Wednesday, February 11, 2009

A Beginner's Guide to the All-Inclusive Vacation

We recently returned from a one-week all-inclusive vacation in Cabo San Lucas, Mexico. We chose this location for a variety of reasons, not the least of which, I covet all things Lauren Conrad.

We had a fantastic time, cold nights notwithstanding. It fell to like 15°C after the sun went down!! That's crazy! The climate is a bit strange. If we'd known, we would have brought much more in the way of warm clothes. So we didn't spend much time out-and-about at night - When you're on vacation, you wanna feel sexy, but these plummeting temperatures made me, instead, want to curl up for a second helping of Jodie Foster and her 2002 hit Panic Room. All things considered, early nights made for early mornings, which meant we enjoyed the sun all day long. Muy bien.

Cabo San Lucas is a small suburb of Los Cabos, right on the southern tip of the Baja California Peninsula, the Sea of Cortez to the east and the Pacific to the west. It's as gorgeous as Google Images says it is. Unlike other vacation-destinations, the centre of town is very close to the hotel strip. A five minute cab ride will take you there in a snap. We went into town several times, shopped at dingy little flea markets, ate at fantastic restaurants. If ever you find yourself in Cabo, you must check out The Office on the beach. The margaritas are potent, the service is remarkable and the food is second to none. The grub on the resort was awful and the booze was watered-down swill, so a great meal was especially appreciated. Also noteworthy, a divey little bar located in a parkette called the Blue Jungle and a harbourside restaurant perfect for people-watching called Alexander's.

All-inclusive vacations are interesting - They allow you to shut down your brain and relax in one step. There's very little to think about if you're looking for a lounge chair, a drink, and a buffet. Like slutty girls on Halloween, you can wear anything, like short-shorts and outrageous sunglasses. It's a freeing experience. We've gone on five of these trips, each one extremely different. Cuba will always be special because it was our first trip together. It's a magical place, trapped in time. These entries chronicle our trip and all the reasons it's so wonderful. Jamaica, on the other hand, was strange and aggressive and altogether not so memorable. Our third trip was to the Dominican Republic, also not so good. Four stars didn't really translate. We went to Mexico last year and had a great time at the Barcelo Maya. Highly recommended. This year was a strange mix of total satisfaction and utter disappointment. I think we're done with the All-Inclusive. We've learned the ropes and next time we'll go it alone; no more hand-holding, no more all-you-can-eat buffets and sloppy frat boys. We want a small boutique hotel in a seaside nook. We want real restaurants and some semblance of culture.

But sometimes all you really need is a break from work and a super-shot of Vitamin D, so below is a step-by-step guide to booking your first all-inclusive trip.

1) Research. Check out sites like to see what's out there. Compare prices, get to know trends in costs. See when things drop dramatically and time out your booking. And check to see what actual guests have to say.

2) Use a travel agent. We always go through Flight Centre. Their service has been top-notch and ultra-simple. Let them know what you're looking for, give specific examples of locations and hotels, and show them packages you've seen - They'll take this info and find you a great deal. Using a company like this will also ensure you have a reputable contact at home should anything go awry while you're away.

3) Arrange private transport. Normally with these packages you're directed from the airplane to a series of buses which transport you and 48 greasy touristas to a series of hotels along the highway. This time we arranged for private transport. A small van took us personally from the airport to our hotel - No waiting for others to get through customs, none of your luggage getting tossed into the bottom of a bus. It's inexpensive and a much nicer way to spend as much as an hour driving through the countryside of a new and exciting place.

3) Be assertive. Get what you want. Request ocean-view rooms (or buffet-adjacent, if that's your bag) a king-sized bed and a late check out - lay it all out with your travel agent. The biggest mistake people make when traveling is feeling like a jerk - Often, upon arriving in places like Mexico and the Dominican Republic we feel like high-falutin' Imperialists and that pesky Tourist Guilt sets-in immediately. Skip it, get what you want and quell the guilt with a little high-impact tipping. Trust me - Lupita the maid wants you to feel like a 50s-era racist. But don't let her fool you: That's what she's selling. The illiterate and charmingly sheepish lady thing is an act. If you want more pillows, ask. If your room is not satisfactory, make it so. Say your holas, leave some bucks on the bed and get on with it.

4) Get off the resort. Whether it's a zip line excursion or free-balling it around the slummiest neighbourhood in a nearby town, you must get away from the pool! Don't be intimidated. If you shop, barter!! Vendors will always inflate their prices because tourists are stupid. Jeff and I rarely pay more than half the price someone is asking for any given item. The little wooden box below was going for $45 USD - Ridiculous! The vendor will ask what you want to pay - Like any strong negotiation return with a lowball offer. I recommend a laugh, a scoff, and $15. We finally settled on $22. Stay strong, you'll get your price. Again, Pablo wants you to feel like you're taking food out of his childrens' mouths, but that wouldn't explain the oft-heard carny-bark "I can rip you off better than he can!" In these parts $22 is a solid day at the office. Save your principles for that trip to the Sudan you're planning.

(We collect boxes. I love this one so much.)

5) Definitely negotiate cab fares, water taxis, and drug deals. Don't haggle at restaurants, stores owned by rock music legends, or at the Duty Free.

6) SPF 1000. If you're pink like me, I also recommend a brief period of pre-vacation tanning at your local salon. This sets the scene for an equatorial sun bath like your skin has never known.

7) Lock up everything. We forgot, for almost no time at all, and someone (Lupita!) took us for $180 USD. Very disappointing. Put everything in the safe - Your iPods, wallets, definitely passports, and all your money.

8) Reuse your towels. This helps with the aforementioned guilt.

Get a few of these under your belt and, like us, you'll be ready to book a hotel and hit the sand running. Start shopping for short-shorts now.


  1. LOVE your pictures. You are a talented photographer without a doubt. You should add that to the list-bring a friend who is also a photographer. Thank you for sharing.

  2. Articles interesting and useful, This is the second comment, do not delete ok! you may want to take the time to read my article about Best Times for All Inclusive Vacations or All Inclusive Vacation


  3. I agree with you on haggling drug deals.

    Glad you had a nice time, but happy that you are back!

  4. Thomas: Thanks! My friends DO comment that it's nice to travel with a built-in photographer.

    Scott: You must! Mexico is the Land of Drugs. Like potatoes in Idaho, that shit should be cheap!

  5. Jason: Beautiful spoken. Your used of language amazes me. I could listen to your witty remarks for days. Can you imagine what a gem the world would have if you and David Sedaris had a love-child?! Think about it, that's all I'm saying.

  6. Welcome back! I can't wait to read this post later (when I have time to NOT just skim through, like I do doing my lunch hour) snuggled up under a blanket with the company of my iMac and a hot cup of tea, dreaming of warmer weather.