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Not so all-inclusive: Here’s how to decide when resort upcharges make sense

July 11, 2021
8 min read
Cabanas on a tropical beach
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Prix fixe tasting room dining concepts helmed (at least on paper) by Michelin-starred chefs. Access to private pools and beach areas, designated restaurants and 24/7 lounges stocked with food and beverages. Upcharges for premium spirits and wines. Seems like the term “all-inclusive” doesn’t really mean the same thing these days.

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Before you even get to the add-ons, there are already a dizzying array of room categories to choose from at many all-inclusive resorts, from a double-double garden-view to a sprawling oceanfront swim-up suite. Some are now offering in-room and on-property perks available only to guests who book a designated concierge-level or VIP room.

The Concierge Collection suites at the upcoming O2 Beach Club & Spa on Barbados’ south coast come with niceties like in-room check-in, a concierge phone, bottle of Champagne, $125 spa credit per adult, golf, one 45-minute lesson in a topic like cooking or steel pan drumming, and unlimited access to sister property Sea Breeze Beach House (all-inclusive rates start at $482 per room per night for a Club Room and $963 per room per night for a Concierge Collection one-bedroom suite).

For those not looking to shell out for these luxury options, guests often have the option to purchase add-ons or upcharges to their all-inclusive experience. Here are some areas in which you may encounter options for higher-end experiences, and for which type of traveler they make sense.

Upgraded resort access

Guests at the Level at Meliá Braco Village in Jamaica (pricing at $648 per night in November for an oceanfront room) can head to a private lounge for express check-in and checkout, and also find top-shelf drinks, all-day snacks and internet. Perks extend to private beaches, pools, bars and restaurants, reserved sun beds and room luxuries like a pillow menu, minibar and premium bath amenities. The Exclusive Collection space at Club Med Cancun (pricing at $554 per night in October for an Exclusive Collection Space Deluxe Room — Garden View) and Club Med Punta Cana offers dedicated pools and poolside bars, luxury cabanas and concierge service.

Best for: Those who crave more personalized attention or aren’t fans of crowds when swimming, eating or relaxing.

Related: Open for business: What to know about getting to Jamaica on points this summer

Reservable cabanas or beds at the pool or beach

At some all-inclusive resorts, a too-high guest-to-lounge chair ratio means that couples or families wanting to snag seats need to take a trek to the pool or beach well before breakfast and set out towels, then endure side-eye from chairless guests hours later when they finally return to use them. A cabana or bed at the pool or beach provides your personal spot in the sun (or shade) and other amenities like cold towels, misters, a television, fans and food and beverage service; since it’s usually reserved for the entire day, you and your brood can come and go as you please.

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A cabana at the pool can be amazing but you need to decide if it's worth it at some resorts. (Photo courtesy of Hyatt)

Royalton Chic Suites Cancun ups the ante with Level 18, Cancun’s only rooftop cabana lounge, where you can book an elegant cabana at the rooftop pool 18 stories above the city’s famed Strip, or reserve a cabana or Bali bed downstairs at the main pool (rooms start at $393 per night based on double occupancy; rooftop cabana packages start at $150, while those on the main level start at $99). Each of the partially shaded, luxe poolside cabanas at Royalton Blue Waters in Jamaica actually comes with its own plunge pool (rooms start at $350 per night for double occupancy; cabana rentals are $200 per day.)

Best for: Those who don’t like to play the lounge chair game or want a guaranteed respite from the sun.

Related: Is ‘reserving’ a pool chair ever acceptable? Etiquette experts weigh in

High-end restaurants

Depending on the size of an all-inclusive resort, there can be anywhere from a handful to a few dozen dining options, from breakfast buffets and beach shacks to Japanese steakhouses and concepts reflective of regional or local cuisine. There may also be one or several restaurants not included in the base price — generally, ones that showcase elevated gastronomy or multicourse menus, or are affiliated with renowned chefs.

