Cruise Versus All-Inclusive Resort: Which Is the Better Deal?

--by Erica Silverstein

If you're looking for a getaway where everything is taken care of, which vacation type -- a cruise or an all-inclusive resort -- is truly the better deal?

While cruise lines like to promote their vacations as "all-inclusive," that is a misrepresentation in most cases, leaving many cruise travelers wondering why they're being charged for soda, alcohol, specialty coffees, meals in specialty restaurants, gratuities and select onboard activities. And that's on top of paying for shore excursions, spa treatments, fitness classes, commemorative photos and souvenirs.

Typically, your cruise fare includes onboard accommodations, meals in some (but not all) onboard eateries, select nonalcoholic beverages (usually juice at breakfast and iced-tea at lunch), pool use, daytime kids programs and port stops in multiple destinations (but usually not excursions).

On many of the newer ships, cruise fares also give passengers access to ropes courses, water parks with multiple slides, rock climbing walls and even zip lines. Most onboard entertainment also is included. In the evening, Vegas-style shows, Broadway musicals, comedy, magic acts and more are available. During the day, a variety of audience participation activities are offered, though some (like bowling, bingo and beer tastings) do carry extra fees.

Luxury cruise ships are a different story. Many higher-priced cruise lines, as well as some river cruise and expedition ships, include some or all shore excursions and a selection of both nonalcoholic and alcoholic beverages in their fares.

All-inclusive resorts, on the other hand, have rates that encompass much more. At a land-based "AI," your payment will include meals at all on-site restaurants, all drinks (soda, alcohol, coffee), beach and pool access, daytime activities like beach sports challenges, fitness classes, kids programming, and non-motorized water sports like snorkeling, kayaking and Hobie Cat sailing. Some may even include scuba and snorkel trips, beach and restaurant access at sister properties, and golf outings.

On the surface, it looks like an all-inclusive resort offers vacationers the most value. But is the comparison that black and white? And if you add in extras (like flights), is an all-inclusive still the cheaper option?

Not necessarily. A quick search on Funjet Vacations, one of the largest sellers of all-inclusive getaways, came up with an entry-level price tag of $88 a night for a seven-night July vacation in Mexico's Mayan Riviera. A seven-night Western Caribbean Carnival cruise departing from Miami, also in July, costs $78 a night.

You've got to pony up for your daily tips -- generally another $11 to $14 a day. Because Carnival's daily gratuity is $11.50, the per-night cost of that Western Caribbean sailing would be $89.50. Start adding in drinks, a specialty dinner or two and shore excursions, and the cruise price quickly surpasses the all-inclusive.

Before you dump the cruise, though, consider flights. With few exceptions, all-inclusive resorts are located outside the United States, making flying a necessity. Cruises, on the other hand, depart from a large selection of U.S. cities, so it's easy for a significant portion of U.S. travelers to drive there. That eliminates the need to pay for airfare, which can be costly.

The Bottom Line

Determining which option is the best value depends on your vacation priorities and spending habits.

If you're happy lying on the same beach for a week straight and want to dance and drink the night away, an all-inclusive resort might be your best bet. If you want to visit more than one destination and see a show in the evening instead, a cruise might be best.

You can also save by knowing your habits. If you never spend any time in your cabin on a cruise, you can save on a cheaper outside cabin instead of shelling out for a balcony cabin or suite you won't truly appreciate. Similarly, if you just need the beach and not a lot of activity or dining choice, then you probably don't need to splurge on a more expensive resort with all sorts of amenities.

Still need help determining which option is best for you? Here are a few guidelines:

Pick the cruise if ...

... you don't spend a lot on extras like shore excursions, spa treatments or specialty dining. The base prices for cruises are typically lower than prices for resorts because the cruise lines expect you to make up the difference in onboard purchases.

... you like Broadway-style entertainment. Resort entertainment, when there is some, tends to be more low-key, showcasing local acts.

... you don't drink. At an all-inclusive, you may be subsidizing someone else's alcohol consumption.

... you like to gamble. Few all-inclusive resorts have on-site casinos.

... you want to visit different destinations in a week and enjoy (or don't mind) days at sea.

Pick the resort if ...

... you like hanging out in a bathing suit all day. Most cruise lines make you put on a cover-up to grab a buffet meal.

... you want to be able to walk on the beach at sunrise or sunset ... or any time you want. With a cruise, you're restricted to hours in port; at a resort, the beach is right out your front door.

... you want to eat and drink as much as possible without worrying about racking up high bills for cocktails or trying out multiple dining options.

... you plan on taking advantage of water sports and other activities. Cruise travelers can quickly jack up their onboard tabs on shore excursions. (The more ports a cruise visits, the more you'll spend.) If you want to spend your vacation snorkeling, kayaking and body surfing, you'll save money at the resort where these activities are included. Just know that resorts do charge extra for spa treatments and off-site excursions like zip-lining and dune buggy rides.

If you're still confused about which option is the best value for you -- both in terms of price and vacation satisfaction -- reach out to your friendly neighborhood travel agent. Getting advice from an expert who's knowledgeable about different resorts and ships, as well as picking the trip that best meets your budget and holiday preferences, might be the easiest way to get the best value for your vacation dollar.

Editor's Note: All inclusive resorts tend to exist only in the Caribbean and Mexico. If you are seeking a vacation anywhere else, All Inclusive options likely aren't available.

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