You may not have to pull your wallet out on one of these vacations, but you pay in several ways nonetheless.
1. "All-inclusive doesn't mean what you think."
What could be more relaxing than going on vacation and never pulling out your wallet? That's exactly why the "all-inclusive" resort is so appealing.
But the term all-inclusive means different things to different people. At some chains, like Allegro Resorts, whose slogan is "always all-inclusive," you'll have to read the fine print in the brochure to see that water sports such as scuba diving and snorkeling trips cost extra. In Club Med's brochures, you're encouraged to "enjoy the vacation of a lifetime for one hassle-free all-inclusive price." Well, almost. In very fine print, you'll see that you have to add on Club Med's mandatory membership fees, which could run you as much as $230 for a family of four with two teenage children. Plus, you'll pay for all drinks except beer and wine at meals.
Bob Blumberg, a spokesman for Club Med, explains that the resort's "membership fees" pay for "benefits" such as cancellation insurance and other "value-added specials." "We list very boldly what's included," he adds. An Allegro spokesman explains that the resort's brochure is currently being revised to be more consistent.
2. "Our service is slack."
When Glenn Broderick took his girlfriend away to Sandals Royal Bahamian Resort & Spa, he decided not to hold back. He selected the resort's most expensive room for a week and coughed up more than $10,000. From the outset, though, Broderick, a marketing manager from New Canaan, Conn., found the staff, well, less than doting. First, a request to have a bottle of champagne and an orchid waiting in their room was flatly denied, despite the brochure's claim that a concierge would be sure that "every wish (was) fulfilled." Plus, Broderick says, the service in the resort's restaurants was "miserable:" "On four occasions after dinner, I had to wait 20 minutes to a half hour to get coffee and dessert." Maggie Rivera, a spokeswoman for Sandals, explains that because rooms are sometimes not assigned until check-in, it's difficult to put things in a guest's room ahead of time. As for Broderick's dining troubles, she says, "All of our restaurants are fully staffed. We try to go above and beyond consumers' expectations."
Such tales wouldn't surprise Jack Franchek, president of OPS, an incentive-travel company. "The purpose of a non-all-inclusive resort is to advertise at a fair price and then sell as much (as possible) to a client once they're on site through good service," says Franchek. "With the all-inclusive, it's exactly the opposite. They promise the moon, and then try to deliver as little as possible."
3. "Charter flights aren't the friendly skies."
If you're planning to vacation at a Caribbean resort, there's a good chance you'll be getting there on a charter flight. Indeed, charters constitute between 20% and 30% of the flights from the U.S. to the Caribbean.
While many resorts and travel agents will probably alert you to the charter flight option (it's almost always a cheaper way to go), they probably won't emphasize all the limitations of flying on a charter. Unlike scheduled airlines, says Bill Mosely of the U.S. Department of Transportation, charters seldom rebook you if your flight is delayed or canceled ? and they don't have to give you a refund until your flight's been delayed 48 hours. Also, says Ed Perkins, a consumer advocate for the American Society of Travel Agents, charter flights usually have narrower seats ? and more of them ? than commercial aircraft.
Ron Kremnitzer, a New York attorney who flew on a charter to the Beaches Turks & Caicos resort last winter, agrees: "(My flight) was unbelievably cramped," he says. "It was much worse than a commercial coach flight." This year, Kremnitzer's family is going back, but they're spending $1,500 more to fly American Airlines (AMR).
4. "Our hurricane guarantee doesn't guarantee much."
Between August and November, the risk of having your Caribbean vacation wrecked by a hurricane multiplies. To compensate, several resort chains have instituted hurricane guarantees.
Unfortunately, these policies can be tough to collect on. When Hurricane José swept through the Caribbean in October 1999, John Frenaye, who owns two Carlson-Wagonlit Travel agencies in the Baltimore area, had clients whose vacation at Sandals St. Lucia was ruined. They weren't able to swim in the ocean, indulge in water sports or even enjoy a walk on the beach. Knowing that Sandals has a "Blue Chip Hurricane Guarantee," which offers a free replacement vacation if "hurricane force winds (as defined by the U.S. National Weather Service) directly hit the resort while you are a guest," Frenaye called and requested a free vacation for his clients. He says he was denied because the eye of the hurricane hadn't passed directly over the resort. (Frenaye did end up talking the resort into three free nights for the couple if they stayed a minimum six nights and paid their own airfare ? which would have cost them another $2,500.)
Sandals' Maggie Rivera insists that the company's hurricane guarantee doesn't require the eye of the storm to pass over the resort. (It does require "hurricane force winds," however, which she says weren't present at the resort during Hurricane José.) "We have the most comprehensive program in the industry," she says.
5. "Your travel agent will make a killing off us."
Travel agents haven't had it easy of late, what with airlines slashing commissions and Internet travel sites stealing market share. But one of the last remaining frontiers of significant profit for agents is the all-inclusive resort. Since most everything is included, agents end up getting a percentage of your meals, water sports and drinks ? not just air and hotel costs.
The perks don't stop there. Most all-inclusive resorts also give travel agents some kind of extra incentive to sell them to clients, ranging from American Express gift checks to barbecues to a free night's stay for every sale they make. "Travel agents are heavily incentivized to sell these vacations," says freelance travel columnist Christopher Elliott.
Some may even push them to the exclusion of all other choices. Says Eric Morrow, owner of Jamaica Inn, a non-all-inclusive five-star luxury resort, "I've had several guests who told me they went to a travel agent and wanted to go to my hotel. (The agents) all say, 'No, no, no, you want to go to Sandals.' They just won't hear otherwise."
