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In defense of the all-inclusive resort

By Katia Hetter, CNN
updated 7:01 AM EST, Fri February 7, 2014
Before you refuse to visit an all-inclusive resort, let's look at the stereotypes of this much-maligned travel experience. Before you refuse to visit an all-inclusive resort, let's look at the stereotypes of this much-maligned travel experience.
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The all-inclusive experience
Bland buffet food
An unplanned vacation
A booze fest
A cheap getaway
Unimaginative
Never say never
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STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • The all-inclusive price generally includes room, food and some drink
  • Critics say there's no sense of adventure or exploring local culture
  • Fans like fun in the sun and knowing how much their vacation will cost

(CNN) -- We see your nose turning up at the notion of booking an all-inclusive resort in Mexico or Jamaica or the Bahamas.

Are you picturing bad buffets, cheap booze and partying within the resort walls, never leaving to explore local culture?

All that does exist, and more power to you if you're not picky about uncomplicated, affordable R&R. Some 14% of U.S. travelers stayed in an all-inclusive in 2012, compared to 8% in 2010, according to Douglas Quinby, PhoCusWright's vice president of research.

We know all-inclusive resorts aren't always the most daring way to go on vacation. And if you're dead set against it, just skip it.

But if you're on the fence -- curious but worried about the stereotypes -- read on as we look at some of the half-truths of this travel experience. There's as much variety among all-inclusive resorts as there is among hotels, and it's up to you to find the right one for you.

It's not all included

"All-inclusive" generally means travelers are charged one price for their rooms, all food and drink (including certain alcohol brands) and some other activities, says Tom Hall, the England-based director of Lonely Planet's online editorial. Package prices can vary, depending on the size and location of your room.

Upscale alcohol brands, motorized water sports, spa treatments and off-site excursions are generally not included, but they could be at your resort. "What you actually get for your money differs from resort to resort," Hall says.

Some resorts offer "resort credits" that can be used toward the not-included resort expenses.

It's not always cheap

While packaging may yield significant savings, you can easily spend a bundle depending on your choice of budget versus elegant all-inclusive, which country you visit, the time of year you're traveling, room size and room location (ocean versus garden view). And off-site excursions and spa treatments add to the tab.

A week for two at a budget all-inclusive resort with the typical buffet line could cost $1,150 to $1,600, while a moderate all-inclusive with a few more food choices could cost $1,650 to $3,500, says Sara Butruff, a Travel Leaders travel agent in Apple Valley, Minnesota. A premium all-inclusive resort could cost from $3,600 to $10,000 or more—and lots of amenities could be included in that high-end choice.

But there's value in knowing the final price up front.

With everything paid for ahead of time, "you know exactly how much your room and meals will be, and if you don't want to, you don't have to spend another dime," says Debby Simonton, a stay-at-home mom in Coplay, Pennsylvania, who loves to take her family to all-inclusive resorts every couple of years.

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It's not all bland buffet food

Simonton knows how to work the food options at all-inclusive resorts. Her favorite spot, Hilton Rose Hall Resort & Spa in Jamaica, offers six restaurant options (some with reservations required), two bars and room service.

Simonton loves to try dishes that might be too expensive at home if it turns out she doesn't like them. But she's also happy for the resorts to have food she knows everyone in her family will like.

And what about that buffet line? "Learning how to 'work' a buffet comes with a little practice," she says. "Want your omelet to have better cheese than the shredded cheddar the omelet chef has? Go to the cheese bar, grab some and take it to the chef."

Basic all-inclusives offer buffets and local brand alcohol, while the moderate all-inclusives may offer lobster or other fancier fare for a surcharge, says Butruff, the Minnesota travel agent. Premium resorts often have more restaurants, a la carte restaurants and premium spirits—all included.

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Resorts owned by the same company may offer reciprocal dining privileges to give you diverse dining options. "Let's say you are staying at the Sandals Royal Caribbean in Jamaica," says American Express travel agent Linda D'Arcy, based in Oak Brook, Illinois. "You can grab the complimentary transfer over to the Sandals Montego Bay resort and eat (complimentary) at the Japanese restaurant on site at the Sandals Mo Bay, which they do not have at the Sandals Royal Caribbean property."

