If you’re trying to decide whether you should book a cruise or stay at an all-inclusive resort for your next vacation, there are a lot of factors to consider. Beyond selecting a destination, you’ll need to determine what type of experience you’re looking for and what’s included in the price of each option. After all, there’s nothing worse than having a stress-free trip turn into a sticker shock surprise when you review the final bill.
To help, U.S. News compiled a list of questions to consider when deciding between a land- or sea-based vacation, along with suggestions for some cruise line and all-inclusive resort options. If staying within a set budget is a top priority, you’ll want to read the fine print before you book – whether you’re setting sail on the high seas or relaxing poolside at a beachfront property. (Note: Resort amenities and cruise voyages may be affected by the coronavirus outbreak. New policies may be in place, including capacity restrictions, COVID-19 vaccinations or dining reservation requirements. Check with the official resort or cruise line website, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the U.S. Department of State and local tourism boards before traveling.)
What are your travel goals?
Before you start planning your dream getaway, consider your fundamental objectives. How do you want to spend your vacation? Do you want to explore multiple destinations in one trip or fully unwind in one relaxing locale? Or maybe you’d prefer to sit by a cruise ship’s pool by day and dine and bar hop by night, never once stepping foot in a port of call.
Cruises are a great option when you want to visit several locales in one vacation, but aren’t concerned with spending a lot of time in any one place. They’re also perfect for getting an overview of a region, such as the Caribbean or the Mediterranean. If you want to visit off-the-beaten-path destinations instead of busier, more popular ports, consider itineraries offered by cruise lines with smaller ships that can navigate tighter waterways than larger ocean liners. For example, Windstar Cruises’ ships carry between 148 and 342 passengers, including its three newly renovated vessels, which each accommodate 312 guests. The line’s small ships can visit small Greek islands; remote Tahitian villages; Alaska’s wildlife-filled Inian Islands; and sail the only navigable river in Spain, the Guadalquivir River.
Still, for some cruisers, the ship itself is the destination. The details of the itinerary don’t matter much to them, as they plan to spend most of their time relaxing on board. Newer and larger ships, like the Carnival Mardi Gras, offer seemingly endless dining and entertainment options. As the largest ship in Carnival‘s fleet, the vessel carries up to 6,465 passengers and boasts six themed onboard zones, plus adrenaline-pumping amenities like BOLT, the world’s first roller coaster at sea.
If a relaxing land-based experience sounds more your speed, an all-inclusive resort may be a better option. You can spend your time taking advantage of luxurious resort amenities and exploring the surrounding areas. The Grand Velas Riviera Maya in Playa Del Carmen, Mexico, offers family-friendly accommodations and activities, as well as romantic oceanfront suites with plunge pools and spa bathrooms for couples. The resort also has an impressive selection of internationally inspired restaurants and indoor and outdoor bars. During the day, sign up for holistic treatments at the SE Spa by Grand Velas (for an additional fee) or enjoy complimentary water activities like kayaking and snorkeling. You can even explore ancient ruins in nearby Tulum, Mexico, on an off-property excursion.
[Ready to plan a cruise? Find the best value sailings on GoToSea, a service of U.S. News.]
What’s included in the price?
Another huge variable is the price you’ll pay for a cruise or all-inclusive resort – and what exactly is covered. Taking a cruise can be a great value, but it’s important to note that inexpensive base fares aboard large, mainstream cruise lines can often be misleading. Once you add in additional costs for taxes, fees and port charges; gratuities; stateroom upgrades; specialty dining and beverage packages; excursions; and Wi-Fi access, the total price of your voyage may end up much higher than you expected. You may also be surprised to find that services that were once complimentary may now cost extra. For example, Royal Caribbean International now charges a convenience fee, plus an 18% tip for room service, no matter the size of your order.
