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What do ‘all-inclusive’ vacations really include?

You’ve seen the ads, read the brochures for the hotels, cruises and vacation packages — all billed as “all-inclusives.”But the term ”all-inclusive” has become confusing, and — some would argue — misleading. Does an all-inclusive trip really mean it includes all costs, and is it really an affordable alternative to an a la carte vacation?After all, few of us really like going to our
/ Source: TODAY contributor

You’ve seen the ads, read the brochures for the hotels, cruises and vacation packages — all billed as “all-inclusives.”

But the term ”all-inclusive” has become confusing, and — some would argue — misleading. Does an all-inclusive trip really mean it includes all costs, and is it really an affordable alternative to an a la carte vacation?

After all, few of us really like going to our wallets and purses every five minutes when we travel. Most of us would presumably like to pay one fee that covers all of our costs when we travel. But does it ever work out that way?

First, some history.

For most of us, the term “all-inclusive” began in 1950 with Club Med, which claims to have invented the vacation package. The first Club Med village was on the Spanish island of Mallorca. where the all-inclusive vacation on a remote island was quite an adventure.

The first enthusiastic supporters were single people looking for something different and fun and where they could meet other like-minded individuals … and travelers even helped to wash dishes! But the concept was a simple one: Pay one fee, one time, and your vacation package was covered: airfare, your accommodations, your meals, your drinks and all your activities. Remember the famous Club Med “beads”? Members wore them around their necks as continually shrinking necklaces, which soon turned into bracelets as beads were removed to pay for drinks.

Club Med: Today, the all-inclusive approach continues at Club Med, where many of their locations have gone from a singles-only experience to appealing to families. For example, at the Club Med Cancun Yucatan, the prices for a seven-night “all-inclusive” vacation at Club Med Cancun Yucatan start at $1,400 per person. On the surface, that’s definitely affordable.

What's included:

  • Transfers
  • Accommodation
  • All meals, plus wine, beer and soft drinks with lunch and dinner
  • Open bar and snacks served at specific times during the day and night — alcoholic beverages
  • Sports activities with provision of equipment and/or tuition for beginners and/or advanced by qualified instructors, and include kayaking, snorkeling, golf, tennis, archery, flying trapeze, volleyball, dance, water aerobics, swimming, accompanied hikes

All-inclusive, right? Not necessarily. Here’s what your Club Med vacation in 2008 doesn't include:

  • Champagne, VSOP and XO spirits, some premium brands, select wines and canned/bottled drinks
  • Sports tuition and special courses (scuba diving, horse-riding, tennis, etc.) and green fees. Scuba diving at Club Med Cancun Yucatan is $129 for one tank, and $189 for two tanks
  • Baby Club Med for babies from 4 to 23 months old. Baby Club Med for a week is anywhere from $300-$390
  • Petit Club Med for children from 2 to 3 years old
  • Club Med spa packages
  • Excursions

But there is some good news: In Europe, at the Club Med Opio en Provence prices start at $883 per week. But in response to the record-high euro-to-dollar exchange rate ($1.56), Club Med has just announced a fixed $1.35 to 1 euro exchange rate at all European properties through 2008. That relates to anything purchased on the property (souvenirs in the gift shop, spa treatments, excursions, etc.).

Sandals: In recent years, the all-inclusive vacation package has exploded throughout the Caribbean. For example, there’s Sandals:

Here are some price examples: Sandals Montego Bay between now and April 10, $330 per person/per night; between April 11 and December 31, $309. Sandals Royal Caribbean: between now and April 10, $338 per person/per night; from April 11-December 31, $307. Sandals Grande Ocho Rios, The Manor: now through April 10, $348; April 11-December 31, $338. Sandals Inn: now through April 10, $268; April 11 through December 31, $247.

