I Dream of FIRE

In pursuit of financial independence and personal fulfillment

All-inclusive vs. cruising: How they compare

I recently spent a week at the all-inclusive Villa Del Palmar resort in Cabo San Lucas, Mexico — my first time staying at an all-inclusive.

There was much lounging, much swimming, much food and much drink. Also, being closer to the equator must do something strange to the body, because my scale doesn’t seem to be working like it did before I left.

Since I’m an experienced cruiser and a novice all-inclusiver, I thought I would compare the two for people who have only done one or neither.

Of course you want to know about the money

This stretch of beach is populated for several miles by vacation resorts. By mid-day, it’s filled with vendors selling all sorts of goods and services. The famous Arch of Cabo San Lucas is in the big rocks on the left side.

A word about the finances before I get into the resort life. This was a family trip largely paid for by my parents, who used their timeshare points to get three rooms for my and my brother’s families. I can’t break down what their actual cost was for that, but if I wanted to book the same room for the seven days we spent there it would cost me $1,400 on the resort’s website.

On top of that, they paid $100 per person per day for the all-inclusive plan (half that for kids), which covered food at a bunch of restaurants and a very reasonable range of alcoholic and non-alcoholic beverages. (My mom paid for this in advance but overheard people on site being offered a 15% discount, so keep that in mind.)

Because of the nature of an all-inclusive resort, we ordered a lot of things on each other’s tabs, and there’s just no way I could accurately break down the cost. But you can get an idea based on what I’ve got here. Already we’re looking at $3,150 for two adults and a child for a room and food/drinks for seven days. We tacked on an extra $250 in tips.

We booked Southwest flights using points and the Companion Pass (hooray for travel hacking!), which meant I spent a total of 43,200 Rapid Rewards points and paid $183 in taxes and fees instead of paying $1,545 if I had purchased the tickets with cash. (The downside to this was we had two long travel days, as they weren’t direct flights. Also, we spent a lot of time in the Oakland airport, which is by far the dirtiest airport I’ve ever seen.)

There was also about $150 in taxi and shuttle rides to and from the Cabo airport.

If you figured about $5,100 all in for two adults and a child for seven days you’d be in the neighborhood.

If you recall, we did a Carnival cruise a few months ago for five days and paid $1,572 for everything. For an apples to apples comparison, the resort cost minus flights to Mexico is about $3,550 and the cruise cost minus travel is $1,500.

Cruise cost per day: $300

All-inclusive resort cost per day: $507

The pricing varies wildly depending on when you go, and I can see all-inclusive deals for the same room for $2,700 with tax for two adults and a child now. That would put the per-day cost around $407.

Pools are the main attraction

The main building at Villa Del Palmar overlooks the central pools.

The Villa Del Palmar has three buildings situated in a U-shape around a central entertainment area. There are five distinct pools and two hot tubs with an array of lounge chairs all around. There’s a walkway down to the beach, where another line of lounge chairs sits for resort guests.

We spent the majority of our time in the pools. I figure somewhere around 40 hours minimum, actually. They were quite warm and comfortable, especially as the afternoon sun did its work. When one pool seemed a bit crowded, we had several others to choose from, all of varying depths. This is a big plus over a cruise ship, where you may only get one or two fairly small pools and a smattering of hot tubs. There was a small water slide, as well.

The beach in front of this resort was OK, but the waves were bigger than they were a five minute walk up the shore. Even so, I saw plenty of people and smaller children playing in the surf. The sand along the Cabo shore is rougher than other beaches I’ve been to, but not uncomfortably so.

The property was large, but not imposing, and the way it was designed helped to separate the areas so that each section felt like its own space rather than part of a vast expanse. The grounds were well maintained, the walkways were clean and solid, the music was generally kept at a good volume, and everything seemed neat and orderly outside.

A cruise ship is much more imposing in terms of layout and navigation. There’s no way you’re going to get lost at the resort.

The rooms

This photo from the resort website is close to what our junior suite looked like, but we had a smaller balcony.

This is where I would like to put my own picture of the room, except here’s the thing: I’m really bad at remembering to take pictures. It also didn’t help that A) my phone didn’t work in Mexico, and B) I was in the water most of the time. I didn’t carry my phone everywhere. Every time I thought about taking pictures of the room it was before the cleaning people tidied it up and after we had slept in it.

The picture above is pretty close to our room, except our balcony was much smaller. Behind the photographer would be the kitchen area and bathroom.

My take on all-inclusive resort rooms and cruise ship rooms is basically the same. If you’re spending enough time awake in them to get too worked up about it, you’re doing it wrong.

The room was nice and had everything we needed and them some. At almost 600 square feet the junior suite was bigger than some big-city apartments. There was a full-size refrigerator/freezer, a sink, a two-burner cooktop, and an island prep area.

It came fully outfitted with all the dishes and cookware you would need to make your own meals if you chose to do so.

The room was, as you can imagine, much larger than all but the most expensive cruise ship rooms.

