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Finding Bargains At Lesser-Known All-Inclusive Resorts
Finding Bargains At Lesser-Known All-Inclusive Resorts
No matter whether it's a bear or bull market, all-inclusive resorts will continue to be a good value for active family vacations in the Caribbean, Atlantic and Mexico.
Due to the vagaries of the economy, competition from cruise companies, and the negative impressions left by hurricanes, medical alerts and erratic Homeland Security measures, the Caribbean resort industry has been making concerted efforts to woo new clients and lure back past guests. You've probably noticed that in recent years families have been bombarded with all sorts of value vacation offers, including free meals, room upgrades and additional perks.
Posh, exclusive places from Cancun to St. Bart's may add in meals and complimentary excursions while room rates remain firm; others throw in free airfare for those who book seven nights. Yet the notion of "one price pays all" that is at the heart of an all-inclusive vacation remains one of the most popular options for families, even if it's at an upscale resort.
No matter whether it's a bear or bull market, all-inclusive resorts will continue to be a good value for very active families who like to participate, those who love to eat and drink, and any parent who's looking for a no-brainer, easy vacation getaway.
Everyone Likes to Pay Once & Put Wallets Away
For these reasons, FTF has seen growth in the all-inclusive concept (room, meals, airport transfer, activities, kids' programs for one set price), with a spread from the Caribbean and eastern Mexico to the Pacific coast and some foreign isles. (Hawaii and Florida are two areas that have resisted these programs.) We've also seen that many properties have been selling off rooms in a timeshare scheme to raise cash quickly. While that can make a stay in the hotel part of the resort uncomfortable for families who don't want to sit through a sales pitch, others may want to trade some of their vacation time for the free day trips and other perks that accompany these offers.
Then there are the familiar all-inclusive brand names who advertise heavily in the U.S. market: Sandals, who own Beaches Family Resorts; Superclubs, who own Breezes family resorts; the Spanish-owned chains Iberostar; Barcelo with resorts at several price points; Club Med, and a few others who cater to families with children, among a clientele that includes couples, honeymooners and retirees.
If you're looking to save, however, we recommend you check out some of the lesser-known resort companies that have extensive facilities and tons of activities -- for "one price pays all" of course. Typically, rates tend to be a little higher from the end of December to mid-April; otherwise they fluctuate according to demand and you can find great specials on each company's website.
Having been through the economic challenges of 2009, we've seen a reduction in the number of properties out there. However, those resorts that have remained open are working extra-hard to attract families. On the following pages we'll review some of the company's we've had our eye on.
Sol Melia Hotels
Sol Melià (888/95-MELIA), our editor's favorite pick, is the third largest chain in Europe and the twelfth largest in the world. Founded in Palma de Mallorca, Spain in 1956, there are now more than 300 hotels in 30 countries on 4 continents and the company has a workforce in excess of 35,000 employees. Among the Sol Melià brands are some names you may recognize: the fancy Gran Meliá resorts, Meliá Hotels & Resorts, ME by Meliá for a hip, design-conscious urban crowd, Innside, the budget Tryp Hotels, Sol Hotels, the full service Paradisus Resorts, and Sol Meliá Vacation Club for home-owners. (Tour the FTF site for firsthand reviews of some of these.)
While their Paradisus brand offers luxurious five-star all-inclusive accommodations, the Melia brand all-inclusive is geared toward families offering specially designed family rooms, kids clubs, teen activities and nightly family entertainment. As of 2010, there are 15 special Flintstones Resorts across the various brands (11 in Spain, 3 in Mexico and 1 in the Dominican Republic) that have a kid's club for children ages 4 months to 13-years that's themed to The Flintstones cartoon (los Pica Piedras in Spanish). Talk about cute: the Roca areas of these hotels have a Baby Rock Club available for guests with children from 6 months to 4 years of age, where they can nap or play like little stone-age babies. Bam Bam Club is ages 5 to 8. The Bronto Breakfast and Bronto Burger gives children a chance to have fun with Fred as they have breakfast accompanied by entertainment in a location specially decorated for the occasion. Similarly, the Betty’s Kitchen is a themed area in the buffet restaurant with special stone-age plates, table cloth, napkins and more. These resorts also have special activities, as part of Roca Adventure, where a climbing wall, zip wire, super jumper, and Tibetan rope bridges make for active fun. Note that a few of these activities also have an extra cost.
