Evaluating All-Inclusive Beach Resorts

All-inclusive beach resorts are growing in popularity as more upscale and boutique options emerge — just last weekend the San Francisco Chronicle ran an article on the various options that are now available in the Caribbean. This accommodation category has been heavily marketed to families given the convenient and value-oriented set up for groups at some properties. Outside of Club Med, I’ve always assumed that all-inclusive was synonymous with generic, mega-resorts, i.e. not that appealing if you like a boutique hotel experience. Clearly, this assumption is now dated …

We’ve had little exposure to all-inclusive beach resorts, so I was thrilled to exchange emails with my friend Shawn, an executive from General Mills in Minneapolis (kids ages 7 and 11), who traveled with his family to Azul Sensatori property Mexico — the Azul website describes this property as gourmet inclusive. Shawn shared some eye-opening feedback with me after their trip — clearly, these properties have distinct pros and cons and need to be evaluated carefully to figure out if they can meet expectations.

Azul resorts Mexico

Here is what Shawn wrote about their experience:

1.  Food. A large part of the business model seems to be based on having a commissary type (buffet) restaurant that serves all meals. This restaurant is the high margin, crank them through joint. The better this particular restaurant is, the better the entire experience will be. If I was booking an all-inclusive again, I would ask several questions about the restaurants on site.

The key question seems to be how many restaurants exist beyond the commissary restaurant and how the reservation system works. At Azul Sensitori you could not make reservations unless you had at least 8 in your party. If you did not, and you showed up at any point after 6:30, you were told it would be an hour or two … but “you can always be seated immediately at Spoon!” I am a big foodie, so I am not sure I will ever do an all inclusive again, because I think it may be impossible for them to do food well. (My kids thought Spoon rocked…what do I know).

2.  Room location and layout. Azul is a great example of what I think exists elsewhere. There was a family section, “Azul” section, and a Premium section. The “Azul” section was a blended area of families and non-kid visitors. Every element of the layout was upgraded as you moved from the kid section to the Premium section. Yet, it was not clear how different the rates were.

The rates were sold more as “balcony,” “swim up,” “ocean view,” etc.  We were in the kid building. I would have preferred the Azul building facing the Premium building. It was kind of like not asking what seats at the football game you had and then finding out you paid the same as the guy sitting on the 50 yard line while you were in the bleachers. I would press hard for the exact room and location before I went.

3.  Activities and location. We like to get out and do things every couple days. I would do a better job of asking about the top 10 excursions and time/cost to do a few of them. It would be great if you could book them in advance, but I still always feel like I am going to get jobbed unless I do it face to face when I am there. It took me a day to really find the person who knew how to best book excursions.

Once I did, it was easy. I would say that our location ended up being excellent. Very central to many things. I would want assure that again. I would also ask more about the beach. The beach in this area is just weak. I guess I knew this, but when you can’t really get a good run in on the beach, that is a bummer. There was one benefit. As I went for a run, I found out the resort two up from us was a nude resort — an unwelcome surprise.

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We don’t have many all-inclusive resorts on Ciao Bambino (most are ranch vs. beach properties) — but our request process supports giving our users the ability to ask for clarification on any property detail via our Check Availability link. This is why I don’t like electronic booking engines for families since there is no opportunity to understand exactly what you are getting before you confirm a room.

Does anyone else have feedback on all-inclusive experiences? If so, please make a comment here or send an email to [email protected].

Photos courtesy of the O’Grady family

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