Before my first trip to an all-inclusive, I had no idea what to expect (aside from free-flowing booze and nearly endless hours in the sun, of course). I couldn’t find any articles about the most important things to know about all inclusive resorts, like what to pack or whether there’d be enough vegetarian options (clearly crucial concerns). I worried whether I’d enjoy that kind of intensely laid-back, luxurious vacationing, and whether the all-inclusive price-tag would be worth it.
Spoiler alert: my first all-inclusive trip was an absolute blast, and I ended up going back TWICE more within the year (to different locations)!
While the learning curve was steep at first, I feel like an all inclusive resort professional now, and I’m happy to share what I’ve picked up along the way.
Read on for the most important things to know about all inclusive resorts!
#1 Most important thing to know about all inclusive resorts: Do these 7 things BEFORE going on your all-inclusive vacation
1. Read reviews on TripAdvisor
While every hotel wants to put their best foot forward, some do a more honest job of self-portrayal than others.
If you have a specific idea of what you want your vacation to be like (a lot of partiers/Spring Breakers OR pretty chill and quiet; family friendly and lots of kiddos OR adults-only), make sure to read the TripAdvisor reviews which tend to be [sometimes brutally] honest.
Each resort in a city may have very different vibes. The Puerto Vallarta all-inclusive resort I stayed at with my in-laws was pretty quiet, mostly couples, and families with splashing kids stayed in their own pool. The Puerto Vallarta all-inclusive resort I stayed at with my brother was much rowdier, with big groups and a lot of drinking games. Checking out TripAdvisor helped me pick which all-inclusive hotel would suit which group best.
2. Check out the area
If you want to venture off the resort to explore the nearby area, be sure you choose your all-inclusive accordingly.
Some, especially in the Riviera Maya area, are isolated and miles from anything interesting. They are pretty literally in the middle of nowhere. Others, like in Acapulco, are perfectly safe within the resort but are surrounded by mafia problems and violent crime and outside exploration isn’t advisable. Still others, especially in Cancun or Puerto Vallarta, are totally safe and easy to go out and explore on your own, even at night. Check and make sure the tours (I recommend Viator as having the lowest prices in addition to best offerings, guarantees, and customer service, especially in Mexico)
If you don’t plan on leaving the all-inclusive (which most people don’t), then no worries on the location aside from maybe the convenience to and from the airport.
3. Ask about dietary offerings
If you are a vegetarian (like me), or have food allergies, or just strict dietary preferences, you’ll want to check on the availability of food for you before choosing an all-inclusive. This is another time when TripAdvisor comes in handy, as you can read the reviews of past guests with the same restriction, to see what is available.
As a vegetarian, I never had a problem. Riu had a lot of options for me, and for vegans as well. Each dish is marked with a description of the food, so it was really easy to choose vegetarian dishes without concern.
4. Change your location
After you’ve done your research and know which all-inclusive you want to book, try changing your location. This is usually done with a drop down menu in the upper right hand corner (or one of the corners).
By changing my location from the US to Mexico, I saved over 50% on a recent all-inclusive booking. The management at the all-inclusive confirmed that they do, in fact, charge different regions different costs for the SAME EXACT BOOKING.
If you’re in the US, Canada, or Europe, try changing to a South American location before booking your all-inclusive, and see if it saves you some cash.
5. Find out what’s included – and what’s not
husband getting the FREE to use sailboat ready for action
Room service isn’t usually included, so if chowing down in your room at 3am is important to you, you should clarify with the resort before booking.
Non-motorized watersports are sometimes included, like sailboating if you have your license (which you’ll need to show), and kayaks. Some all inclusives also provide snorkeling gear like masks, fins, and snorkels.
Motorized watersports like jet skiing, boat rides, scuba diving, and parasailing are sometimes available on-site for an extra (expensive) charge.
Airport transfer is usually NOT included but can be arranged through the airport. It is usually MUCH cheaper (and just as simple) to take a registered taxi or Uber from the airport. If you like your taxi driver, you can get his name and number and arrange for the return trip.
6. Schedule your plane tickets to take full advantage
Try to book plane tickets so that you arrive early in the morning on your check-in day, and leave in the afternoon (or evening) on your check-out day.
As I’ll go into below, most all inclusives will let you check in early or at the very least hold your bags and start letting you use the facilities (bar, beach, pool, and restaurants) as soon as you arrive. So get the most bang for your buck and don’t lose any hours by arriving in the afternoon or evening on check-in, or leaving in the morning of checkout.
7. Pack wisely
While the resort shop will have every essential you could possibly need, you really don’t want to use it, unless you enjoy lighting cash on fire. It is EXPENSIVE!
I’d also recommend bringing a reusable, insulated cup (which I’ll go into below), along with any special dietary preferences (for instance, I prefer Stevia to artificial sweeteners or sugar for my tea, so I’ll bring it with me).
Another important reminder is to bring at the very minimum TWO swimsuits, so that one can dry while you’re wearing the other. Nothing sucks more than having to squeeze into a cold, wet swimsuit from the day before.
