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Vacation Advice: Thoughts on All-Inclusive Mega-Resorts

Mexico Resort

Are you considering a stay at an all-inclusive mega-resort in Mexico or the Caribbean? I’ve stayed at a few — and I have some thoughts worth considering:

 In This Resort Article You Will Discover:

  • What To Beware of at Mega-Resorts
  • How to Make the Most of Your Stay
  • Tips for Navigating the Resort Scene

Recently, I returned from my fourth visit to a classic, Mexican sun-and-beach all-inclusive mega-resort. When I say “classic,” I’m talking about the Big Boys here — not boutique operators or eco-lodges (many of which include room and board in their rates). I’m talking about Dreams, Iberostar, Riu and the like.

Three visits were for destinations weddings. One was a spur-of-the-moment group vacation with 10 friends. I had a wonderful time in all instances, but with three such trips under my belt, I have some musings about these warm-weather mega-resorts.

Are They Really Competitively Priced?

If your sole goal for the week is to consume as much food and drink as your stomach can hold, I’d recommend an all-inclusive without a moment’s hesitation. But for the rest of us, it will do good to really price out your options.

For example, flying from my hometown of Vancouver, BC, and destined for Mexico’s popular Pacific Coast (Mazatlan, Puerto Vallarta, Los Cabos, etc.), one can expect to pay about $1,700 CDN for a six-night/seven day stay at a mid-level all-inclusive resort (airfare included).

But of course, that’s per person — so you and your spouse will pay around $3,400 for the week.

Now, here’s a quick comparison for you: Vancouver-Puerto Vallarta flight cost is about $600 per person (usually less) — $1,200 for a couple. During a visit to Sayulita, Mexico — a character beach town 45 minutes north of Puerto Vallarta — I investigated a beachside, swimming-pool-equipped boutique hotel advertising lovely king-bed rooms for $120 per night (double occupancy). A six-night stay there will set you back $720. Total thus far: $1,920. Or, if you still want a resort feel, try the Puerto Vallarta Westin — for $149 per night (double occupancy). Now we’re up to $2,100.

This leaves you and your partner between $1,300 and $1,500 to spend in food and drink for the week before you exceed the base cost of a stay at a “pre-packaged” resort — that’s more than $140 per day.

For reference sake, in Sayulita, a beer costs about 20 pesos (currently $1.38 CDN) and fish tacos were selling for about the same. Puerto Vallarta is more expensive, but still relatively cheap. Unless you’re very, very hungry and extremely thirsty, you’ll have a tough time blowing the full $1,300. (Oh, and the Sayulita boutique hotel offered free Wi-Fi too. Try getting that from a mega-resort… $15 per day, minimum.)

A good rule of thumb: the edge always goes to the DIY crowd.

Why Pre-Pay?

I have trouble with the overall concept of pre-paying for food and drinks. Like gambling at a casino — the house always wins. Even if you were to book a stay at a non-all-inclusive resort hotel and spend the whole week lounging poolside ordering drinks, you’re still going to be better off paying-per-drink rather than pre-paying and hoping to get your money’s worth.

Pre-paying also encourages you to stay on-resort and eat and drink what they serve you — in order to get your money’s worth.

Booking at a hotel near a town will allow you to venture out at will and explore the local culinary scene. Classic hot spots like Puerto Vallarta or Cabo San Lucas, for example, have world-class restaurants as well as tasty street food at your disposal, not to mention cervezas for pocket change.

Here is an example of “resort-option” versus “self-sufficiency” for consideration:

On my last trip to Puerto Vallarta, my wife, a friend and I decided to check out the nightlife along the Malecon. Our all-inclusive resort had a “party bus excursion” for which tickets were $35 USD per person. This included return transportation, cover charges and an open bar once there. Grand total for the three of us would have been $115 USD, plus gratuities.

We balked at this, hopped in a taxi and partied all night at gaudy-and-classic Senor Frogs. Our cost? A cab ride each way was 50 pesos ($4 USD); there was no cover charge and our combined drink bill was $43 USD. Grand total for three of us: $51 USD (plus tips) for a good night and a bad hangover — less than half of what the resort wanted for the same experience. Plus, we weren’t restricted to a choice of bar or a departure/return schedule. (No brainer.)

