While both cruises and all-inclusive resort vacations should ideally be experienced at least once in a lifetime, there are some things you need to know about both.
First things first: neither of these options require much planning upfront, and this is the draw for many people when this is compared to other vacation options that are not necessarily packaged, or all-inclusive.
Cruises tend to be cheaper – at least upon first glance, because this also means you’ll get less in return. Cruises are notorious for hidden fees that can spiral out of control. While it may initially be cheaper to get a cruise ticket, specialty restaurants, tips and certain drinks tend to cost extra.
Cruises are more or less floating hotels. Many people love them for the fact that they’re able to visit more than one country in a short space of time. The drawback is that not much time is spent in any of these destinations, as would be the case with an all-inclusive resort vacation, which allows you time to get better acquainted with a specific place.
If you love to spend your days on the beach and enjoy water sports, all-inclusive resorts are often the better option. Any beach nearby a cruise port will be packed at the time the ships dock. Besides, at an all-inclusive resort you don't have to worry about getting back onboard in time.
Picture: Beaches Turks & Caicos, an extravagant all-inclusive resort for the whole family.
It’s easier to maintain a more relaxed schedule at an all-inclusive resort, as opposed to cruises which often have a strict schedule which they need to stick to in order to get to the various ports on time.
One of the biggest differences between cruises and all-inclusive resorts, however, is that there’s simply more space on land. That means all-inclusive resorts can offer a wider scale of amenities and often feel less cramped.
It’s not uncommon for a cruise ship to come with a swimming pool with a couple of slides, but is it a 45,000 square feet water park with a lazy river, water cannons, 11 water slides, swim-up bars, ice cream machines and a surf simulator? Unlikely.
If you’re stuck trying to decide which of these options is best for your long-awaited vacation, you’ll find a more in-depth break down of the cruise vs all-inclusive resort decision factors underneath:
In this article on the Beaches Blog:
Cruises as opposed to all-inclusive resort vacations don’t necessarily require that you pay to get to your destination via flight – unless of course you live nowhere near one of the select port cities that cruises depart from. The lucky few who do live in a city with a cruise terminal will be able to save money in this area, but generally, most people will have to catch a domestic flight to get there. Flights can make your overall vacation more expensive, especially if travelling in a group. Therefore, this is something worth factoring into your decision.
All-inclusive resorts more than likely will require an international flight to get there. Luckily you don’t have to fly far. Many travelers from the U.S. choose to vacation in the Caribbean, where paradise awaits within a two-hour flight from U.S. shores. The beautiful palm fringed beaches of The Bahamas, Jamaica, Saint Lucia, Barbados and Turks & Caicos are just around the corner. Fortunately, airport transfers are often included in the all-inclusive package.
Verdict on transportation: Although it only takes a couple of hours to fly from the U.S. to the Caribbean, cruise wins. Cruise vacations often don’t require an international flight and might even be on driving distance if you’re living near one of the port cities.
When it comes to the size of your accommodation on a cruise ship, one thing is certain: if you’re expecting a luxury cabin without shelling out top Dollar, you might as well stay at home. Regular cabins are just about 150 - 250 square feet and are definitely not for the claustrophobic. Many of the more affordable cabins are ‘inside cabins’ with no window to the outside.
While waking up at the sounds of the Caribbean Sea should definitely have you worried on a cruise ship, on land your suite will likely have large windows to let in the natural light and a balcony with an amazing view over a white sand beach and turquoise waters.
As resort suites are generally larger than cruise cabins, you can expect spa-style bathrooms, more than enough space to stow your luggage, and perhaps even a private plunge pool.
Now that’s waking up in style!
Picture: Beachfront Prime Minister Butler Suite with Private Pool at Sandals Royal Barbados. Wake up to a seabreeze and have a coffee on your patio, looking out over the beach.
Verdict on suite / cabin: Although cruise ships tend to offer some luxurious suites, all-inclusive resorts come out on top in this area. On land there’s simply more space to provide an intimate vacation experience that starts within the room itself. The view of a beachfront suite is hard to beat and tends to be a lot more interesting than endless ocean water.
If you’re looking for a cruise where you’ll be able to eat and drink as much as you want without having to pay extra fees, you’ll have to read the fine print carefully. This doesn’t tend to be the norm for cruise, which means you’ll likely pay extra for things like alcohol, and sometimes even soda and juice. Food is often not at its freshest, especially on longer cruises. The fact that there’s limited space translates to the number of menu-items available at any given time, which isn’t usually as wide of a variety as that of all-inclusive resorts.
Did you know that 96% of all ingredients used for the dishes at Sandals Resorts in Jamaica are freshly sourced from a local farm and on your plate within 24 hours? Not only do all-inclusive resorts often work together with the local communities, but the food also tends to be as fresh as it gets - and you can taste the difference.
Besides freshness, all-inclusive resorts also tend to offer a wider variety of dishes at any given time. At Sandals and Beaches Resorts you can eat as much as want, whenever you want. It’s always included, always unlimited. Three deserts? No problem. Want to have the lobster AND the steak? It’s all included. Now that is all-inclusive!
