When booking a vacation, a lot of families struggle with the question, “Should we book all inclusive or a la carte (European Plan)?” There are so many factors that go into that decision that I wrestle with it myself. What does European plan mean? Is it the same as non all inclusive? What does all inclusive mean? In addition, there are different definitions of “all inclusive resort” depending on where you are traveling.
It sounds so convenient, yet…will the food be good? Will the beer that is “included” be Tecate? What about the “Nightly Entertainment“? Will it be loud and right outside your patio door? There are so many factors that a family really needs to think about what is important to them. So I’ll break it down.
Where do you want to go?
Choosing an all inclusive or non all inclusive really depends a lot on where you plan to travel. If you’re going to Mexico or Caribbean, there are so many different options to choose from, whether all inclusive or not. Which will require a little more analysis and I’ll get to that later. However if you are going on an African safari, all inclusive is the way to go and probably the ONLY way to go. After all, if you’re in a tented camp on the Serengeti, you aren’t going to be making dinner reservations anywhere else. And when you do an African Safari right, i.e. book with a legitimate safari operator who knows what they are doing (I love working with Rothschild Safaris), the inclusions are top of the line. Beautiful meals, tea time, amazing drinks and snacks. Everything from transportation to guides to drinks are included in your final cost when taking on an African Safari. Something to take into consideration when budgeting.
Conversely, if you are planning a trip to Europe, an all inclusive is almost a foreign concept, with the rare exceptions. Paris with an all inclusive hotel? Please! Think of all the amazing Parisian restaurants! And cafes! And cocktail bars in the George V! Or Rome? Imagine only eating Puttanesca at your hotel and not being able to partake in the nearby trattoria with homemade pasta. Europe is made for exploring cobblestone streets and hidden alleyways, not staying in a resort and sitting by the pool….even if that pool is on Santorini. That being said, there are some exceptions. There are some lovely all inclusive resorts on Ibiza and various islands. It just isn’t the norm in Europe. Maybe that’s where the term “European Plan” came from? European plan means food and drink are a separate expensive from the cost of accommodations.
How do you travel?
Are you the type that likes to explore? Can’t get enough of wandering the town streets and blending in with the locals? Only eating where the locals eat? An all inclusive probably isn’t for you. As convenient as they are, if you aren’t spending any time at your resort and you’re touring sites and eating in varying restaurants or visiting friends, you won’t be getting your money’s worth. If however, you are content to stay in one place and you are simply on vacation to sit, enjoy your family and watch the sunset, all inclusive is probably right up you alley. This is a big consideration when choosing all inclusive or non all inclusive.
Another factor to take into account is what time of year are you traveling? Spring Break for families is generally reserved for relaxing and playing in the pool more than anything. In that case, an all inclusive is a great option. However, if you are planning a summer vacation tour of Thailand, I definitely suggest a European plan hotel option. You will be wanting to explore and taste new things at restaurants and street vendors.
Are you a foodie?
Foodies appreciate good food and nothing less is going to do. If you genuinely appreciate good food and want to savor the dining experience, there aren’t many all inclusive resorts that are going to fit the bill. There are exceptions to that rule – especially the higher end cruise ships – but in general, if you’re going to Mexico and staying in an all inclusive with 1500 rooms, the food is going to be mediocre. The cooks are cooking for 4000 people – there’s only so much creativity those numbers allow. Again, there are exceptions, and I list them below, but unless you are on a Crystal Cruise or equivalent, avoid an all inclusive if you value food presentation and taste. The exception? Grand Velas resorts. There are three resorts throughout Mexico and they are truly five star level. They are also part of the Virtuoso travel consortium, which is the same consortium my agency is in – only the best of the best are considered for Virtuoso.
In addition, do you drink? Many people think that all inclusive costs more mainly because of alcohol. In my personal opinion, I don’t think the alcohol adds much to the final price, at least not in most all inclusives in Mexico, where they serve fairly mediocre alcohol.. Mainly it’s the food, the activities, the gratuities for the staff and the general convenience that will bring up the price higher than a European Plan resort. The alcohol at the vast majority of all inclusives in Mexico is the lower end beer and weaker drinks. If you really like an all inclusive resort and enjoy the convenience, don’t worry too much about not getting your money’s worth because you aren’t drinking beer. But be prepared to be drinking the basics and not a high end Mojito.