Reality vs. Expectation

After four visits to three mega-resorts in Mexico’s Playa del Carmen, Cabo San Lucas, Punta Mita and Puerto Vallarta, I feel I have a sample size good enough to make a rough generalization. Fact: reality does not always match expectation. Whatever do I mean? Examples:

  • You may expect a day of relaxing swims and quietly lounging with a book. The reality is mega-resort pools, with swim-up bars, are raucous and often filled with drunken revellers. During my last trip, a young woman vomited into the pool. (Possible solution: find a resort that offers a separate “quiet” or “adult” pool — barring that, keep in mind the beach is always quieter.)
  • With multiple dining options (five different restaurants is common), you may expect choices galore. In reality, resorts have a rotating closure schedule on their eateries — meaning you may be down one restaurant each night. And many  only allow guests three “a la carte” meals per week; the rest are buffet (Iberostar is a big offender here). Combine that with a personal preference of, perhaps, three of the remaining four restaurants and you may be down one more viable option. Even assuming every place is open every day, in seven or eight days you’ll eat 21 to 24 (or more) meals — you could find yourself at each restaurant four to five times. Add more days and fewer options and you may get pretty sick of the food.
  • You expect a week of freedom, right? In reality, mega-resorts are well-regarded for their restrictions. For example, if you don’t like the house wine, you’ll have to either go without or pay extra for “premium” wines… at inflated prices. Weddings and corporate events can frequently close down sections of the resort; perhaps your favourite pool or restaurant, for example — as can staff changes or maintenance operations. (Of course, this can happen anywhere — but elsewhere you haven’t pre-paid for the privileges.) There will always be restaurant dead-zones too. Often, on-site eateries are closed for a few hours per day, meaning that if you fancy a late lunch or early dinner you’ll have to order room service (assuming that’s not extra $$…).

My advice? Temper your expectations and hope to be pleasantly surprised.

The Main Problem…

My biggest problem with the mega-resort scene may very well have me labelled as a snob, and perhaps rightly so.

Let me first say — often the facilities, guestrooms and even the food are top-notch at mid- to high-end resorts. They’re usually set on lovely properties with great beaches and expansive pools.

My biggest problem with all-inclusive mega-resorts is the people they attract.

  • Booze-hounds sit at the swim-up bar, drinking ’till sundown (do you think they hold it in all day?).
  • Leather-skinned, chain-smoking retirees offend the eyes in speedos and ill-fitting bikinis.
  • Screaming children run amuck, unchecked and barely supervised.
  • Entitled, uncultured jerkoffs yell at staff, make racist comments about locals and generally act like royalty at budget-priced three-star resorts.

Need some specifics?

  • I once overheard a woman tell a resort staff member she wanted to go to “Old Mexico Town” for some shopping. Cringe-worthy.
  • At another, a drunken retiree badgered a group of friends and I about whether or not we were “atheists,” until my wife had to politely ask her to stop.
  • Once, on the bus from the Puerto Vallarta airport, a tattooed rowdy repeatedly called our driver “Pedro,” each time laughing hysterically. (FYI: that was not his name.)
  • While swimming in the ocean at such a resort, we spotted a drifting log of human feces  — we narrowed down the culprit to one of three people, none of whom were infants.
  • On a recent trip, I couldn’t count the amount of times I saw smokers tap their cigarette ashes into the swimming pool, or bury their butts in the sand on the beach. So disgusting. (And just one reason I eschewed the pool.)
  • As mentioned earlier, I saw a pissed-drunk 20-something puke in the swimming pool, then nonchalantly mix it around with her hand to disperse the evidence. Then continue drinking. (Another reason I swam in the ocean.)

Now, I understand the irony of this complaint, considering I just returned from a mega-resort myself — and I certainly don’t mean to say everybody is like the above, nor are these resorts the only hideout of such people. It just seems the all-inclusive mega-resorts hold a much higher concentration of such folks.

Or, perhaps the all-you-can-eat, all-you-can-drink environment just brings out the worst in otherwise half-decent people.

Either way, the result is the same.

Ungodly Unhealthy

I like to indulge during vacation, sure, but there are limits. I also like to be active and adventurous and not come back needing a diet and ramped-up fitness regime.

Mark my words: it is damn near impossible to keep a healthy routine at an all-inclusive mega-resort.

Recently, despite staying somewhat active during the day (swimming in the ocean, surfing and boogie boarding), eschewing sugary drinks and exhibiting restraint at the buffet, I still gained four pounds in one week. That’s really tough to come home to.

Final Thoughts

All said — there are loads of reasons to book at an all inclusive mega-resort. I’ve covered a few HERE, but the number-one reason is for group vacations. Mega-resorts really remove some of the stress from organizing large groups of travellers.

So what can ultimately be learned here? It’s best to ensure you’re booking at the right place for you. If screaming kids are your kryptonite, ensure you spend extra for an adults-only resort. Check for signs of an overtly “party” atmosphere at your chosen resort — unless, of course, you’re looking to get shit-faced all day long. And don’t cheap out too much.

If you want to book at an all-inclusive mega-resort, it’s worth it to pay for an extra star in quality, rather than be disappointed by a low-end operation with endless add-on fees.

I know I’ll find myself at another all-inclusive in the future — weddings, birthdays, etc. And as I did each of the last three times, I’ll have a wonderful week. You just have to know all the facts before you go.


About the author: David Webb is a Vancouver, BC-based travel writer, photographer and magazine editor.

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