and in some destinations, the mountains.

View from room at Secrets The Vine, Mexico
(View from room at Secrets The Vine, Mexico, photo by: instagram.com/mandokl.)

There is also something called “partial view,” which means just that: you’ll get a daily peek at the said promised (beach) land. You should know that some rooms might look across a courtyard at the other side of the resort, but in the end, isn’t getting outside to the beach what a vacay is all about?

Room view, Caribe Hilton Hotel, San Juan, Puerto Rico
(Room view, Caribe Hilton Hotel, San Juan, Puerto Rico, photo by: instagram.com/mrsfalesy.)

What about upgrades?

Many resorts have special clubs and packages around this option. If it’s not listed on our site, or you can’t find it, you can call or email the hotel. In addition to potentially getting a better room, many times you’ll have access to private beaches, pools, restaurants, bars, private check-in/check-out with extended hours and so on. Feeling like you’re part of an exclusive group, those with special privileges, always adds an extra layer of pampering that you well deserve.

If you don’t have 100% perfectly connected Wi-Fi, will this be an issue?

As much as we tell ourselves that we’re going on a vacay to get away from it all, let’s not kid ourselves: we love our Wi-Fi. Luckily, most resorts have this. We said most. There are some stipulations. Sometimes, there’s an upcharge for your connectivity, but sometimes it’s free. But free Wi-Fi can be limited to one device per room. So, if you plan to bring multiple devices, be sure you find out how many are included in the free Wi-Fi–sometimes it might just be one or two, depending on the resort. And speaking of free Wi-Fi, when resorts say “free Wi-Fi,” it’s important to know the areas where you get a signal: is it only in the lobby, you room, the pool or the beach? Just be sure to ask about this so there are no surprises.

Beach view, Santa Barbara Beach Resort, Curacao
(Beach view, Santa Barbara Beach Resort, Curacao, photo by: instagram.com/paulavandergraaf.)

Frankly, the whole issue of connectivity is tricky: remember, going away to an ostensibly remote island/beachy spot implies that you desire a retreat from civilization where you can get your Zen on. This means that sometimes connections are unavailable or are dropped. Nevertheless, the whole idea of a vacation is that you’re supposed to be sequestered away from reality. Revel in it. It won’t last long.

NIGHTLIFE & ACTIVITIES

How much bar hopping do you want to do on vacay?

When you’re thinking about staying at a mega-resort, it’s safe to assume there will be lots of bars and night spots. Large and medium-sized resorts will have a good number as well. Small, boutique resorts, less. But something to keep in mind when browsing all-inclusive hotels is that at most restaurants, you can order a drink. There might even be a separate bar, so this will expand your list of where you can enjoy a cocktail.

Infiniti Bar, Grace Bay Club, Turks and Caicos
(Infiniti Bar, Grace Bay Club, Turks and Caicos, photo by: instagram.com/rraw88.)

Remember: there’s always room service and a mini-fridge in most rooms, so if you’ve had a big day on the beach (or wherever) you can always stay in with your adult beverages and order up a movie. 

Do you want to hang out at a wide variety of bars?

Beach and pool bars (many with swim-up) are pretty standard at any size of all-inclusive resorts you are considering.  Other drinkeries you might find include lobby bars, sports bars, piano bars, cinema bars and even casinos. For healthier concoctions, or those in need of recovery, there might also be juice/smoothie bars on the beach or by the pool–some are in the spa. Coffee bars (with sugary nibbles and snacks) can be found, but mostly at higher end places. However, any time you want a cup of Joe, rest assured you can find it at any size all-inclusive resort.

Love Bar, St. Martin
(Love Bar, St. Martin, photo by: D. Marmontello.)

What about the atmosphere, the vibe of these drinkeries?

From a high level, the kinds of watering holes you’ll find at a singles and/or adults-only resort will differ from one that’s family-friendly. However, in the singles’ all-inclusive category there are differences to look for: at a quiet, intimate couples’ retreat you might have a manager’s cocktail party, a BBQ by the pool, and so on. At singles joints, there can be nightly and monthly themed parties where you can dress up and strut your stuff. When it comes to swingers/clothing-optional spots, there are also the nightly/monthly themes, but the atmosphere is decidedly unhinged, as you can well imagine. In contrast, family-friendly resorts have bars at the beach, pool, lobby, and theatre where parents can be near their kids.