If you’re staying at a fancier resort, you’ll want to check the dress code, but at a bare minimum men should bring at least one nice shirt, one pair of long pants, and close toed shoes. Ladies should bring at least one nice dress and pair of shoes that are NOT flip flops. Especially the specialty restaurants will have a stricter dress code than the regular buffet restaurant, and you don’t want to pass it up because you don’t have appropriate clothes.
(full all inclusive packing post coming soon)
#2 Most important thing to know about all inclusive resorts: Do these 4 things UPON ARRIVAL at your all-inclusive vacation
1. Ask to check in early
All inclusives tend to be especially accommodating. If your room is available and clean before the typical check in time, you can usually go straight to it and get settled in without an extra charge.
If you are arriving during a busy time, your room might not be available. However, most resorts (including my favorite, RIU) will hold your bags for you and give you your wristband so you can start enjoying your vacation. This includes getting your drink on, hitting up the buffet, and changing into your bikini to lounge by the pool. They will leave your bags in a cordoned off but still publicly accessible area in the lobby so be sure to bring any valuables with you.
2. Check out the “specialty” restaurant offerings
Most all-inclusives have a buffet at any given time of day that you can use at your leisure, and as many times as you want.
Most all-inclusives also have a variety of “specialty” restaurants (usually only open for dinner) which have a limited number of seatings, are serviced by waiters, and are of a fancier atmosphere. You usually need to reserve these in advance, and sometimes they book up quickly, especially the higher-demand restaurants (aka THE GOOD ONES that you’d want to be at).
Check out the menus of each specialty restaurant at check-in, and book any that look appealing right then and there.
3. Get the entertainment schedule
All-inclusives usually provide a show at night, and a few activities during the day.
The entertainment at night might be a musical performance, a live band, karaoke, dance show, acrobatics, or even a contest. My husband and I once got roped into a humiliating “Perfect Couple” competition that required the male partner to perform a stripper-style lap dance that the audience judged. My mom-in-law was in the audience.
Activities during the day might include drinking games, water aerobics, volleyball competitions, and trivia.
4. Find out about other locations
RIU is a big brand in Mexico all-inclusives, and has a few different hotels in each city. In Puerto Vallarta and Cancun, you can use the other locations’ facilities for free.
This is especially convenient for longer stays, if you want to change scenery, or if you stay at a cheaper location and want to experience “how the other half lives”, er, vacations.
In Puerto Vallarta, my brother and I stayed at a less expensive RIU that got a bit too fratty and super overcrowded, so we just walked down the beach and used the facilities of another RIU that was quieter and nicer.
#3 Most important thing to know about all inclusive resorts: Do these 7 things WHILE VACATIONING at your all-inclusive resort
1. Know your drink strategy
The bartenders at an all-inclusive tend to pour drinks on the weak side. Probably to save money, and also to keep people from getting too schwasted.
Whether you’re a booze hound, or like to make the most of your alcohol-related calories, or both (like me): ALWAYS order a double if you prefer your drinks on the strong side. Or, order your drink like normal and get a shot on the side to portion out the strength of the drink yourself.
You could also stick to beer or wine, which isn’t diluted.
2. Use your own cup
While this may sound silly, just hear me out.
The little cups provided by the bartenders get hot fast, due to the ambient temperature of the location and also the seriously strong sun. This means you’re left with a watered down (or worse, WARM) drink, and you need to either chug that miserable mess or get up from your pool chair to go get another one.
Aside from your comfort, there is an even more important reason to bring your own cup. In the VAST majority of all-inclusives, drinks are served in one-use paper, styrofoam, or plastic cups. This is AWFUL for the environment, and totally unnecessary.
Maybe the bartender doesn’t want to pour or mix a drink directly into your cup (for sanitary reasons, or whatever). That’s fine. Ask him/her to make the drink in a glass (or other non-disposable) cup, take it, pour it into your own reusable cup, and give him back the glass.
3. Avoid hangovers
The “drink of the day” tends to be extremely delicious, but also extremely high in sugar, which means it’s both high in calories and high in hangover risk. No bueno. If you’re anything like me, drinking 10 pina coladas or 10 sweet margaritas is basically fast-tracking to hangover city the next day. Enjoy sugary, syrupy, sweet drinks in moderation. Your head (and waist line) will thank you.
Choose drinks with water or unsweetened juice in them to stay hydrated, and also avoid hangovers and headaches which are exacerbated by the scorching sun and heat. Instead, you could also alternate each alcoholic drink with a water. Staying up on your hydration is absolutely key to a great all-inclusive experience, especially if you aren’t used to the heat, because nothing is less enjoyable than paying tribute to the porcelain throne (aka puking your guts out) when you know you could be out having a blast with your friends in the sun.
4. Get on your bartender’s good side
A little tip that is nothing to you is much appreciated by the bartenders. While every all-inclusive I’ve been to provided amazing service WITHOUT the need for a tip, paying it forward is never a bad thing. Your bartender is toiling under the hot sun to make sure you have an awesome vacation, so give a little something something to show your appreciation.
I have heard that some all-inclusives understaff their bar area, and in that case, a tip can go a LONG way to ensure that your drink is prepared fast and fresh.
