What comes to mind when you hear the phrase “all-inclusive vacation?” Some people swear by them; others turn up their nose without ever having tried one.

How you feel about all-inclusive resorts may depend on your stage of life—for example, they appeal to me more now that I have kids. But the most important question to ask from a personal finance perspective is not how good the food is or whether or not you can have an “authentic” experience.

Frugal travelers simply need to know if all-inclusives can be a fun and affordable way to vacation. And how do all-inclusive vacations compare to the DIY approach? 

Keep reading to discover where and how to find the best deals on all-inclusive trips.

What exactly does all-inclusive mean?

In 1950, ClubMed introduced the concept of an all-inclusive resort vacation. Their target audience is families, but today you can find all-inclusive resorts for a wide range of specific groups from LGBTQ travelers to people in recovery.

Furthermore, an all-inclusive trip doesn’t have to mean sitting on the beach for a week. My mom recently traveled to Nepal for an all-inclusive hiking trip that was neither boring nor generic.

Overall, the term all-inclusive means that you pay for a certain set of services (such as air fare, ground transportation, meals and drinks, a place to sleep, and activities) with one flat fee before you go. This can make it easier to stick to a budget for your vacation.

Although there are always opportunities to shop or add a la carte services, your basic needs will be taken care of. Of course, the devil is always in the details, so it’s essential to know what’s included in your all-inclusive before you book the trip.

Where can you go on an all-inclusive vacation?

While most people would probably think of a beach first, all-inclusive trips aren’t limited to warm climates.

Whatever your interests, whether skiing or hiking or exploring foreign countries, chances are you can find an all-inclusive vacation that revolves around your desired experience. However, Caribbean destinations remain the most popular locations for all-inclusive resorts. Since choice is plentiful, the Caribbean is also your best bet for finding a good deal on an all-inclusive trip.

My research indicates that the Dominican Republic offers the most value to budget-conscious travelers. The DR also boasts new infrastructure including highways and the Punta Cana International Airport, which is the busiest airport in the DR, according to its website.

Mexico places second with popular resort destinations in Cancun, Playa del Carmen, and Cozumel. Have your heart set on a different Caribbean country? Don’t worry—deals can be found anywhere, especially if you time your vacation strategically.

Best times to go if you want to save money

As I write this article, it’s the day after Christmas with a high of only 31 degrees in my town. Ever since I woke up I’ve been wishing I were somewhere warmer, and I’m not the only one. The last week of December and first week of January is considered “peak season” in the world of all-inclusive Caribbean vacations.

Everyone from movie stars to your Uncle Bob would love to be on a beach right now, so deals can be hard to come by. The “high season,” which starts around Thanksgiving, continues through April. There’s nothing wrong with traveling to warmer climates during the winter months, but you should look at it as a luxury.

If you want to maximize your travel budget, try an all-inclusive in the spring, summer, or early fall. After all, escaping your hot and humid hometown for a relaxing week on the beach is a great way to spend your summer vacation.

A note about hurricane season: August through October is prime time for hurricanes and tropical storms. This makes it a less expensive time to book an all-inclusive in the Caribbean, but you also run the risk of traveling during a hurricane. So if you decide to try your luck with hurricane season, make sure you read all the fine print about refunds and cancellations, and consider purchasing an applicable travel insurance policy.

Traveling to one of the southernmost Caribbean islands, which are outside the hurricane belt, is also a good way to save money without taking a big risk.

If you don’t mind a little rain… visit in May, June, or July, which are part of the Caribbean rainy season, but before hurricane risk becomes an issue. May in particular is known for light rain and low prices.

So, is an all-inclusive cheaper than booking a package deal?

Opinion varies on where to look for the best price. Some travelers recommend booking an all-inclusive resort plus airfare on a travel booking site like Expedia or Orbitz.

Others say that their real-life travel agent always has the best deal. And of course there are those who insist the best deal is always the DIY one, especially if you’re willing to cook your own food in an Airbnb. Let’s look at several example scenarios for the sake of comparison.

All-inclusive vs. DIY in Punta Cana, DR

For the true all-inclusive experience (meaning airfare and ground transportation are included), I looked at Club Med’s Punta Cana resort. For a five-night stay in mid-May, $4,278.76 is the cheapest price I found for my family of four. That’s with a round-trip flight from Philadelphia. If you’re traveling as a pair or a couple, the price drops to $2,689.62. Club Med also charges a $180 annual membership fee on top of those prices.

Next, I scoped out Expedia’s Bundle Deals for Punta Cana during the same period. For round-trip airfare and a five-night stay at an all-inclusive resort, my family of four could go for about $3,600 total, about $600 less than Club Med. A couple would pay just below $2,000 for the same trip, an even bigger savings from Club Med. However, both of these prices come from Expedia’s “Deal of the Day,” so you may see something slightly different when you search.

If you’re a diehard DIY traveler, I found a three-bedroom Airbnb apartment advertised as five minutes from the airport and ten minutes from the beach for $130/night. A couple who only needs one bed can rent a whole apartment in the same area for only $65/night. Airfare is about $500/person (from Philadelphia) so the family would pay a total of about $2,700 for the Airbnb and airfare. The couple would only spend about $1,300. With a savings of $700-$1,000 from Expedia’s bundle deals on all-inclusives, you could probably dine out and spend some money on activities and still pay less than you would for the all-inclusive. Obviously, you could cook most meals at home to save even more.

Don’t forget travel insurance

Whether you go the all-inclusive or DIY route, consider springing for a solid travel insurance plan. Less than one-third of travelers buy insurance, and many of them end up regretting it. There are many different elements to travel insurance coverage including trip cancellation, trip interruption, delays, financial default, etc. However, the price of travel insurance should be no more than five percent of the total trip cost.

Luckily a lot of travel credit cards have built-in insurance plans so you can collect big on travel rewards while enjoying peace of mind on vacation. Here’s more information on the different types of travel coverage you can get through a credit card, and here’s a list of the travel cards we like best, so you can make every dollar go further on your next trip.

Summary

My only trip to the Caribbean was with my family and we stayed in a house in a local town instead of in a resort. This meant we needed a rental car in order to drive to the public beach and other places we wished to go.

Our location also felt a bit isolated and we were separated from other tourists, most of whom were in a resort. So while it’s almost always cheaper to travel the DIY way, you may end up with more headaches (not to mention chores like cooking and tidying up) than you want to deal with on vacation. My personal choice would be the Expedia bundle deal–it offers some savings while still preserving the convenience of all-inclusive. But for the adventurous who prioritize frugality above all else, Airbnb might be the best option.

Have you gone on an all-inclusive vacation? Share your experiences and advice in the comments.

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