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How to Survive Your First All-Inclusive Vacation

You’re booked at an all-inclusive by the beach. Now what?

All-inclusive resorts—where nearly every expense is included in the room rate, from breakfast buffets to snorkeling gear—can lure you in with bundled convenience. It’s easy to love and hate this aspect, crushing over the notion that you don’t have to pull out your credit card every hour but also loathing the self-contained nature of these properties. You’ll find all-inclusives in abundance in locations like Mexico’s Riviera Maya and Los Cabos, throughout Jamaica, and in other Caribbean destinations. Here’s how to deal.

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What to Pack

Because all-inclusives mimic towns with varied activities—you can wear a bejeweled gown or tux to dinner and attend a yoga class in your Lululemon leggings hours before—pack appropriately. Check with the resort about specialty or themed nights because it would be helpful to know that on Fridays is a jerk BBQ by the buggy beach (long pants required) or Wednesday afternoon means free crafts for all (grubby tee, please). Pack workout clothes because gyms and fitness centers are huge and luxurious—and how else are you going to work off the buffets? Comfortable walking shoes are essential because the stroll to the pool or beach from your room isn’t necessarily quick.

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Peruse Daily Offerings

Some properties host craft classes (for example, one can make a piece of Mexican pottery at Grand Oasis Tulum in Tulum, Mexico), language, or cooking tutorials. Consult the calendar upon arrival so you don’t weep at missing out on your dream activity, whether it’s pole dancing at Temptation Cancun Resort, straw weaving at Melia Nassau Beach or juggling at Viva Wyndham Maya in Playa del Carmen, Mexico. Also, related to packing: there is often a clothing requirement—like closed-toe shoes in the kitchen—and you would be hard-pressed to find a pair of Nikes or Keens in the gift shop.

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Leave the Property at Least Once

While you might be tempted to spend all of your time at the hotel, it’s a good idea to plan at least one off-campus excursion. You can book through a third-party tour operator partnering with the resort to swim in Riviera Maya’s cenotes or experience off-roading in an ATV while in Jamaica. Guides are often locals, providing a deeper immersion into the region.

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Book Dinner Reservations Early

All-inclusives like to boast up to 25 restaurants. The options might seem dizzying but if your palate is eagerly anticipating one of those, act fast. If you can, don’t wait until the middle of your stay—or even upon arrival—to secure a table at an eatery because it might be full and then you’ll be out of luck; you might even have to endure another dinner buffet (*shudder*). Keep in mind you can always modify the reservations (just make sure you understand the cancellation policies; some need to be within 24 hours).

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Bring at Least One Book or Load Up Your Tablet

Because the idea is to promote R&R, the exact opposite of a city itinerary packed with museums and walks, there tends to be a lot of downtime at an all-inclusive. Gift shops don’t always sell books (or, if they do, a lame paperback thriller will run you $20). The perfect cabana companion could be that novel you’ve been dying to read or issues of The New Yorker you’ve been meaning to get to on your Kindle. Come prepared because there isn’t a Barnes & Noble in sight.

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Two Words: Progressive Dining

It can be overwhelming to ponder dining at 20 restaurants over a four-night stay. Hyatt Ziva Cancun, for example, offers 17 restaurants and bars. One solution is to curate a progressive experience. Have drinks at one early in the evening, apps at another, dinner at yet another, and then dessert someplace else. Soon you’ve got a five-hour culinary journey—what’s not to love about that?! Just make sure to check opening hours. You’d be surprised how many cigar bars close early or that dinner doesn’t begin until 9 pm at that tapas spot (thanks to Spanish eating habits).

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Secure Transportation Ahead of Time

Flying into Cancun’s airport is like being in a used-car lot. Everybody wants to sell you a ride, maybe even a time-share. Add on top of that the fact that you’re bleary-eyed from the long flight and in no mood to make major decisions. Arrange transfers ahead of time, either through the resort or via a private service. Some destinations—like Cancun International Airport in Riviera Maya, Mexico—offer a roughly $10USD one-way fare for coach-bus transportation from the airport to downtown Playa del Carmen via ADO.

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Tote a Water Bottle and Coffee Thermos

Instead of waiting for the cabana boy to refresh your water glass or investing in a 10-minute walk to the buffet to refill your coffee cup, load up before you settle into a beach chair or on your room’s terrace. Some all-inclusives now sell logoed water bottles or coffee thermoses—still, others feature one in the room just for your use.

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Choose Your Class Wisely

At some all-inclusives there are different classes, which means various levels of service and inclusions, or whether or not kids are allowed; Grand Velas (with properties in Mexican destinations like Los Cabos and Riviera Maya) and Barceló Hotels & Resorts (locations include Costa Rica, Aruba, Dominican Republic, and Mexico) are two examples. If you’re not a big drinker then don’t opt for a class with free beverages. But if you like to be pampered then maybe the butler service is for you? Or, if quiet romance is your angle, choose an area of the all-inclusive that’s kids-free.

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Don’t Overindulge

We saved this tip for last because we really want you to remember it: just because the food and drinks are free (actually, already paid for) and just a phone call away doesn’t mean you should eat all of it. Less is more. Only eat one item from the bread basket. Don’t order all of the desserts. Stop at two drinks. You know the drill. You’ll pay for all that overindulging in the morning, trust us.

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