What it’s like to live at an all-inclusive resort for a month
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At a time when few travelers were considering trips to the Dominican Republic, my wife Katie and I booked a month-long stay there. Why? Well, when you can book an all-inclusive resort for under $39 per night, we figured we might as well move in for as long as we could.
From bottomless bottles of beer to battling for dinner reservations, here’s what it was like to live out of an all-inclusive in the Dominican Republic for a month.
Visit TPG’s Caribbean destination hub for more stories about traveling to the region on points and miles, where to stay and what to do while you’re there.
How we booked an all-inclusive for under $39 a night
We were able to book an all-inclusive resort in the Dominican Republic for just 8,000 Choice Privileges points per night, and we were able to buy most of the points we needed at a blended rate of 0.485 cents each. That’s a rate of just $38.80 per night.
I’m going to show you how we did it as it’s a great — albeit extreme — example of how valuable Choice Privileges points can be. But let’s get it out of the way upfront: This great deal isn’t available anymore.
As with many incredible deals, this sweet spot ended prematurely. But, it’s a reminder not to ignore less-popular points and miles programs like Choice.
When browsing all-inclusive resorts in the Dominican Republic bookable with points, we stumbled across a couple of Choice properties costing just 8,000 points per night: Emotions All-Inclusive Juan Dolio and Emotions All-Inclusive Puerto Plata — both relatively new additions to Choice’s Ascend Hotel Collection.
At current TPG valuations, Choice points are worth 0.6 cents each. So, that meant we could book an all-inclusive resort for just $48 worth of points.
While paying $48 per night would be incredible, we could do even better than that. Once a year, Choice sells its points at the best rate of the year through the U.S. Travel Association’s Daily Getaways. This year, we could buy Choice points for as little as 0.482 cents each.
And that’s exactly what we did.
As digital nomads who don’t have a place of our own, we figured, why not take it to the extreme? U.S. citizens can spend up to 30 days in the Dominican Republic without needing to apply for a visa, and Choice doesn’t cap the number of award nights you can book. So, why shouldn’t we book an all-inclusive resort for 28 nights for just 224,000 points?
When the Choice packages went live through Daily Getaways, we immediately bought the maximum of two packages of 55,000 points each for $530 and two packages of 42,000 points each for $410 for a total of 194,000 points for $940.
That left us 30,000 points short of the 224,000 points needed for the 28-night stay. The Choice Privileges Visa Signature Card just so happened to be offering 32,000 bonus points for spending $1,000 in the first 90 days after being approved for the card. So, I applied for the card and … got rejected. Despite my credit score, it seems Barclays didn’t want to offer me yet another credit card.
I even offered to transfer some of my credit line from my AAdvantage Aviator MasterCard or JetBlue Plus Card, but I couldn’t get a reconsideration agent to approve my application. Thankfully, I had just enough points in my account from prior Choice stays and promotions to cover the remaining 30,000 points that I needed.
Even better, we weren’t stuck with the base room for this redemption. As is fairly typical with Choice Privileges redemptions, there was a wide range of rooms bookable at just 8,000 points per night.
Since we could choose any room for the same price, we focused on the rooms with the best features. We narrowed down our choices to two room types: a room with a swim-up pool outside the patio and one with an in-room whirlpool:
After looking at all the photos we could find, we decided the room with the whirlpool seemed to have a better working space — after all, we’d be working from this room for four weeks — and the personal Jacuzzi was fairly alluring.
How much would this cost to book with cash instead of points? We compared the cost to a similar room and found it would cost $8,236 — discounted from a standard cost of $13,160 — for a 28-night stay.
Comparing that cost with the 224,000 Choice points we paid (with no out-of-pocket cost), we got nearly 3.7 cents of value per Choice point from this redemption. And, considering we paid just $940 for the vast majority of the points, we scored nearly an 89% discount off of the cash price by buying points for cheap.
