Once known for tacky wristbands and long buffet lines, all-inclusive resorts have steadily undergone an image change, targeting affluent customers with luxe facilities, better food, and upscale add-ons ranging from personal plunge pools to butler service on the beach.
And even though the recession is technically over, the trend toward all-inclusive options has not abated. The luxury line Crystal Cruises announced last month that they will be going all-inclusive in 2012, putting an end to "sign it to your room" bar tabs and shipboard credits.
"It's the way the market is going," said Kate Stingley of Alice Marsall Public Relations, which represents Crystal Cruises. Competitors in the luxury cruise market, such as Silversea, Seabourn, and Regent Seven Seas already include all drinks and tips in their pricing.
The resort chain Sandals, which is celebrating its 30th anniversary this year, is upping the all-inclusive ante with the Caribbean's first over-the-water bungalows, opening at properties in St. Lucia and Jamaica next year.
"We have never had a customer ask for less luxury and services," said Adam Stewart, Sandals' CEO. "You have to do more than anyone else. If the resort down the road has two restaurants, you have to open three."
If you are considering an all-inclusive resort or cruise for your vacation, here are a few things to think about before you book:
1. Run the numbers. Think about what services the resort or cruise line provides -- and then ask yourself if you'll actually use them. Unlimited alcohol isn't a bargain if you don't drink, for example, and a full slate of Broadway-style shows doesn't mean much if you'd rather curl up with a book.
On the other hand, many all-inclusive resorts do include airport transfers, use of water sports equipment and activities for kids -- fees that can add up at a regular hotel or resort. And don't forget tips. Sandals resort, among others, has instituted a no-tipping policy, which means you won't keep reaching for your wallet. All those $1s and $5s can add up.
2. Examine your vacation values. If you're the type who looks at a vacation as a time to explore a destination, you may not enjoy the more confined atmosphere of an all-inclusive. No matter how much the resort promotes its accessibility to outside activities, the reality is that it's in your best interest to spend your time there in order to get the most for your money.
But if you want to chill out, all-inclusives can be wonderful places to indulge, without having to worry about transportation or where you'll get your next meals. Some all-inclusives have so many activities on site that you'll never need to leave: Hacienda Tres Rios, an eco-resort outside Playa del Carmen, Mexico, has its own cenotes -- the groundwater sinkholes that the Yucatan Peninsula is famous for - so you can snorkel and kayak without leaving the property.
3. Call a travel agent. You may be a rock star at booking airfare online or soliciting itinerary advice in the Frommer's forums. But deciphering the list of room categories that a large all-inclusive resort offers can be difficult; a travel agent who has stayed at the property will be the best one to tell you whether it's worth it to book the oceanview suite. And travel agents are notoriously good at gaining upgrades, extra excursions and discounts for their cruise customers.
4. Read the fine print. Some cruise lines and resorts claim to be all-inclusive, but then charge extra if you want to eat at a premium restaurant or use a particular pool. To keep your bill within your expectations, ask your travel agent or the reservation agent exactly what you are receiving in your package and have them email it to you, so you have proof in writing.
Travel journalist Chris Gray Faust dishes up travel tips on her award-winning blog, Chris Around The World. Join her on Facebook, follow her on Twitter. or leave a comment below.