Who are you traveling with?
Are you traveling with your two children or are you on a romantic honeymoon? If you’re going to Playa del Carmen on a family vacation with two little ones, the convenience of an all inclusive can’t be beat. Little Mary refusing to eat her chicken nuggets and suddenly changing her mind to mini hamburger? No problem – the restaurant will switch it out at no extra charge. And many all inclusives have great family programs that really cater to families. All inclusive Playa del Carmen is a fantastic choice for families on spring break. For an anniversary or honeymoon, a lot of couples want top shelf liquor or special dinners on the beach and you will find more of that at a European plan resort. In addition, honeymoon couples want the flexibility of the non all inclusive if they plan to be out and about.
While all these considerations above factor into a decision, in some cases you may not have a choice. The popular tourist areas of Cancun, Cabo and Puerto Vallarta are generally all inclusive resorts. A la carte resorts exist, but they come at a price. In the Cabo area, the European plan resorts are high-end resorts such as One&Only, Las Ventanas and Esperanza. In the Cancun area, you’ll find the Ritz, Rosewood and Banyan Tree.
Same thing applies for certain areas of the Caribbean such as Dominican Republic. It’s full of all inclusives and the non all inclusives are top rated, 5-star resorts. All inclusive Punta Cana can be a great family vacation. A smattering of other Caribbean islands have all inclusive but they are generally lower end resorts. The main exceptions are Dominican Republic and Jamaica. If that’s what your budget allows, they can work, but the vast majority of resorts in the Caribbean islands are European plan resorts. With the price tags to match. Islands definitely aren’t cheap.
Not all resorts are equal.
A thing to really remember when booking a family beach vacation is that all inclusives mainly “work” where labor is cheap – think Mexico, Jamaica and Dominican Republic. I recommend really doing research if you want to go the way of all inclusive. Ask friends and talk to a travel agent who knows the various resorts. Below are all inclusive resorts in different countries that I can confidently say are great options. All inclusive can be great if you are trying to stay in a budget, but trust me when I say, cheaper isn’t better. Too low-budget means standing in long buffet lines for mediocre food, drinking weak beer, and listening to blasting music at the pool. Oh and have I mentioned chipped tiles at the pool and mold growing around the edges? While there are no hard and fast rules, carefully weigh all these factors when picking your perfect vacation spot.
Grand Velas Riviera Nayarit – Puerto Vallarta Area
Paradisus La Perla (adults) or Paradisus La Esmerelda (family) – Riviera Maya
Fairmont Mayakoba (European plan available) – Riviera Maya area
Azul Beach Resort (family) – Riviera Maya
El Dorado Royale – Riviera Maya
El Dorado Maroma – Riveria Maya
Excellence Playa Mujeras – Riveria Maya
Marival Residences – Puerto Vallarta
Garza Blanca – Puerto Vallarta
Marquis Los Cabos – Cabo
Most Dreams Resorts
Azul Beach Negril – Jamaica
Sanctuary Cap Cana – Domincan Republic
Beaches – Turks and Caicos
The Palms Turks and Caicos (all-inclusive available)
Ladera Resort (all-inclusive available) – St. Lucia
Westin Resort and Spa Playa Conchal – Costa Rica
Secrets Papagayo Costa Rica – Costa Rica
Caves Branch – Belize
Hamanasi – Belize
Almond Beach (all inclusive available) – Belize
Travaasa (European Plan)- Maui
Lake Austin Resort and Spa – Austin
Club Med Sandpiper Bay – Florida
Canyon Ranch (adults) – Arizona
Grand Hotel Mackinac – Michigan
*note that most of the U.S properties are “meal plan” type resorts – it can include the cost of meals, but not necessarily the drinks. In addition, may of them are wellness resorts and not suitable for families (Club Med is the exception).
Tauck River Cruises
*note that many of these do no include alcohol
Mara Plains – Kenya
Trying to decide between all inclusive or a la carte? Let me help you!