When to Book an All-Inclusive Vacation Vs. a DIY Trip

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Most of the traveling I do is very do-it-yourself and independent. I’ve never used a travel agent for my own trips or booked any kind of package deal. In general, I value freedom and having control over where I go, how I get there and what I do when I’m there — I’m not one to leave those decisions up to other people.

The Internet is what makes this so possible. I have a wealth of information about almost any destination in the world at my fingertips. From review sites like TripAdvisor and Yelp to crowdsourced guides like Wikitravel, I can find out where to stay and eat and what excursions to book based on the experiences of others and my own knowledge about what I think I’ll enjoy and value the most. I save money by designing my own trips with calculated, educated guesses, spending my money on what’s important to me. As a travel hacker, I also frequently use miles to travel instead of cash, which means I need to have the kind of flexibility that comes with booking everything independently.

Playing with Kayak Explore

Playing with Kayak Explore

DIY trips can certainly be a lot of work. The effort of researching, planning and booking travel for an independently planned trip can eat up a significant amount of time and energy — and not everyone’s interested in that. Personally, I enjoy the work of planning travel. A recent study even suggests that the emotional reward of travel comes from the anticipation of a trip, not the trip itself! For me, this work and research is fun and exciting. From having just the right amount of control and lack thereof (leaving some aspects to decide upon arrival), DIY travel is the way to go for most of my trips.

But it’s important to note that I don’t travel for a chance to unplug and get away from it all. My trips tend to be adventures. They can be stressful, and tiring, leaving me more frazzled when I return than I was before I left. For me, the sense of being on high alert that comes with exploring a new country or culture is part of the reason I travel. Resorts are nice, but I’m restless; the beach is pretty boring by day three.

Still, there is value in all-inclusive, pre-planned vacation packs — there are times and places where this is the right choice. How do you know when to go this route?

cruise

For our purposes here, I’m defining an all-inclusive or pre-planned vacation as any of the following: cruises, guided group tours, all-inclusive resorts (where you can eat and drink as much as you like and pay only for the room) or any situations in which a tourism company created a one-size-fits-all itinerary that it sells to customers with only a few changeable options. With this kind of travel, you’re probably going with a group of other tourists, and your choices are limited. But limiting your options also means you don’t have to think as much.

And sometimes all you really want to do is mentally check out as soon as you check in. That’s OK!

San Jose del Cabo

These kinds of trips are great for times when you’re traveling as a big group, as it’s simply more efficient to plan that way. I recently attended a beautiful wedding at an all-inclusive resort in Cabo. If I were simply traveling for the sake of exploring this part of Mexico, I probably would not have chosen a resort like that, but it made sense for a small wedding. All guests stayed at the resort and had the same dining and drinking options, so we were always together. It was easy and fun.

And though I generally discourage guided group tours, as they immediately call you out as a tourist and tend to prevent authentic interaction with the destination you’re visiting, sometimes they do help. Take Egypt, for example.

luxor statues

I traveled to Cairo, Luxor and Sharm el-Sheikh in 2012, when tourism was on the decline following the revolution. It was so rare to see tourists that people constantly bothered us, whether they were trying to sell something or provide a service in exchange for a tip. It was completely exhausting, and our status as an independently traveling couple only served to make us a more visible target. If we’d been traveling in a group, we’d have had that buffer we usually don’t want. I would definitely recommend to others traveling to Egypt that they do so in a group.

Sailboat in Hvar, Croatia
I’m also generally not a fan of cruises because once that boat leaves the harbor, you’re limited to what you can do on the boat — talk about claustrophobic! But if the boat frequently stops at destinations, it can be much more convenient than trying to visit those destinations on your own by land. I recently traveled to Croatia, spending a few days in Dubrovnik, the island of Hvar and finally an even smaller island called Korcula. When planning this trip, I saw an option for a chef-catered sailboat cruise that stopped at those and other destinations, but it seemed a bit expensive. So instead, I went by bus from Dubrovnik to Split, where I took a ferry to Hvar and then another ferry from Hvar to Korcula. It was an exhausting and logistically messy trip, especially when you consider that Croatia is a very long and narrow strip of country — essentially all coastline. Of course a boat would’ve been the way to get around!

When I saw the large sailboats and yachts filling the harbors of each, I realized that everyone else had the right idea. By boat, I wouldn’t have had to repack my bags and check into a new hotel each time, and I probably would’ve had better food (what’s served in restaurants in tourist areas left a lot to be desired). And I certainly wouldn’t have had to spend hours riding in a hot, sweaty bus between destinations. A little more research, or talking to someone who’d done this, may have informed my choice a little more.

There are definitely reasons to occasionally choose an all-inclusive package or other kind of group-oriented trip.

The question really comes down to this:
Do you want a vacation, or do you want an adventure?

Photo credit: Megan Van Groll

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