Cruise Ships vs. All-Inclusive Resorts: A Vacation Value Showdown (Slideshow)
August 10, 2016
We settle the debate as to which is the better vacation value: a cruise or an all-inclusive resort
This category, more than any other, can vary from resort to resort and cruise to cruise.
For all-inclusive resorts, most won’t charge for non-motorized sports, which includes everything from kayaking, snorkeling, and paddle-boating to tennis, basketball, and volleyball. Activities involving trips or lots of equipment — which can include golf, deep-sea fishing, horseback riding, and scuba diving — usually cost extra.
For cruises, especially newer ships, you won’t have to pay for most onboard activities like any sports, rock climbing, zip-lining, and use of the surf or skydiving simulators, where applicable. If you get off the ship, however, you’re on your own — unless you book an excursion through the cruise line.
For both, you’ll probably pay for all spa treatments and lengthy excursions, but not for use of the pools or fitness centers. With all these variables, it’s hard to make a definitive ruling, especially if you’re fine with sticking to the basic activities.
When it comes to drinks, the winner used to be quite obvious. However, with the introduction of beverage packages on cruises, this comparison requires a bit more of an investigation.
The cruise drink options vary by lines, but we’ll use Royal Caribbean as an example. The company offers six packages in total, and these include the Ultimate (top shelf booze, plus all non-alcoholic drinks), the Premium (premium cocktails, most beer and wine, plus non-alcoholic drinks other than premium coffee), the Select (beer and wine only, plus soda, but no bottled water), the Royal Replenish (all non-alcoholic drinks), the Royal Refreshment (unlimited soda), and a bottled water package. The Ultimate costs about $67 (including gratuities) per person, per day, and is obviously the most expensive — but it’s also the closest to what you’d receive at an all-inclusive. On a seven-day cruise, this will amount to almost $500 on top of whatever you paid initially. Compare this new total with the prospective total price for your all-inclusive resort of choice.
As for the question of whether the $67 is a fair price, let’s break it down. (For the record, other lines also offer similar packages with similar prices.) Depending on the exact drink, $67 is equal to the price of about five to eight alcoholic drinks, plus a couple non-alcoholic ones. This may seem like a lot, but keep in mind that this is for an entire day, including at meal times. If you only plan to have a couple cocktails with dinner, you should probably pass on getting a package, or opt for a cheaper one. In the end, however, it’s simply easier to book a vacation where all this is already taken care of.
When it comes to entertainment, there’s really no comparison. While resorts will sometimes feature nightly music, dancing, or perhaps a game or variety show, cruises keep the entertainment coming nonstop.
There are Broadway musicals, plays, Vegas-style shows, stand-up comedians, interactive game shows, and magic acts galore at sea. And while a few of the premium shows might include a surcharge (for instance, the Norwegian Getaway’s “Wine Lovers: The Musical” costs $25 per person), you should have no problem filling your schedule with only the free entertainment.
Once upon a time, paying for food on a cruise was practically unheard of. A few of the smaller spots might charge a minor free or have à la carte pricing on snacks between mealtimes, but almost all restaurants were included in the base price. But as the demand for additional and higher quality eateries increased, so did the number of charges. Nowadays, most of the major cruise lines still offer plenty of restaurants where you don’t need to pay a penny, but gone are the days where you can walk into any place on a ship and expect the food to be included.
On the other hand, all-inclusive resorts rarely have any food-related charges. You may be limited regarding the number of times you can eat at a certain restaurant, or need to make a reservation ahead of time, but the food is still “free.” The only issue might be the number of choices, as cruise ships are generally larger and have more places to eat than at a resort. Keep this in mind when picking your specific hotel.
Unless you’ve booked a luxury cruise or scored a promotion that offers included gratuities, you’re going to end up paying for tips, usually about $15 per day, give or take a few bucks.
You could remove the automatic charge, but then you’ll have to tip each individual person, or live with the guilt of not tipping at all. All-inclusive resorts, on the other hand, almost always include gratuities in the base price. No contest here.
Location, Location, Location
Here’s an example where an all-inclusive simply doesn’t compare to a cruise: the ever-changing location.
The fact that you’re never staying in one place on a cruise can be a definite advantage for numerous reasons, first and foremost being the chance to experience numerous cities and countries in a single trip with no driving or flying necessary. Also, if the weather is bad in one place, you’ll have a clean slate at your next stop, and could suddenly find yourself with sunnier skies and warmer temperatures.
If you’re OK with checking out just a single country or city (or simply staying at the resort the whole time) when visiting an all-inclusive, then it won’t matter. And if you have a long enough stay, the weather will likely pass anyway. However, if you truly like the idea of waking up in a different place every day and exploring each port of call, then there’s no contest here.
Planes, Trains, and Automobiles
A big question to consider when choosing between a cruise and an all-inclusive is how far you’ll have to travel to get to the departure port (for the former) or the resort itself (for the latter).
For a cruise, you can save an awful lot of money if you live within driving distance of a port, or can at least hop a quick train or flight to get there. This doesn’t mean you need to live close to one of Florida’s numerous ports, because major ships also depart from New York; Boston; Baltimore; San Diego; San Francisco; Charleston, South Carolina; Galveston, Texas; and numerous other domestic locations, in addition to San Juan, Puerto Rico, and various coastal European cities. Avoiding expensive flights that cost a few hundred to a couple thousand dollars (as well as the hassle associated with flying in general) is a definite advantage for cruises.
As much as we’d like to declare an absolute winner here, it’s not that easy. For one thing, you need to determine what’s important to you on your vacation. If it’s eating and drinking as much as possible in as many ways as possible, then you’ll definitely want an all-inclusive. If you’re more about variety when it comes to entertainment and experiencing different cities or cultures up close, you’ll want to hop on a cruise. Financially, there is also a divide. If you live within striking distance of a cruise, you can save on airfare and also potentially get an unbelievable deal on a last-minute booking — or get some free add-ons as bonuses or part of a promotion. If you need to fly to your departure port, you might as well just fly to an all-inclusive resort. In the end, don’t take this article as the end-all and be-all decision-maker for your vacation. Instead, use it as a guide for what to look for regarding amenity options, what to expect for prices and additional fees, and how to compare one package versus another. If you’re willing to do the research, you can likely find and customize the perfect vacation on a cruise. If you’d rather make the quicker, easier decision that allows you do almost anything and everything you want without fear of a fee, go for the all-inclusive. Either way, you’re certain to have a blast.