All-inclusive resorts always seemed like the realm of world-weary retirees and honeymooners traveling on daddy’s dime—not a savvy explorer like myself. But when I found an unbeatable package deal online a few years ago, I took the bait and joined the crowds at a shiny new resort south of Cancun. After that trip and a follow-up a year later (to a different resort), I’ve found that there’s a lot to hate about A.I.s, yet I still find myself itching to return to that strange state of stupefied bliss.
The truth is, there’s as much to love as there is to hate about the all-inclusive experience. Here’s a bit of the best … and the worst.
Good: A lot of Bang for the Buck
If you shop the right sites (I’m partial to Bookit) and you’re somewhat flexible with your schedule (shoot for the shoulder and off-seasons), you can book a complete vacation for two for just over $1,000. Most package deals include flights, a room and endless food and drinks—not to mention cheesy entertainment, water sports and occasional perks like a stocked room fridge and, of course, towel animals.
Pro tip: Mexico, Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic offer some of the best values out there.
Bad: Getting Screwed on the Fine Print.
The resort’s website might boast photos of beautiful people lounging beside a glistening infinity pool sipping champagne, but don’t be too quick to imagine yourself in their flip-flops—at least not before doing your research. Some resorts charge a premium for the use of their best facilities. If you buy a budget room, you might just get budget service, bottom-shelf booze and limited dining options.
Good: Endless Alcohol
Most all-inclusive resorts offer all-you-can-drink alcohol, with sometimes more than a dozen bars scattered throughout the grounds—including in the pool. Between morning mimosas, poolside rum runners, tequila shots at lunch and cervezas at dinner, you definitely won’t go thirsty—and you might end up swearing off alcohol altogether by day three.
Bad: Endlessly Bad Food
Sure, there are resorts out there that bill themselves as “gourmet” destinations, but most resorts have one goal in mind: Feeding the hungry, occasionally obese, masses. Don’t expect anything resembling real Mexican food at a Mexican resort, and don’t be surprised if you have at least one night of intense food regret during your stay.
If you enjoy observing a wide spectrum of humanity from behind your Ray-Bans, you will have a field day at an all-inclusive resort. There are the impeccably dressed French families with the mom who doesn’t care if no one else at the pool is going topless, the aging hippies buying weed from the guy on the beach and the Russian couple doing an awkwardly sexy photoshoot in the waves. If you’re the sociable type, you may even make some friends.
Most of the people you’ll encounter at the resort may be perfectly polite and well-behaved, but there are always a few who are endlessly rude, ignorant and entitled—and you’re guaranteed to run into the same ones everywhere you go. Maybe it’s a gang of loud-mouthed tweens whose parents have decided to give them free reign for the week, or the sloppy drunk who makes offensive comments about the staff. If you’re not careful, they’ll inspire a rage in you that could ruin your vacation.
Good: Complete Pampering
As mentioned above, some resorts will treat you like a second-class citizen if you don’t upgrade to a premium level. But most resorts will make some attempt to help you feel like a D-list celebrity—in the best way possible. Whether you’re won over by the fluffy robes in your room, the attentive poolside waiters or the cheap massages on the beach, you’re going to feel delightfully spoiled.
Bad: The Guilt
While you and other resort guests are reveling in the pure luxury of your surroundings, it’s easy to forget that, outside of the resort walls, there are people living in poverty like you’ve probably never seen. Many of the resort employees who serve you that fourth margarita with a smile are working for just a few bucks a day—keep that in mind when you opt out of tipping them because the resort tells you that gratuities are included. And don’t even get me started on dolphinariums. SeaWorld’s got nothing on those Cancun resorts that keep dolphins on the entertainment staff.
Good: The Disconnection
Many resorts charge extra for Wi-Fi, which, if you’re truly trying to relax and disconnect, can be a godsend. You won’t be tempted to check your work email or find out what your friends are doing on Facebook. If we’re lucky, you won’t even be able to post your smug vacation photos to Instagram until you return to your boring life at home.
Bad: The Disconnection
All-inclusive resorts are like their own little world. No matter where your resort is located, chances are you could be anywhere vaguely tropical and it would look and feel the same way—like some scrubbed-down, highly polished version of paradise. You could very well spend a bleary week there, getting brain freeze and sunburn in equal measure. But as much as you may want to stay moored to your beach chair with that trashy paperback and frozen screwdriver, you deserve to leave the resort behind—whether for a real taste of local cuisine, visiting a market in a nearby village, or seeing some ruins. Don’t let yourself give in to the mindset that the fun ends at the resort exit. Really, it’s just the beginning.
Erica Jackson Curran
is a former alt-weekly editor turned moonlight freelancer based in Richmond, Virginia. She likes fancy cocktails and red lipstick, and she’s always in the process of planning her next trip.