March Break travel: All-inclusive or DIY?

March break is just around the corner, and there’s still time to book a getaway. But do you go for all-inclusive resort or take the DIY-route?

Let’s start with the numbers. Say you’re a Vancouver family of four heading to Puerto Vallarta, Mexico. You could book with itravel2000.com for seven nights at the 2.5-star Costa Club Punta Arena in a garden-view room, including all meals, taxes, and flights (on SunWing airlines, departing March 15) for $4,860.

Book that same trip yourself and your costs go down -- a bit: $ 1,148 for the same type of room at the same hotel (which includes all meals) plus $3,478 for United Airlines flights booked via Expedia, come to a grand total of $4,626. Book a suite with a kitchen at a slightly nicer hotel (say, at Hotel Suites La Siesta, for $1,120) and you’re looking at a final tab of $4,598.

Granted, booking anything last-minute can be a challenge. And all-inclusives have certain advantages: they allow for an easy vacation where the only decision you have to make is what to wear to dinner. But they’re not for everyone, certainly not those who go on holiday specifically to get away from the hustle and bustle. Nor do they offer an authentic cultural experience when visiting a foreign country.

When pondering the pros and cons of resorts versus DIY, keep these tips in mind.

Read the fine print
“All-inclusive” might sound appealing at first, but what, exactly, is included? All beverages or just non-alcoholic drinks? The basic dinner buffet or premium dining with crab and lobster? Kayaks, snorkel equipment, and surf gear? What about gratuities?

Look for hidden fees
Regardless of the accommodations in question, hidden fees are everywhere. Look into “membership” or “resort” fees. Some places charge extra for use of the pool, tennis courts, or shady spots on the beach. Ask upfront and be direct: “Are there any hidden fees I should know about?”

Remember the cost of parking
If you’re at an all-inclusive where the furthest you’re likely to travel is the swim-up bar, you probably don’t need a car. But more intrepid travellers may want to explore beyond their own beach. Inquire about parking fees, which can run from $20 to $30 a day or higher.

Sure, a DIY vacation will take more planning and prep work, but the benefits of off-resort vacationing could outweigh the extra legwork and account for substantial savings.

Book blind
Websites such as Hotwire.com and Priceline.com offer consumers substantial accommodation savings. What's the catch? The name and exact location of the hotel aren't revealed until your booking is complete. So long as you know the general vicinity of where you want to rest your head, roll the dice and pocket some extra cash on that hotel costs.

Be your own chef, maybe
Going the do-it-yourself route allows you to make your own meals. Just make sure you know where you can stock up first. You might need to hit a market for produce and poultry, and then travel to another store further afield for items like cereal and pasta sauce. If you have to take a cab, up goes your grocery bill.

BYOB
DIY-ers can skip the hotel bars and buy their own own wine, beer, or spirits for some huge savings. True, there may be no limit on the amount of alcohol consumed at all-inclusives, but resort-goers often question how much alcohol is in a highball in the first place and assume that the booze used is the cheapest available. Plus, some people say there’s a tendency to overindulge (on drinks and food) because of the desire to “get their money’s worth”.

Look beyond hotels
For savings, look into try condos, apartments, and cottages, including those on sites like Vacation Rental by Owner or Airbnb.

Consider house swaps
This option is becoming more popular all the time. Check out websites like HomeExchange and Global Home Exchange.

Take public transportation
Whether you’re acting as your own travel agent or you’re at a resort but want to skip the pricey off-site excursions, grab a bus schedule. Not only will this you save money, you’ll also get a taste of real life wherever you’re visiting.

Other March break tips?

Broaden your horizons
The Caribbean and Hawaii are nice, but other sun spots offer better value. Consider Cuba, Columbia, or the Dominican Republic.

Skip the sun altogether
Find shoulder or off-season deals in places like New York, London, Paris, Rome, San Francisco … the list goes on. You might not need your flip-flops, but you can always warm up in the hot tub or the spa.

Travel fees to avoidWith some attention to detail, it’s still possible to have a budget-conscious vacation.

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