How to Plan for the True Cost of “All-Inclusive” Vacations

They can save you time and money, but some things aren’t always covered. Learn how to find the best deals, budget for extras and avoid surprises.

Smiling woman holding a cheese plate with friends on a patio

by NEA Member Benefits

Jan 20, 2023

In the past, all-inclusive vacations conjured images of bad buffets, hidden fees and overpriced packages. Today, the concept has evolved to include resorts around the world for every demographic, price range and interest—and sometimes the food is surprisingly good!

Whether you’re hunting for the perfect family vacation or a romantic getaway at an adults-only resort, all-inclusive vacations can save you time, money and stress. But be sure to read the fine print, ask the right questions, and prepare yourself for any costs that might not be included in your initial budget.

What’s covered, what’s not

Although packages vary based on the resort, a typical all-inclusive vacation booked via an outside company includes round-trip airfare and ground transfers from the airport to the resort, hotel accommodations, unlimited food and drinks, on-site entertainment and activities, taxes and gratuities. 

What’s typically not included? Spa treatments, off-property tours and excursions, motorized water sports and golf, private lessons, and souvenirs. And if you’re booking through a resort, then airfare and transfers may not be included.

However, some resorts do offer add-on packages or resort credits for extra amenities. That helps you plan ahead and know exactly what you’ll pay upfront for the whole trip experience you want.

“You can literally take an all-inclusive vacation with absolutely no spending money and still eat, drink and be entertained to your heart’s content,” says Sandy Babin, former vice president of marketing at Apple Vacations, a charter vacation company. “Better yet, the quality of service, cuisine and luxury is generally outstanding” at all-inclusive resorts.

Some resorts, such as Club Med, offer other specials to entice families. For example, children under 4 could stay for free, or there could be complimentary enrichment programs, such as wine tastings and cooking classes. At Sandals Resorts, many land and water sports are included, from scuba diving to fitness center access.

Double-check what’s included before booking

Some resorts only offer free buffets, while a la carte dining is extra. Or, you can dine at certain restaurants only one time per stay. Room service may be an added cost, and occasionally airport transfers and Wi-Fi are not included. Also, don’t forget to factor in expenses at the airport, such as meals and parking.

On the other hand, be wary of all-inclusive cruises, which typically have many additional costs, such as drinks (both alcoholic and non), shore excursions, snacks and even on-site activities, says Tom Carr, founder and CEO of Preferred Vacations. Babin points out that the true cost of a cruise can easily triple from the advertised base price after all the extras—airfare, taxes, mandatory gratuities and more—are added up.

How to find great deals

With all-inclusive vacations, you know upfront what your vacation will cost. That lets you budget in advance without the worry of racking up additional costs, says Linda Schreiber, president and owner of Starship Travel Inc., an online travel agency specializing in all-inclusive travel.

“By the time you pay for your airport and hotel transfers, meals, drinks and activities at a non-inclusive hotel, the total cost is generally significantly higher than an all-inclusive package,” Babin says.

Whether you go directly through the resort or use a travel agent, all-inclusive vacations can be personalized to exactly what you want out of your vacation. To save time and find the best deal, Carr recommends finding a travel agent who specializes in the all-inclusive vacation niche.

Debbie White, a worldwide representative of Sandals Resorts, agrees: “Sandals Resorts in particular has a great working relationship with agents, so they always know about our latest promotions, from airfare credits to free nights.”

Concerned about the cost of an agent? Don’t be! “Travel agents typically don’t charge for their time, they’re educated and up-to-date on the industry, available 24/7 if there is a problem before or during travel, and generally only require a deposit for trips, unlike online agencies that require full payment at time of booking,” Schreiber says.

Other perks of using a travel agent: Insurance is often offered, agents save you time by sorting through the best packages available, and they’re often able to get better rooms than search engines. “Online agencies get the leftover rooms, and they tend to bait-and-switch the clients,” Schreiber says.

Follow resorts on social media to find special promotions, and check their websites for current specials. It’s also important to consider the time of year. Holidays and common breaks, such as spring break, are typically more expensive times to travel, but the first three weeks of December are great times to find deals, Carr says.

“If you can squeeze a trip in between semester end and before Christmas, there will be great deals and plenty of space,” Carr says. “Similarly, late summer through October is the best time to find a great rate.”

Broaden your idea of an all-inclusive

While “all-inclusive” used to mostly be relegated to beach vacations, the last few decades have greatly expanded the category, and now there really is an all-inclusive for everyone—even the sand haters. 

For example, if you’re looking for a wellness retreat, affordable ones like Pura Vida Adventures in Costa Rica and Kripalu Center for Yoga and Health in the Berkshire Mountains not only include accommodations and food, but daily fitness classes, workshops, wellness activities and even certain spa treatments. 

Or, plan a ranch vacation in Montana, Colorado or Wyoming that has activities like horseback riding, clay shooting, archery and more included. In winter, some include skiing, snowmobiling and other winter sports.

For an alpine trip, look at Club Med’s only North American resort in Quebec, Canada. Club Med Quebec Charlevoix includes skiing, ski lessons, kids clubs and more than 30 winter and summer activities.

Like to dive? Check out Hamansi Adventure & Dive Resort in Belize, where certain packages include a set number of excursions, including diving, snorkeling and cave and jungle hikes.

NEA members can look for deals through NEA Travel: Resorts.

Plan your next getaway today