TIS THE SEASON… for booking Spring Break, that is! As a professional travel agent specializing in all-inclusive resorts, I get one question over and over: What is the difference between a budget all-inclusive resort and a luxury all-inclusive resort?
After hearing these questions so consistently, I decided to share a little of my own personal experiences at budget properties.
It’s easy to focus on price… we all have budgets to manage and many things compete for our paycheck’s attention. However, I am here to tell you that NOT ALL RESORTS ARE CREATED EQUAL!
Just like buying a car or a house, it’s important to focus on what you GET for the money. Vacations are all about value, not price.
In February, I traveled to Cabo San Lucas, Mexico to tour over 10 properties in the area. Half of my stay was spent in a budget property, a 3 star resort. The second half of my stay was spent in a 5 star resort, soon to be a AAA Four Diamond property. I will refer to them as “Budget Resort” and “Luxury Resort” in this post. Here is what I learned in my “experiment”:
Budget All Inclusive vs. Luxury All Inclusive: What’s the Difference?
Difference #1: The Check In Process (Budget All-Inclusive)
We arrived as scheduled and walked into a large, crowded open air lobby (think: hot!). There was a long check-in line and employees milling about. The line moved very slowly and it was HOT … no AC remember?
Eventually, a resort employee came by and offered us a juice drink, which was pretty tasty and very appreciated. We arrived about 30 minutes before check-in time but were told that our room wasn’t ready and wouldn’t be ready for 90 minutes. We were given tacky plastic wristbands and were told that we had to come back and wait in line again for our room key.
Difference #1: Checking in at the Luxury All-Inclusive Resort
When we pulled up to the front door, we were greeted by 2 staff members who opened the doors to our transfer and immediately whisked away our luggage to put in storage until our room is ready. We walked into an air-conditioned lobby with soft music, high ceilings and modern décor. We were asked to sit at a check in desk, while another staff member greeted us with a glass of champagne, a flower and a warm neck pillow to loosen our sore muscles. AH… forget a business trip…now we are on vacation!
Our check in clerk asked us our room preferences so he could relay them to our butler. What temperature should the room be? Did we want a bath drawn at night? Did we need any dining reservations? What about spa appointments? We were told about the mini-bar and the complimentary bottle of tequila in our room.
Even though we arrived 4 hours before check-in time, our rooms were ready within 20 minutes. A butler appears to walk us to our rooms. No tacky wristbands!
Budget All-Inclusive Resort vs. Luxury All-Inclusive Resort: The Accommodations
Difference #2: Budget All-Inclusive Resort Rooms
The hallways and elevators are dark and gloomy. I’m actually a little nervous walking to my room, dragging my luggage behind me. It was weird that no one offered to take our bags, right? The light outside my door has burned out bulb. It is never replaced during my entire stay.
I get to my room and it is very basic. There is a humid, musty smell which is typical of budget properties in tropical climates. The beds are hard and there is only a light sheet covering them, no comforter. The “king” bed is actually 2 double beds pushed together with a big crack down the middle. There is a minibar, stocked with 4 community bottles of alcohol that everyone before me has used. The refrigerator holds one dusty bottle of water and a Mexican Coke (yes!) There is a sign saying that the mini bar is refreshed every 2 days. My room does have a great view of Los Arcos, so that is nice! This is considered a “premium” room at this property…. I wonder what the basic garden view rooms look like. Off to explore.
I stayed at this property for 2 nights and never once saw a cleaning crew. After nearly freezing to death on my first night, a blanket appeared on my bed the next afternoon. The only toiletries are a bar of soap, a shower cap and a 2 in 1 shampoo dispenser in the shower. Speaking of the shower…it’s weird. It is small and at times when I’m showering the water completely shuts off and then comes back on with a burst of cold water. That’s fun! The towels are old and scratchy. There are no robes/slippers in the room. There is no clock. There is no turndown service. Room service is only offered between certain hours… I order it once and wait nearly 45 minutes for coffee and a croissant.
There is no Wi-Fi in the rooms, only the lobby. The Wi-Fi is also limited to two devices. I try to purchase Wi-Fi to be used in my room but it never works. If it had worked, I would have paid $15 a day. I try to call the front desk for help, but everything is in Spanish and frankly I’m too tired to translate.
Difference #2: Luxury All-Inclusive Resort Rooms
The elevator is air conditioned, fast and plays fun music. The hallway to my room is open air, but constructed to take advantage of the sea breeze. A bellboy/butler leads me to my room, pulling my luggage behind him. He opens my curtains, shows me all the features of the TV, the in-room sound system and how to use the telephone (more complicated than it sounds!)