The Sol brand chain has many family amenities too, including age-appropriate kids clubs, and a guaranteed free stay with half-board (2 meals per day) for one child 2 to 11 years of age staying in the same room as two adults. The kids' clubs are Club 4 (0 to 4 years of age); Club 8 (5 to 8 years); Miniclub (5 to 12); Club 13 (9 to 13) and Club 17 for young adults. The budget Tryp Hotels have special family rooms with bunk beds, a Baby kit for child-proofing, bottle warmer, children’s toothbrush and welcome gift for the kids. Some properties also have family apartments with one or two bedrooms and kitchen.
AMHSA Marina Hotels &Resorts
AMHSA Marina Hotels and Resorts (809/562-7475) is a group of small, moderately priced all-inclusives in the Dominican Republic, in such popular tourist spots as Puerto Plata. Grand Paradise Bavaro is located at Carretera Higuey - Macao, Playa Arena Gorda, Macao on the beautiful beach at Bavaro (near Punta Cana). Its compact layout makes it good for families with younger kids, and its casino adds some nightlife that appeals to others. This is considered their top hotel.
The AMHSA Grand Paradise Playa Dorada, located about a half-hour from the International Airport of Puerto Plata, was totally renovated in 2008 but all properties are well maintained. In addition to a free 1/2-hour scuba lesson in the pool, the AMHSA resorts have a Kiko's Kids club catering to ages 5-12 that's manned by a very lively, multilingual staff. The Grand Paradise Samana resort offers the most eco-adventure activities. Casa Marina Beach is located in Sosúa, 10 minutes from the Puerto Plata International Airport and 25 minutes from the Puerto Plata town. Like the Bavaro, it's on a very pretty gold sand beach. Adjacent to it is the Casa Marina Reef, an unusual property that's built upon a reef. They've taken otherwise value-less real estate and made it into a natural sun deck that gives it a more environmentally-friendly waterfront setting. This hotel has the lowest rates though seasonal specials occur at all.
More of our Favorite All-Inclusive Resorts
Club Valtur is Italy's version of Club Med, and a leader with European families. Their worldwide resorts, including a dozen ski and summer resorts and 6 more in exotic beach locations around the Middle East and Africa, can be booked by some tour operators in the USA or directly through their website. (Tour the FTF site for firsthand reviews of some of these.) Valtur is known for great food and a European flair, besides top values. Club Valtur's children's program, Valturland, offers entertainment for children age 0-16, though only some resorts offer the nursery. Just as Club Med leans towards the French, Valtur favors the all-Italian (plus other nationalities) in their staffing, making for a warm and fun environment.
Allegro Resorts (800/858-2258) is the more moderately priced division of Occidental Hotels & Resorts, whose 13 resorts also comprise the Royal Hideaway, Occidental Grand and Occidental resort chains. There are six budget priced Allegros in Mexico, Dominican Republic and Costa Rica, and each provides an action-packed beachfront getaway where families can do a lot or a little, eat a lot or a little, and get a very good deal. (Tour the FTF site for first-hand reviews of some of these.) Allegros have a loyal following among grandparents, and their kids' clubs generally accept children ages 2-12.
The Italian-owned company Viva Resorts (877/999-3223), also known as Viva Wyndham, has two properties in Mexico (both on the Riviera Maya), five in the Dominican Republic (one in Cabarete, one in Samaná, two in La Romana and the newest one in Puerto Plata), and one on Grand Bahama Island. (Tour the FTF site for first-hand reviews of some of these.) The top value resorts offer a Kid's Club where 4 to 12-year-olds can enjoy the beach and such activities as face-painting, games and meeting Vivito, Viva's alligator host. Their motto? "Viva las Vacations."