What's included:

  • Overnight accommodations
  • Breakfast buffet, lunch and dinner at any of 11 restaurants per resort (restaurant examples at Montego Bay include Bayside Restaurant, casual indoor/outdoor; Oleander Room, Jamaican restaurant, requires evening attire; Cucina Romana, casual Italian; Tokyo Joe’s Japanese, over the water; and OK Corral, beach grill by day and Tex-Mex by night.
  • Premium brand alcohol
  • Scuba diving for certified divers and other water sports
  • Golf (Jamaica/St. Lucia only)
  • Hotel taxes, tipping and gratuities, airport transfers
  • Butler Service in top-category suites
  • Basic wedding packages (includes wedding consultant, location, documentation, one 5x7 photo, a cake, officiant, sparkling wine and hors d’oeuvres, breakfast in bed, bouquet and boutonnière)
  • Unlimited use of all amenities and exchange privileges between resorts (free shuttle in Ocho Rios and Montego Bay)

What's not included:

  • Airfare
  • Red Lane spa treatments (sample prices: $120/50-minute massage,  $110/50-minute facial)
  • Non-basic wedding packages (sample prices: Bride’s personal dressing assistant, $75; private car transfers to/from airport, $50 each way: rehearsal dinner, $75 per guest)
  • Private canape cruise (newlyweds and 4 guests), $750
  • Off-property tours and excursions (sample price at Montego Bay: Black River Safari/Y.S. Falls, $83/per person; Chukka ATV Safari, $72; Chukka Kayak Tour, $100)
  • Scuba diving for noncertified divers, $70

In Mexico, there's Karisma Resorts (El Dorado Royale, A Spa Resort, Riviera Maya): Rates range from $160-$367 including the “Gourmet Inclusive” experience with full concierge and 24-hour room service (per night, per person, including taxes and service fees).  

What's included:

  • Accommodations
  • Welcome glass of champagne
  • All meals and Gourmet Bites. Options include a fondue restaurant, a restaurant featuring “culinary theater” — dishes prepared in one of five open kitchens, and 24-hour room service. All seven Gourmet Inclusive restaurants have full a la carte service.
  • Unlimited local and selection of international premium brands. Alcoholic and nonalcoholic beverages.
  • Minibar with beer, water, soft drinks refilled once a day.
  • Daily and nightly activity program.
  • Bicycles provided to ride around the premises.
  • Nonmotorized water sports: paddleboats, kayak and snorkeling gear.
  • Scuba clinics in the pool. 13 swimming pools, one of which is a natural saltwater pool.
  • Two hard-surface lighted tennis courts. Rackets and balls provided free of charge. Restrictions apply at night.
  • Taxes and gratuities included.
  • Live music and shows.
  • Shopping tours to Cancun and Playa del Carmen. Reservation required.
  • Fitness center, sauna and steam room
  • 24-hour room service. Restrictions apply on rainy days.

What's not included:

  • Scuba diving trips, certificates, rental equipment and deep-sea fishing
  • Gift shop & logo shop
  • Car rental
  • Tour desk
  • Telephone, Internet and fax services
  • Wave runners and parasailing
  • Candle-light dinner from 6:00 p.m. to 10:00 p.m.
  • Select wine list
  • Laundry service
  • Money exchange
  • Medical services available 24 hours
  • Special wedding, honeymoon and anniversary packages
  • Tennis lessons, group clinics, private lessons, events and more
  • Optional in-room amenities and packages
  • Spa services/beauty salon (sample prices: massage $66/25 minutes)

Tamarijn Aruba (all-inclusive family package):

Between April 1 and April 18, rates start at $388, per room, per night. Kids up to 18 are free, so that means you can have four people a night at this rate. (Essentially all-inclusive here means it includes two kids as well.)

