Two of the most popular vacation options, a cruise and an all-inclusive resort, have many characteristics in common, but several key factors distinguish the two from each-other. Here at Cruise Talk we thought we’d take a look at the features of each and talk about the advantages and disadvantages of both options. I have always enjoyed the sea and the overall experience of a cruise, but for many people who either don’t like the open waters or prefer an immersive beach experience, an all inclusive resort can be a fantastic vacation choice.
Depending on the cruise line or quality level of a resort, cruises and all-incluive resorts can compare favorably in price. It all comes down to quality and value. Certain lines and cruise ships can be more expensive than the moderate all inclusive, and certain cruise itineraries and cabins can figure in less expensively than an all inclusive. Here are a few examples, our upcoming cruise on Celebrity for 7 days will probably cost around 6000 total for the entire cruise for a family of 4. This is during spring break on a traditional Caribbean itinerary. A similar week at Club Med Sand Piper in Florida, costs about 4200 for a family of 4. However, I know people who have taken a two week trans Atlantic cruise on for less than $2500 total including drinks, tips and modest excursions, when they used airline miles to fly to Europe and home from Florida, and booked the least expensive inside cabin. By contrast a week for a family of 4 at the most expensive Beaches property in Turks and Caicos can cost upwards of $10,000 when booking some of the nicest ocean front rooms and when air is factored into the costs. There are all-inclusive resorts for nearly every budget and cruises for nearly every budget, so it can be difficult to make the apples to apples comparison on price, but since there are so many options in either category, I would put them on equal footing when it comes to price. Others argue that for the same price, a cruise generally would offer a better value when factoring in all of the factors listed below.
Amenities and Entertainment
Probably, the cruise ships win out when it comes to amenities and entertainment when comparing the newest cruise ships to even the most elaborate resorts. The cruise ships features Broadway style theaters with production or even actual Broadway shows, ice shows, cirque shows, comedy shows, pool side movies, pools, water slides, surf simulators, rock climbing walls, mini-golf, and even zip lines. The all inclusive land resorts have many of the same features like pools, water slides, comedy shows, pool side movies, and cirque shows. However, when you factor in the amenities that are available on private islands and excursions in different ports, the cruise ships have the advantage. At inclusive resorts the entertainment tends to be more participatory and intimate with local cultural shows and small musical ensembles. These shows are fun and entertaining but in no way take on the scale of of the large productions on the large cruise ships.
Dining is very subjective. Certainly there is no shortage of food on either an all inclusive or a cruise ships, and the quality certainly can vary from cruise line to cruise line and even ship to ship. The same can be said for the all-inclusives. The key is that the consumer should do some research about the types and quality of the food offered. A knowledgeable travel agent may be able to give some guidance and online reviews are another good source in helping consumers to determine the quality to expect when deciding between the two options. Pictures of the food posted by other travelers also provides some good insight into the level of attention to detail given to the preparation and presentation of the food. Some of the all-inclusive resorts with the highest rated food include Grand Velas Resort Riviera Maya (Riviera Maya, Mexico), Azul Beach Hotel, by Karisma (Riviera Maya, Mexico), Beaches Turks & Caicos Resort Villages & Spa (Turks & Caicos), and the Sandals resorts. Even Club Med, know for their all you can eat buffet in exotic locations like Ixtapa or close to home in Sand Piper, Florida, scores well in terms of the variety and freshness of the food. In the cruising world lines like Celebrity, Royal Caribbean, and Holland America rate high with customers for their foods. More luxurious lines like Oceania, Paul Gaugin, Azamara, Regent and Crystal score even higher with their customers.
Cruise lines are known for their outstanding service. The service in many of the all inclusive resorts matches this level. Both types of vacations take their guests away from the tedium of every day by freeing them from having to cook, wash dishes, make beds, fold towels, shop for groceries or clean toilets. Cruise lines by reputation have a slight advantage in this area. They generally hire the best and most experienced service people for their waiters and housekeeping staff. Many require at least two years working on a land based resort or hotel before perspective employees are eligible for hire. The tipping system employed by most cruise lines may provide more motivation for their workers to provide exceptional service. Waiters on the cruise ship really work hard to provide prompt and attentive service. Bar waiters on a cruise ship earn a 15% or more gratuity for every drink they serve their passengers on a contemporary line or premium line. So they are motivated to provide prompt anticipatory service so they can get that tip as often as possible. Finally, cruise ships tend to emphasize full service dining with the buffet areas complementing that service. By contrast, an all inclusive, like Club Med, offers many more choices and options in their international marketplace buffet, complemented by the full service dining available at by reservation at some of their resorts.