Cabo is humid, and the air conditioner did a decent job keeping things cool but struggled a bit to keep the humidity in check. Then again, I’m comparing it to arid Utah, so if you’re from a more humid climate you might not even notice.

Our room was on the main floor just off the lobby, with an exit door nearby. There was definitely some noise from other guests going through the hall, but nothing too bad for too long.

Food and restaurants

Breakfast at Bella California, the daily buffet spot at Palmar.

Villa Del Palmar is part of a three-resort complex, and the all-inclusive plan also covered the bars and restaurants at neighboring resorts.

We began each day with a breakfast buffet at Bella California, an outdoor restaurant with seating overlooking the ocean. It was a beautiful way to start the morning.

The buffet had bagels, toast, croissants, cereal, oatmeal, fruit, crepes, quesadillas, bacon, sausage, eggs, potatoes, an omelet station, roasted veggies, and other rotating fare. Everything I had was delicious. Drinks included coffee, four kinds of juice, milk, water, mimosas and bloody marys.

Lunch options were plentiful. There was a sushi restaurant and taco bar outside, an outdoor pizza oven, an indoor sports bar and grill, Bella California and poolside service all available at Palmar, and many additional options at the other resorts.

We really liked the poolside menu for lunch, with a variety of salads, sandwiches, fried foods, chips and guacamole, pizzas, and more. But the sushi bar was good (though with a limited menu) and the taco bar was excellent. I didn’t eat at the sports grill but heard good things.

Dinner had many of the same options — with the taco bar turning into a steak restaurant — and added a really nice buffet near the stage where the nightly shows took place.

The buffet had a different theme each night and offered a variety of salads, sides, seafood, chicken, beef, and desserts. I had an amazing slab of prime rib that would easily be $18 in the U.S.

We also dined at sister property Villa Del Arco’s El Patron for a two-hour meal with wine and dessert. And I can’t speak highly enough of the farm to table restaurant Tomatillos just out front of Palmar. The family-style meal saw heaping platefuls of mouthwatering steak, chicken, fish, corn, potatoes, grilled veggies and even a grilled cauliflower head for vegetarians. The appetizers included three different salads, bread, hummus, baba ganoush, and soft pita.

You can see the full menus on the resort’s website.

If I were to compare the all-inclusive food to cruise ship food, I would give an edge to the resort. Cruise food is cooked in massive quantities, which means it doesn’t always get to the plate in the best shape. The resort is able to do more cook-to-order food, so it felt like meats were better cooked and other foods weren’t pre-made and sitting in warm or cold storage waiting for a long time.

I do think the cruise may have an edge in variety of cuisine, but it may not be a huge edge and I certainly can’t speak for the experience at other all-inclusive resorts. Overall I was very impressed with the food.

Drinks

What was included in the all-inclusive drinks package at the time I went.

When it comes to alcohol, all-inclusive is a bit of a misnomer. A fair amount of options are included, but there are also premium spirits available if you want something else.

The photo above is accurate as of July 2018 in terms of what types of alcohol were included at the time. As you can see, there are some nice name-brand drinks like Johnnie Walker Black, Jack Daniel’s, Tanqueray, and several decent tequilas.

No one tried to upsell you on the drinks. If you asked for a margarita or a pina colada, they just brought it with the included liquor. You had to specifically ask for something outside the plan to get it. I appreciated that.

There were no specialty drink menus, which means you have to either know what you want or get ideas for new drinks to try by seeing what others are drinking. It would have been nice for the resort to have at least one drink menu with different frozen specialties or idea lists. The Buccaneer bar at Arco had a small menu with such drinks, and the Dirty Monkey became a good option when I wasn’t feeling like another pina colada or mudslide.

One thing Mexico doesn’t have going for it is beer.

The only options were Corona, Corona Light, Negra Modelo, and Pacifico. I get it, we’re in Mexico, but other choices would have been nice. Heck, Baja Brewing in Cabo has an IPA, oatmeal stout, amber, blonde and more!

Pricing

Three breakfast buffets and three waters came to $80.63.

Now that I’ve talked up the food and drinks, it’s time to talk about the pricing.

For every order you received an itemized bill. If you were on the all-inclusive plan, you could just sign it and be done or you could add an additional gratuity.

The prices were in pesos, but there was a helpful conversion to dollars below the total price. This stuff wasn’t cheap. Not by a long shot.

The prices were so inflated it was comical.

That amazing meal at Tomatillos that I talked about earlier? That was a $500 meal before the additional tip. Not 500 pesos; $500 American dollars.

Here are a few other prices for comparison:

A glass of wine, pina colada or mudslide: $9
Cheese pizza: $10
Can of Coke: $3
Chips and guacamole: $6
Breakfast buffet: $27

What does it matter if you’re not actually paying those prices? Well, for one, they don’t break out how much of the price is a gratuity. It says gratuities are included in prices, but I have no idea how much. And you want to make sure the people giving you service are taken care of. So you’ll probably tip based on a percentage of the bill like you would in America.

The inflated prices lead to a higher tip based on percentage.