What's included:

  • Overnight accommodations for two adults and two children up to 18.
  • All meals and snacks — restaurants include buffet at Pelican Terrace Restaurant; Red Parrot Oceanfront Restaurant, a la carte; Coco Grill & Bar, open-air snack bar; Cunucu Terrace Oceanfront Restaurant, buffet; Ginger, fine dining/Asian restaurant; Palm Grill Oceanfront Restaurant, a la carte; Paparazzi, Italian restaurant; Window on Aruba at Divi Aruba, fine dining.
  • Beverages at eight bars, including alcohol (beer, wine and any liquor that’s available at the resort — these won’t be top-shelf, but include brand names).
  • Tamarijn Aruba and Divi Aruba facilities — activities include T-shirt painting, face painting, arts and crafts, basketball, movies, pool games, beach games, bingo, scavenger hunt, snorkel clinic, tennis clinic, soccer tournament, snacks and more.
  • Use of three freshwater pools, nonmotorized water sports including snorkeling and snorkeling lesson, sailboats, floats, kayaks, beginner's windsurfing equipment and “Learn to Windsurf” beach clinic, use of Divi Winds Sports Center with 30-foot rockclimbing wall, fitness center and nonmotorized water sports; activities including tennis, beach volleyball, beach Olympics, bikes, theme nights, entertainment nightly, ticket to Bon Bini Festival (seasonal), Funbook! with coupons for the nearby Alhambra Casino.

What's not included:

  • Airfare
  • The Links at Divi Aruba 9-hole golf course and clubhouse (sample price: 9-holes: $60, 18-holes: $85)
  • Excursion to Alhambra Casino (nearby)
  • Internet lounge
  • Day spa/beauty salon
  • Car rentals
  • Laundry, dry cleaning
  • Baby-sitting services
  • Wedding, honeymoon, family, golf and other packages

Grand Lido Negril Resort & Spa: Sale rate, per person per night: $238 (compared to rack rate of $583 per person per night).

Stays of seven nights or longer receive $350 spa credits for the Blue Mahoe Spa and a complimentary catamaran cruise for two. Shorter stays, of less than seven nights, qualify for a $250 spa credit as well as the cruise.

What's included:

  • Overnight accommodations in a beachfront junior suite
  • All meals including a Japanese, Italian, French fine dining and Jamaican grill café, pool grill, dessert café, and premium-brand cocktails, wine at lunch and dinner
  • 24-hour gourmet room service
  • Land and water sports, including instruction and equipment rental; recreational activities
  • One complimentary pedicure and manicure
  • Dry cleaning and laundry
  • Sauna, Jacuzzi, steam room and fitness center privileges and fitness classes; entertainment
  • Hotel taxes; airport transfers; no tipping allowed

What's not included:

  • Kids under 16 not allowed at Grand Lido Negril
  • Airfare
  • Spa services beyond the complimentary mani/pedi

Antigua (Think Jolly Resort): Family special: Book between April 1 and June 15, 2008, for travel between April 15-December 20, 2008, pay $175 per person, per night (15 percent off the regular rate of $206). This includes one child stays free and a second child 3 to 16 years old pays $54 (kids under 3 free).

What's included:

  • Accommodations in a Queen Superior room
  • Three meals and afternoon tea, beer, wine and house drinks at five restaurants and five bars
  • The resort sports five bars, dining options from super casual to tropical chic, including: Lydia’s Caribbean Seafood, Bociollos Italian restaurant (proper attire required), Indian restaurant.
  • Tennis courts, two swimming pools to choose from, including Jolly Beach’s signature Fantasy Pool with a waterfall, Jacuzzi, swim-up bar, nonmotorized water sports
  • Nightly entertainment
  • Jolly Kidz Club and the Jolly Teen Club (for the 13- to 16-year-old set). Playground with slides, swings and sand pit, Hula Hoop contests, Dodge Ball and Aqua Aerobics to Caribbean Story Time, table tennis, bingo and board games. The Jolly Teen Club includes mini arcade and a disco/movie room
  • Evening activities encompass excitements like dress-up Pirate Nights with treasure hunts, pizza and movie nights, a Hawaiian-style luau, disco nights, talent show nights, costume parties and more.
  • Teen adventures range from moonlight scavenger hunts to bonfire nights.  