Children’s Programs and Baby Sitting
For children 3 and over who are potty trained, the cruise line children’s programs and all inclusive resort children’s programs are also on even footing. Both often have themed play areas and tie-ins to familiar children’s characters. Royal Caribbean has Dream Works Characters, Norwegian has Dora the Explorer and Nickelodeon Characters, and Disney, of course, has the Disney Characters. On land, Beaches, the family friendly sister brand of the Sandals chain, features the Sesame Street characters, and Melia resorts have the Flintstones characters. Club Med has the internationally known Raggs characters for their kids clubs. Cruise lines and land based resorts both have age tiered and age appropriate programs with trained care takers. Both vacation option providers recognize the value of providing parents with a safe fun option for their children so that the parents can enjoy some quiet and relaxation time. Deluxe and Luxury lines, which do not cater to families, usually do not have any children’s programs or only provide a program on sailings where the number of children meets or exceeds a minimum number.
In general, the cruise lines do not provide much in the way of infant care or babysitting. Disney is the one exception and will provide infant care during most day and evening hours at a fee of $6 an hour. Carnival does provide some options for those under two from 8am to 10am, from 10pm to 3am, and sometimes on port days. They will take children two and over into camp Carnival. Celebrity and Royal Caribbean provide babysitting for children 1 year and older at $19 an hour in addition to their included programs for ages 3 and older. However they do not provide any babysitting for infants under the age of 12 months. Royal Caribbean and Celebrity both offer a play area for babies but parents or a responsible person must stay with them in the area. Norwegian provides no services for children under two. MSC will offer some babysitting but it is on an individual contract basis with their children’s program providers and not covered under any formal program or policy. Holland America similarly provides baby sitters for babies over the age of 12 months for a fee, as 12 months is also their minimum sailing age.
To the delight of families with babies, many all-inclusive resorts do offer nannies and infant care at many of their locations. Beaches resorts offers certified nannies at all their resorts. These care givers must pass an extensive training course before they can work at the resort. Club Med also offers babies an toddler care at many of their resorts that features the Baby Club Med for 4-23 months and Petit Club med for 2-3 years olds. These programs provide trained care givers to watch over the little ones while they are napping or playing, giving parents the opportunity to enjoy the beach, pool, or other activities. At some of their locations, Melia resorts also offer baby care for those babies 4 months and older and evening baby sitting either in room or at their facility for an hourly fee of around $15 an hour. For families that want to enjoy both family time and grown up time, an all inclusive with infant and toddler care can be one of the most affordable and enjoyable options.
Change of Scenery
Perhaps the area where a cruise will always beat a land based all-inclusive resorts is that a cruise ship transports their guests from one place to another. Granted, cruise ship mobility can be subject to mechanical problems or collisions, but that mobility still gives them some distinct advantages over a fixed resort. The mobility also offers flexibility in cases of a weather, natural disasters, or political changes. If a land resort is threatened by a hurricane, volcano, or political violence, travelers would have to cancel their entire vacation. If a cruise destination has any of those problem, a ship can simply change itineraries and allow passengers to keep their vacation experience, just in a different location. The mobility also allows passengers to visit multiple locations that are long distances apart on the same cruise. Our first trans-Atlantic cruise we went from Spain, to France to the Canary Islands, and then St. Maarten and San Juan. On our Hawaiian cruise we got to visit 5 ports on 4 different Hawaiian islands, only unpacked once and only had to fly as far as San Diego and back. In Alaska we got to see glaciers calving right from the balcony of our ship and the beautiful inside passages of Alaska and British Columbia. Visitors to a land resorts usually do not get to enjoy such a variety of scenery during their week’s stay. In some areas, tourist are even advised not to even venture further than a few blocks inland or too far away from the more protected resort areas, so often they never venture off the property.
A cruise will probably always be my first choice for a vacation opportunity, but for those who prefer to stay on solid ground, an all-inclusive vacation can be a great option.