How to Win Whether or Not You Go All-In

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Published November 10, 2009

| FoxNews.com

If you’re at a resort in Cancun or Playa Del Carmen, it’s easy enough to take a field trip and soak up the last traces of an ancient culture.

Then again, if Mayan ruins aren’t your thing, it’s even easier to stay put and soak up the last traces of whatever’s left at the bottom of your cocktail glass.

Many resort destinations worldwide allow you to mix a little culture with your vermouth. A resort in the U.S. Virgin Islands offers tours to the Western Hemisphere’s oldest synagogue, found on St. Thomas. From a resort in Bermuda, you might embark on a cave tour or learn about the history of slavery on the island. “Bermuda was literally a trading post for the slave trade, points out Joseph Sobin, a travel agent and director at the Society of Leisure Enthusiasts.

But if you’re not all that interested in what life was like in your destination either before or since your resort was created, there are plenty of places where “you never have to experience life beyond the confines of the resort,” Sobin, says. Typically, these are the larger resorts, he says, many of them all-inclusive, popular for travelers who want “the most vacation for the expenditure.”

Concurs Pamela Smith, a travel agent with Ocean Summit Travel in Colorado,” I think overall the guests that tend to pick all-inclusive resorts tend to not explore the region. They are there to eat, drink, and be merry, and mostly relax.” Not that there’s anything wrong with that.

Whatever your pleasure, take a moment to consider what experiences would make a resort “all-inclusive” to you, versus what a resort thinks your experience ought to be. Vanessa Lane, media relations coordinator at Sandals Resorts, doesn’t particularly like the term “all-inclusive.” “That phrase is tossed around a lot,” she says, “but can describe very different experiences from resort to resort.”

And just as experiences can vary significantly among resorts, so can perks and policies, says Suzanne Kelleher, co-founder and editor-in-chief of WeJustGotBack.com, “even among various properties within the same chain.”

Ask yourself what perks matter the most.

If a particular perk is important to you, look for a resort that offers it for free or nearly free, Kelleher suggests.

For instance, “if you’re willing to splurge on a luxury property and know that you'll need to book your kids in a children's camp for part of your stay, it's worth knowing that both Ritz-Carlton and Four Seasons offer children's camps,” Kelleher says. “The camps at the Ritz can run as high as $19 per hour per child, while the camps at Four Season properties are free. If you have two kids, and they spend three hours in the camp, it would cost $114 at the Ritz versus nothing at the Four Seasons. That kind of added-value perk can make a big difference.”

Don’t miss the good free or almost-free stuff.

All-inclusive resorts tend to showcase their buffets, swimming pools, sand volleyball games, water slides, mini-golf courses, and other pursuits that look swell in brochures and online slideshows, but “all inclusive resorts offer a bunch of activities that I think not all guests take advantage of,” Smith says, “like free snorkeling or kayaking or small sailboats. Free bikes are another one that often goes overlooked.”

Another resort perk you shouldn’t ignore are free or nearly-free sports lessons, says Karen Bauer, owner and operator of travel agency Interliner.com. “Take them,” Bauer urges, adding that “If you've always wanted to learn how to windsurf, block out two hours and do it for free.” On dry land, she notes, resort tennis pros often offer free clinics or clinics ”for a small fee - a fraction of what you'd pay at home.”

Know that not all add-on fees are alike.

If you’re staying at a resort that isn't all-inclusive, there’s an excellent chance you’ll be slapped with a resort fee. “Always ask if there is one on top of the nightly room rate,” Kelleher says. This often-hidden charge presumably covers the “costs of running facilities such as the pool, gym, tennis courts, and so on. At some resorts, this can be $20 to $30 a day, and it's a mandatory charge whether you use the facilities or not.”

It can’t hurt to ask to have the resort fee waived when you’re booking, but if you’re stuck with the fee, and most likely you will be, try to embrace at least a few of the perks it’s supposed to cover. Smith says that she recently stayed at a high-end resort with a daily fee tacked on, but she and her party found it worthwhile because they “utilized the free bikes, hot tub, and fire pits - and the staff brought us warm blankets to snuggle under.”

At that same resort Smith said she also paid an optional daily upgrade fee, which entitled her to a dedicated concierge, special meals, “and unlimited drinks including premium liquor and wines. I believe the added charge was $50 per person,” she recalls, but notes that once she was done pricing out a couple drinks in the resort’s bar, the upgrade turned out to be a good value.

Speaking of food and drink, you don’t have to buy it all.

Many larger resorts, particularly all-inclusives, present more meal services than you ever thought possible within a 24-hour period. But many resorts also offer different meal plans, Sobin observes. At one Virgin Islands resort he points to meal-plan options that are fairly standard in the lodging industry - a three-meal Full American Plan, a two-meal Modified American Plan, and a European Plan – which is no meals, all food a la carte. At this particular resort he notes that the full buffet breakfast is about $25 per person, and worth it, but for light eaters the resort offers a “true continental breakfast, and it is free.”

If you happen to be spending a fair amount of time at the resort bars, many will offer free food “ranging from chips and dip and ice cream to full buffet spreads including burgers and local fare, Sobin says. “In general, this food is free of charge as an amenity. Some resorts do this at [pre-dinner] ‘happy hour’ while others make it an all-day event. Planned accordingly, one can replace a meal or two with bar fare [for free].”

While you’re at the bar, you see those kiddie drinks the bartender’s blending up? Not always free, cautions author and mother of three Melissa Stoller. “One year in Puerto Rico, my kids racked up a large charge for virgin piña coladas and chocolate smoothies at the swim-up bar. Ask the bartender if they have any all-inclusive drink packages for the kids,” Stoller says, “or tell the kids to stick to water.”

If you do decide to venture beyond the walls of your resort for a while but don’t relish the idea of shelling out cash for food, Bauer suggests this often-overlooked trick: hit up your resort for a free lunch.

“Assuming your resort plan includes all meals,” Bauer says, “have them pack a lunch for you if you're planning on being gone for the day.”

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