Cheap Vacation Showdown: All-Inclusive Resorts vs. Cruises

With spring break just weeks away, many of us are daydreaming about our upcoming travel plans. And that’s especially true for those of us who endure cold and long winters. As the sleet and snow comes down, it’s fun to look forward to a spring getaway that involves a beach and plenty of sun.

But, where will you go? If a tropical getaway is on your agenda, you’ve probably scoured lists of all-inclusive resorts and cruises already. After all, those two travel options are two of the most popular for families – and for myriad reasons.

Booking either an all-inclusive resort or a cruise can mean huge savings over a traditional hotel vacation. For the most part, this is because food and drinks are included in the price of the trip. That fact alone makes budgeting for a cruise or an all-inclusive resort a whole lot easier. If you have kids and travel often as a family, you know how quickly all the meals and snacks add up!

All-Inclusive vs. Cruising: Which is Cheaper?

Still, the cost of cruising or going all-inclusive depends on a whole lot of factors as well as your personal vacation style. The amenities you take advantage of – as well as how much you’re willing to spend on the “extras” can make the total cost of your trip surge. Likewise, sticking with the free stuff offered in your travel package is the best way to save money with either type of trip.

Here are some of the benefits offered by each type of getaway, plus a few tips to save money.

The Lowdown on Cruising

The average price of a seven-night cruise is driven up by the many luxury cruise lines that charge higher prices for better amenities and more perks. So, for the sake of this post, we’re going to use Royal Caribbean pricing as a guide. While it’s not necessarily the “cheapest” cruise line, it’s pretty darn close.

A seven-night Western Caribbean cruise leaving from Fort Lauderdale, Fla., currently runs for around $709 per person for random dates I chose in April of this year. With stops in Labadee (Haiti), Falmouth (Jamaica), and Cozumel (Mexico), this cruise is a smart option for anyone who wants a taste of several different Caribbean islands.

But, what are the total costs? Let’s break it down for a family of four.

After accounting for taxes and port fees, the total cost of this trip adds up to $3,212.64. The only other “non-optional” fees you would need to pay are gratuities for staff members, which cost $12.95 per person, per day for a total of $51.80 per day. That brings the total cost to around $3,575.

That may sound like a huge stack of cash, but you have to remember:

  • Spring break is a peak travel season, and prices reflect that.
  • Your cruise fare includes all of your food at the included restaurants, plus access to entertainment, pools, and plenty of on-board activities.
  • Your fare also includes your room on board, which serves as your hotel room during your stay.
  • For one price, you get to see three separate countries – Haiti, Jamaica, and Mexico!

When you break it down like that, it’s actually a pretty decent deal. However, there are plenty of ways you could end up spending more money. Those “extras” can include things like:

  • Alcohol (generally not included on cruises)
  • Transfers to and from the cruise port
  • Excursions
  • Meals at special restaurants on board
  • Purchases made on board
  • Drinks other than tea, lemonade, regular coffee, or water

As anyone who cruises often can tell you, these extras can add up quickly! That’s especially true if you drink a lot of alcohol or want to take advantage of an excursion at every cruise port. On-shore excursions are known for being pricey, as they often cost $100 per person or more.

We’ve written about cruising as an affordable vacation option before, and the truth is, most of the extras are easily avoided. To save money and stick with your vacation budget, you mainly need to stick to the stuff that’s “free.” For example, eat all of your meals on board the ship, try to avoid alcohol or add-on drinks, and enjoy all the free entertainment you can. And instead of shelling out for expensive excursions, do a little research on TripAdvisor and plan your own day trips to save.

You’ll also save a lot of money if you can avoid flying to a cruise port to begin with. Fortunately, cruise ships leave from ports all over the country – from as far up the East Coast as Maryland all the way around to Los Angeles – plus popular destinations like Galveston, Texas, New Orleans, and all over Florida.

beautiful beach scene
Photo: Royal Caribbean via Facebook

All-Inclusive Resorts: The Details

Now let’s imagine you plan to spend the same seven nights at a cheap all-inclusive resort. For the purpose of this article, I chose to look at dates and rates at the Holiday Inn Sunspree All-Inclusive Resort in Montego Bay. Although the prices may make this place look cheap, I can assure you it’s actually super nice! I went there last year for spring break, and already have a room booked for spring break 2016.

For random dates in early April, rooms cost just $202 per night for two adults and two children ages 12 and under. That’s partly because kids “stay and eat free” at this property, but also because this hotel is at a low price point to begin with.

Including taxes, that brings the total of this all-inclusive getaway to $1,444.45. All other expenses at all-inclusive resorts are optional, including tips. However, most people bring a few hundred dollars to tip helpful staff members. So, the sake of fairness, let’s bring that total up to $1,650. That total includes:

  • All of your food and drinks – including alcohol (a few specialty meals cost “extra, but you can opt out)
  • Live entertainment
  • Non-motorized water sports, like kayaking and paddleboats
  • Plenty of beach time, plus a crystal clear ocean and a private island
  • Your hotel room

Like cruising, there are plenty of “extras” you’ll be tempted to spend money on at all-inclusive resorts. Some of those expenses include:

  • Excursions off the property
  • Top-shelf alcohol
  • Specialty meals at dinner (e.g., “surf and turf”)
  • Purchases made on or off the property
  • Room upgrades

The biggest downside to vacationing at an all-inclusive resort is the fact that you’ll probably have to fly there. Unlike cruises, which can leave from all over the U.S. — often somewhere within driving distance — the bulk of all-inclusive resorts are smack dab in the Caribbean, which means you’ll have to fly there first.

With round-trip flights to Jamaica from Chicago costing around $450 on Southwest Airlines, this adds another $1,800 to the cost of your trip. That leaves the grand total of your seven-might getaway at around $3,450 – or about the same as that Royal Caribbean cruise.

But if you like to drink beer, wine, or even fancy umbrella cocktails — especially while you’re on vacation — your savings could be tremendous. Unlike cruises, all-inclusive resorts generally let you drink unlimited included alcoholic beverages. At $6 per beer and more for cocktails, an all-inclusive resort could easily save you $50 or more per couple per day, depending on how much you tend to let loose on vacation.

Which Vacation Option Should You Choose?

Whether you choose a cruise or an all-inclusive resort (or something different altogether), how much you’ll spend to unwind really depends on several huge factors. For example, do you have to fly – or can you drive there? Do you want to stick with the “free” stuff, or do you want to take advantage of everything your host country has to offer?

If you can drive to a departure port and don’t care for booze, a cruise may be a cheaper option for you. If you like to enjoy a few beers or rum drinks on vacation and would have to fly to a cruise departure point anyway, an all-inclusive resort may be a better option.

While a solid travel rewards card or two can help cut down on the cost, a willingness to sacrifice some of the extras will go a long way toward helping you save. But with so much money on the line, it pays to do your research and shop around for the best deal possible.

Do you prefer cruises or all-inclusive resorts? Which option would you choose if money weren’t an issue?

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Holly Johnson

Contributing Writer

Holly Johnson is a frugality expert and award-winning writer who is obsessed with personal finance and getting the most out of life. A lifelong resident of Indiana, she enjoys gardening, reading, and traveling the world with her husband and two children. In addition to The Simple Dollar, Holly writes for well-known publications such as U.S. News & World Report Travel, PolicyGenius, Travel Pulse, and Frugal Travel Guy. Holly also owns Club Thrifty.