If you’re looking for a getaway where everything is taken care of, which vacation type — a cruise or an all-inclusive resort — is truly the better deal?
While cruise lines like to promote their vacations as “all-inclusive,” that is a misrepresentation in most cases, leaving many cruise travelers wondering why they’re being charged for soda, alcohol, specialty coffees, meals in specialty restaurants, bottled water, gratuities and select onboard activities. And that’s on top of paying for shore excursions, spa treatments, fitness classes, commemorative photos and souvenirs.
Typically, your cruise fare includes onboard accommodations, meals in a few (but not all) onboard eateries, select nonalcoholic beverages, pool use and some daytime kids programs.
On many of the newer ships, cruise fares also give passengers access to ropes courses, water parks with multiple slides, rock climbing walls and even zip lines. Most onboard entertainment also is included. In the evening, Vegas-style shows, Broadway musicals, comedy, magic acts and more are available. During the day, a variety of audience participation activities are offered, though some (like bowling, bingo and beer and wine tastings) do carry extra fees.
Luxury cruise ships are a different story. Many higher-priced cruise lines, as well as some river cruise and expedition ships, include some or all shore excursions and a selection of both nonalcoholic and alcoholic beverages in their fares.
What is not included in my cruise fare?
On most cruise ships, alcoholic drinks, specialty coffees, meals in alternative restaurants (and associated gratuities), spa treatments, Internet, purchases in the onboard shops, certain menu items like surf ‘n’ turf or a la carte snacks like pastries and sushi, shore excursions, some fitness classes, limited-access sun decks, baby-sitting services, arcade games, and some shows and entertainment experiences carry an additional cost. On some European lines’ ships, there might also be an additional charge for water at non-mealtimes.
As a reminder, meals in the main dining room and buffet, water and juice from buffet or pool-area dispensers, most room service (some lines charge during certain hours or for hot items), select fitness classes and use of the gym, kids and teens facilities, some onboard classes, use of the casino, the pool, most entertainment and your room are included in the price you pay for your cruise.
All-inclusive resorts, on the other hand, have rates that encompass much more. Head to a land-based “AI,” and your payment will include meals at all on-site restaurants, all drinks (soda, alcohol, coffee), beach and pool access, daytime activities like beach sports challenges, fitness classes, kids programming, and nonmotorized water sports like snorkeling, kayaking and Hobie Cat sailing. Some may even include scuba and snorkel trips, beach and restaurant access at sister properties, and golf outings.
On the surface, it looks like an all-inclusive resort offers vacationers the most value. But is the comparison that black and white? And if you add in extras (like flights), is an all-inclusive still the cheaper option?
Also, you need to know that many low-cost all-inclusive resorts are not really that, with extra fees for steak and/or seafood and other fine dining experiences, premium alcohol if it is even available.
Before you dump the cruise, though, consider flights. With few exceptions, all-inclusive resorts are located outside the United States, making flying a necessity. Cruises, on the other hand, depart from a large selection of U.S. cities, so it’s easy for a significant portion of U.S. travelers to drive there. That eliminates the need to pay for airfare, which can be costly.
The Bottom Line
Determining which option is the best value depends on your vacation priorities and spending habits.
If you’re happy lying on the same beach for a week straight and want to dance and drink the night away, an all-inclusive resort might be your best bet. If you want to visit more than one destination and see a show in the evening instead, a cruise might be best. Just remember that any excursions at all those destinations are an additional cost.
Still need help determining which option is best for you? Here are a few guidelines:
Pick the cruise if …
… you don’t spend a lot on extras like shore excursions, spa treatments or specialty dining. The base prices for cruises are typically lower than prices for resorts because the cruise lines expect you to make up the difference in onboard purchases.
… you like Broadway-style entertainment. Resort entertainment, when there is some, tends to be more low-key, showcasing local acts.
… you don’t drink. At an all-inclusive, you may be subsidizing someone else’s alcohol consumption.
… you like to gamble. Few all-inclusive resorts have on-site casinos.
… you want to visit different destinations in a week and enjoy (or don’t mind) days at sea.
Pick the resort if …
… you like hanging out in a bathing suit all day. Most cruise lines make you put on a cover-up to grab a buffet meal, sandwich or pizza.
… you want to be able to walk on the beach at sunrise or sunset … or any time you want. With a cruise, you’re restricted to hours in port; at a resort, the beach is right out your front door.
… you want to eat and drink as much as possible without worrying about racking up high bills for cocktails or trying out multiple dining options.
… you enjoy fine dining freshly prepared, all you can eat and/or dining around for no additional fees. At some resorts, even steak and lobster are included as well as top shelf liquor and wine with dinner.
… Wi-fi is included.
… like on a cruise, fitness centers and certain areas of the spa, like hydro-therapy, are included.
… you enjoy pool activities and nightly entertainment. Quality of shows varies greatly at different resorts, so do your research if this is important to you.
… you plan on taking advantage of water sports and other activities.
Cruise travelers can quickly jack up their onboard tabs on shore excursions. (The more ports a cruise visits, the more you’ll spend.) If you want to spend your vacation snorkeling, kayaking and body surfing, you’ll save money at the resort where these activities are included. Just know that resorts do charge extra for spa treatments and off-site excursions like zip-lining and dune buggy rides.
Once you decide what is your style of vacation and you want to see what the bottom line cost is, be sure you are comparing like resorts and ships as well as room/cabin categories.
If you’re still confused about which option is the best value for you — both in terms of price and vacation satisfaction — reach out to your friendly neighborhood travel agent. Getting advice from an expert who’s knowledgeable about different resorts and ships, as well as picking the trip that best meets your budget and holiday preferences, might be the easiest way to get the best value for your vacation dollar.
CEO International Accents Travel