Among the 12 restaurants at Hotel Xcaret Mexico in the Riviera Maya are two that require an upcharge: Há, a tasting menu experience created by Michelin-starred chef Carlos Gaytán paired with Mexican wines, and an over-the-top Sunday brunch at Xpiral with a raw bar, sushi bar, authentic Mexican street food and craft cocktails (rooms start at $630 per night based on double occupancy; dinner and wine pairings at Há are $150 per person, exclusive of gratuity). Lumière, the French fine dining restaurant at the duo of adults-only Le Blanc Spa Resorts in Los Cabos and Cancun, offers a 13-course dinner with 22 dishes, each paired with organic and biodynamic French wines (rooms start at $742 and $746 per night for two adults, respectively; dinner is $150 per person). The multicourse wine pairing dinner at Bogie & Bacall’s is included for guests staying at Bungalows Key Largo four nights or longer but incurs a surcharge for shorter sojourns (bungalows start at $1,189 per night based on double occupancy; dinner at Bogie & Bacall’s for guests staying less than four nights costs $300, inclusive of house wine).

Best for: Epicureans who believe a truly memorable meal is an integral part of any vacation.

Related: 13 mistakes to avoid at all-inclusive resorts

Top-shelf beverages

Wine, beer and spirits flow freely at all-inclusives: in the lobby, at the restaurants, by (or even in) the pool. But if you have a penchant for a particular brand of rum to float in your pina colada, or would rather sip Champagne or Bordeaux instead of prosecco or the house wine, it might cost you. When requesting a certain drink, it’s best to ask.

You might not be able to get your favorite brand of beverage or you may incur additional fees. (Photo by Nick Ewen/The Points Guy)

Oenophiles will feel at home upgrading from a regular room to a Butler Suite at Sonesta Ocean Point Resort in St. Maarten because it comes with an in-room wine fridge stocked with up to five of their favorites from a curated list, set at three perfect temperatures (Butler Suites start at $509 per night). However, there are resorts that pride themselves on including premium beverage offerings for all guests, like Dreams Curaçao Resort, Spa & Casino, whose promise of “Unlimited-Luxury” includes top-shelf options (rooms start at $327 per night per person, inclusive of top-shelf beverages).

Best for: Anyone loyal to specific distilleries, wineries or breweries who wants something above and beyond mainstream drink options.

Related: How to pack for an all-inclusive resort vacation

Experiences that go above and beyond

Guest experience coordinators often plan free daily activities at resorts, from morning beach yoga to kids crafts to water Zumba, and oceanfront properties often come with a disclaimer about “non-motorized water sports” like kayaking and stand-up paddleboarding available free of charge. At the other extreme are over-the-top activities that most decidedly incur an extra fee.

Angama Mara, an all-inclusive luxury safari lodge in Kenya (and its newly opened exclusive-use sister property Angama Safari Camp) offers an hourlong sunrise hot air balloon experience over the Maasai Mara that ends with a Champagne breakfast in the middle of nowhere (rooms at Angama Mara start at $1,250 per person per night; the hot air balloon ride starts at $470 per person). Emerald Maldives Resort & Spa is considered a deluxe all-inclusive with included activities like two guided snorkeling tours and one boat excursion per week; guests can choose to add on experiences like a one-hour cooking class and wine tasting (villas start at $700 per night; the cooking class and wine tasting starts at $100 per person, a romantic dinner or picnic on the sandbank starts at $400 per couple and a private movie on the beach starts at $250). Private island resort Petit St. Vincent is home to the Jean-Michel Cousteau Dive Center; beginners can take intro scuba courses, while certified divers can embark on one- or two-tank expeditions or advance their training with night diving and nitrox (one-bedroom villas start at $1,350 per night, based on double occupancy; scuba excursions start at $105 for a one-tank dive). The Gourmet Cenote experience at Grand Velas Riviera Maya includes a three-course lunch and ancestral drink tasting 60 feet underground in a cenote (rooms start at $633 per person per night; the Gourmet Cenote experience costs $8,000 for up to 8 people.)

Best for: Travelers who have their hearts set on an experience that’s unique to the property or destination.

Related: Why all-inclusive resorts are more attractive than ever following the pandemic

Photo by Aspects and Angles/Shutterstock.

Editorial disclaimer: Opinions expressed here are the author’s alone, not those of any bank, credit card issuer, airline or hotel chain, and have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of these entities.