To avoid surprise extra fees throughout your trip, you might want to consider sailing with a luxury line like Viking Ocean Cruises. Although such cruises typically come at a higher price point, the line’s fares cover all meals (including specialty dining venues), beer and wine with lunch and dinner, nonalcoholic beverages and bottled water, one shore excursion in each port, onboard Wi-Fi access and more. Similarly, in one upfront fare, Regent Seven Seas Cruises includes round-trip airfare, airport transfers, two- or three-night land packages (before or after your voyage), unlimited shore excursions, specialty dining, premium alcoholic and nonalcoholic beverages, valet laundry service, prepaid gratuities and other perks.
When it comes to all-inclusive resorts, be sure to research what is included in the nightly rate before you book. Couples-only Sandals Resorts International in the Caribbean offers some of the most inclusive resort pricing setups available. Rates cover accommodations, gourmet dining at up to 16 restaurants, snacks, premium wines and liquors, stocked in-room bars, water sports, complimentary golf course greens fees (select resorts), PADI-certified scuba diving (at most properties), entertainment, Wi-Fi access, gratuities and airport transfers. Extra fees apply for spa treatments, local excursions and personalized events, like private dinners on the beach. Other resort brands may not offer such an extensive list of included perks, so be sure to check with the specific property you are interested in.
Do you want to drive or fly to your vacation destination?
(Courtesy of Sandals Resorts)
Before you find yourself sipping umbrella drinks with a good book in hand, you’ll have to put in the work of traveling to your destination. It goes without saying that visiting an all-inclusive resort in Mexico or the Caribbean will require an international flight, but you may also need to hop on a plane to reach your chosen cruise ship terminal. Still, many ships sail from popular ports in Florida cities – including Fort Lauderdale, Miami, Tampa and Cape Canaveral (Orlando) – and travelers outside of the Sunshine State can find sailings out of ports in California, Texas, New York and Louisiana. Depending on where you live, you may be able to save yourself a flight (and some money) by driving directly to your embarkation port.
You may also be able to book a stay at an all-inclusive resort (or a property with an all-inclusive option) without traveling too far from home. Florida offers a couple of all-inclusive properties ideal for those who don’t want to leave the U.S. Consider Club Med Sandpiper Bay, a family-friendly resort in Port St. Lucie, or Bungalows Key Largo, which caters to travelers 21 and older visiting the Florida Keys. In contrast, some properties across the U.S. offer special packages to create your own all-inclusive experience. For example, health- and wellness-focused Miraval Arizona in Tucson, Arizona, has a deal that includes accommodations, meals, nightly resort credits, fitness classes, lectures and access to resort amenities. Check out the available packages at resorts near you to weigh all of your options.
What type of accommodations do you prefer?
Cruise ship cabins can be tight, especially if you’re traveling with another person (or an entire family). The good news is that there are plenty of choices when it comes to stateroom sizes and configurations, depending on the cruise line and specific ship you choose. Cabins can be as compact as 100 square feet (in the case of Norwegian Epic‘s Studio staterooms) or as vast as 4,443 square feet (Regent Seven Seas Splendor‘s lavish two-bedroom Regent Suite).
If space is important to you, plan to budget for a larger cabin, or one with a veranda. The Azamara Quest‘s Club Verandah Staterooms (175 square feet) are not much larger than its Interior Club Staterooms (158 square feet), but the addition of a balcony with extra seating, natural light and outdoor access makes them feel much more roomy. For even more space, consider splurging on a suite, which may also add valuable perks like complimentary specialty dining, laundry service and Wi-Fi access. Some suites are designed with families in mind, such as the Ultimate Family Suite on Royal Caribbean’s Symphony of the Seas. The two-story accommodation features an indoor slide, a private game and movie room, a hot tub, ocean views and VIP experiences across the ship.
Back on land, hotel rooms and suites at all-inclusive resorts will typically be more spacious than most cruise ship accommodations, meaning you’ll have more square footage to spread out. At the family-friendly all-inclusive Windjammer Landing in Castries, St. Lucia, accommodations run the gamut from 400-square-foot ocean view rooms for two to almost 1,400-square-foot, two-bedroom suites that can accommodate up to six people. The property also boasts a selection of luxury beachfront villas that measure up to 4,200 square feet.
What type of entertainment and dining options do you expect?
