Living

Ticket to paradise

Get the most out of your next all-inclusive vacation with these resort-tested tips from fellow travellers

I admit it – I’m an all-inclusive convert. I’ve chilled out in a hut on a remote Thai island and sponged off friends in a whack of European capitals. But I never knew what relaxation was until I went on an all-inclusive trip to the Mayan Riviera in Mexico.

Picture this: my friend Lorraine and I are lounging on the beach of the Iberostar Cozumel resort watching the sun dip into the turquoise Caribbean Sea. Our muscles ache pleasantly from snorkelling earlier that day – a condition we’re treating with cold cervezas (brought to us, natch). Our biggest concern: should we continue our all-guacamole binge or try the pasta bar tonight? I can’t remember the last time I thought about work. Muy bueno.

Is it possible to be more laid-back than this? Actually, yes. During the trip and even afterwards, Lorraine and I kept bumping into all-inclusive veterans with all kinds of tricks on how to milk even more fun, value and VIP treatment out of your resort. Whatever tropical paradise you plan to visit, don’t leave home without these tips.

Decide on your biggest priorities, such as hitting the buffet seven times a day or meeting men. A good travel agent will ask about your expectations and desires so she can find the right destination and resort for you, says Kathy Sutherland, manager of Carlson Wagonlit Harvey’s Travel in Dartmouth, N.S. Cancún is typically known as a party zone, for example, while St. Kitts is usually serene and laid-back, adds Martha Chapman, manager of corporate communications at Signature Vacations in Toronto (with trips to almost 50 all-inclusive resorts under her belt). Lorraine and I can certainly vouch for the Cancún point: our flight back was like a stag party on wings.

“We don’t do anything less than a four-star resort now,” says Astrid Van Den Broek of Toronto. “The one time we did less, it was a nightmare. We had to get up at 6 a.m. to book dinner reservations for the night, and while the resort had ‘several bars,’ only two would be open at one time.” Sutherland agrees: “If it’s not what you want, it’s $999 you’ve thrown away, when you could have spent $1,299 for the vacation of your dreams.”

Review the star ratings for each resort (online or in brochures) and find out whether a cheaper price means you’ll be charged extra for car rentals, certain meals, sports equipment and activities, or snacks and drinks enjoyed outside of specified times.

Remember, too, that some larger, slightly pricier chain resorts have arrangements with nearby sister properties so you can enjoy the amenities of both. When Lorraine and I switched mid-week from the luxurious Iberostar Tucan in Playacar to the more rustic and friendly Iberostar in Cozumel, it felt as if we got two vacations in one.

Why circumnavigate the globe to get to an exotic locale when you can fly somewhere hot in four hours? “Once you’re on a sunny beach with a tropical drink in hand, location ceases to be important,” says Penny McDowell, an all-inclusive veteran in Toronto.

Before you book your flight, visit a site such as www.seatguru.com, which lists the best seats on common aircraft. Then pre-select them through your travel agent for about $10 each way. “My friend and I always book aisle seats so that neither one of us is stuck in the middle,” says Sutherland.

Any guidebook will tell you to pack film, medication and bug repellent, but our all-inclusive insiders have different priorities. Their must-haves: insulated mugs to keep drinks cool, two or three swimsuits, a cover-up or sarong, a sun hat, multiple bottles of sunscreen (some biodegradable if you plan to snorkel) and zip-lock bags for transporting wet swim gear. Keep these items in your carry-on bag in case your room isn’t ready when you arrive. Pack earplugs, too. They’ll block out drunken snoring, loud music or nearby traffic at night, says Amanda Vogel, a globetrotter in Vancouver.

The front-desk staff know which rooms are away from the disco, the wedding party, the loading bay and the construction. It’s safe to assume that at any given time, every hotel is undergoing internal renovation somewhere, notes Peter Greenberg in Hotel Secrets From the Travel Detective (Villard).

Think twice about an ocean- or pool-front room, too. Our first Cozumel suite offered a stunning vista of the ocean – plus an earful of pool-bar chatter and a wake-up call of clanging scuba tanks at 7 a.m. each morning. Asking your travel agent to e-mail or fax a quiet-room request beforehand works sometimes, says Sutherland. But if you don’t like the room you’re shown, ask to see another.

Package holiday companies such as Signature Vacations have staff who regularly visit your resort, so use them as your local expert and advocate. If something goes wrong, talk to them instead of simmering. Your tour-operator rep can also tell you about organized trips to nearby attractions. And ask about sightseeing on the cheap via local buses and taxis.

Hotel Secrets From the Travel Detective includes insightful advice, such as never leave your luggage unattended for any length of time, even in the hotel lobby or the bellhop area. If your room isn’t ready or you’re checking out early, ask for your bags to be tagged and put in a storage room. (Or, if you have a late flight, as Lorraine and I did, you may want to pay a small hourly fee to stay in your room past the posted check-out time.)

