Monday, January 27, 2014

All-Inclusive Vacation Planning for Beginners - Volume 1

Booking the perfect all-inclusive vacation is one of the most difficult travel planning tasks to complete. Unlike a typical hotel, an all-inclusive property is responsible not only for your room but also your breakfast, lunch, dinner, drinks, entertainment and a large portion of your daily activities including the hours spent at the beach or by the pool.

On my first all-inclusive experience I winged it and booked on a whim. I didn't spend much time looking at reviews or searching out resources (like this one) which may have assisted me in finding the right place for the right price. The trip wasn't a disaster by any means, we had a great time and felt we got our money's worth. However it wasn't perfect, and when it came time to return to the Caribbean for our honeymoon a few years later, I was determined to not leave a single grain of beach sand unturned. What followed was literally months of intensive research, and eventually the perfect trip. While you may not be a trip-research nerd (ahem, "aficionado") like me, here are a few pointers to help you choose the right resort, get the most out of your travel dollar and reduce the chance that you make a rookie all-inclusive mistake. 

1. Know your AI (all-inclusive) options.

 The "big three" AI destinations for Canadians are Cuba, Dominican Republic and Mexico. These offer by far the largest selection of AI resorts and thus the most competitive prices. Cuba is the most affordable of the bunch, with week-long AI's as cheap as $500. (all price estimates are for flight and AI hotel per-person in CAD, including taxes). Low-end vacations in the other two will come in slightly higher than that, and all three have high-end resorts which can exceed $2000. 

Moving beyond that you have the next group containing the likes of Jamaica, Costa Rica, Aruba, Bahamas and Barbados. These locations offer a great selection of AI options, but tend to lean towards the higher-end of the price and luxury spectrum. Finally there are several "premium" islands that have very limited (and very pricy) AI's, which cater to honeymooners or other splurge vacations. These include Antigua, Puerto Rico, Turks and Caicos, St. Lucia, St. Kitts etc.  

If you aren't looking to score originality points, and don't mind mega-resorts with thousands of people, you can do very well with a vacation in one of the 'big three". Your money goes a long way in these countries and for as little as $1000-$1200 with the right research you could land a 4-star, well-reviewed resort. This can surely not be said for the other locations. 

2. TripAdvisor is your best friend and will not steer you wrong.

I swear I'm not getting paid by TripAdvisor (however it would be really cool if i was!), but you simply cannot book any hotel, especially an all-inclusive resort without them. Their collection of reviews is the only benchmark that matters when it comes to assessing the quality of a property. Even the most rundown roach-filled resort will have a nice website that says it is the perfect spot for your vacation. You need REAL reviews from actual travellers to tell you it is worthwhile. Basically if a resort isn't in the top 25% of resorts in a specific location on TripAdvisor, it likely has some clear flaws. For example, Punta Cana, a hugely popular AI destination in Dominican Republic has 101 hotels listed. Anything out of the top 25 probably isn't worth you time. I'm not saying that the 26th ranked hotel is bad, but simply noting that you will likely find several options in the top 25 that fit your budget. 

Seeing a pristine beach photo like this one uploaded by an actual traveller
says so much more than the same photograph on a resort website.

3. Flexibility is key.

I know it's not always feasible, but when planning an AI, try to make your dates as flexible as possible. I get it, it's nice to leave and come home on a Saturday, but if you can save $200 per person to switch that to a Wednesday, wouldn't it be worth it? Due largely to flight demand, prices for the identical AI vacation fluctuate greatly by changing your departure by as little as one or two days. The more flexible you are, the more power you have to bring down the price to the absolute lowest amount possible. TripCentral is a fantastic site for seeing how prices vary based on date, as they utilize a super-convenient "pricing grid" tool. 

4. Contact your resort ahead of time.

This is by no means a guarantee, but emailing your resort a couple weeks before your arrival can't hurt. Tell them about your honeymoon or 25th wedding anniversary. Let them know that you loved reading about how great their resort was and are hoping they can make your vacation a memorable one. If the hotel isn't full they may consider upgrading your room or at least giving you an ideal room/view in the category you booked. It can't hurt to try, as there is so much competition for tourist dollars at these locations, they know that a small gesture will go a long way in turning you into a repeat visitor. The TripAdvisor forums are a great resource for finding the email contacts for resorts. Guests that have had luck will provide you with the exact email addresses they contacted so you may do the same. 

I informed the resort it was my honeymoon, and was rewarded with this fantastic view!

5. It's the little things in life (and in AI's).

So you've glanced at the reviews for a resort your interested in. They seem to have great food, an awesome beach and modern clean rooms. All set right? Well almost. How about you read a dozen or more reviews from top to bottom and get some more useful information for your big decision. Does the resort suffer from the (sadly) common "not enough beach loungers after 8AM" issue? Is it a major "family" destination, which translates to "probably not the best honeymoon destination"? Are there annoying vendors and/or time share sharks prowling the beach every day? All of these questions can be answered by previous reviews on TA. If you have a specific question try a Google search with the resort name, chances are someone else has asked it already or included the answer in a review. 

Stay tuned for volume two on this topic when I cover even more AI booking tips, including choosing the perfect beach, avoiding potential hazards, advanced TripAdvisor techniques and more! 

For now I'll leave you with a review of my own honeymoon trip from this past April.

Any AI related questions, comments or tips? I would love to hear from you in the comments! 

Mike @ Palms & Pints 

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