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How to Find the Best All-Inclusive Resorts

My first experience with an all-inclusive resort was a decade ago during a freezing February in New York City. I was easy prey for this promise: a startlingly low price for a trip to Cancún, which included airfare, four nights in a double room, and meals at any of three "exciting, international" restaurants. What I got: an insipid buffet; a filthy, crowded beach; and many extra fees. Though piña coladas were included, bottled water wasn't. The only unexpected "extra" was the resort's own porn channel, blaring on my TV when I arrived. I would have settled for maid service. These days, all-inclusives are going upscale with the same type of promise, but better delivery. At the Royal Hideaway Playacar, in Mexico, for example, a nightly rate starting at $850 per room includes meals by chef Sergi Arola—from Madrid's Michelin-starred La Broche restaurant—Spanish classes, and scuba lessons. You can find good deals at various price levels by asking yourself these questions:

Will I use what's included?

If you think you'll use everything a resort offers, even a pricey package can be a great value. Curtain Bluff, in Antigua, might seem expensive at $950 a night, but if you take advantage of the extras—scuba diving, waterskiing lessons, sailing, and drinks—the resort is a bargain. And large all-inclusive chains, which have improved their services, can be surprisingly affordable: I found a six-night stay for two in April at the Grand Lido Negril Resort & Spa, in Jamaica, including airfare from Charleston, South Carolina; all meals; tennis; scuba diving; and laundry service, for $683 per night.

Will I want what's not included?

Figure out if you'll desire more than what the deal gives you. The Meliá Cabo Real, in Los Cabos, Mexico, is next door to a Robert Trent Jones II–designed golf course. Stay in a links-view room for $460 per night in late February, and the all-inclusive rate delivers everything except golf, which is $252 per round. If you plan on playing a few rounds, wouldn't staying at an actual golf resort end up costing less, even at a higher nightly rate?Definitely.

How big a hassle will it be to cash in?The appeal of an all-inclusive is lost if you have to spend time jockeying for what you've been promised. In order to avoid the buffet at the 355-room Caribe Club Princess, in Punta Cana, you must queue up before 3 p.m. to get reservations at one of the five restaurants. Other red flags: water sports that are actually at a different location; "unlimited" sports where equipment rental is extra; or being confined to nine holes of an 18-hole course. To avoid these undesirable scenarios, know what's included with the hotel before you book.

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