The room is decorated very nicely with small touches that really reflect the vibe of the resort. There is an in-room aromatherapy machine with essential oils to choose from. There is a bath salts menu… When I’m ready for a bath to be drawn, I use the resort’s app to request it from my butler. I choose the bath salts and he has it ready after dinner. Is this what heaven is like?
The bed is tall, fluffy and insanely comfortable. I hope I have room in my suitcase for this down comforter, because I’m taking it with me! (Not really, but they are available for purchase!)
The rooms are stocked with every toiletry you can possibly imagine: shower cap, shaving kit, sewing kit, extra toothbrush, a razor, and more. There are comfortable robes and slippers in the closet. Our minibar is stocked with the basics and we have various mini-bottles of alcohol that are our and ours alone (this is a trend now in the nicer properties!)
The shower is large. The resort offers free Wi-Fi everywhere on unlimited devices. They also include free calls to the US and Canada. There is an expansive 24-hour room service menu. Turndown service brings cookies and chocolates.
Budget All-Inclusive Resort Swimming Pools vs. Luxury All-Inclusive Resort Swimming Pools
Difference #3: Pools at Budget All-Inclusive Resorts
There are two large pools. This is a family friendly property, but there are no kids amenities, no waterslides, no splash park. There are lots of lounge chairs around both pools, but all of the mare filled.
You must use your towel card to check out a towel each day. If you don’t turn the towel in you will be charged $20. This isn’t a nice towel… it’s a striped beach towel that has seen better days.
The pool water is very warm and feels like a bathtub. There are bugs floating EVERYWHERE. The grout is dirty. There is sand in the bottom of the pool.
One poor pool waiter is trying to accommodate literally a hundred guest and he is struggling, poor guy.
Difference #3: Pools at Luxury All-Inclusive Resorts
There are two pools here, one is HUGE and occupies almost the entire front “lawn” of the resort. The second is an infinity pool that looks over the ocean edge and capitalizes on the beautiful views. There are fountains and water features all over the property.
The water is refreshingly cool. I don’t see a single bug in the water. The pool is very clean. Towels are given freely at a hut by the pool. It’s a busy time, so there is a shortage of lounge chairs, but I see the staffing pulling more out of storage. Pool waiters and waitresses are plentiful and asking us if we need anything. I’m told that the resort is soon launching a feature where you can order food to your chair from your resort app!
Budget All-Inclusive Resort vs. Luxury All-Inclusive Resort: Comparing the Beach
Difference #4: Budget All-Inclusive Resort Beach
The beach area is large with lots of loungers. There are a few umbrellas available. Cabo has a strong undertow, so there is no swimming here, but the beach is lovely to look at. There is no wait service at the beach. Vendors are strolling along, pitching their beach blankets, trinkets and jewelry.
Difference #4: Luxury All-Inclusive Resort Beach
The beach area is a good size. Even though all Mexican beaches are public by law, the resort has sectioned off areas with tasteful barriers so vendors cannot bother you. My lounge chair is seated next to a small table with umbrella; the table has a hook for my beach bag. The beach is nice and sandy with no rocks in site. There is very attentive wait service. Since I know we will be working on the beach for a while (a travel agent is ALWAYS working), we tip the waiter a few dollars to keep the snacks and drinks coming. By the end of the day, Julio is our new bff and says hi to us each time he sees us for the rest of our trip.
Budget All-Inclusive Resort vs. Luxury All-Inclusive Resort: Comparing Restaurants & Food
Difference #5: Food at the Budget All-Inclusive Resort
All of the dining options require reservations except for the buffet-style restaurant. We didn’t make any reservations (bad travel agents!) so we are stuck with the buffet. It is serviceable, but I can tell I’m going to have a hard time with food here. The buffet options look limp and warmed over, two adjectives I do not like to use for food.
There is no bar in the restaurant, so we have to walk back to the outside lobby bar to get drinks with dinner. Finally, we flag down a waiter and ask if we can order a bottle of wine to save the trips. Bottles of wine are not included in the “all inclusive” here, so we reluctantly pay $20 for sub-par no name wine. But hey, it’s red and in a bottle! The wine was terrible. I didn’t see anyone finish their glass.
Servers rarely came by to check on us and I was often left with an empty water glass.
Difference #5: Food at the Luxury All-Inclusive Resort
There are four restaurants here with two more on the way. Each restaurant has a theme – fresh seafood, Italian, modern Mexican and a casual “world market” buffet (but we call them “dining stations” here!) The two restaurants on the way are a brick pizza oven and a Lebanese restaurant (sweet!) No reservations are required except for one restaurant, which is the premiere restaurant of the resort. Our butler took care of that reservation for us, so we are set.
