When it comes to all-inclusive getaways, it pays to investigate the fine print...
For many travelers, all-inclusive getaways are the only way to go. Everything is figured out in advance of departure -- accommodations, food, drink, entertainment, and most or all fees. Sometimes, though, the difference between "most or all" fees can take travelers by surprise. Below, we've outlined a few of the ways costs can add up on an all-inclusive and how you can avoid sticker shock.
Resort packages typically include all food and beverages, but remember to check details carefully. Those "three meals a day" might mean bellying up to the buffet three times a day, which is fine for fans of casual dining but disheartening for gourmets. Free drinks may mean "your choice of whatever brands we happen to serve at the bar" (which could be a very limited selection), or free drinks during specified times only. Or it could mean any and all drinks are free, round-the-clock.
In the world of all-inclusives, sports and recreation activities tend to be loaded with hidden fees. Get the scoop on these activities before you sign on the dotted line, and remember that what is included will most likely vary from property to property. Spa fees are largely, but not always, complimentary. That said, you'll definitely pay extra if you're planning on any treatments. Tennis and squash courts may be free, but bring your rackets as you'll probably have to pay to rent them. Most packages do not include golfing fees.
On an all-inclusive cruise, much of what you'll need and want is included in the rate you pay for up front. But there are a few things that are hardly ever included such as tips, spa services, and the cost of shore excursions. The latter can end up being surprisingly pricey if you didn't know you had to cover costs for kayak rentals, face masks, snorkels and lunch in that fancy on-shore restaurant. In general, many travelers find they spend about $1,000 to $1,500 for tips, excursions, equipment rentals, and other etceteras on a ten-day cruise.
Cruisers are often surprised to find that their all-inclusive cruise doesn't include the cost of drinks. For adult beverages, you can usually buy beer, wine, and hard liquor on shore and bring it aboard (some ships may not allow this) or buy a bottle at the duty-free shop and pay a small fee (around $10) to have access to it. If you don't pay the fee, your purchase will be held until you disembark. For carbonated drinks it's a good idea to invest in a prepaid carbonated drinks card, which allows you to order as many sodas as you wish for a flat fee (usually around $30 for kids, and $45 for adults).
Tipping on cruise ships is expected, except for the most exclusive cruise lines. If you're headed out for a seven-night cruise anytime soon, it's a good idea to bring along a couple of extra hundred dollars to cover tips for wait staff and cabin staff.
Finally, many cruise lines now have daytime supervised kids' clubs. But beware -- most of the clubs charge up to $10-$12 or more per child (per hour) in the evening, so be prepared to pay dearly if you want some alone time with your significant other.
A package tour typically includes airfare and lodging, and sometimes airport transfers, meals, a rental car, and/or activities. You pay a flat fee for the package, and after that you're on your own. An escorted tour includes many of the options above, along with arranged activities and the services of a tour guide to facilitate your vacation.
Package and escorted tours often offer greater savings than you could get if you purchased the components separately. But you'll want to carefully check the details to see what's included in the price (transportation, meals, tips, airport transfers?). Double-check the lodging choices with several travel Web sites or guidebooks to ensure the places (and the prices) are as described in the brochure. Ask if there are any additional expenses that you'll need to cover such as airport departure fees and taxes.
If you're going on an escorted tour, you may want to ask how many people will be on the tour and what the basic demographic is -- old/young, singles, retired folks -- to ensure you'll feel comfortable with the people you'll be spending time with. Also check to see if all admissions and local transportation costs are covered by the tour fee. And if you have special dietary or physical requirements, make sure your needs can be accommodated.
Travel brochures don't deliberately seek to deceive people, but sometimes what you think you're reading isn't what the text literally says. Evocative descriptions that are really just opinions should be taken with a large grain of salt. "Fine" dining, "spacious" rooms, "unsurpassed elegance" "luxury," "fun" "beautiful," "unspoiled," and the infamous "just minutes away from" are expressions that should definitely make you wary.
The veracity of all of these terms are very much in the eye of the beholder. Resist the lure and look for the facts. Check the property map to see exactly where the ocean view room is situated, look at area maps to get a fix on where the resort is located. Consult ship diagrams to get the actual size in square feet of the cabins, etc. And ask specific questions about things that matter to you. If a brochure says that the hotel is near the beach, find out exactly how many minutes away it is from the beach? How long is that short walk to the shopping mall. A few blocks or three miles?
Also carefully review specific provisos in guarantees and terms of service. For example, a Caribbean resort's "Hurricane Guarantee" may offer a free replacement vacation if hurricane force winds should impede normal resort operations. But the resort management's idea of "impede" might differ from yours. Some resorts will wait until they're nearly swept out to sea before they actually close the property. Again, read the fine print closely.
Whether your all-inclusive vacation is a resort, a cruise or a tour, review the cancellation policy carefully. Find out what happens if an important part of the package becomes unavailable owing to weather or other complications. Do you get a full refund, a voucher for another vacation, or some other sort of compensation? And since you'll be pre-paying a fairly large chunk of money, you may want to consider purchasing trip cancellation insurance (most policies start around $100). Read the fine print carefully, however, so you know exactly what protection your policy offers.
Remember, the time you invest now into carefully reading the fine print in those travel brochures will pay big dividends when you're off enjoying a happy, hassle-free holiday.