What about the number of shows by the entertainment team?

This can really run the gamut. Generally, larger resorts offer a large number of full-on shows by the entertainment team that run virtually around the clock at the pool, beach, lobby–everything from celebrity imitators (Michael Jackson) to dance teams to games that encourage audience participation. Medium to small resorts will generally have proportionally fewer.

Foam Pool Party, Noble Beach Prize Winner for Best Beach-O-Tainment, Breathless Riviera Cancun, Mexico
(Foam Pool Party, 2017 Noble Beach Prize Winner for Best Beach-O-Tainment, Breathless Riviera Cancun, Mexico, photo by: D. Studebaker.)

What about nightly entertainment like live music, guest DJs, visiting artists and other special shows?

If you are looking for an all-inclusive resort with a full menu of live music and other entertainment, those that are larger are your best bets. Some resorts even have shows at night on the beach that include everything from fireworks (especially if it’s a holiday) to acrobats.

When you’re shopping all-inclusive, and know you’ll want to be out and about–entertained–in the evenings, put these things on your must-have list.

DJ at club, 2015-16 Noble Beach Prize Winner for Best Beach-O-Tainment, Breathless Punta Cana, Dominican Republic
(DJ at club, 2016 Noble Beach Prize Winner for Best Beach-O-Tainment, Breathless Punta Cana, Dominican Republic, photo by: D. Studebaker.)

When you’re beaching, do you want a whole lot of things to do on land (that are not necessarily the beach)?

On terra firma, there are things to do out the wazoo. Everything from beach volleyball to bocce ball. Tennis to golf. Billiards to archery. Yoga/Pilates to a work-out at the fitness center. Biking to hiking. Even horseback riding on the beach. There really are a hefty number of things to do beside beaching/pooling it. If you want to hang inside, take a break from the sun, you can take cooking, wine-tasting and Spanish classes. For the kids, most resorts have kids’ clubs with all kinds of things to keep them occupied: sand castle building, art classes, treasure hunts and so on. Sometimes you can hire a baby sitter. The topline? There’s so many beachtastic things to do. Just ask the concierge.

Kids Club, 2017 Noble Beach Prize Winner for Best Kid-tivities, Nickelodeon Punta Cana Hotels & Resorts, Dominican Republic
(Kids Club, 2017 Noble Beach Prize Winner for Best Kid-tivities, Nickelodeon Punta Cana Hotels & Resorts, Dominican Republic, photo by: D. Studebaker.)

Do you want a vacay that is all about water sports?

When you’re beaching, get ready to dive in. Many resorts offer water activities that are free like snorkeling, Hobie cats, windsurfing and kayaking. Water aerobics and water polo. However, there’s generally an extra charge for scuba diving, deep-sea fishing and sailing. For the kids, it’s up to you to use your discretion about what sports will work best for them. But, here’s the good news: many resorts have epic water parks. This is big fun–for kids of all ages.

Kayaks, Iberostar Rose Hall Suites, Jamaica
(Kayaks, Iberostar Rose Hall Suites, Jamaica, photo by: one of our True Beach Lovers.)

Are going on excursions important to you?

There are many kinds of place to visit outside your all-inclusive resort; however, what you can do differs, of course, on where you’re located. For instance, if you’re in the Yucatan, you’ll find many day trips to Mayan ruins. If you go to Grenada, you can tour the famous Grenada Chocolate Factory. If you’re in the Dominican Republic, you might go to Saona Island. Almost every spot on the sand has thrilling excursions you’ll remember forever. The best part about all this? All-inclusive resorts have so much to take advantage of that you can choose to stay on the resort, or venture out. It’s up to you.

Tulum ruins, Riviera Maya, Mexico
(Tulum ruins, Riviera Maya, Mexico, photo by: instagram.com/aolnoue.)

Does your dream beach vacay include time at the spa?

