One of the primary things you dream about as you work toward financial independence is the day you get to travel and relax after a lifetime of hard work. Most of these fantasies include a tropical beach, a cold adult beverage and the smell of sunscreen. Unfortunately, many of us become such proficient savers that we have a hard time letting go of the purse strings to actually start spending.
For those who are naturally thrifty (or prolific spenders trying to quit), there is a way to build memories through travel on a fixed budget: all-inclusive travel resorts. These resorts were pioneered in the 1950s and have become a go-to solution for honeymooners, beach lovers and retired travelers. The concept is simple: you prepay all of your travel expenses including hotel, food, beverages and entertainment when the trip is booked. This allows you the immediate benefit of budgeting your trip months in advance, and, once the trip begins, you can create a game to maximize the benefits of having an all-you-care-to-enjoy vacation. Here are some tips and tricks to help you understand and maximize the all-inclusive travel experience.
[Read: All Aboard: Retire on a Ship.]
Know where to do your research. TripAdvisor is a dominant resource because it allows fellow travelers to post their reviews and pictures so you can get an understanding of what your experience will be like along with planning tips and pitfalls to avoid. The customer reviews are searchable, so you can seek out specific details you are looking for. For example, if you're curious about the dress code at the resort's restaurants, it is easy to find the answer and the experience of others.
However, be wary of bright-eyed honeymoon reviews. Generally, it does not take too much to impress young lovebirds who are largely there to spend time with each other. Reviewers with "honeymoon bias" may not be the best resource for determining how good a resort's rooms, food, entertainment or service is. Look for reviews from travelers who may have a bit of experience.
But don't limit your research to one website. YouTube can provide the visual information you need to make a well-informed decision when comparing two different resorts or room types within a specific resort. And Oyster.com is known for exposing the difference between reality and fantasy. The site offers picture comparisons between resort website pictures and actual photos taken by the site's staff. They also offer a resort analysis and critique.
Become a better booker. Leverage the ability to compare prices on several different booking websites and compare those rates to those offered directly by the resort. Also, don't forget that not all airfares are listed on travel aggregation sites. For example, Southwest Airlines does not allow their airfares to be published on any of the traditional aggregation sites. So if your city is a hub for an airline that's not listed, be prepared to book directly through the airline.
Once a provider is chosen, try to layer discounts. Ebates partners with many travel providers to offer cash back if booked through the eBates portal. And RetailMeNot may also have coupon codes that you can potentially apply to your vacation.
If you are traveling for a special occasion, it's worth asking if that will qualify you for free stuff. Some resorts offer exclusive experiences, such as a candle-lit dinner on the beach or spa packages, to honeymooners or couples celebrating an anniversary. Some resorts might want you to bring a copy of your marriage certificate to prove it. Birthdays may also be celebrated with some special recognition by the resort.
Know what is included and what is excluded. The benefits of all-inclusive travel are lost if you plan poorly, are constantly pressured to upgrade or run into surcharges. There are several ways many all-inclusive resorts convince or require you to spend more. For example, you will need to arrange transportation to and from the airport to your resort. A few upscale resorts will include this in their price. However, most resorts will require you to purchase this in addition to your all-inclusive package. The transportation companies will often use this opportunity to sell additional excursions and entertainment while you are traveling. This may be convenient, but remember that haggling and price negotiation might get you a better deal.
Find out what food and beverages are included. Just like airlines have learned there is additional profit in charging for checked bags, snacks and internet access, all-inclusive resorts have learned there is money to be made by offering additional premium upgrades. Sometimes you may not realize you are being offered something that is an additional charge. For example, you might be offered upgraded wine choices at dinner that aren't included in your base package. Spa services might require an upgrade, with extra costs for specialized lotions and creams. And while many resorts provide complimentary access to snorkeling gear and kayaks, do not assume it is included. Jet skis, jungle tours and ATV rides are all likely to be extra and will need to be booked separately from the all-inclusive booking.
Be wary of time share and membership pitches. You might be offered a couples massage or surf and turf dinner on the beach for "free". The catch is that you need to participate in their 60-minute tour and explanation of their special membership or loyalty program. Recognize that your vacation time is very valuable, and it may make sense to pass on the perceived free stuff if there is a catch.
Travel allows you to create a lifetime of memories with your loved ones. You also never know what life event or cultural exposure will spark a great idea or innovation for you or a loved one. All-inclusive travel can help you to relax without running up big travel bills, and watching out for hidden travel fees will help you stay within your budget.
Brian Preston and Bo Hanson are fee-only financial planners who host the podcast, "The Money-Guy Show".
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