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Thursday, June 2, 2005 03:58 pm

Vacations in a bubble

SAN FRANCISCO — Want a relaxing, safe, good-value vacation?

Then an all-inclusive resort, with your room, food, drinks and activities included in one pre-paid price, is just the ticket. But if you seek adventure, immersion in a foreign country, a new experience, then you should probably steer clear.

In a twist on what it means to travel to foreign lands, you’ll never have to leave the premises of these self-contained vacation cities.

“This is sort of a cruise on land,” says Ann Gray, owner of Interlachen Travel, a travel agency in Edina, Minn.

And for many land-based resorts, “all-inclusive” includes a lot more perks than cruise lines count in their base price.

While cruises often charge for drinks and off-ship excursions, more all-inclusive resorts of the land-based variety are throwing everything into one price tag, including unlimited alcohol, as many as eight off-site excursions, plus activities such as snorkeling, horseback-riding and windsurfing.

“You’ve prepaid for this all in advance. Everything seems free. It really makes a vacation,” Gray says. “Plus, you get the convenience of not having to sign or check the bills or worry about tipping.”

Certainly, travelers appear to be lapping up the convenience, or are eager to give it a try: 63 percent of leisure travelers said all-inclusive resorts are extremely or very desirable, according to the 2005 National Leisure Travel Monitor, a survey of travelers by market-research firm YPB&R/Yankelovich Partners.

Life without a wallet sure is easier. Rather than paying for each meal or umbrella-laden cocktail, or blithely charging it to your room, you leave the cash in the hotel safe. And these resorts can offer a good value for your money.

But travelers who crave variety, adventure or even just immersion in another culture will likely be disappointed.

“If your desire is variety, the all-inclusive probably isn’t the best choice for you,” says Peter Yesawich, chairman of Yesawich, Pepperdine, Brown & Russell, the Orlando, Fla.-based marketing company.

“Part of the appeal of the all-inclusive resorts is the confinement,” he says. “It’s the water sports, the nightly parties. The whole concept is to keep you on the property. Obviously if you’re more adventurous that’s not going to appeal to you,” he says, noting that’s why such resorts haven’t caught on in places such as Orlando or Las Vegas.

In those places, “there are so many options for dining and entertainment off the property. You come to Orlando, you don’t want to be stuck in the same hotel for three meals,” Yesawich says.

“You go to Cancun or Maya Riviera where there’s kind of a paucity of restaurants . . . it’s a wonderful vacation experience for people who are on a budget. You can do the water sports as long as you want all day long. You can drink as much beer as you want,” he says.

Increasingly, resorts are including cultural or other off-site activities, perhaps a move to attract older travelers.

Younger travelers — 18- to 26-years-old — were more likely to opt for an all-inclusive resort, with 76 percent saying the option is extremely or very desirable, while only 53 percent of adventurers aged 60 or older said that, according to the Travel Monitor.

“Probably the retired don’t go for these as much. They want more options. The culture, the tours, the really good food, the best restaurants,” says Gray.

All-inclusives offering childcare make a good value for families. “If you totaled all [the costs] up independently you could very well end up getting a good deal going to one of those all-inclusive resorts,” says Don George, global travel editor at Lonely Planet, the travel book publisher, in Oakland, Calif.

“Beyond the pure economics for family travelers, there’s the hugely important peace of mind quotient,” he says.

But not all travelers will save money. For one of her low-budget clients, Silvia Moltman, a travel agent in Alpine, Calif., booked a regular hotel instead.

“I found I could save him in Cancun something like $200 on his total five-day trip if he would go with the hotel that was not inclusive,” Moltman says.

Often an all-inclusive resort will “cost more than a resort that does not have an inclusive plan,” she says. “Bottom line, it’s really a matter of including, not a matter of giving away.”

But there are values to be had, depending on the type of traveler you are. If you’re likely to eat all or most of your meals on the hotel premises, and love the idea of taking part in many hotel-offered activities, the all-inclusive will likely save you money.

