An agent at the luxury travel firm Absolute Travel, Natalie Nevares may seem an unlikely candidate to stay at an all-inclusive resort. After all, aren’t all-inclusives the home of bad buffets and who-cares-my-tip-is-already-paid service—and at an excessive cost?Shouldn’t a high-end travel agent know better?
The fact is, Nevares does know better—which is why she keeps going back to resorts where everything is covered upon arrival. She’s learned what many savvy travelers have: that an influx of service-oriented hoteliers has raised the bar on the all-inclusive concept, introducing more services, more amenities, and far better food.
Related: America's Best All-Inclusive Resorts
Better still, with a little shopping around, the convenience and perks of an all-inclusive vacation can be had at a great price (from as low as $180 per person per night at Azul Beach Resort on the Riviera Maya). So grab your sunglasses—but leave your wallet behind.
One of the biggest changes at all-inclusives is the restaurants. As recently as the 1990s, the cuisine at many all-inclusive resorts had all the flair of a Holiday Inn buffet, with a few slices of pineapple to signify location. Sure, you’ll still find buffets at some resorts, but more and more are recognizing the importance of fresh ingredients and local cuisine in luring customers like Nevares, a self-described “food snob.”
But now some spots boast enticing menus by award-winning chefs. Azul Beach Resort, for one, calls itself “gourmet-inclusive”: The small, 97-room hotel operates four full-service restaurants, several snack bars, and a lounge dedicated to tequila, just to keep foodies coming back.
Gone, too, is the desperately perky social director organizing a poolside conga line. Today’s ever-expanding roster of available diversions may surprise you: golf, tennis, zip lines, kids’ clubs, snorkeling trips, beachfront climbing walls, kayaking, and trapeze instruction. Even lazing on the beach has received an upgrade: you’ll find hand-carved Balinese beach beds under palapas at Melia Caribe Tropical.
And while exploring outside a resort’s gates used to be discouraged or nigh impossible, most spots now offer activities designed to see the surrounding world. CocoBay, a small all-inclusive in Antigua, encourages guests to check out the nearby national park and local museums to get a taste of the rich culture and indigenous flora and fauna that can’t be experienced from a hammock.
Accommodations have grown up, too—say aloha to the cinderblock dorms that used to pass for all-inclusive hotels. Club Med, for example, hired interior architects to transform their Ixtapa property into a bougainvillea-tinted showcase of modern convenience with traditional Mexican touches. And the well-manicured and lavish gardens of Melia Caribe Tropical feature faux Greek ruins, multiple fountains, flamingo-studded waterways, and wandering peacocks, creating a glamorous illusion of paradise.
There’s no lolling around for resort staffs, either: all-inclusives must now provide notable service to battle stiff competition from à la carte hotels and cruise ships (that other fixed-price vacation option). To stay in the game, they’ve created innovative spas; hired butlers, concierges, and sommeliers; professionally trained nannies and kids’ club counselors; and started offering services like 24-hour room service, a in-room candlelit dinners, and breakfast in bed. Real, grown-up hotel service has officially arrived.
You may be able to find great food, thoughtful service, a wealth of activities and amenities elsewhere on the beach, but this selection of 10 affordable all-inclusive resorts offer vacations where, for a few nights, you can also count on economic stability. Treat yourself to one of these trips as a kind of stimulus package for your budget—and your peace of mind.