8 lessons I learned from my 1st all-inclusive vacation
I'm not entirely sure why I waited until my 40th year on Earth to visit an all-inclusive resort. I still feel like a kid on summer break when I walk into a hotel room, I love the beach and eating is one of my favorite extracurricular activities.
I suppose it sounded too good to be true. Surely the price didn't actually include all of my food, drinks, activities and hotel room, right? There had to be a catch.
After a family getaway to Hilton Rose Hall Resort & Spa and Royalton White Sands Resort in Montego Bay, Jamaica, earlier this year, I was happy to be proven wrong. Sure, there are upcharges if you want a cabana with bottle service or a romantic dinner by the beach, but the basics really were all included. That isn't the only lesson I learned, though.
Related: 13 mistakes to avoid at all-inclusive resorts
I picked up quite a few other tips, too, that I plan to take with me on future visits. And as I learned after sharing a costly mistake I made while booking my first all-inclusive trip, I'm not the only one who is newly considering these kinds of vacations.
So if you're like me and are dipping your toes into the world of all-inclusive resorts for the first time, here are eight tips to follow to help you make the most of your first all-inclusive vacation.
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Make sure your booking is for the correct number of guests
I wrote extensively about the more than $600 mistake I made while booking my first all-inclusive vacation, but such a costly lesson bears repeating.
At most hotels — especially in the U.S. — your room rate doesn't fluctuate based on the number of guests in the room, up to the room's maximum occupancy. That isn't the case with all-inclusive resorts, where the rate also includes your meals, drinks and other amenities like water sports and child care.
While I was aware of this when I booked our room, it just wasn't top of mind to adjust the number of guests because it's not something I typically pay close attention to. That oversight cost me $600 in guest fees I hadn't planned on and was quite an embarrassing mistake to make.
To avoid a similar experience, take the time to triple check that you've entered the correct number of adults and children that will be staying in your room when making your reservation.
Choose the right resort for your travel party
Some all-inclusive resorts are upfront about being adults-only or more family-oriented, but others leave it to you to decide if it's a good fit for your travel style.
Of the two resorts my family visited, the Hilton Rose Hall was much better suited for families than the Royalton White Sands. It's not that families weren't welcome at the latter, but the vibe was more "let's do shots in the pool" than "let's build sandcastles on the beach."
Related: 11 incredible all-inclusives for people who hate all-inclusives
The easiest way to get a sense of a particular resort is to read reviews from other travelers (including the travel experts here at TPG), contact the hotel and look online for the current activity schedule, recent photos and YouTube videos of the resort.
Doing these things before clicking "Book now" should help you choose a resort that will provide the rest and relaxation or cocktails and carousing you are looking for.
Bring cash for tips
In most cases, gratuities for restaurant servers, bar staff, bellhops and housekeeping are included in the cost of your all-inclusive stay, leaving it to your discretion to decide whether to bring cash for tips.
Some brands, like Sandals Resorts, have a "no tipping" policy that includes all services except spa treatments and anything handled by a butler.
Personally, it felt odd to me not to tip, so my husband and I made sure to get cash at the airport to cover tips during our stay. Even if you choose not to leave any additional tips, you'll still probably want to have some cash on hand so you can tip shuttle drivers and tour guides.
If you do bring cash, make sure you know ahead of time if the resort prefers U.S. dollars or the local currency.
Prioritize occasionally leaving the resort to get a taste of local life
It may be tempting to stay at your all-inclusive resort for the duration of your trip, especially if you've done your homework and found the right all-inclusive resort for your group, but doing so may cause you to miss out on getting an authentic sense of the destination you're visiting.
Once we arrived at our all-inclusive resorts, the rooms and common areas were so generic that the properties could have been picked up and dropped on any other beach without feeling out of place.
Aside from the regional dishes available at select on-site eateries, there were no locally inspired details at either property. We would have had to leave the resort to get a true sense of the area.
On a typical vacation, I spend most of my time walking around and exploring my destination, but because everything was provided for us at our all-inclusive resorts, I didn't need to venture off-site, so I missed out on all Montego Bay had to offer. Were I to redo my visit, I would have ventured out to see the area around the resort and check out a few local establishments.
Related: Jamaican all-inclusive resort escape: We compared 3 Hilton, Hyatt and Marriott properties
Pack a few snacks
Although meals at the resort were plentiful, it felt like a chore to seek out a quick bite in between meals. My kids were happy to have access to all-you-can-eat ice cream, but I didn't want to walk all the way from the beach or pool up to the coffee shop or buffet if I wanted something small like fruit or yogurt.
Being a serial snacker, I wish I had packed some snacks from home or made a quick grocery run to grab a few things to squirrel away in the minibar. Of course, this will vary a bit from resort to resort, but it was a good lesson for my family.
View the minibar as both a blessing and a curse
If you asked my kids what they loved most about our all-inclusive vacation, I'd bet they'd call out the two sodas they were able to drink each day before breakfast.
I don't claim to be a beacon of health, but soda isn't an everyday thing in our house, so unlimited soda blew their little minds. I was excited to have access to an endless supply of bottled water (and, OK, beer), but it was hard to control my kids' soda cravings when it was constantly being replenished.
Next time, I may try hiding some of the soda in order to better ration their caffeine and sugar intake. One soda before breakfast is plenty.
Oh, and about that minibar ... you may have to remind your kiddos that its contents are not free at "normal" hotels the next time you stay somewhere and your kid reaches for the $18 gummy bears stashed inside or on top.
Attend the resort's orientation session
On my recent trip, I spent only two nights at each resort. It took at least a full day to get the lay of the land and know where to find the various restaurants, bars, pools and beach areas, as well as when and where the daily activities took place.
I realized a bit too late that both resorts held daily orientation sessions to help acclimate guests to the property. Looking back, I wish I had attended these orientation sessions instead of wandering around trying to find the buffet when it was time for breakfast.
If your resort offers a similar option for quickly finding out all you need to know, don't brush it aside. Take advantage of it so you can maximize your time at the property.
Related: Love or hate them, buffets are making a comeback
Go all-in on the included activities and entertainment
I didn't expect to go on vacation and play a game where I was instructed to squeeze a tennis ball between my knees and attempt to drop it into a hula hoop, but here we are.
I planned to spend my time on the beach or in the pool, within arm's reach of a margarita at all times, but my family made some of our best vacation memories during the activities and entertainment at both resorts.
My oldest son was a snake charmer's assistant, the kids made friendship bracelets to bring home as souvenirs and yes, I won the aforementioned tennis ball-in-the-hula hoop game.
I highly recommend checking out the activities and entertainment schedule when you arrive at your resort and adding a few things to your itinerary. The laughs will stay with you almost as long as the photographic evidence.
After finally experiencing an all-inclusive vacation, I can enthusiastically report that I can't wait to book one again. No one was hiding any tricks up their sleeve, and my whole family genuinely had a great time.
Now that I have two properties under my belt, I know what I would look for and do differently when visiting all-inclusive resorts in the future. Hopefully, my kids won't catch on to the disappearing minibar sodas.