Is an all-inclusive vacation really all inclusive?
It’s a question that comes up often when travelers consider whether to book a resort or a cruise. So often, in fact, that it makes me wonder if there really is such a thing as an all-inclusive vacation anymore.
And if so, which one is more inclusive: the cruise or the resort?
Answer the question correctly, and you’ll have a great vacation. Answer wrong — and by that, I mean you or your travel agent fail to research the product — and you could end up on the trip from hell with a credit card bill to match.
No need for that to happen. I’m here to help.
Cruises are rarely all-inclusive.
Most cruise lines include your cabin, your meals, and your onboard entertainment in the price. But if you are not careful, the bill that is discretely slipped under your door on your last night might make you want to jump ship.
While cruising, you can expect to pay for any drinks (including soda), a fee to dine in a specialty restaurant, your shore excursions, onboard purchases, gambling (never charge gambling to your stateroom), maybe ice cream at the Haagen-Dazs shop, your burger at Johnny Rockets, your Internet access, your telephone calls, and, of course, your tips.
For a family of four, you can easily expect to add $1,000 for your all-inclusive cruise. When you board, you will usually be required to put a credit card on file for the charges. For those who do not use credit cards, many ships are now requiring cash deposits of $200 per day with any refunds due to be paid by check when you disembark. So save some money for the cab fare home.
As long as your travel professional (or Web site) has made you aware of the additional costs, you should be ready to enjoy the experience that only cruising can offer. Unlike any land-based vacation, you are visiting many different places. Your week-long cruise can take you five or six ports of call with a day or two at sea.
While the port stays tend to be short, it is a good way to get the flavor of a destination — perhaps as a prelude for a future land-based visit. Ships currently sail in all seven oceans and while the Caribbean may be the most popular, cruising can be a great way to see Europe and the South Pacific. If the warm sand is not calling, cruising Europe can save you a bundle. Take advantage of the decline of the dollar and book your mostly-inclusive vacation with your US dollars and save the gouging for that fabulous restaurant in Monte Carlo.
All-inclusive resorts are a relatively new phenomenon, and almost exclusive to the Caribbean and Mexico.
For one upfront price your vacation does indeed include virtually everything. Unlike cruises, these vacations typically include all of your drinks, ice cream, water sports, diving, and yes, even golf if it is available.
If you are a finicky drinker, be sure to check if the program includes premium alcohol, a lot of them only include the local domestic hooch. Of course, any personal purchases and gambling are on your own.
You will be required to put a credit card on file for your incidentals, but it is very easy to walk away without a charge. Even your personal expenses will be a bargain in the Caribbean and Mexico due to the strong dollar in those areas.
Now that your expenses are in check, be sure the all-inclusive resort lifestyle is for you.
Most resorts do offer side-trips to local attractions and these prices are on par with any shore excursions offered by the cruise lines. However, most all-inclusive vacationers tend to remain on the property to simply bask in the sun with an umbrella over their head and another in their drink.
Like the cruise lines, the food will be varied in the main dining area, and they will typically have several themed restaurants for you to try out as well. Most of these do require a reservation and have a dress code, but are available at no additional charge.
As you go through the process of planning your vacation, you need to keep not only the trip budget in mind, but the ultimate cost of the trip. Here is where an experienced travel planner can be worth his weight in gold.
There are many destinations that are very affordable but can’t be flown to affordably. Cancun and Jamaica (the epicenter of all-inclusive resorts) offer affordable airfare worldwide. Cruising is no longer limited to south Florida either with cruises departing from Baltimore, Norfolk, Philadelphia, New York, New Orleans, Galveston, Los Angeles, Seattle and San Francisco. Getting there has become affordable.
Regardless, these two choices will let you maintain control of your vacation costs so you can come home relaxed and refreshed — not broke.
John Frenaye is the president of JVE Group, Inc., a diversified company which operates the Carlson Wagonlit Travel associate office in Arnold, Md. With a background in business management, he writes about the travel industry as an insider with an outsider's perspective. or . Want to sound off about one of his columns? Try visiting .