The 8,000-point rate for this property was scheduled to last through at least Sept. 15, 2019. But mere days after our booking — and perhaps triggered by such a significant booking — Choice Privileges abruptly ended the 8,000-point rate. All award bookings required 30,000 points per night from that date forward, and that rate has stuck ever since.
While it’s a bummer this sweet spot ended prematurely, there are still plenty of great opportunities for getting good value out of Choice points. As I finish writing this story, I’m staying in a hotel in the heart of Osaka, Japan for just 8,000 points per night. In the past, Katie and I have booked suites in Europe for 8,000 points per night and a “suite” in New York City for just 8,000 points per night.
However, Choice periodically changes the points rate for award nights at all properties, and what was a good deal in the past may no longer be available — just like with these all-inclusive resorts.
While we didn’t get a chance to share this great deal with readers before it was pulled, TPG has shared numerous incredible deals — ranging from $277 round-trip flights to South Africa to $800 round-trip flights in Cathay Pacific first class — as well as plenty of guides for how to get the most out of your points and miles.
We figured this would be one of the more “interesting” check-ins we’ve ever done, and we weren’t surprised to receive a bewildered, “You’re staying how many nights?”
But we weren’t expecting that to be followed up with, “Do you have a confirmation?” and “Will you forward it to me?”
It seems that the Emotions reservation system didn’t show our Choice-booked reservation. So, after forwarding my confirmation email to the front desk, we waited while the agent stepped into the office to figure out what was going on.
The longer we waited, the more concerned we got. Katie checked availability to see that the resort had plenty of availability for the Thursday night we’d arrived on, but the weekend was showing as sold out. We started to check for airline award availability in case our reservation wasn’t going to be honored and we needed to head home.
Thankfully, after about 15 minutes, the check-in agent returned with the good news that everything was fine. While our room wasn’t ready yet, we were invited to head to the buffet restaurant for lunch. At lunch, an employee found us to tell us that our room was ready, and we and our bags were carted over to the building for our month-long move in.
One of the final parts of the check-in was getting plastic gold-colored locking wristbands that indicated to staff we were guests in the adults-only building and had access to the special adults-only pool.
In addition to our own, we also got to know the other wristband colors well over the next four weeks. When we saw an orange-colored wristband on a guest, we knew that they were part of the most recent crop of Sunwing Vacations visitors — meaning they were from Canada and likely spoke French.
Spending a month at an all-inclusive
Since giving up our apartment in Austin, Texas to become digital nomads in June 2017, we’ve constantly been on the move. For us, a “long stay” somewhere is more than four nights, and we have rarely spent more than a week in one place. So, we went into this stay wondering if we were going to be bored out of our minds.
We were relieved upon arrival to find that there was an extensive activities schedule:
We figured we would end up doing each of the activities at least once. In the end, we only did two of the official activities: bingo and archery.
What did we do instead? Well, lots of work.
But, don’t worry, we didn’t just work. Most evenings, we relaxed in the adults-only hot tub next to our building, and we always had a grown-up beverage in hand.
Also, we made sure to take advantage of having a private whirlpool — which was on the balcony in our first room and inside our second room.
It didn’t take long for us to settle into a routine. After getting our dinner reservation each morning — more about that below — we would head to the gym to work out before grabbing breakfast. We’d head back to the room and shower before settling down for a day of work.
As workaholics, we’d often work right up until just before the lunch buffet closed, and we’d usually work after lunch until it was about an hour before our dinner reservation. At that point, we’d scramble down to the whirlpool with our Nalgene bottles — to avoid having to use the small plastic cups that the bar served — and enjoy a drink before dinner.
Dining and drinking
In the generally low-stress atmosphere of an all-inclusive resort, by far the most frustrating aspect was getting dinner reservations. While there were three restaurants at the resort, only two restaurants would be open most nights.
Each of these restaurants would only accept up to 60 reservations per night, divvied up across six groups of 10 at set seating times between 6 and 9 p.m. This meant no more than 120 guests were going to be able to get dinner at one of the sit-down restaurants and other guests would be relegated to the buffet restaurant.