What's not included:

  • Airfare
  • Upgrades to room
  • Premium-brand liquors (example: $4 Bacardi, $6 Johnny Walker Black, $7 Remy, $25 Hennessy XO)
  • Wedding and honeymoon packages
  • Cyber cafe with Internet access
  • Banquet and conference facilities
  • Shopping
  • Scuba diving
  • Cruises and excursions at tour desk
  • Taxi service
  • 18-hole golf and casino are located nearby
  • Almond resorts (Almond Beach Club & Spa, Almond Beach Village, and in St. Lucia, choose either Almond Morgan Bay or Almond Smugglers Cove): At Smugglers Cove in St. Lucia, book by April 30, 2008, for travel between April 1 and September, 2008, for a 4-day, 3-night vacation starting at $420 per person.

What's included:

  • All meals and drinks, including name-brand liquor
  • Room service (lunch and dinner only), buffet snacks
  • Taxes and gratuities
  • Water sports: Water skiing, windsurfing, sailing, aqua cycling, kayaking, snorkeling, reef fishing on site, banana boating
  • Use of swimming pool/spa tub/beach and pool chaise lounges/towel service
  • Use of fitness center/sauna/steam room
  • Island picnic, includes transportation (limited water sports available)
  • Aerobics, tennis, sailing, windsurfing, yoga
  • Bajan/St. Lucian (Barbadian) cooking classes
  • West Indian dance lesson
  • Children’s activities: Supervised age-specific children’s activities are scheduled daily. Children 0–23 months are cared for at the nursery; a mini club is available for children 2–4 years (jewelry making, pool time, sand art, tie-dying, junior chef); children 5–7 and 8–12 years play at one of two kids' clubs; teens are welcome to take part in teen center activities.
  • Live stage show or music

What's not included:

  • Baby-sitting services after 5 p.m.; diapers and formula for infants
  • Private reserve wines and liqueurs
  • Lobster at certain meals
  • Wine by the bottle
  • Airport transfers
  • Spa and beauty products, treatments, services (50-minute massages start at $75, 25 minutes at $55; facials start at $80).
  • Optional or outside tours and excursions
  • Motorized water sports (except water skiing and banana boating)
  • Scuba diving
  • Telephone, fax, and Internet access charges, business service
  • Laundry and dry cleaning

Riviera Maya (Occidental Grand Xcaret): Family Escape package: Rates start at $114 for adults and $60 for children (ages 3-12) for travel between May 1 and August 31, 2008.

What's included:

  • Unlimited meals at 10 bars and 11 restaurants, snacks, premium alcohol, juice and soft drinks
  • Supervised activities, sports, SCUBA classes, snorkeling, kayaking, sailing, windsurfing, sports pool, volleyball, beach soccer, Ping-Pong, darts, tennis, basketball, horseback riding, and merengue, bachata and salsa classes, yoga, aerobics.
  • Daily entertainment and activities programs for children and adults are also part of the package as well as nightly shows and live entertainment.
  • One complimentary day pass to Xcaret Park (valued at over $185 for a family of four).
  • Use of the on-site gym, sauna, whirlpool, steam room

What's not included:

  • Spa services (beauty salon, massages, treatments)
  • Car and scooter rental
  • Excursions to: Tulum, Xel Ha, Chichen Itza and nearby attractions
  • Golf course nearby
  • Business and meeting center
  • Wedding and honeymoon programs
  • 24 hour medical attention
  • Laundry service
  • Currency exchange
  • Tax and service

Alternatives to traditional all-inclusives

There are a number of different vacation options that are now considered all-inclusives. This includes culinary vacations and spas.

