Cruise vs. all-inclusive resort: Which budget-friendly option is best for you?

Travelers looking for an easy vacation, with accommodations and activities bundled into one package price, often compare cruises and all-inclusive resorts to find their ideal trip. On a cruise ship or at a resort, you’ve got restaurants, bars, activities, entertainment and kids clubs all in one place, saving you from doing loads of research for every aspect of your trip. Even better, many (or all) of these amenities are included in the upfront price, helping make these vacation types budget-friendly.

Sure, you can choose pricey luxury cruise lines or upscale resorts, but when you book a cruise or all-inclusive resort, you can rest easy knowing you’re getting the convenience of an all-in-one vacation without a ton of extra expenses.

The question then becomes: Which vacation type is better for you, a cruise or an all-inclusive resort? The answer depends on which sorts of things you want included in your base price and which ones you’d rather purchase a la carte. Additionally, what type of trip you’re looking to take matters.

To help you decide which option is best for you, you’ll first need to understand which activities and amenities cruises and all-inclusive resorts actually cover in their base rates. Then, you can compare the similarities and differences before picking between the two.

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Cruises: What’s included?

(Photo by David Murphey/Disney Cruise Line)

Cruises are often pegged as all-inclusive vacations, but exactly what is included varies by cruise line and cabin type. When pricing out a cruise vacation, you’ll need to know the details of what your line covers in everyone’s fares and what add-ons you can buy to make your trip more inclusive.

Let’s start with the basics. All cruise fares on any major cruise line include accommodations with en suite bathrooms; meals in select restaurants (typically a large main dining room and a buffet venue, plus perhaps a few other eateries); basic drinks (tap water, coffee, hot and iced tea, milk and select juice at breakfast); use of pools, hot tubs, lounge chairs and fitness equipment; kids clubs and programming; and some kinds of daytime and evening entertainment.

Related: A beginners guide to picking a cruise line

Whether you’re sailing mass-market Carnival Cruise Line or ultra-luxe Regent Seven Seas Cruises, your base fare will include the aforementioned items.

High-priced luxury cruise lines will typically also include a large selection of alcoholic and nonalcoholic drinks, gratuities for the crew, Wi-Fi access and meals in smaller, themed restaurants. However, this isn’t always the case.

To see how inclusions vary, let’s take a look at a few examples.

Royal Caribbean is a big-ship line that caters to couples and families. Its entry-level fares cover just the basics mentioned above. You might find discounted rates and free kids fares (when sharing a cabin with two paying adults), but it is not known for throwing in freebies like Wi-Fi or tips unless you book a suite.

Royal Caribbean’s Royal Suite-class fares are more inclusive than standard fares. Book a Sky-class suite and you’ll receive free Wi-Fi for each guest, room service and meals in the exclusive Coastal Kitchen restaurant, as well as access to a lounge with complimentary evening drinks and snacks. Book a Star-class suite and you’ll get even more fare inclusions, such as meals in all specialty restaurants, a Deluxe beverage package (including booze, soda and premium coffee drinks), minibar items, tips and laundry.

Related: 5 things I love about Royal Caribbean’s new suite neighborhood — and 3 that need work

Norwegian Cruise Line takes a different route. Its “Free at Sea” promotions (which seem to run continuously these days) allow everyone to make their base fares more inclusive, depending on which version of the sale is running. At press time, the fare inclusions for the first two guests per room extended to free airfare, Wi-Fi, a beverage package and excursion and specialty dining credits. (Third and fourth guests sail free and therefore don’t receive the additional inclusions.) Sometimes the deal includes fewer freebies or offers fewer inclusions with the cheaper cabins.

A luxury line like Regent Seven Seas Cruises, arguably the most inclusive cruise line, always covers airfare and transfers, shore excursions, pre-cruise hotel stays, all beverages (except the most ultra-premium bottles), Wi-Fi, gratuities, dining in all onboard restaurants and laundry service.

Additionally, many cruise lines offer all-inclusive beverage packages or specialty dining packages as add-ons to your cruise fare to make the rate more inclusive. Some lines have inclusion packages that combine a few things. For example, Windstar Cruises charges an extra $79 per person per day ($89 if purchased on board and not pre-cruise) for included Wi-Fi, drinks and tips.

Related: How to get free or cheap drinks on a cruise

If you’re trying to assess the value of a cruise fare, especially as compared with another cruise line or an all-inclusive resort, you’ll need to look at which vacation activities you’ll be doing and tally up your all-in vacation cost. Less-inclusive cruise lines will be cheaper to book initially, but high onboard spending could make the trip cost more than a more-inclusive line with pricier base fares. Or, you may love the idea of included cocktails, wine and beer, but if you don’t drink multiple alcoholic beverages each day, you may find that you’d spend less purchasing drinks a la carte.

All-inclusive resorts: What’s included?

Hotel Zone. Cancun, Quintana Roo, Mexico
Live Aqua Beach Resort Cancun. (Photo by Matthew Wakem/Getty Images)

It’s not just a clever name. The upfront price you pay when you book a stay at an all-inclusive resort is, for the most part, all-inclusive. While there certainly are amenities and experiences you can add to enhance your stay, the price you see when you click “Book Now” is the price you get.