Expert tip: Stay at Sandals Montego Bay or Sandals Royal Caribbean and you’ll get access to both all-inclusive resorts in Jamaica, including all amenities and restaurants (21 restaurants in total, serving a wide variety of cuisines). The resorts are located on a 5-minute drive from each other, transfers included.
Picture: Soy sushi restaurant at Sandals Montego Bay. One of the 12 restaurants at this property. The best news: food and drinks are always included, always unlimited.
Verdict on food and drinks: Serving food in the middle of the ocean has its limitations. All-inclusive resorts tend to have a wider variety of restaurants and dishes on offer. At all-inclusive resorts the ingredients used are often sourced locally and fresh. This means there is a shorter time between harvest and consumption: a difference you’ll taste.
There’s a limited amount of activities available on cruise ships, and even limits on the number of people who can partake at any one time. As cruise ships are quite compact, in order to ensure everyone gets time to do everything, you may find yourself operating on a rigid schedule. Additionally, many activities come at an added cost to lower demand. If enjoying your vacation freely without restrictions is what you’re after, a cruise may not be ideal for you.
If you love to spend time in the water on your vacation, all-inclusive resorts tend to offer a wide variety of water sports. From stand-up paddleboards to kayaks, from Hobie Cats to waterskiing; you’ll be able to enjoy these activities and more, for free, anytime during the day.
Rather sip on a Piña Colada while floating down a lazy river? The water parks on board a cruise ship often can’t compete with the expansive water parks offered by all-inclusive resorts.
Although cruise ships might offer a limited amount of land sports, they’ll often have to be booked in advance. At all-inclusive resorts you’ll be able to join other guests on the beach volleyball, basketball and tennis courts whenever you feel like getting active.
Do you love to play a few rounds of golf while in the Caribbean? You’ll even be able to find all-inclusive resorts that include green fees!
Sandals includes some of the most challenging and prestigious golf courses in Jamaica, Saint Lucia and The Bahamas.
Insider tip: PADI® certified guests staying at any Sandals or Beaches Resort will be able to join free scuba diving trips (max. two tanks a day), including professional equipment. Not PADI® certified yet? Get certified at the resort at an additional cost and dive the rest of your vacation for free.
Verdict on activities and entertainment: Although cruise ships are getting bigger these days, good luck fitting an 18-hole Championship golf course on deck! A cruise that includes kayaking, waterskiing, stand-up paddleboards, and free snorkeling and scuba diving trips? Unlikely! All-inclusive resorts simply have more space to offer their guests a wide variety of free activities.
The costs can sneak up on you while you’re on a cruise, especially if you’re travelling in a group. On most cruises, even once you’ve paid for your vacation, you’ll often still need to pay for things like alcoholic drinks, tips, WiFi and activities, which can add up. Many people get caught in the trap of having to exceed their budget because the attractive upfront costs tend to be way less than the price, they actually end up paying.
Although all-inclusive resorts tend to rely less on upselling their guests than cruise ships, not every all-inclusive resort is equal. Make sure to find out upfront what is included in the booking price, and what is not. If a deal sounds too good to be true, it often is.
Picture: Although Sandals and Beaches Resorts have a no-tipping policy (with exception of their private butler service), this can be one of those costs that are not included at an all-inclusive resort.
Verdict on hidden fees: Whether you book a cruise or an all-inclusive resort, you’ll have to read the fine print to make sure everything is truly included. However, especially cruises are known to make their money by selling upgrades left, right and center. If the website is not giving you this information, it’s best to reach out to customer service and ask them the following questions before booking:
Crowds are something you can’t really avoid when travelling on a cruise ship – especially when getting off at the various ports. If you don’t mind crowds, this might not bother you too much, but it can definitely be time consuming to have to wait on lines everywhere you go. While cruise ships are stunning and seem grandiose from the outside, they don’t seem as big on the inside, and you’ll be aware of this just as soon as everyone starts milling about.
All-inclusive resorts give you a bit more breathing room than cruises, as most resorts are more spacious with less guests crammed into common areas. While you’re staying at an all-inclusive resort you can choose which days you want to venture out to do certain things by planning around the schedule of cruise ships to avoid crowds. If you book your tours on days when there aren’t any cruise ships docked, you’re more likely to have a mellow experience with less people.
Picture: Beaches Turks & Caicos, five all-inclusive resorts in one. Although cruise ships are getting bigger and bigger, there's simply more space available per guest at an all-inclusive resort.
Verdict on crowds: All-inclusive resorts come out on top. There is simply more square foot per vacationer and everyone’s schedule is not aligned to docking times.
Travelling on a cruise can be a bit frantic, you don’t want to be one of those guests that almost missed the boat due to traffic congestion! As much as the purpose of the cruise itself is relaxation, the fact that everything is on a schedule doesn’t contribute to this. So much so that many ‘cruisers’ don’t even try to make the most of their destinations once they arrive – they simply find a nice beach near the port until it’s time to pack up and leave.