The Divi Resorts group operates eight properties in Barbados, Bonaire, St. Croix and St. Maarten, and their Aruba resort, the Tamarijn Aruba, was awarded "FTF's Top 10 Cheap Getaways" award for 2008. You can find out more and book them at 800/367-3484 if you're inquiring about the Aruba, Barbados, Bonaire, or St. Maarten resorts, or try 877/773-9700 for more infromation about the St. Croix-Divi Carina Bay Beach Resort & Casino. These are bargain all-inclusives in good locations, and each has amenities that cater to adults and children of all ages. One of the Tamarijn Aruba perks is their year-round Family Package, which allows up to two children under 18 to stay for free when sharing a room with two paying adults. Parents can also arrange to have up to four kids under 18 stay in a room to themselves at a discounted rate.
Riu Hotels & Resorts (888/RIU-4990) is another large Spanish company focused on beach holidays that's well known in Europe, less so in the States. It was founded in 1953 with the Riu family's small hotel in Mallorca, Spain and for 2010, has more than a 100 establishments in 17 countries. More than 50% of its resorts offer an all-inclusive formula, in partnership with the huge German tour operator TUI. While it's not considered cheap at all, we like Riu because at most of their destinations, several large resorts are clustered together to provide an enormous range of facilities. The full featured Grand Palace and Palace brands are side by side with other properties, including the Classic resorts and the modestly priced Clubhotel brand, which is usually set back from the beach, therefore has lower rates. Eighteen of these resorts specialize in welcoming families.
No matter, guests at any of their properties can use facilities at all, so that's why we advocate taking a closer look at the least expensive rooms available. We've found that the least expensive option at the best resort usually beats out the most deluxe offering at a cheap place. There are RIUs in locations around the world (see FTF reviews of some Mexico properties) including the Caribbean, Canary Islands, Europe and Africa; several have supervised Mini Clubs for young kids to enjoy special meals and organized activities.
Make Your Own All-Inclusive with Optional Packages
The families who benefit most from all-inclusive resorts are those who are very active (like to participate in every sport, lesson or activity and want variety), very hungry (want 24/7 access to buffets and snacks) or drink a lot (enjoy access to an open bar from dawn to dawn). Keep in mind that hotels and resorts that offer all meals and activities bundled together in the room price are more expensive than just booking a hotel room, and may make available more food, drink and recreation than your family can consume.
Consider saving money on your next vacation by creating your own "all-inclusive" package at a resort hotel in a great destination. Just charge everything to your room and don't worry about a la carte pricing. When you go to check out, you may well find that this has been the best value-for-money for the less active family.
Among the luxury hotels, the following have solid children's programs (usually for a fee), and seasonal meal plans where one or two daily meals (not beverages) or free meals for kids are included in room rates. At some of these resorts, an all-inclusive option covering everything is available during peak periods:
-- Four Seasons (800/819-5053) - free children's program year round
-- Ritz Carlton (800/241-3333) - free children's program year round
-- Hyatt Regency (888/591-1234)
-- Westin (800/937-8461)
-- Sonesta (800/SONESTA)
Among the moderate-priced chains, the following have school-holiday children's programs in many resort areas, often with a choice of meal plans, alcohol or activity voucher programs, or fully all-inclusive options available during certain seasons:
Holiday Inn Sunspree Resorts (800/315-2621) has 13 resorts around the US and in Aruba, Mexico, Jamaica and Whistler, Canada. The KidSpree Activities program offers free hands-on activities, crafts, and themed programs; Dive-Inn Movies by the pool in summer, and a KidSpree Lending Library for families to use. Not all activities are supervised so there are lots of options to do things together. Alternatively, many resorts have a paid, supervised Parents Night Out program for adults to have time alone in the evenings.
Created in 1983, Embassy Suites (800/315-2621) are great all-suite hotels run by Hilton that always welcome families with lots of space and sofabeds. They have more than 190 locations in the US, Canada and Latin America (several reviewed by FTF reporters), each promising complimentary cooked-to-order breakfast, a fun Manager's Reception weekly at sundown and open-air atriums to hang out in. There are several resort locations -- many with supervised kids clubs during holidays -- plus a fun kids website where kids can try games and make plans for their upcoming vacation.