The trick is to compare your costs before you book.

“Do the math and see if you can price out the individual ingredients and see how they compare to the all-inclusive option,” says Chekitan Dev, marketing professor at Cornell University’s School of Hotel Administration.

“Take the overall price and first pull out the room cost,” he says. Then divide the balance remaining by the number of days you’re staying to get your daily budget for food, beverages and activities.

Then look at hotel Web sites or call hotels in the area (that are not all-inclusive) to get a sense of what a meal generally costs.

“If you’re spending a week, the half an hour that you invest in looking at this can save you potentially a lot of money either way by buying the package or not buying it,” Dev says.

“Sometimes they can be more expensive,” he says, with resorts thinking that, because they’re saving people time they can charge more. That works for some resorts “because people won’t take the time to price the individual components,” he says.

“Other operators have figured out that people are savvy enough that they’re going to look at the price,” he says.

The same is true for any travel package, he says. “I’m going with my family to San Francisco in June. I priced out some package deals and I was better off doing it on my own.”

An all-inclusive resort in the Mayan Riviera ranges from $85 per night to $300 per night, Gray says, depending on how luxurious the resort.

Other sample trips, recently put together by George Evans, vice president of All Inclusive Resort Travel Inc., an agency based in Margate, Fla., include:

• Round-trip airfare from Detroit, departing Dec. 26 and including accommodations, meals, drinks, some water sports, taxes and tips, for a family of four for seven days in Montego Bay, Jamaica: $5,300.

• A trip for two from Atlanta to Mexico’s Maya Riviera, to spend seven nights at the couples-only Desire Resort and Spa, including food, 24-hour room service and premium cocktails: Under $3,000 per couple.

• A seven-night trip to the luxury Grand Lido Braco Resort & Spa, in Rio Bueno, Jamaica, including junior suite at the beachfront and a clothing-optional setting — not including airfare: About $4,000 per couple. The resort is “top end,” Evans says. “Gentlemen have to wear a coat to dinner at the French restaurant.”

• Or, for the more budget-minded: A seven-night trip from Buffalo, N.Y. to Jamaica’s Riu Tropical Bay Resort runs $1,310 per person, including airfare, accommodations, food and beverages.

Be sure to check around for specials. One resort on Travelocity offered a last-minute 50 percent off deal for the last week of April, says Amy Ziff, editor-at-large for Travelocity. Others often offer a “fourth night free” or similar discount.

More resorts are also starting to offer some all-inclusive plans among their regular a-la-carte rooms, Ziff says.

Also check Expedia, which offers a page devoted to all-inclusives in destinations ranging from the Caribbean to Palm Beach, Fla., to Tunisia to Indonesia.

As is true of all resorts, no two are exactly alike. To ensure you get the experience you’re expecting, ask questions before you book.

What’s not included? “Some all-inclusives will give you food [but] if you want drinks from the bar you pay extra for them,” George, of Lonely Planet, says. Or, “it might be sailboards are free but you have to pay extra for horseback riding. It’s good to know up front what those costs are.”

What kind of vacationer does the resort serve? If you’re a family of six, you don’t want to end up at a honeymooners’ resort. It’s unlikely a travel agent or a resort would let that happen, but ask nonetheless to ensure the resort caters to people like you.

How many meals? Confirm how many meals are included, and what the process is for making reservations for those meals. Some resorts limit the number of meals, or require a complex process to reserve at on-site restaurants.

“Sometimes you have to be there by 8 in the morning to make reservations,” Gray says. “That can take some of the relaxation out of an all-inclusive vacation.”

Domestic alcohol only? If you’re a connoisseur of fine vodka, ask whether premium alcohol is included. Some resorts consider “all-inclusive” limited to domestic brews.

Buy complete with airfare, or not. If you’ve got frequent flier miles you can redeem, or know of a great discount airfare to the destination, consider booking your airfare separately.  

© 2005 MarketWatch.com Inc.

Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

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