There’s enough to worry about when you’re not on vacation, if you truly want to recharge the batteries, an all-inclusive resort is the way to go. Everything is taken care of, and you can do as much or as little as you want at any time of the day (or night). Now that is relaxation!
Verdict on relaxation: If you don’t want to feel like living on a schedule during your vacation, all-inclusive resorts are the better option. You won’t have to worry about getting back to a cruise ship in time, your suite will be where you left it – even if you made it a bit later than expected (due to having a good time).
You won’t get many other vacation types where you’re able to explore so much in a short space of time. This is one area where cruise ship vacations stand out, and travelers who go the cruise ship way often share that this is the best way to have several trips in one. If you’re willing to sacrifice intimacy in getting to know each destination, for quantity, you’ll be quite happy on a cruise.
Staying at an all-inclusive resort means you’ll be spending your time in one destination, but it doesn’t have to mean you can’t enjoy a wide range of experiences. At an all-inclusive resort your schedule will be flexible, and you can do what you feel like for that day.
One day you’ll just want to lounge on the beach, drinking unlimited free cocktails, another day you’ll want to explore the surrounding landmarks - it’s all up to you.
At an all-inclusive resort you’ll have more time to get to know your surroundings and experience the local culture, and you don’t have to rush from one attraction to another to ‘see it all’.
Picture: Beaches Negril on Seven Mile Beach in Jamaica. Spend your days on the beach, without ever having to worry about a schedule.
Three in one. If you’d like to take your time experiencing your destination, but at the same time want to get three vacations for the price of one, try out any of the three Sandals Resorts in Saint Lucia. Guests of one Sandals Resort in Saint Lucia, automatically get access to all amenities and restaurants (27 in total!) of the other two Sandals Resorts. This includes free transportation in between the resorts and two golf courses.
Verdict on destinations: If you are looking to visit many different places in a short time span, a cruise is for you. It’s a great way to get to know a little bit about everything. If you don’t like to rush around amidst peak hour every time you arrive somewhere, you might enjoy an all-inclusive resort at one fixed location better. This gives you plenty of time to indulge in the local experience and get to know your whereabouts.
It has long been reported that cruises have a severe impact on the environment, dumping tons of waste into the ocean. Even some of the cruise ships which promote themselves as being environmentally friendly are known to pollute the ocean and air. The amount of sulfur dioxide generated by cruise ships in one day equates to the same that it would take for more than 13,000,000 cars to generate!
Added to that, cruise tourism generates minimum income for local economies and is known to pay low wages in exchange for hard work.
Unlike cruise lines, all-inclusive resorts can’t simply switch destination. They’ll have to live in symbiosis with the local community and environment. All-inclusive resorts tend to contribute significantly to local employment and the economy in general.
To keep the destination clean and attractive for travelers, resorts often invest heavily in protecting coral reefs and national parks. Although not every resort is eco-friendly, they tend to be a lot better for the environment than cruise ships!
Verdict on the impact on the environment: Although not all all-inclusive resorts are making a significant investment to lower their impact on the environment, all-inclusive resorts win in this category by a mile. Even the most 'environmentally-friendly’ cruise ships are horrible polluters of the ocean and air. All-inclusive resorts often invest in the countries they are located and help protect and grow the local environment and economy.
If you’re generally an anxious person, you may not find it easy to get onto a floating vessel bound for the far reaches of the ocean, with no hospital and law enforcement in sight.
Although most cruises take a zero-tolerance approach to onboard crime, cruise ships are still the best places to commit serious crime and get away with it, as has been observed in some news headlines over the years.
Once you’re checked into your resort, you can socialize as much or as little as you choose, and you’ll feel more in control of your space and your safety. All-inclusive resorts tend to be sectioned off from the public and have private 24/7 security. Most all-inclusive resort companies have built close connections with law enforcement, embassies and governments in the respective territories where they are located, which helps to keep things running smoothly.
Your kids will be safe to roam around the resort grounds, which are closed off from public access. This photo was taken at Beaches Resorts, where Sesame Street characters make sure your kids are not bored for a moment!
Verdict on safety: All-inclusive resorts tend to come out on top when it comes to safety. Incidents happen on both cruise ships and at resorts (as at any other place for that matter), but being on land and having direct access to local law enforcement and hospitals certainly helps.
If you’re on a budget and looking for a quick trip where you can catch a glimpse of some of the places you’ve always wanted to see in the timespan of a week or two, go for a cruise. Keep in mind that cruise ships in general have limited space and this certainly affects the size of the suites, the number of activities and the variation in restaurants.
If you’re looking for a more relaxing beach vacation that doesn’t run on a tight schedule, settle for an all-inclusive resort - you won’t regret it. Expect more space for privacy, more freedom to do as you please and more quality inclusions
Taking all of these, and environmental considerations into account, all-inclusive resorts are often the better option if you can afford to stay at one.
Wake up at the sound of the ocean and enjoy a cup of coffee on your very own patio looking out over a Caribbean beach being caressed by calm turquoise waters… it’ll beat the view of endless water every time!