On night one, the dinner options are amazing. They have full bar service. The complimentary wine is tasty so there is no need to upgrade. Throughout the stay, all of our dining service is attentive. Each time we enter a restaurant, we are greeted with big smiles and immediately shown to a table. When we have a repeat server, he remembers our wine choice and brings it without asking.
Breakfast here is legit… mimosa bar, a Bloody Mary bar and tons of fresh juices to choose from. There are made to order omelets and made to order smoothies. There is a waffle station and a large assortment of Mexican pastries and treats. Lunch choices are fresh and plentiful.
Luxury All-Inclusive Resort vs. Budget All-Inclusive Resort: Comparing Drink Quality and Service
Difference #6: Ordering Drinks at the Budget All-Inclusive Resort
Have you ever heard someone complain about the drinks at all-inclusive resorts being watered down? I guarantee they stayed at a budget resort.
The liquor selection was small and mostly domestic brands I had never heard of. At times the wait for a drink was very long with a line of 10 people in front of you. The bartenders didn’t seem very happy. I order an espresso martini, thinking that is impossible to mess up. Right? Wrong. I choked down the worst martini of my life. Within an hour, I had a headache from cheap booze and sugar.
Difference #6: Ordering Drinks at the Luxury All-Inclusive Resort
This property had a huge selection of top-shelf liquors, including some we can’t get easily in the US (Liquor 43, anyone?) The bartenders were happy and I was always served very quickly. The drinks were tasty and strong. After two yummy mango margaritas with a tajin rim, I knew I needed to stop or this work trip was going to get very interesting. When I asked for water it was poured from a bottle.
Budget All-Inclusive Resort vs. Luxury All-Inclusive Resort: Comparing The Little Extras
Difference #7: Extras at the Budget All-Inclusive Resort
This resort advertises “$200 of resort credit with every booking!” The “resort credit” turns out to be a tiny coupon book that looks like it’s been mimeographed in the 80s. (If you don’t know what a mimeograph is, google it!) The coupons are basically unusable… $50 off a massage, but only between certain hours. $10 off a bottle of wine, but can only choose from this list. Doesn’t feel like much “value”
Difference #7: Extras at the Luxury All-Inclusive Resort
This property has one of the most famous Resort Credit programs in the industry. Each room gets $1,500 of true resort credit, actual dollars that can be used for spa treatments, excursions, laundry, bottles of wine and more. I use a bit of mine for laundry because I’m heading directly to another trip after this one. I get a massage and it’s lovely. To redeem the resort credit, we are required to pay a small service charge… this means that my $160 massage was actually only $25. I’ll take it!
Comparing Budget All-Inclusive Resorts vs. Luxury All-Inclusive Resorts: Clientele/Atmosphere
Difference #8: Budget All Inclusive Resorts Were Mostly Locals & their Kids
The majority of the guests were locals. After asking around a bit, we found that many of them were on day passes, passes that the budget property sells to fill the resort and make money when rooms are not booked.
Announcements were made in Spanish first, then English. We are a friendly crowd, but we found it hard to “make friends” or start conversations with most people here. The resort was always packed with people. We joked that it felt like we were at Disney World because of the huge crowds. Kids were EVERYWHERE. Where are their parents? On the walk back to our room, I notice a very long line at guest services, probably people waiting to complain.
Difference #8: Luxury All-Inclusive Resort: Friendly Locals and Tourists
There was a good mix of locals, North Americans and Europeans. Announcements/entertainment is done in English. Within minutes of getting in the pool we’ve started making friends. It was obvious that everyone was enjoying the resort and having a great time.
The resort offered lots of classes, like wine tastings, tequila tastings and sushi making classes. The resort never felt crowded.
Ever heard that phrase “you get what you pay for?” That is definitely the case with an all inclusive vacation.
I book hundreds of trips for hundreds of clients each year. In all my time doing this job, I have never had a client return from a Premium resort and complain. No one has ever said “That extra $500 wasn’t worth it.”
On the flip side, I have had clients who have ignored my expertise and advice and stayed at budget properties. When those clients travel, I brace myself for the “Day 1 Phone Call”. That’s the call where I hear “We don’t like our room”
or the air conditioner doesn’t work”
When making your vacation choices, do not forget that your time is precious. Yes, the premium property may be a few dollars more, but isn’t it worth the saved stress, the saved bad energy, the saved complaining?
In the words of Donna Summer, “We work hard for the money!” You you’re your family and friends deserve a GREAT vacation, not a mediocre one!