Central America

The demise of the all-inclusive vacation

Having returned last month from a week at an all-inclusive resort Paradisus Playa Del Carmen La Ismeralda in stunning Riviera Maya, Mexico, I began to ponder that perhaps the age of worry-free vacations at a flat price is coming to end for frugal family budgets. While traveling pre-baby, we had been flexible on accommodations in order to see more and eat better, while away from home. Babies are a game-changer though. You want to ensure your child(ren) have a comfortable, clean place to stay and can continue thriving wherever you go, benefiting from their new environment.

Of course, what initially enticed us, formerly adventurous travelers who haven’t been on proper beach holiday since our daughter was born, was the joy of clean, comfortable accommodations, as well as a break from planning the next meal for our ever-hungry toddler, solving logistical transfer questions, or planning what to bring to an apartment rental for a comfortable stay.  Having consulted with other families and read a number of articles and reviews, I settled on La Ismeralda in the Mexican Riviera – price to reported quality was high and this is considered a very family friendly hotel.  In 2016, US News published a travel report with a header The Evolution of All-Inclusive Resorts, touting how increased criticism of diluted alcohol, average-to-poor food and service were turning around into ever-improving and luxurious resorts.  And a part of me really wanted to believe that since I last visited an all-inclusive about a decade ago, positive changes had flooded this industry. I ignored the voice in my head that kept saying: “Your child doesn’t actually need 24 hour access to food. You don’t either. What if you just stay at a quality hotel by a myriad of restaurants and excellent beach? Wouldn’t that be just as relaxing? And potentially cheaper because you are not paying for all the amenities you won’t be using?”

And my stay has largely shown me one of two things, which may or may not be mutually exclusive. Take this with a grain of salt, as this is my opinion and is bordering on a hotel review, but I’ve discovered the following for myself:

1. All-inclusive is a lifestyle. There is nothing wrong with it, but if you, like me, get depressed if your next adventure is finding the restaurant where your evening reservation was made, then perhaps this is not YOUR lifestyle. Not to say that a perhaps a few days worry-free could be really blissful… but I am not sure I again want to spend 7-10 days shuttling between my room, beach, pool bar and restaurant without ever seeing anything of the country that is hosting me

2. For a traveler who seeks enjoyment at a reasonable price, all-inclusives are a collossal rip-off. And I mean of MONUMENTAL proportions. So much so, that I actually need bullets to point out all the ways.

  • On a typical evening out at a normal restaurant, we’d order a small variety of food to try and share. In an all-inclusive, we literally had 8-10 different plates coming out, not as much to try, but to see what we can actually consume that will taste good. So, so, so much waste.
  • The alcohol is a separate story. Watered-down doesn’t begin to describe what is actually being served at most watering holes around the resort. And yet, you’ve paid for top-shelf alcohol.
  • The whole objective of the all-inclusive is to keep you entertained inside the resort. So whether you like music and dancing, or your child needs daytime entertainment while you bask in the sun on the waterfront, or you may want a Jacuzzi in your room… all these things are bundled into one really expensive all-inclusive price. But do you really need all these activities?

3. The service is subpar. Everywhere? May be not in the luxury all-inclusive. But moderate luxury that is above $200-250/night doesn’t yield the symmetrical level of service without additional tipping. And if you’ve been saving for your vacation and paying so much per night, there is really little incentive to tip further. But to make it worthwhile for the service workers, you really have to. The hotel has pocketed your money and really, they can pretty much do whatever they need to ensure that they minimize expenses. That comes not only at cutting costs around the products they offer (as discussed above about food and drink), but also the staff.  An average food service worker such as a waiter or bartender in a Mexican hotel, for example, makes around $4-5 a day (around 100 Mexican pesos), not counting tips. What’s his incentive to go out of his way to bring you a third margarita in 3 minutes or less? None. Absolutely bloody none. This is how you end up waiting 45 minutes for room service to arrive with 2 bottles of water that they should have just stocked in your mini-fridge. Hence, without extra tipping, they really have no incentive to make sure you have great service that will be memorable after your stay. So take that for what you will… either tip everywhere you go or maybe an all-inclusive is not for you.

There are many other issues that can arise in an all-inclusive stay that really encapsulates the feelings of entrapment and deceit for me. Specific issues depend on the hotel. Meanwhile, I think I’ve learned my lesson.

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