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Nerdwallet: How to book a unique all-inclusive vacation that’s not terrible

By SALLY FRENCH of NerdWallet
Published: January 24, 2024, 7:49am

All-inclusive vacations can conjure images of food under heat lamps, too many poolside piña coladas, and being trapped on resort grounds. But sun-soaked packages are not the only type of all-inclusives.

Sure, sprawling mega-resorts exist — and their numbers are growing. All-Inclusive by Marriott Bonvoy has spent the last couple of years building a portfolio of nearly three dozen all-inclusive hotels worldwide, mostly in Mexico and the Caribbean. One of the most highly anticipated is the Marriott Cancun, reopening in early 2024 to include some of the typical all-inclusive amenities: a sprawling property of 450 rooms, a lazy river, waterslides and more.

But guests looking for a more localized and unique experience can still find that type of vacation — with the price of food and activities included.


Some all-inclusives are entirely antithetical to stereotypical resort experiences. Wellness and activity take precedence over all-you-can-eat meals. They aren’t necessarily in sunny locales. Guest counts are limited, with just a handful of beds.

Vista Verde Guest Ranch in Clark, Colorado, is among the properties that check all those boxes. At the all-inclusive dude ranch, summer outdoor activities include fly fishing and paddle boarding. Winter options include snowshoeing, ice fishing, skiing and sleigh rides. There are only 12 cabins and three lodge rooms.

Many all-inclusives in this genre, such as the Arctic Watch Wilderness Lodge, may hardly be considered relaxing at all. With 16 cabins located just under 500 miles north of the Arctic Circle, vacationers are encouraged to partake in activities like riding fat tire bikes over the ice. If the ice has already melted, you can sea kayak instead. With no electricity at night and no in-cabin showers (they’re only in the main complex), it’s not glamorous. But it’s still expensive.


The cheapest Arctic Watch offering costs $17,500 Canadian (about $13,000) for nine nights, amounting to about $1,400 per night. At Vista Verde Guest Ranch, three-night stays start at $2,695 during the off-season or about $900 per night (though per-night costs decrease the longer you stay).

But not every all-inclusive worth visiting is for travelers with big budgets. At Minnesota’s family-oriented Fair Hills Resort, cabins are modest and the food resembles what you ate at summer camp. Meals and activities — such as golf lessons, pickleball, and s’mores — are included in most packages. Rates can run just over $200 per adult, per night, and $121 per kid, per night, depending on your stay length.


According to a survey published in April 2022 that was commissioned by Wyndham Hotels & Resorts, which has a robust portfolio of all-inclusives, 77% of travelers believe that an all-inclusive vacation is the least stressful way to travel.

If you’re considering an all-inclusive for your next vacation, here are some tips to consider:

— Think boutique, not blockbuster: Skipping the sprawling resorts in favor of intimate properties can bring more personalized service. It might also better connect you with the destination and its people rather than the hundreds of other vacationers.

— Consider more than just beach locales: Whether it’s the Arctic tundra, a Minnesota summer camp or Colorado dude ranch, some of the most authentic experiences occur at all-inclusives that are far from the beach.

“We are stewards of the western ranch lifestyle, and we enjoy bringing folks into our world,” says Ben Martin, general manager of Colorado’s Vista Verde Guest Ranch.

You might even consider a trip that doesn’t stay in one place. Companies like SpiceRoads Cycling and Backroads offer all-inclusive, multiday cycling tours where you get a guide and bike support on top of meals and nightly lodging.

— Prioritize points: If you do opt for an all-inclusive stay at one of the major hotel chains, take advantage of the opportunity to book properties on points, which can often be earned through credit card spending.

— Embrace shoulder season: Shoulder season, which is the time between tourist season and the off-season, can provide a healthy mix of lower rates and fewer crowds, yet decreased risk of bad weather or businesses that have closed for the off-season.

— Understand what’s truly included: You might never touch your wallet at some all-inclusives. Others charge for add-ons such as snorkel gear oralcohol. A few even tack on resort fees.


Vista Verde’s Martin says his all-inclusive model avoids making vacationers feel nickel and dimed throughout the stay.

“If a guest is frequently reaching for their wallet, they are constantly being reminded that their stay is transactional,” he says. “It changes the dynamic of our relationship with them.”

And if you can score a deal — such as a stay booked on points or during shoulder season — an all-inclusive can leave a far bigger mark in your memory than your bank account.

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This article was provided to The Associated Press by the personal finance website NerdWallet. Sally French is a writer at NerdWallet. Email: sfrench@nerdwallet.com.


NerdWallet: How to avoid hotel resort fees (and which brands are the worst) https://bit.ly/nerdwallet-hotel-resort-fees


The survey was conducted by OnePoll on behalf of Wyndham Alltra from December 14-17, 2021. The survey size was 2,000 Americans across the general population. The margin of sampling error was not shared by Wyndham.

Wyndham Hotels & Resorts-OnePoll.(April, 2022). “Wyndham Hotels & Resorts Sees Demand With Travelers “All In” For All-Inclusive.” https://corporate.wyndhamhotels.com/news-releases/wyndham-hotels-resorts-sees-demand-with-travelers-all-in-for-all-inclusive/