My husband, Joe, and I will never stay at an all-inclusive and this is why:
Joe and I have only once stayed at an all-inclusive together. It was the first year that we met and another couple wanted to vacation with us in Mexico. It was my first time out of the country besides Canada. Joe had stayed at all-inclusives prior to meeting me—the dark ages as I call them 😉 —and also had been out of the country many times before.
All-inclusive are nice if you like buffet lines, eating and drinking as much and whenever you want, and not having to make any decisions of where you will eat dinner (except from maybe the 3-5 restaurants the hotel offers onsite). But why go to Mexico to do that? Why not stay closer to home and go someplace like Florida? You aren’t really experiencing the culture and uniqueness that that country has to offer.
The adventures, the sights, the food, the people, and the memories we’ve made far exceed any we would have made staying at an all-inclusive. We love to immerse ourselves in the culture of the country we are visiting—to see what the locals see, eat what the locals eat. Some of the best foods we’ve ever eaten on vacation have been from hole-in-the-wall places off the beaten path. Had we stayed at an all-incluvise we would never have rented a car and stopped at the tiniest food stand along the side of the road. Never gotten those empanadas and taken a photo of children playing a game on a tablet (something you wouldn’t expect to see at a small food stand in the middle of nowhere). We would have never stopped at that small mountain village in Ecuador and had the most delicious eggs we’ve ever tasted (and to be fair, the worst coffee—instant, yuck!).
Sure you can take a day trip that your hotel provides with a shuttle full of other people from your all-inclusive. They’ll probably stop once or twice along the way at a “tourist trap” shop, where they sell overpriced locally made goods. (Who is really lining their pockets with those profits? Certainly not the people in the small villages that are making those goods.)
Not everyone seeks adventure or loves not knowing what will come next. But I highly suggest, if you’re up for an adventure and having one of the best times of your life, that you ditch the all-inclusive and plan the bare minimum—like maybe a hotel room here and there or maybe just the next village you will be in.
Joe and I often when traveling to Belize (we’ve now been there over 10 times) won’t even book a room. Honestly, even if it was our first time, we probably wouldn’t book more than the first night or two. In fact this is often how we travel to any foreign country. Only the town or village is known, the rest we figure out once we are there. Bonus tip: Hotel rooms can look different in person than what they appear on the internet and a fair amount of hotels will give discounts to travelers that pay cash.
Concerned about safety? Remember this, there are dangerous places right here in America too, we just don’t venture into those areas at dark or ever at all. The key is to be smart and be respectful—which also means don’t be flashy. Most likely you won’t be bothered. In all of the times driving though Belize and once in Mexico, Nicaragua, and Ecuador we’ve never encountered any problems. As my husband always says, “If you’re looking for drugs in a dark alley, it’s probably not going to end well for you.” In other words, be smart! I always read up on what the U.S. Department of State travel advisories are for any country before we venture there. If we were to encounter a problem we would know the warning signs or what to do. (That ties into my comment about being “flashy.” Some countries value things we have more highly than others. For instance, before we went to Honduras I read on the U.S. Department of State site that iPhones are a hot commodity. So much so, that tourists lives have been taken. Being smart in Honduras means not taking photos with your iPhone or using it out in public. Better yet, just leave it in your hotel room.) Again, it’s about being smart and being aware of potential dangers, not being naïve that they exist. Always let family and friends know where you will be and give at least two separate people specific itineraries of each day of your travel—where you will be and area you will be traveling through. Most likely you will have planned what villages/towns/cities you will be visiting and estimated days you will be there, if this changes, let your family know and give them an updated itinerary.
Still not convinced? Maybe money talks. Ditching the all-inclusive could save you a good amount of money (do I see another trip in your future?! 😉 ). For example, in Belize you can stay in a clean, updated (air-conditioned, television, small fridge), right on “main street” hotel for as little as $65 per night. That’s only $390 for a six-night, seven-day vacation! Ecuador is even cheaper, much cheaper. You’ll find that hostels are most popular and for a double person room with a private bath you’ll pay as little as $30. Food is also incredibly cheap. A full lobster dinner in Belize is $15.
What kind of personality does it take to ditch the all-inclusive? Just about any! Joe is analytical and yet spontaneous and ridiculously outing. He can strike up a conversation with anyone and be their best friend in minutes. Me? While, I’m the exact opposite in almost all accounts. I do, however, like to think I’m spontaneous too—really I think it’s more compulsive (but ultimately, aren’t they about the same?) Unlike Joe, I’m an introvert and can’t talk small talk to save my life (I’m much better at the written word than the spoken). I’m also a worrier, although I hate to admit it. Yet, together we balance each other well and make for a great dynamic pair when it comes to traveling adventures.
We both love to explore food and are up for trying just about anything—I’m a vegetarian so that means no meat for me, but Joe has often had “mystery meat” and did draw the line at guinea pig in Ecuador. As Andrew Zimmern says, “If it looks good, eat it!” We look for places that are packed with locals—that’s usually the best sign that the food is worth stopping for and often also extremely cheap (places that look modern, extra clean, not off the beaten path, and are packed with people dressed like you, aka tourists, often is what we call a “tourist trap” and will charge 2-3 times more than a local place. Not to mention the food is usually less authentic to the country and owed by a foreigner. If you’re trying to stay on a budget while traveling, avoid those places).
Some of the best memories and adventures we have, have been when Joe and I rented a car in countries we’ve never been and driven through the countryside. We’ve seen gorgeous parts of Belize, pulled over for cows in Nicaragua that literally took up the entire road, and breathtaking views of Ecuador and it’s people, while driving by ourselves.
We’ve met people from all walks of life—many of whom we see every year—and have little to give but are always giving anyway. One such friend is Donte (pictured below between Joe and I). He lives in a room not much bigger than a dorm room. In one of our first meetings with him I mentioned my love of seashells. From time to time we bring him t-shirts or buy him breakfast when we visit. We don’t expect anything in return except his company. But every year he has a present for me—seashells. Often he combs the beach for hours looking for large and the smallest of small seashells to collect. This warms my heart. And this experience, this friend, would have never happened had we stayed at an all-inclusive.
We’ve met people that are traveling for 3, 4, 6 months. People that have just quit their job and are out exploring the world and all it has to offer. People like Moe from Michigan, Toby (traveling for four months but didn’t quit his job) from Australia, and Eoin from Ireland who has no plans to return home anytime soon. We’ve shared dinners and breakfasts and conversations with these people. How many times have you had such an experience while in the buffet line at your all-inclusive? You will never meet someone traveling for months staying at an all-inclusive. Not to mention these are some of the most interesting and down-to-earth people you will meet. They’re there for a good time, for an adventure, and for sharing experiences. They aren’t there to show-off, judge, or “size you up” and figure out your situation. Everyone becomes equal—the way it should always be.
We’ve seen waterfalls where we paid $5 and not another soul was in sight seeing the magnificent beauty we were seeing before us. We set our schedule and drive, letting whatever happen, happen, with no expectations. Sure vacation is meant to be relaxing, but it should also be about making memories and exploring. When I go someplace new I want to take in absolutely everything I can—the food, the people, the music, the markets. I adore markets!
Remember, a hotel is merely just a place to lay your head at night and shower in the morning. Why spend so much on a hotel room that you will spend so little time in? As long as it is clean (and safe), that’s all that matters.
I guarantee if you decide to take this kind of adventurous vacation you will have the time of your life. You will make more memories, try more foods, and meet more interesting people than you ever have before. Be open to being spontaneous and going with the flow. You just never know what adventure will await you.