Things to watch for to make the most of an all-inclusive resort vacation.

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Back in the 1950s, French-based Club Med started the all-inclusive resort concept by charging travelers a single fee for a room, food and drink. Since then, thousands of resorts around the world — especially in popular tropical locales — have followed suit, catering to those who prefer to do as little planning as possible.

And while convenience and budget are important factors to consider when choosing an all-inclusive resort, there are other components that travelers should also take into account. Here are five things that can make or break your all-inclusive stay.

SERVICE

This is arguably the most important thing that can affect any resort experience, but especially an all-inclusive one, since guests tend to stay on-site almost the whole vacation. A curmudgeonly staff can greatly reduce all the resort’s plus points, while attentive staffers can improve a subpar resort, as can service-oriented features such as concierges, butlers, weekly cocktail parties and meaningful in-room touches.

At the Sivory Punta Cana, in the Dominican Republic, for instance, staff members make an effort to know every guest by name, and special dining requests are actively encouraged. And at Le Blanc Spa Resort, in Cancun, Mexico, guests are offered cold towels and coconut milk on arrival, and there are free afternoon treats (think popsicles and ceviche) around the pool.

The Le Blanc Spa Resort, in Cancun, Mexico, is known for its service.
The Le Blanc Spa Resort, in Cancun, Mexico, is known for its service.

Tortuga Bay, in the Dominican Republic, even offers VIP treatment at Punta Cana International Airport, with access to a VIP lounge, transportation to the hotel upon arrival, priority access during ticketing, a private security checkpoint and express access through customs. How can they do this? The same group that owns the hotel also owns the airport.

On the other hand, long lines and waits can turn an all-inclusive stay from fab to frustrating. Or even worse, an overbooked resort could be your fate. At the Sea Side Resort & Spa, for example, many guests have complained about overbooking and were forced to go to another hotel for a night.

FOOD & DRINK

Perhaps nothing is more widely discussed among all-inclusive travelers than the quality and selection of food and drink choices. Lukewarm buffet food, limited options, lackluster and outdated menus, watered down drinks, poor hygiene standards, unimpressive a la carte restaurants and a lack of brand-name alcohol are just a few of the things that can make for a negative all-inclusive experience.

Plus, there are hidden fees to keep an eye out for (some resorts charge extra to dine at any of the restaurants, while others ask guests to cough up more for particular menu items).

Tortuga Bay, in the Dominican Republic, has quality food and dining options.
Tortuga Bay, in the Dominican Republic, has quality food and dining options.

The good news? There are hotels, such as The Caves, in Negril, Jamaica, that offer fresh, gourmet food that rotates daily. And some resorts, like Zoetry Paraiso de la Bonita, in Mexico, exclude buffets all together and all inclusive meals are all cooked to order.

As for drinks, the Iberostar Grand Hotel Rose Hall, in Jamaica, is a standout. Here, drinks are typically strong, and top-shelf liquor (think Dewar’s and Tanqueray) is included in the rates. There are five bars, including a swim-up bar, an elegant lobby piano bar and a theater bar.

ATMOSPHERE

There’s nothing that puts a damper on a relaxing all-inclusive vacation quite like having to elbow your way through a crowd to snag a lounge chair by the pool. Boisterous music, cheesy poolside games and low-quality nighttime entertainment can also add to a clamorous, uncomfortable atmosphere.

But all is not lost. There are resorts that don’t skimp on the number of lounge chairs, and some cater to both the party crowd and the read-and-relax guests with separate areas.

While many resorts in the Maldives feature overwater villas designed for romantics seeking privacy over socialization, the Kurumba Maldives appeals to singles, couples and families, and can feel livelier than others.

During check-in, an elegant presentation of coconut ice cream is offered to guests before they are taken to their accommodations on various parts of the island. Nightly entertainment takes place in the main open-air bar, with chic daybeds and lounge areas, as well as in the indoor disco where a DJ spins tunes late into the night. Families and couples seeking solitude can head back to their rooms, which are far from earshot.

WEATHER

Unpleasant weather might be part of the all-inclusive package during rainy season, especially in the Caribbean where hurricane season runs from May to October. On the plus side, this is also the time of year when many resorts put out attractive off-season deals (and have fewer crowds).

Hotel Riu Palace in Aruba is a safe bet if you’re traveling during hurricane season.
Hotel Riu Palace in Aruba is a safe bet if you’re traveling during hurricane season.

If this is appealing, it might be worth looking into the resort’s hurricane guarantee and/or purchasing travel insurance, so that it’s easier to get a full refund in the event of a storm.

If you would rather play it safe, consider a trip to the ABC Islands: Aruba, Bonaire and Curacao. Furthest west of the Lesser Antilles, Aruba is probably your safest bet for a hurricane-free vacation.

Hotel Riu Palace Aruba is one of the bigger all-inclusive resorts located on crowded Palm Beach. The resort’s 450 guest rooms are attractive and many include balconies or terraces. The Riu checks all the boxes you would expect from an all-inclusive resort: large pools, a swim-up bar, a wide selection of dining venues and a lovely spa and fitness center. It also has a high-energy atmosphere and large casino with slots and table games.

RULES/FEES

Staying at an all-inclusive is supposed to be easy, but sometimes extra rules and fees will create an irksome surprise.

Though most guests expect fees for things like motorized water sports and spa treatments, plenty of all-inclusive resorts charge for services that guests expect to be included, which can put a damper on the experience.

Most resorts cover non-motorized water sports, but some impose time limits on the use of gear; the Catalonia Royal Tulum, in Mexico, for example, only allows guests to use snorkel equipment and kayaks for a set time period.

It’s also a good idea to check whether your resort charges extra for Wi-Fi, use of the hotel safe, access to the spa facilities (such as hydrotherapy pools or the sauna), or any of its food and beverage offerings.

Having to pay more for food and drink can be particularly annoying, as the main draw of the all-inclusive stay for many is the ability to eat and drink as much as you’d like for a set price. But some all-inclusive resorts charge guests extra to dine at the a la carte restaurants.

It’s also common for resorts to charge a supplement for top-shelf liquor, or for special dishes, such as lobster or steak. Guests may also find that minibar items are not included, or that room service costs an extra fee.

You might also come across resorts that offer different tiers, with wristbands granting access to exclusive areas. This exclusivity can create an elitist vibe that not all guests appreciate. For example, Secrets Wild Orchid Montego Bay offers a regular and Preferred Club (think nicer pool and better perks), and some may find the division a bit classist.

Mid-range brands, like Spain-based Barcelo, require guests to wear color-coded plastic bracelets and charge an extra fee for anything premium, including some a la carte restaurants. Some have complained that these added fees were not communicated during the booking process.

Smaller brand resorts, like Waves Hotel & Spa in Barbados, feel less corporate and cookie-cutter (with fewer rules), while higher-end brand resorts like Sandals and Secrets are known to be more flexible with restaurant reservations and premium liquors, and have outdoor pools that stay open 24 hours a day.