(Courtesy of Norwegian Cruise Line)
Before choosing between a cruise or an all-inclusive resort, think about the entertainment and dining options offered by each. On large cruise vessels, like Norwegian Cruise Line‘s ships, you can find infinite eateries, Vegas-style nightly entertainment and adults-only nightclubs that stay open into the wee hours of the morning. There are also fun-filled activities for younger travelers, like racetracks, laser tag, aqua parks, rock climbing walls and rope courses. Not all these activities will be included in your fare, so you can choose to pay as you go or purchase packages that offer unlimited access. Fitness classes, spa access and entry into adults-only lounge areas may also come with a fee, as can soft drinks and bottled water throughout the day (unless you have a beverage package).
However, smaller, more intimate ships still offer plenty of fun – albeit with fewer crowds. Cruisers can choose from several dining venues, some of which change their menus daily. For example, Azamara changes its menu every evening in the main dining room, Discoveries Restaurant. The eatery always offers classic favorites, such as shrimp cocktail and grilled New York strip steak, but it also includes nightly features, many of which are inspired by the ship’s destination. Smaller ships will also typically have a few bars or lounges that host entertainment for more mature, refined audiences (think: piano players or other live music in the evenings), plus theaters that feature a different show each night. Still, you might find fun-loving passengers on the dance floor late at night and DJs spinning karaoke tunes at lounges on the ship.
All-inclusive resorts typically offer a wide range of on-site dining venues, entertainment, activities and amenities as well. For example, the gated 7,000-acre Caso de Campo Resort & Villas in La Romana, Dominican Republic, features three golf courses, an equestrian center, tennis courts, skeet and trap shooting, water sports, complimentary merengue lessons and more. Packages at the resort include accommodations, all meals and beverages and access to most (or all) of these activities.
Resorts may also feature more unique amenities than cruise ships. For example, at Caso de Campo, guests can visit Altos de Chavón. Inspired by a 16th-century Mediterranean village, this impressive replica of a medieval hamlet is home to local artisans and boutiques. There’s also an archeological museum, the St. Stanislaus Church and a 5,000-seat amphitheater with panoramic views of the Chavón River and the Caribbean Sea. After dinner at one of the property’s signature restaurants, you can hit the nightclubs, or, if you’re lucky, catch a concert in the amphitheater. If you’d like to spend an afternoon or two outside of the property, sign up for a resort excursion (additional fees apply). Travelers can explore nearby beaches by catamaran, visit a local cigar-making factory or take an exhilarating zipline ride through the treetops.
Bottom line/In summary
With so many variables to consider, planning the perfect getaway can be overwhelming, but it doesn’t have to be. Too often, travelers are lured by low prices and get frustrated trying to select from the many alternatives. Instead, follow the simple process summarized below.
Once you’ve figured out your travel goals and have decided between a cruise or an all-inclusive resort, you can narrow down your options. If you don’t want to fly, check out the cruises that sail from ports in the U.S., all-inclusive resorts within driving distance, and even properties that offer package deals for meals, beverages and excursions. Also, consider the amount of entertainment and activities you or your family are interested in. If you’re not traveling with kids and prefer adult-focused venues and activities, book an adults-only resort or cruise that doesn’t cater to families.
If you’re hoping to avoid crowds, then you might be happiest on a small ocean voyage or at an intimate property. You should also arrange to travel in the offseason. In addition to fewer people, this time of year offers some of the best-discounted cruise fares or room rates. Offseason varies depending on the destination, but it’s typically between June and early September in Florida. If you’re headed to a resort in Mexico, the Caribbean or the Bahamas, or if you’re considering a Caribbean cruise, prices drop dramatically during hurricane season – June 1 to Nov. 30. Europe is a great option for deals from late fall into early spring. There is also a period right before Christmas and after the New Year holiday that offers a window where you can score discounted pricing before the season gets busy again.
Once you’ve selected your cruise or hotel and factored in how many people you’ll be traveling with, you can determine the size of the stateroom or type of accommodations you’ll need to be comfortable. Regardless of your selection, always verify what’s included in the price. You don’t want any surprises at the end of your dream vacation.