5. Scan the pool situation
Most all-inclusives have a couple pools and also a beach. You’ll want to scope out the pools and beach offerings on your first day, and consider your preferences. Do you want a rowdy atmosphere where it’s easy to meet other singles and get your drink on? Do you want a relaxed environment in the shade, making it easy to read a book? Do you want to soak up the sun as much as humanly possible because you’ve escaped from the depths of a seemingly endless winter in the Midwest?
There is usually a “party” pool where the daytime drinking games and fun contests are organized by resort staff, and where the singles and groups tend to congregate. There is also usually a kids’ pool, where a lot of splashing (and I’d assume pool-peeing) goes on, along with opportunities for socializing with other families. There are shaded nooks and crannies where people read or listen to music or nap. Some pools may be heated, some may not. Take a lap before you choose what is best for you.
6. Scope out the sun
If you’re a big sun bather (like me and my sister), you’ll want to plan your lounger pick accordingly. Avoid anywhere with a tall building next to it, as it’ll likely cast some shade at least one point throughout the day.
7. Save a lounger
Yes, I am one of those people that go to the pool SUPER early to score a prime spot, then use a personalized towel (I like monogrammed Turkish towels, I’m fancy like that) to save my space while I pop out for breakfast (and later, lunch). While this is usually officially forbidden, when in Rome – do as the Romans do. If EVERYONE at your resort is saving spots but you play by the rules, you’re going to be left without a lounger.
Do NOT leave valuables unattended on a lounger. Our sunscreen and lotion were stolen right off of our pool lounger. While these aren’t big ticket items, we had to re-buy them for three times the price at the resort shop. I’d recommend bringing a TravelSafe, which you can easily lock to your lounger, to store iPhones, Kindles, and expensive sunglasses (and I guess sunscreen) when you’re in the pool or away from the lounger.
#4 Most important thing to know about all inclusive resorts: Do this AFTER CHECKOUT on your all-inclusive vacation
1. Keep the party going
Most all-inclusives will let you pay an extra fee for late checkout.
Or, you can do what I do to save money and ask that they hold your bags after checkout. You’ll be able to keep using the facilities until its time to catch a cab to the airport.
I’d recommend checking out, stashing your bags (but removing any valuables along with what you’ll need for the day), and continuing to enjoy the pool. When you’ve had enough sun (or your time is running out), use the gym or sauna shower to freshen up before chowing down on your last meal and hitting the road relaxed, refreshed, and rejuvenated.
FAQ About All Inclusives
What does all-inclusive mean?
All-inclusive generally means that the price includes your room (extra charges for extra people usually apply), unlimited drinks, and unlimited food.
Airport transfers, water sports, plane tickets may or may not be included in your all inclusive resort price. Be sure to ask for clarification.
What about all-inclusive timeshare rentals?
Many all-inclusive resorts are also considered timeshare resorts. Popular all-inclusive properties (like Club Royal Solaris in Cancun) offer all-inclusive timeshares. You can stay in these rooms for less and without the commitment of timeshare ownership by renting through a private owner. Timeshare rental sites offer a wide selection of all-inclusive suites, sometimes for a much lower price than going directly through the resort. Renting a timeshare gives you the opportunity to take advantage of suite-style accommodation amenities like full kitchens, living rooms, private balconies, and separate bedrooms (great if you’re traveling with a group). You also get to enjoy the same all-inclusive offerings as everyone else (sometimes for less than other guests paid for a standard room at the same resort). It’s definitely another option worth researching.
What are the most inexpensive All-Inclusive Resorts?
The RIU and Sunscape brands are two of the least expensive all-inclusive resorts in Mexico and the Caribbean.
In general, Puerto Vallarta and Playa del Carmen (both in Mexico) tend to have the cheapest all-inclusive resort offerings.
What are the best drinks to order at an all inclusive resort?
As suggested above, always go with doubles (two shots per drink) at an all-inclusive, or get a shot on the side, or order beer/wine. Regular drinks at all-inclusives are pretty weak, and the sugary “drink of the day” is a headache waiting to happen.
Is an all inclusive worth it?
If you are planning on sticking around the resort for the vast majority of the time, and getting all of your drinks and food at the resort: most likely. It is an especially good deal for anyone who drinks a lot, who eats a lot of seafood or expensive food (and can thus take full advantage of the buffet), and/or wants a very relaxing and decision-free vacation.
I think all-inclusives are an awesome location for family get-togethers, as there are a lot of activities for a variety of interests, and a huge range of food options to please everybody.
How many days to spend at an all inclusive?
For me, 3 or 4 nights is absolutely perfect. Any more than that and I would probably get bored (and fat).
Is tipping at an all inclusive required?
Tipping in Mexican all-inclusives is not required, but definitely appreciated. Even small amounts (like 20 pesos, or around 1USD) is enough for a bartender or server to get a full meal off the resort. You should never feel obligated to leave a tip.
If you’re in doubt and want to be sure to do the right thing, you can always email or Facebook message the resort for clarification and advice. Some all-inclusive resorts expressly forbid tipping.