There’s no doubt that chillaxing in the sand, sun and crystal clear water is a kind of therapy: it’s incredibly rejuvenating. But if you even want more soul-nourishment and spoiling, then head to the resort’s luscious spa. As a rule, the more upscale the hotel–from mega/large to boutique–the more diverse, unusual treatments you’ll find, i.e. Aromatherapy Salt Glow massage, Chocolate Body Wrap (yum) and Luminous “C” and Sea Facial. Medium resorts and smaller, more affordable resorts generally have the basics: massages and facials, along with saunas, Jacuzzis and steam rooms. The fancier places offer “ice rooms” after you’ve been heated up in the steam/sauna. Massages on the beach, solo or couples, are a definite Bucket List item.

Massage tables, Sandos Caracol Eco Resort, Playa del Carmen, Mexico
(Massage tables, Sandos Caracol Eco Resort, Playa del Carmen, Mexico, photo by: one of our True Beach Lovers.)

Hydrotherapy is a big thing in lots of resorts and some offer “water journeys” that may or may not include hot and cold plunge pools. However, no matter what size all-inclusive hotel–large, medium or small–some spas incorporate local indigenous herbs and oils. If you’re into pampering, you’d be hard-pressed to find a more soothing, cultural experience for body and soul.

POOL

How many pools do you want at your resort?

The larger the resort, the more pools you get–or just more pool. For instance, the Grand Palladium in Jamaica has the largest infinity pool on the island. It’s truly epic. In turn, the smaller the resort, the fewer pools you’ll have. However, there are always exceptions. If you are more a pool person, than beach dweller, you’ll want to check this out when browsing.

Infinity pool, 2017 Noble Beach Prize Winner for The Pool That Rules at the Grand Palladium Lady Hamilton, Jamaic
(Infinity pool, 2017 Noble Beach Prize Winner for The Pool That Rules at the Grand Palladium Lady Hamilton, Jamaica, photo by: instagram.com/xxdanniicolpxx.)

What types of pools are you looking for?

This is where it gets fun–there are so many kinds of pools to revel in: main pool (usually large, square or round), infinity (they’re dreamy), activity (for swimming), quiet (adults-only), party (adults-only) and kids (obvious). These splishy splashy havens often include slides, pirate ships, squirting fountains, fun houses–lots of different configurations for your beach munchkins. Then there’s the shape of the pool: the main pool might be free-form, some of which are quite large and impressive, and found in the middle of the resort. There’s also lazy rivers that snake through the resort and connect to the pools. Perfect for a float and a cocktail. Then one of the best things: Jacuzzis that are near or built into the pool. You can grab a drink and let the jets de-stress you while you chill. When you upgrade at some resorts, you’ll have access to private pools–these can be any size and shape.

Pool, Secrets Akumal, Riviera Maya, Mexico
(Pool, Secrets Akumal, Riviera Maya, Mexico, photo by: C. Studebaker.)

In addition to the requisite loungers around the pool, you also might have built-in loungers in the pool where you can soak and sun. Most resorts offer poolside towel service, so you don’t have to drag your bathing towels down from your room. You also might see Bali beds and cabanas that line the pool, but these go fast so get up early to snag them.

DISTANCE TO AIRPORT/RESORT

 What about transfers from the airport to the resort?

“Transfers” are a fancy word that means the transportation–taxis, big buses and mini-vans–that take you to and from the airport and resort. The smartest thing to do is to arrange for these BEFORE you leave for your trip. Your travel company or resort personnel can help you arrange this. This is definitely not something you want to leave to chance and wing it when you land, especially if you don’t speak the language of the destination. If Amstar is available in your destination, it’s your best bet for reliable, clean and trustworthy transfers. On the way to your destination, you’ll likely get beverages, adult and otherwise, along with a warm welcome.

View from plane of Turks and Caicos
(View from plane of Turks and Caicos, photo by: twitter/jboring79.)

How long will it take to get to the resort?

This varies. You can either land in your destination and be at your resort’s beach in a few short minutes, or you’ll have a bit of a trek. If you choose a resort in the Caribbean and Mexico that’s more remote, oftentimes it can take up to an hour or more to reach your Beach Eden. It all depends on what you’re willing to tolerate. When you’re shopping for an all-inclusive resort and you fall in love with a destination, make sure to check the distance from the airport.

Are there transfers available at the resort and in the destination?

When you vacay at an all-inclusive resort, there is so much to do that you might not ever leave the property. However, there will be taxis, buses and shuttles to take you to the excursions.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Lisa Mitchell

I am a blogger for CheapCaribbean.com who is a travel junkie and addicted to the beach.

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