Some resorts include dining coupons in resort packages, which guests can use in town for dinner at no extra cost.

For a fixed additional fee, you can often add specialty courses to your stay. Karisma's El Dorado Royale resort in the Riviera Maya, Mexico, charges an additional $260 for its weeklong wine experience, which includes tastings, cooking courses, pairings and a special dinner.

A variation on the all-inclusive

There also are resorts that offer flexible -- and often elegant-- food packages. The cost is set so you're not surprised, but you can opt out of some daily meals to allow for exploration of local dining spots.

Beverly Ross recently returned from the Spa Retreat Boutique Hotel in Negril, where she chose a meal plan that was incorporated into the total cost of her stay. Ross researched all-inclusive vacations in Jamaica before choosing the Spa Retreat, which offers partially inclusive and all-inclusive meal plans.

"The menu was designed around local fresh fish and produced with healthy eating in mind. It was not a buffet and the chef would prepare what you requested," said Ross, a sociologist who teaches at California University of Pennsylvania.

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Not thinking is not an option

Fail to do your research about what's included (or not) at a particular resort and you're more likely to get stuck with food that doesn't satisfy, too-cheap alcohol, cheesy staff entertainment or high prices for off-site excursions. You might even show up during hurricane season or the colder time of year.

Some resorts have local brews as part of their included alcohol but charge extra for top-shelf brands, if they carry them at all. Resort restaurants--and the number and quality varies from resort to resort--may have restrictions on how many nights you can reserve a table at their swankier spots. The fancier the resort, the more likely it is to carry higher-end brands and serve higher-end food, and include them in the price.

Minnesota-based Butruff sends lots of cold-weather clients to warm-weather resorts. Couples often come into her office with completely different ideas about what they want on vacation, so she quizzes them.

"What do you want to do on vacation?" she says. "What types of hotels have you already stayed in? What types of adventures have you had?"

"Often what they want is not what they've said they want."

It's not all drunken parties (unless you want it to be)

All-inclusive alcoholic drinks are part of the appeal. But you can choose a resort that focuses on lots of drinking way into the night or one that shuts down the bars at 8 p.m. Some resorts keeps the intensive drinking segregated to the resort bar or elsewhere.

The more upscale resorts will be a little quieter, says D'Arcy, although their clientele aren't necessarily limiting their drinking. "I have seen people who are very drunk but expertly handled by the staff."

The drinking doesn't bother Melissa McCloud.

"As far as the sometimes crazy party scene, if that is not your thing, go hang out elsewhere on the resort," says McCloud, a stay-at-home mom from Bolingbrook, Illinois, who visits all-inclusive resorts once or twice per year. "These all-inclusives are usually huge places, and there are plenty of places to go and things to do that do not involve that!"

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It doesn't mean you're dull

It's true that some people just want to chill out on vacation, sitting by the pool or beach with free-flowing fruity drinks. There's nothing wrong with that, especially when there's an Arctic tundra at home.

But you don't have to stay within the walls. Step out and explore local food and culture, swim with the dolphins and do zip lining for a fee. (Look for resort credits to fund those excursions.) If you want that local flavor, choose a resort that's not miles and miles from the closest towns and attractions.

Some people want a specific sense of community that all-inclusives can provide, whether it's a focus on hedonism, romance, LGBT families or sobriety.

Sober Vacations International has taken over Club Med Turquoise in the Turks & Caicos the week ending February 8, 2014. Reserving the resort allows people in recovery to vacation with the support of other people trying to stay sober.

There's no need to be so snide

And be wary, you hip, do-it-yourself critics of the all-inclusive resort. Right now you're backpacking through Latin America, jumping off trains in Eastern Europe when you hear about a cool new art installation, or strolling through Tokyo to track down the latest underground bar.

Now put a baby in your Ergo baby carrier.

Not so cool anymore, right? A few years from now, you may be partnered with kids in diapers, says Lonely Planet's Hall. Cool is less important than a full night's sleep, teaching your daughter to swim or holding your spouse's hand as you watch the sunset.

"An all-inclusive may be the way to go," he says.

Maybe you'll even want to bring the grandparents.

Have you been to an all-inclusive resort? Why or why not? Please share your thoughts and experiences in the comments section below.

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