6. "We really want to sell you a timeshare."
While plenty of big resort chains ? including Sandals, SuperClubs and Club Med ? don't sell timeshares, they're big business in certain areas. Almost a quarter of the hotels in Cancún and more than half in Aruba do. And many sell them hard.
Often the sales pitch is so aggressive that you can't even enjoy your vacation. That's what happened to Kyle Larsen, a staffing coordinator from Ottawa. After being relocated to the Moon Palace in Cancún because of a hurricane, Larsen, who had been staying at another Palace resort, made an innocent inquiry at the guest-services desk about food and entertainment. He was immediately offered a resort tour, only to be dragged into an hour-and-a-half timeshare sales pitch.
"They were obnoxious, pushy and very in-your-face," Larsen recalls. Worse, Larsen says he was treated badly by the resort staff once he made it clear that he wasn't interested. And although the resort clearly wasn't full, management refused his request to stay on at the Moon Palace so that he and his girlfriend wouldn't have to relocate again. "We knew that if we weren't (willing to buy a timeshare), we weren't going to get anything we wanted," says Larsen. A spokesman for the Moon Palace says that the resort's timeshare presentations aren't mandatory, adding that Larsen's request to stay there couldn't be granted because convention groups were arriving at the resort.
7. "Don't expect peace and quiet."
Increasingly, Caribbean resorts are going after the family market. And while most resort chains clearly describe which resorts are for families and which are for adults, some are less diligent. Sofia Guerra, a travel agent in Oakland, N.J., found herself at one such place when she went on her honeymoon to the Pineapple Beach resort in Antigua. During the interval between her booking of the trip and her actual departure, Allegro Resorts bought the place and changed it from an adults-only to a family resort. Guerra was never informed. "Here I was on my honeymoon, and there were all these kids with diapers going into the pool," says Guerra. "We were dumbfounded."
Today, almost two years later, Allegro's Pineapple Beach brochure still features pictures of loving couples staring into each other's eyes, without a child in sight. A spokesman for Allegro claims that the Antigua property does have mostly adults for guests. However, he concedes that when the resort changed owners future guests weren't notified of the change in adults-only status. As for the brochure's misleading photos? "Next time we print it," he says, "I'll make sure I add something. I would be unhappy about that too if I were a consumer."
Even if you're clear on what kind of resort you're going to, you still may have a hard time finding peace and quiet, especially during the summer, during spring break and around the Christmas holidays-times when all-inclusive resorts tend to teem with kids or college students.
8. "Your room won't look like it does in the brochure."
"Lovely beachfront rooms and lavish suites... Sumptuous beds... The kind of splendor usually reserved solely for royal couples." That's what Terri Gordon was expecting when she went to Sandals Royal Caribbean after reading the resort's brochure. But when she arrived, Gordon, an accountant from Kernersville, N.C., was sorely disappointed. She and her husband had upgraded to a so-called Grande Luxe room that Gordon describes as "dingy." "The bathroom fixtures were old and leaky," she says, "there was dirty tile, the toilet stuck, and the upholstery was threadbare. We had stayed in Comfort Inns that were nicer."
"We definitely have different categories of rooms," explains Sandals' Maggie Rivera. "Maybe from looking through the brochure they wanted something a little higher than what they had booked." She adds that Gordon would have been switched to a different room had the resort not been totally booked ? and that it offered Gordon two free nights on a future visit as compensation.
"(With brochures), there's a certain amount of puffing that's allowed," says Trouble-Free Travel co-author Ann Shulman. And the law offers little protection, she says. "No court is going to back a consumer if it's not superluxury."
9. "Our drink list is limited."
Enticed by the idea of unlimited drinks on your all-inclusive vacation? While that may be what you're getting according to the most literal definition, don't set your sights too high. For one thing, those resorts that promise top-shelf booze will almost certainly make you ask for it. "I can almost guarantee you," says Terry McCabe, a travel agent in Oakland, N.J., "that when they're pouring you a gin and tonic, they're not pouring you a Tanqueray." And even if some premium-brand liquors are available, variety isn't always a priority. Says John Rachlin, a former Club Med employee: "The clubs have contracts with that country's distributors to serve the most popular local (beer and wine) at meals." Club Med says that it imports its wine from France but that it does contract with local companies to provide almost all the beer at meals.
That isn't the only issue. All-you-can-drink can mean big crowds at the bar. "The brochures say, 'Drinks are unlimited,' but that's only if you're willing to wait in long lines for the one bartender to serve you a drink," says LeAnna Dinardo, an administrative director for the Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee, who stayed at Sandals Royal Bahamian a year ago. "We didn't drink that much because of the lines." Sandals' Rivera insists that the bars at Royal Bahamian were fully staffed the week that Dinardo was there.
10. "We can be bad for the local economy."
Think about the way you vacation in Europe or in major U.S. cities: You eat in local restaurants, shop in local stores, take taxis or city buses between one place and another. In short, your money goes to the people who live there.
That's often not the case when it comes to big resorts. While they do offer some local benefits, such as employment, much of the money spent at all-inclusive resorts ? especially when they're foreign-owned ? ends up elsewhere.
Barry Didato, of the management firm PA Consulting in Laguna Beach, Calif., explains why. "With a very sophisticated all-inclusive megaresort," he says, "they bring in a lot of their own labor, bring in containers for all their food and totally manage the entire experience." If you stay at a small, locally owned Caribbean inn, says Didato, every dollar you spend has the potential to recirculate eight times within the local economy. A dollar spent at an all-inclusive resort, he says, would recirculate only 1.4 times.