To get a reservation, guests needed to go to the buffet restaurant hostess desk each morning to get a reservation from the employee manning the podium. If you got there early enough to get a reservation, you’d get a small slip of color-coordinated paper with your reservation time on it. You’d need to bring this to the restaurant within 10 minutes of your time slot or risk losing your dinner reservation.
Due to the limited number of slots, dinner reservations were often full by 8:30 a.m. So, we started by waking up each morning to get to the reservations desk right when it opened at 8 a.m. before working out in the gym.
But, this plan wasn’t foolproof. Many of the times we would show up at 8, the reservation sheet wasn’t available yet and we were told to come back. Rather than waiting around, we’d go work out and come back to then sometimes find out that the reservation sheet was full.
Through trial and error, we learned to get to the reservations desk between 8:10 and 8:15 a.m., as that was a sweet spot of when the reservations were open and there would still be reservations available. And the competition was stiff. A couple of times we had to butt in to defend our place in line when other guests would conveniently ignore the line.
Eating and drinking the same things
The resort was understandably set up to cater to guests staying for a week or less. Between the three sit-down restaurants and the buffet restaurant, guests staying a reasonable amount of time shouldn’t get tired of the food options.
However, we weren’t staying a reasonable amount of time. Despite that, we were surprised we didn’t get tired of eating at the same restaurants.
To avoid getting bored with the same food options, we challenged ourselves to try every dish on every menu at least once. By the time that we completed this challenge, we had our favorite dishes to come back to — from the fajitas at the Mexican restaurant to the camarofongo de platanos at the Dominican restaurant.
While we tried a variety of foods for dinner, we quickly settled into a routine for breakfast. As soon as we got to the breakfast buffet, we beelined it to the egg station to get our omelets started. After learning the Spanish words for each ingredient, I was ordering my omelet solely in Spanish by the end of the second week.
Our stay occurred as headlines about tourists getting sick and dying at Dominican Republic all-inclusive resorts were starting to fade, but the concerns were front of mind. For that reason, we typically ordered beer to drink at the bars. In the Dominican Republic, there’s one beer that dominates the market: Presidente. And we got to know El Presidente very well by the end of our stay.
The realities of living in a place for a month
When most people pack for a trip to an all-inclusive resort, they pack all of the clothes that they need for the trip with a plan to fly back with a bag full of dirty clothes. But, when your stay is almost a month long, there are just two practical choices: re-wear dirty clothes or do laundry.
However, we didn’t know going into this stay if there was guest laundry at the resort, and we landed in the DR with not much in the way of clean clothes after a hectic travel schedule. So, we needed to figure the situation out quickly.
It wasn’t long before we got the bad news: There was no guest laundry and the resort charged by the piece for laundry — and it was the typical steep prices you might expect to find at a resort. While there were surely laundry services around Puerto Plata, we were marooned in a gated community surrounded by other resorts. So, we didn’t find a good alternative to doing laundry ourselves the old-fashioned way: hand-washing our clothes.
Every few days we would wash our clothes in one sink, rinse them in another, wring them out, roll them in a towel and twist to remove more moisture before hanging it up to dry — either out on our balcony or on the decorative divider next to our bed.
Four weeks is a long time to go without a haircut for most guys, and after a few weeks, I was looking pretty shaggy. At the resort’s salon and spa, I made an appointment for a $25 men’s haircut.
The barber seemed inexperienced and nervous, and it took an hour for her to cut my hair. It wasn’t perfect — I needed to clean it up with a pair of scissors we carry in a first-aid kit — but she tried, and the cut actually only cost $15. So, I tipped her the additional $10 I’d expected to pay in the first place.
Venturing outside the complex
As travelers always on the go, we figured we wouldn’t be able to stay put for a month. So, we researched the Dominican Republic and found places that we’d want to explore in the area around Puerto Plata. We figured we could rent a car either through the resort or from a nearby location to drive around the nearby mountains. But, one thing was for sure: There’s no way that we were going to spend a whole month only in the resort area.
