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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.

In years 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.

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.

What’s Covered, What’s Not

Although packages vary based on the resort, a typical all-inclusive vacation includes roundtrip 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, phone calls and souvenirs.

However, some resorts do offer packages or resort credits for these extras, allowing you to know exactly what you’ll pay upfront. “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, 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.

Be sure to double-check exactly what’s included with the resort or travel agent before booking anything. Some resorts only offer free buffets, while a la carte dining is extra. 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, like 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, president of All Inclusive Outlet, an online travel agency specializing in all-inclusive resorts. Babin points out that the true cost of a cruise can easily triple from the base price after all of the extras—airfare, taxes, mandatory gratuities and more—are added up.

How to Find the Best Deals

The great thing about all-inclusive vacations is that you know upfront what the vacation will cost, so you can 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.

Other ways to find great deals: 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.”

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