Seasoned travelers with more than a few all-inclusive stays under their belt know that quality can vary from resort to resort. Take Punta Cana, a gorgeous stretch of prime beaches and plenty of all-inclusive properties, for example. While many of the resorts here have similar concepts and designs, differences tend to sneak up that may not be communicated during the booking process. And the bigger the resort, the harder it may be to snag a staff member to chat with, especially with substantial lines at the front desk. That’s why the check-in process is the best opportunity to get things straight. Here are six things to ask for at the very onset of your vacation.
1. Do we need to make reservations for the restaurants (and is there a dress code?)
Nothing is more frustrating than being told you can't get a table at an all-inclusive resort's restaurant because you don't have a reservation. Many high-end resorts like Excellence Playa Mujeres, which features nine gourmet restaurants, don't require dinner reservations, but not all operate the same way. Some resorts not only make reservations mandatory, but demand a strict morning time for bookings; at other resorts, you'll need to book on arrival or even occasionally in advance of your stay. Even worse, there may be a limit to how many reservations you can have per stay, leaving you with no other option than to hit the buffet on many nights. On the bright side, some resorts may assign butler service to assist with the reservation process. This is why it's best to get the scoop early on. And while on the topic, ask if there's a dress code, too. It's also worth checking if any of the a la carte restaurants incur extra fees; in some cases, there may be a charge just to dine at the restaurant, while other a la cartes may charge extra for certain drinks or dishes, such as nice wines and lobster.
2. What’s the entertainment schedule?
Getting a schedule of the resort's nightlife and entertainment options when checking in isn't always a guarantee. If this is a key part of your experience, ask the front desk for a rundown of what's happening that week. It also doesn't hurt to ask their opinion on what the best shows are. Most of the big family-friendly resorts have large theaters with several shows daily -- some are geared towards kids and others are for adults. Theaters often feature a bar where attendees can also order drinks. Shows can evolve into live music at the casino or an all-night disco blaring dance tunes. Entertainment might also fall into the romantic category. For example, at Sandals Royal Bahamian, guests can sip wine by an outdoor fire and listen to live jazz or sidle up to the piano bar for late-night sing-alongs.
3. Which water sports and day trips are included?
Most mid-range tropical all-inclusive resorts will include non-motorized water sports (think kayaking, stand-up paddleboarding, and snorkeling) with the rate. Some, however, still charge an obnoxious fee or require strict time limits to an hour per day, or worse, per week. Then there are upscale properties, like the five-villa Tadrai Island Resort, which offer a number of free activities. At check-in, guests find out they can snorkel in the outer reef, kayak, use the Hobie catamarans, or request boating excursions to nearby islands (all included). Those interested in scuba diving can schedule private half-day charters and take PADI learn to dive courses. Advanced surfers can also request a boat charter to famous spots in a nearby reef called Cloudbreak and Restaurants.
4. What’s the tipping policy?
Not only is this a key area of difference between cultures, it's also an area of variance between resorts. Some all-inclusives automatically add a 10 percent (or more) service charge with the rate, so ask the front desk while checking in. Unfortunately, many of the folks who work at these resorts are paid a very low wage and depend on tips for income. When traveling internationally, exchange cash for the local currency beforehand (though admittedly, most will happily accept USD). If service is not included -- or if the resort doesn't have a tipping policy -- offer gratuity the same way you would anywhere else (15 to 20 percent). Even though tips are ostensibly covered at many all-inclusive resorts, it's usually a good idea to tip anyway -- the staff will appreciate it. Though note that at some resorts, such as the Sandals Ochi Beach Resort, staffers are not allowed to take tips, except for the butlers. Most Americans who know the all-inclusive drill will bring a wad of one-dollar bills to dole out to bartenders, servers, porters, and housekeepers.
5. Are minibar items and room service free?
It's worth asking. At the very least, many rooms have free bottled water. Some even offer full minibar access with free soda, beer, and snacks; coffeemakers are also provided. Spain-based Riu resorts offer trademark liquor dispensers and 24-hour room service (both free). At Secrets Puerto Los Cabos Golf & Spa Resort, rooms come with menus starring lobster and steak as well as a built-in room service box and special exterior "Do Not Disturb" light setting for the utmost privacy. Drinks can also be ordered through room service, but there's no bottle service, so some guests may end up ordering several glasses at a time.
6. Is there an upgrade option?
Depending on the resort, availability, and time of year, an upgrade can be obtained for a nominal fee. Find out from the front desk what the options and benefits are of moving up. For instance, at Paradisus Palma Real in Punta Cana, the adult-only Royal Service suites come with whirlpools and access to special areas of the resort, including a private pool and beach as well as an upscale lounge with cocktails, canapes, and gorgeous views. Guests also get access to other restaurants, like Palazzo, that aren't offered to everyone. The upgrade option is especially a good idea for those who want to feel a bit more like a VIP and stay clear of the kiddos.