The first weekend started a few days after we arrived, and we figured there was no rush to explore. Especially after a hectic travel schedule coming into this stay, why not just stick around the resort, enjoy the open bar and catch up on work and sleep? So, that’s what we did.
We worked the next week figuring we’d surely venture out on the weekend. Then something strange happened. As we entered the second weekend, Tropical Storm Dorian formed in the Caribbean Sea. Forecasters called for the storm to develop into a hurricane and hit the Dominican Republic. To prepare, we booked award flights out of Puerto Plata for mid-week and stuck around to enjoy the resort while we still could.
While growing up in Florida, I was an unlikely but effective hurricane repellent. Numerous storms would curve out of their expected path when I was in the middle of the cone. And my lucky streak continued again in the DR.
Dorian defied forecasts and made a sweeping curve around the Dominican Republic. As Hurricane Dorian rapidly strengthened, I considered flying into Florida to see if I could keep my streak of turning hurricanes alive. But, we ended up spending our third weekend watching the reports out of the Bahamas in horror from the DR.
By our fourth and final weekend, we still hadn’t left the complex. On Sunday — our last chance to escape — we decided to head into town to visit a church and explore the town. The resort complex prohibited ride-hailing companies from entering the complex, so we walked 10 minutes to the resort entrance to get an Uber for one-tenth of the overpriced taxi rates.
My first visit to the Dominican Republic was in 1999 as part of a church mission trip. The purpose of the mission was to help with the renovation of an Episcopal Church, but the lasting impact on me was a passion to experience different cultures and an appreciation for the blessings of my life. So, I was excited to join a Sunday-morning church service at that same church 20 years later.
After church, we walked around Puerto Plata, exploring everything from the historic Spanish fort to the informal fish market on the beach.
The (lack of) birthday celebration
Katie’s birthday happened to be near the end of our four-week stay. We aren’t big on celebrating birthdays, but after having seen some celebrations for other guests at dinner, I figured I’d ask to see if we could get a cake for Katie for her birthday.
The manager at the guest relations office took down our room number and the time of our reservation that night at the Dominican restaurant, and told me they’d arrange for a cake for her at dinner. I offered to pay, but I was assured that there wasn’t a charge.
But after finishing dinner, there was no sign of a cake. I stalled as long as I could, but it was eventually clear that there wasn’t going to be a cake.
When I visited the guest relations office the next day, the manager apologized and said it was too short notice — which I could understand. The manager recorded our dinner reservation time for that night and said that they would make it up to us that night. But again, there was no celebration or cake at the end of our dinner.
After two unsuccessful attempts, I figured it wasn’t worth continuing to try to arrange a celebration.
But then, on Monday morning — two days after Katie’s birthday — we received a knock on the door just after 8 a.m. It was room service, delivering a breakfast feast.
After 24 breakfasts at the property, we had so clearly settled into our breakfast choices the staff knew exactly what we ate. So, they prepared and delivered the breakfast to us. The meal came without reason or explanation, so it’s still unclear to us whether it was tied to Katie’s birthday or perhaps to our pending departure a few days later.
Would we do it again?
While Emotions by Hodelpa Playa Dorada certainly isn’t the fanciest all-inclusive resort in the Dominican Republic, we enjoyed our month-long stay. Katie and I have already agreed that if the award rate drops to a reasonable rate again, we would go back — if only to revisit the place where we had this crazy experience. However, we wouldn’t stay for an entire month, and we would prioritize seeing more of the country outside the complex walls.
However, this incredible deal reinforced our belief that there are often amazing redemptions available to be found if you look. While it’s pretty rare to get more than 6x TPG’s valuation, there are plenty of ways to stretch your points; here are examples to consider using Hilton, Hyatt, IHG and Marriott points. And when points rates don’t provide a good redemption, don’t overlook booking an all-inclusive through a credit card portal.
Featured photo by JT Genter/The Points Guy.
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