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All-Inclusive Resorts: Why You Need to Read the Fine Print

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All-inclusive resorts have been around for more than 60 years. In a growing world of nickel and diming, the all-inclusive concept is certainly attractive. But if you’re thinking of staying at one, you’ll want to check the fine print because all-inclusive doesn’t always mean what it implies. Watch my report for CBS This Morning to find out what you should look out for—and what you should know—before booking at an all-inclusive resort.

The term all-inclusive is—in theory—a great idea. All-inclusive resorts are great for planning and budgeting your trip, and avoiding the possibility of being nickeled and dimed on vacation. In theory, every aspect of your trip is covered, including your hotel room, meals, activities, and alcohol.

More than 60 years after Club Med introduced the all-inclusive resort concept, there are now many categories of all-inclusive vacations that are offered by resorts and some cruises. But you need to navigate the language and the disclaimers carefully to figure out which vacations are truly all-inclusive—and which are not.

The Dreaded Asterisk

With the rise of luxury tourism, all-inclusive properties have moved from small communal summer retreats to year-round oases that include food, drinks, activities, entertainment, tours, and adventures that all types of people (young, old, rich, and middle class, singles, couples, etc.) want to experience.

But with this evolution of all-inclusiveness comes hidden fees, scams, misleading advertisements, and a lot of confusion. A quick and easy way to cut through all of this is to simply look for the dreaded asterisk. It is often placed at the bottom of an ad, in a small discreet font directing you to “See back for terms & conditions.”

For example, in the brochure for one Caribbean all-inclusive resort, “Unlimited Golf” is highlighted. The package would seem to be just that—unlimited. But then there’s the asterisk. And that assumes you can find the asterisk. And if/when you do comes the sticker shock. Yes, you can play as much golf as you’d like, but you’ll pay for it.

What can you do to make sure you aren’t caught by surprise by the dreaded asterisk? These guidelines may help.

Food

Dining experiences can often be one of the biggest shocks for those all-inclusive vacationers who arrive expecting unlimited food. Often the package only applies to a select number of restaurants.

In many cases, the food has improved at a great number of resorts trying to allure foodie vacationers, but in many cases only the buffet may be included in the package, while the resort’s other a la carte restaurants cost extra. There may even be a specialty restaurant surcharge at some resorts. Even more upsetting, some resorts may not include room service in the price of your all-inclusive.

Food has become such a critical component to the vacation experience that it’s now essential to read the fine print of your all-inclusive package to find out what kind of food, restaurants, and additional conveniences are covered in your package, and which ones might not be covered.

If you’d really like a foodie experience, you might want to consider adults-only resorts, which may include up to a dozen specialty restaurants in the package, aiming to keep up with food trends as well as infuse guests’ experience with local cuisine.

Drinks

The kinds of drinks you’ll see in an all-inclusive package can also come as quite a shock. For example, some all-inclusives, such as Le Blanc in Cancun, offer premium alcohol brands. Most do not.

Some packages that include unlimited alcoholic beverages may stipulate that this only covers bottom shelf liquor, or only mixed cocktails. In those cases, you will have to pay for top shelf liquor.

Activities

Another caveat to the all-inclusive resort package concerns what kinds of activities are included. While travelers might expect access to all of the resort’s offerings, the most confusing area is water sports. Paddleboards, kayaks, snorkeling, and rafts might be included. Motorized water sports, like jet skis or waterskiing, may come at a premium price. That also includes scuba diving.

Some resorts offer “unlimited golf.” But what does that really mean? Is that access to the courses, or just games without additional cost?

Local Excursions

One of the biggest dangers of all-inclusives is that it more or less implies you’re not leaving the resort. Want to go off campus and explore? Definitely not included. Translation: All outside excursions are an additional cost, and you need to be prepared to budget for that.

Rooms

This is a biggie in the “misunderstanding” category. While all-inclusive resorts are no longer just a cookie-cutter category, neither are the rooms they offer. Rooms are available with different locations, views, sizes, and added amenities.

Don’t go by the brochure pictures. Be aware that larger rooms with better views will almost always include an additional price to your all-inclusive package. Keep an eye out for terms such as “beachfront,” which is often confused with “oceanfront.” This may just give you a view of the sand, some palm trees, and no beach for a much higher price.

Also, check to make sure that those new luxury rooms are actually there, and not simply a coming attraction under construction.

Tipping

Many resorts follow very different rules when it comes to tipping, which makes it difficult to know the proper etiquette for your specific vacation. Some resort staff will refuse tips since gratuity is already worked into their salaries. Other resorts automatically charge a tip, while even more simply allow the guests to tip if they feel so inclined. Research your resort’s policy and factor in an estimated tip into your budget if you plan on including gratuity.

Resort Fees

My translation for resort fees: OUCH. It’s a way for these resorts to be competitive on advertised price and still raise additional revenue.

These hidden fees may appear on your final bill and can range as high as $30 per day. While the FTC warned numerous hotels about this deceptive policy in 2012, little has been done to combat resorts from charging this advertised fee.

What should you do? While all of these concerns may make some travelers anxious about booking an all-inclusive, most of these problems can be easily solved with a little extra homework.

Don’t take the brochure definition of “unlimited” or “all.” Pick up the phone, call them, and determine a mutually agreeable definition of terms so no one is disappointed or suffers sticker shock. This is where a smart travel agent can help you.

For more information about all-inclusive resorts and hidden fees, check out:

By Peter Greenberg for PeterGreenberg.com

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