The book also offers some great tips for arriving at your room. First, ask the bellhop to remain while you ensure your new room is empty, then lock the door after he leaves, and call home or work to announce your safe arrival and any itinerary changes.

Bring a guidebook such as Fodor’s, Lonely Planet or Footprint to find out about distances to attractions, customs and scams that your travel agent may not know about, suggests Canadian travel writer Shelley Snowdon, currently living in Barcelona, Spain.

Upon arrival, ask the staff about the next resort briefing, which usually includes a review of tipping practices, suggestions for shopping and local excursions, as well as other perks that your resort offers. Don’t worry about looking like a geeky tourist: there’s nothing less cool than only discovering a bar or entertainment centre on your last day. “It’s such a shame that more people don’t attend, because at the end of 40 minutes you have a terrific understanding of what there is to see and do, plus stuff to watch out for,” adds Chapman.

Tipping the maid and bartender upon arrival will likely yield better service throughout your stay than waiting until the end of your sojourn. “Tip the bartender and you’ll never have to wait for your drinks,” agrees Natasha Millar in Mississauga, Ont. “We took about 30 American $1 bills and kept them on hand in our beach bag.” Some resorts, however, notes Chapman, don’t allow staff to accept personal tips.

When total sloth is the aim, you’ll quickly discover that your lounger’s proximity to the pool/beach/bar/buffet can make or break your day. “Consider it war,” advises Lorraine. Early birds and Europeans in thongs favour the 6 a.m. towel-hold approach, but if you’re not a morning person and a seat has been unoccupied for hours, it’s fair game. “Just be bold, take the towel off and sit down,” says Millar. “You already paid a fortune to be there; chairs should be included if drinks are!” Adds Sutherland: “That’s why I like smaller properties – you’re not fighting with 1,400 or 2,000 people for a chair.” Yet another reason to consider travelling outside of peak season.

The first step: get chummy with the resort staff. “If that’s what you’re there for, it can make a difference because they’re personable and have high energy,” says Chapman. When Lorraine and I met Januario, Charlie and Maria, three of the entertainment staff at Iberostar Cozumel, we also met about 20 other guests and enjoyed their company the rest of the trip. The second step: participate in organized activities, such as beach volleyball, scuba diving and Spanish or salsa lessons. Scoffing? Ask yourself: who looks like they’re having the most fun? Usually the joiners.

Chapman says many guests initially pooh-pooh organized activities, only to be converted. “People arrive with no intention of doing activities such as the introductory scuba dive, and it becomes a lifelong passion.” Sort of like my new-found love of all-inclusive resorts!

Your Mayan Riviera to-do list

Whether you have four days or 14, the increasingly popular Mayan Riviera offers plenty of attractions to keep you happily occupied. Starting on the Mexican coast just south of Cancún and extending south of Tulum, the Mayan Riviera boasts historic ruins, white-sand beaches, shopping and a hopping nightlife. Go to www.visitmexico.com or www.travelyucatan.com, then get started with these four ideas:

· Take history lessons Nearby ruins provide an awesome introduction to Mayan religion, architecture, astronomy and mathematical prowess. Tulum, a stunningly beautiful clifftop outpost built around AD 900, is about 60 kilometres from Playa del Carmen, the heart of the Mayan Riviera. The ancient cities of Chichen Itza and Uxmal are farther away but even more magnificent. TIP Schedule a morning trip and bring comfortable shoes, a hat and bottled water to deal with the baking sun. There’s a beach at Tulum, too, so bring a swimsuit.
· Visit Cozumel, the “Island of Swallows” Once a refuge for pirates and smugglers, this colourful isle now attracts day trippers and cruise ship passengers. A ferry from Playa del Carmen will get you there in 45 minutes, dropping you off in Cozumel’s only town, San Miguel. On the main strip, bright shops display signs hawking certified diamonds, authentic Cuban cigars and live lobsters. TIP Watch the prices in San Miguel – a baseball hat and two shot glasses cost me $45 after conversion.
· Learn from schools of fish View parrotfish through a snorkel mask, swim with dolphins or simply float on a tube down the River of Dreams at Xel-há, a nearby water park (984/875-6000; www.xelha.com). Or treat yourself to a snorkelling or diving trip to Cozumel’s nearby reefs. TIP Pack non-polluting, biodegradable sunscreen or expect to buy some. Also, wearing a life-jacket makes snorkelling easier.
· Enjoy the nightlife The lively staff and atmosphere at Carlos ‘n Charlie’s (984/803-3953; 987/869-1647) and Senõr Frog’s (984/873-0930; 987/869-1651) in both Playa del Carmen and San Miguel guarantee a good time. Ask your tour operator about organized bar crawls that allow you to mingle with your fellow guests, too. (We loved Signature’s aptly named Mayan Madness!) If bars aren’t your thing, check out the spectacular night shows at Xcaret park (998/883-3143; www.xcaret.net). TIP Mixed drinks can be extremely strong, so if you’re concerned about drinking too much, stick with bottled beers such as Sol and Dos Equis.