Tuscan Way at Casa Innocenti (culinary option): Wine tour around Tuscany with master chef Carlo Innocenti at La Locanda del Prete for 1/2 week (3 nights/4 days): $1,280 at current exchange rate. One-week wine tour (10 wine tastings) with sommelier Romeo Innocenti at La Locanda del Prete: $2,880 at current exchange rate. Book now and get 10 percent off: $1,152 for 1/2 week at La Locanda del Prete, $2,592 for one-week wine tour

What's included:

  • Six nights accommodations at Casa Innocenti, a medieval house, the highest of the village, next to the village Castle (12th century A.D.). 45 minutes from Siena, two hours from Florence
  • All meals and wine, including local wine tasting in Montalcino
  • Four hands-on cooking courses in Tuscan country cooking from master chef Carlo Innocenti, with wine included
  • Five guided excursions to nearby villages of Monte Amiata, the Etruscan sites of Pitigliano, Sorano, Sovana, the soothing springs of Saturnia, the village of Montalcino (famous for its Brunello wine), and the Renaissance town of Pienza
  • 4-night and 5-night tours begin on “Day 1,” which is a Sunday. On the last day, departure is after breakfast.
  • Transportation (to and from Rome)

What's not included:

  • Airfare
  • Gratuities
  • Other alcohol besides wine

Rancho La Puerta: Weeklong packages start at $2,795. Although this upscale resort claims to be all-inclusive, its central feature of a cooking school (La Cocina Que Canta) is NOT included.

What's included:

  • Accommodations 
  • All gourmet, organic meals (no alcohol)
  • 50+ different classes each week: cardio, yoga, Pilates, tai chi, dance, and many other traditional strength, stamina and flexibility disciplines
  • Through the month of August, intensive yoga ashram/Eastern spiritual study will be included.

What's not included:

  • Spa treatments (sample prices: facial $85/50 minutes, massage $50/35 minutes)
  • Personal training sessions
  • Cooking classes at La Cocina Que Canta — hands-on classes, $75 per person for 3.5 hours. Demonstration classes, $35 for 2.5 hours

Mohonk Mountain House, N.Y.: Midweek “Spa-tacular” vacation package starts at $308 per person, per night. Available through June 27, 2008.

Year-round getaway package available Sunday through Thursday nights through March 2009. Rates begin at $240 per person, per night, based on double occupancy.

What's included:

  • Overnight accommodations
  • Three meals daily prepared by award-winning chefs
  • Afternoon tea and cookies, served daily from 4 – 5 p.m.
  • Indoor heated pool, fitness center/classes, yoga/meditation, guided hikes, tennis, mid-week golf, lake swimming, boating, ice skating, X-country skiing, snowshoeing
  • Children and teen programs
  • Nightly entertainment

What's not included:

  • Spa services (sample price: hot stone massage, $125/65 minutes, facial, $140/70 minutes)
  • Rock climbing (starts at $223  per person for a half-day and $324.00 for a full day)
  • Weekend golf: Day visitors and overnight guests pay $24 for 9 holes and $29 for 18 holes
  • Caving, horseback riding, carriage rides, mountain biking, fly-fishing
  • Taxes and a 15 percent gratuity

Deerfield Spa, Poconos, Pa.: Two nights (minimum stay), from $360 to 595. Mini-Week (5 nights, Sun-Fri): from $800 to $1,275. Weekly (7 nights, 8 days): from $850 to $1,420. All weekly stays include one free $70 massage. All mini-week stays include $150 worth of personal services.

What's included:

  • Unlimited exercise classes (Pilates, yoga, aerobics, dance, tai chi), two gyms, outdoor heated pool, hiking on the Appalachian Trail
  • Three meals a day plus two snacks
  • Evening activities: line dancing, belly dancing, step, evening yoga, evening Pilates, bingo, Texas Hold 'Em
  • Free massage if you stay a week
  • Includes 17 percent surcharge, so no tipping allowed
  • Special programs throughout the season, including cooking classes, nutritional and health expert consultations, dance week, fall foliage hiking
  • All facilities are open 24/7 at Deerfield, including its heated (to 84 degrees) outdoor pool, outdoor hot tub, sauna, gyms, outdoor sport court and living rooms

What's not included:

  • Spa services (massage: $70/50 minutes, facial: $110/50 minutes)
  • Airfare and transfers
  • This is not a place to go for alcohol. It’s all low-cal, healthy cuisine.