They also make it hard to gauge what kind of value you’re actually getting from the all-inclusive package. For instance, the beers were going for $4.50 each at the resort. Walking in the touristy marina area I spotted several stores and restaurants selling the same beer for eight for $10.

The prices in Mexico should not be the same as or more than the prices in the U.S.

By week’s end, our nine-person group (three of them small children) racked up $672 in tips. That’s not outrageous, but it’s not nothing.

I definitely give the advantage here to the cruise lines. You know there’s a 15% gratuity tacked on to each drink and the prices are quite reasonable considering you’re a captive audience.

Entertainment, excursions and activities

The crowd watches the Michael Jackson show. Really good choreography in this one!

The resort had several activities each day, such as stretching, water aerobics, club dance, water volleyball, mixology and cooking classes, and free guided kayak and standup paddle board outings. Supervised kids activities were available for an additional cost. There’s also an impressive gym on premise.

Every night there was a different show on the stage in the buffet dinner area. The shows were The Three Tenors, Michael Jackson, Mamma Mia!, The Lion King, Disney selections, Mexican Fiesta, and Hollywood classics.

The singers did a nice job, and the choreography and dancing was quite good. Many people were able to watch the show from their balcony, as well, so it wasn’t overly crowded. The music started around 8 p.m. and wrapped up by 9 p.m.

The entertainment was not as elaborate as a cruise ship, but it was a nice way to ease into the night.

Excursions are, of course, a major part of the cruise experience. Nearly everyone finds something to do in ports of call, and the cruise line offers many options for all tastes.

The resort is no different.

There was an excursions office that could help you set up fishing, boating, parasailing, tours and more. You could also just go down to the beach and speak with vendors offering the same things, possibly at better prices.

Truthfully, we didn’t get out of the resort much. We did a sunset dinner cruise one night and took a $16 taxi ride each way to the marina. The cruise had drinks and a fajita dinner included for $14 per person. The boat took you close to the Arch of Cabo San Lucas and then around the rocks to the ocean during the two and a half hour run.

The coolest thing was seeing all the stingrays jumping out of the water! There were dozens of them all flying out of the blue and flopping back down. I had no idea they did that!

The least cool part was having to listen to a lot of really bad rap and club music at a ridiculous volume. I’ll spare you the playlist.

My family really enjoys listening to live music on the cruise ship, and that wasn’t an option at the resort. It would have been really cool to have a small band or solo musician play every now and again in some part of the facility.

Service

The walk-up bar near one of the pools where we spent a lot of time.

By and large the service was very good across the resort.

Bartenders were fairly quick to get drinks, servers were attentive for the most part, and the poolside service staff were awesome. One thing you should do if you go is zero in on a person you want to be your regular and tip them well. They’ll check back often and make sure you’re taken care of, too.

The front desk and taxi staff were all polite and helpful. The cleaning staff did a nice job with the rooms each day. The activities people were very outgoing and enthusiastic.

They didn’t all learn your name like they do on a cruise ship, although the definitely knew who you were after a few interactions.

Everyone I interacted with spoke English, and I had no trouble understanding them.

Overall impression

This pool was more kid-centric. How beautiful is that view?!

Our family enjoyed the all-inclusive experience. It’s a different vibe than the cruise life because there are fewer scheduled activities, so you can really do things more at your own pace.

If you’re not really excited to spend a lot of time by the pool or on the beach, you’re probably going to spend quite a bit on excursions or otherwise going into town. There isn’t a lot to do aside from relaxing in or near the water.

In terms of overall value, I think this resort may not be representative of the broad swath of resorts. I think I would give the cruise ship the nod for overall value, especially if you’re not much of a drinker. You can’t split out the food and drink parts of the all-inclusive plan, whereas on the ship the food is part of the base cost and drinks are extra.

They are, of course, different types of vacations. One is built more for exploring and the other for lounging, but you can do more or less of either no matter which one you choose.

We will do more all-inclusives in the future, and it will be interesting to see how different properties approach it. My family’s experience will also change as my daughter gets older.

If you’ve done an all-inclusive resort yourself I would love to hear about your thoughts and experience compared with mine!

3 Comments

  1. I think it depends on where you go. It’s possible to use points to pay for an all inclusive, not so much the extras on a cruise. Not all all inclusive a charge tips on top.

    I’ve done a cruise to western Caribbean and an all inclusive in Cancun that stopped in Cancun. The same relative length. It cost me about the same but I got free alcohol at the all inclusive, the cruise led me to more places then Cancun.

    That being said I do agree they are different types of trips. Ones for lounging one for contained exploring.

    • Good points. I do think destination will play a big part, especially in the price comparison. I know people who don’t stay at the resort but instead but and eat local say it’s way cheap.

  2. I haven’t been to an all-inclusive resort, but my wife and I have taken a few cruises. Even thought the cruise price covers all the basics there are still plenty of other ways to spend money and really increase the amount you spend on vacation. I like cruises because you get to see several different places and I get bored really easily sitting by a pool or at a beach. I do want to try an all-inclusive sometime and see how it compares to cruising, so thanks for sharing so many details from your own experience.

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