Typically, this means your accommodations, a fully stocked minibar, meals, alcoholic and nonalcoholic beverages, kids club access, nonmotorized water sports and daily entertainment are included in the upfront cost. If you want to visit the spa, have a romantic dinner on the beach or reserve a cabana (with or without bottle service), you’ll have to pay extra.

Related: 8 lessons I learned from my 1st all-inclusive vacation

Among the amenities that are included, you are not relegated to just one bar and dining establishment to frequent during your stay. Most all-inclusive resorts have multiple food and beverage outlets and often shops where you can grab coffee and ice cream as well. You’ll also be treated to entertainment and activities throughout the day and into the evening, and most resorts offer a decent mix of family-friendly and adult-oriented activities.

For example, if you are most interested in an all-inclusive tropical beach escape, Hilton’s all-inclusive properties in Mexico and the Caribbean have a variety of dining options to choose from, as well as multiple pools, fitness facilities, kayaks and paddleboards, daytime games and activities, and live entertainment come nighttime.

If you prefer hitting the slopes to lounging seaside, all-inclusive ski resorts offer a similar pricing structure in a different environment. Accommodations may be in a rustic-style lodge, private cabin or traditional hotel room. While there may be fewer dining options, meals are typically more artfully prepared than at a massive beachfront resort. Activities include skiing and all-terrain-vehicle rides in winter and horseback riding and mountain biking in summer.

Related: Why I loved my 1st all-inclusive hotel experience

What may not be included are gratuities for servers, bartenders, housekeepers and the porter who delivers your luggage to the room. Some brands, like Sandals and Beaches, expressly state that their employees cannot accept tips, but this is not true of every all-inclusive resort. You may be able to find this information on the resort’s website, by reading reviews or by calling ahead to ask so you can be prepared with cash (in the correct currency) for tipping during your trip.

It’s also important to keep in mind that unlike booking a standard hotel room, the cost of your all-inclusive trip will vary based on the number of guests. You must enter the exact number of children and adults to get an accurate price — and yes, we learned this the hard way.

Related: Tips for booking hotel rooms for large families

When choosing whether an all-inclusive resort vacation is the right choice for your budget, you can rest assured that the price you see when you make your reservation will get you a bed to sleep in, meals to eat and plenty to keep you busy during your stay. What you may want to consider is whether you will take advantage of all those included offerings and if the resort you’re interested in has the kind of food, activities and entertainment you’ll enjoy.

Cruises vs. all-inclusive resorts: The travel adviser perspective

To truly compare these two similar-yet-different vacation options, TPG turned to John Lovell, president of Travel Leaders Group. Lovell has more than two decades of experience as a travel industry executive and not only advises others on travel, but is an avid traveler himself.

Related: 4 scenarios when you should use a travel agent

Hilton Rose Hall Resort & Spa in Jamaica. (Photo courtesy of Hilton)

If you are currently in the midst of choosing between a cruise and an all-inclusive vacation, Lovell assured us that both options are “open and honest about what they are going to charge you for.”

While there may be upcharges for Wi-Fi, excursions or fine dining, providers tend to be upfront and transparent about those costs. Hidden costs shouldn’t be an issue, but you do need to do some research prior to your trip so you have a good idea of what’s included in the cost and what may be an add-on.

“If you are going on a seven-day cruise, for example, adding a drink package and excursions at each port can add hundreds of dollars to your budget,” Lovell said. “If you are comparing one cruise line to another, and one claims to be $799 for a week and another is $599 but doesn’t include Wi-Fi or a drink package, the $799 may actually be a better deal.”

Related: 6 ways to get a deal on a cruise

There isn’t as much variance at all-inclusive resorts unless you are partial to top-shelf liquors and beachfront massages.

So which is a better value? The short answer is: “It depends.”

“Both cruising and all-inclusive resorts offer wonderful experiences,” Lovell said. “You can do a budget-friendly cruise and have a wonderful experience and you can do the same thing at an all-inclusive.”

They both offer great experiences, but it really comes down to identifying what you want out of your vacation and finding a cruise or all-inclusive resort that offers it.

“In addition to working with a travel adviser who is an expert on both types of trips, the best thing a consumer can do is decide what they want out of a trip,” Lovell said.

Bottom line

If you are looking for an opportunity to visit multiple destinations without having to pack and unpack at each stop, a cruise vacation may best suit your needs. You’ll need to be OK with some vacation days spent entirely on the ship at sea and smaller accommodations, as cruise cabins tend to be smaller than hotel rooms at similar price points. As mentioned earlier, some lines are more inclusive than others, so you may end up with more additional expenses than at an all-inclusive resort.

If you are looking for a family-friendly beach vacation where you can spend time with your kids but also drop them off at the kids club when you need a little quiet time, an all-inclusive resort may be your best choice. You will need to be fine with multiple days on the same beach (versus visiting different destinations), and you’ll want to be mindful of the fact that you’ll likely need to pay extra if you want to explore beyond the resort’s gates and experience the local culture.

Once you’ve determined your personalized vacation needs, all that’s left to do is to find the cruise or all-inclusive resort that offers what you are looking for and do the math to get the true total cost of your vacation. You’ll be lounging with a drink in hand in no time.

Featured photo courtesy of the All Inclusive Project/Celebrity Cruises.