Via Rail Canada: Even some train trips can be considered all-inclusive: Consider this three-day trip between Toronto and Vancouver (or vice versa), stopping in the resort town of Jasper in Jasper National Park in the Canadian Rockies. Includes meals and sleeping car.

For travel through May 31, a double bedroom for the three-night journey in either direction with one stopover in Jasper is about $1,211 per person plus tax, when purchased at least five days in advance. This represents a savings of 37 percent for regular fares.

What's included:

  • For passengers traveling in premier Silver & Blue Class, the ticket is all-inclusive — breakfast, lunch and dinner are included in the ticket price
  • Sleeping compartments with down duvet bedding, bedding and shower access
  • With the three-day trip, you can choose to either go the whole way in our fell swoop, or break the trip up — VIA Rail does not charge extra for getting off at one stop along the way and getting on one of the next trains that comes through.

What's not included:

  • Alcoholic beverages, which includes fine wines and regional beers

And then, the subject of cruises. Historically, a cruise was always considered “all-inclusive.” For the price of your cabin, you got all your meals, all your activities on board, your entertainment etc. Not anymore ...

Yes, if you restrain yourself and have only water with every seated meal on your ship, then it’s possible to still make the argument that cruises are all inclusive ... but these days, other than scheduled meals and some entertainment, just about everything on a cruise ship is a revenue center for the cruise line — the bar (yes, even soft drinks), the signature restaurants, the ice cream, the activities on board, and ,of course, let’s not forget the spa, the shore excursions ... for example:

Royal Caribbean Freedom of the Seas

An “all-inclusive” eastern Caribbean cruise (Miami; San Juan, Puerto Rico; Charlotte Amalie, St. Thomas; Philipsburg, St. Maarten; Miami, Florida) can start at $599 per person (for an inside room).

What's included:

  • Meals (buffet and dining room)
  • Nightly entertainment, pools

What's not included:

  • Beverages, including soft drinks, bottled water and alcohol
  • Spa services
  • Shore excursions
  • Tipping your waiter, head waiter, dining room steward, bus boy, table captain, cabin steward, butler, maid, pool boy
  • Dining beyond the dining room or buffet
  • Johnny Rockets '50s-style restaurant, $3.95 per person. Portofino Italian Restaurant, $20 - $25 per person (including tip). Chops Grille, $25 per person. Ben & Jerry’s, pay per ice cream

Here’s the bottom line to protect yourself before you decide to take an “all-inclusive” vacation:

1. Watch out for the dreaded asterisk. And there’s almost always going to be one. The asterisk should tell you what’s NOT included in your deal.

2. But don’t depend on the asterisk to practice full disclosure. Call ahead and arrive at a mutually agreeable definition of terms from the travel provider as to what they will and will not include.

3. You can sometimes negotiate your own definition of all-inclusive. It’s called bundling, and this often works at resorts ... for example, instead of going to your wallet every time you make a phone call, use the Internet. You can ask the resort/hotel to bundle the charges into a one- time fee (many times broken down as a daily charge) for unlimited local and domestic long-distance charges as well as Internet and WiFi. A number of hotels and resorts do this for about $10 a day. Sure beats $18 a day for Internet, $1 per local call, $1 per 800 number call and all those long-distance phone charges.

This also works on cruise ships. A number of lines will sell you an unlimited soft drink card — either per day, or per cruise, that allows you just that — unlimited soft drinks. Believe me — at $1.50 per drink plus mandatory tip in some cases, the charges add up on a cruise for Diet Coke!

4. Last but never least, if you are on an all-inclusive vacation and the travel provider did not disclose the charges that are NOT included ahead of time, you have rights. You can dispute the bill, either directly with the travel provider or with your credit card. But the key — as always — is to be responsible enough to demand to know the NOT INCLUDED charges and services before you ever make the decision to do an “all-inclusive” vacation.

Peter Greenberg is TODAY’s Travel editor. His column appears weekly on Visit his Web site at