For some travelers, all-inclusive hotels conjure up images of flavorless food served under a heat lamp in lush and vibrant destinations where guests never actually leave the resort grounds. Lower-tier liquor flows freely (the good stuff will cost you more), as the few overindulgers put a damper on the trip.
That image is changing, as hotel companies expand their offerings, while redefining what all-inclusive means.
BEEN A WHILE SINCE YOU TRAVELED?: Here's a refresher on those basic economy plane tickets
Hotels are growing their all-inclusive brands
Many hotel companies are rapidly adding all-inclusive resorts to their portfolio. Hyatt's acquisition of Apple Leisure Group in November 2021 made it one of the largest owners of luxury all-inclusive resorts in the world.
That acquisition included the luxury-focused AMR Collection, which has beachfront properties in Mexico and Central America. That means there are now more than 100 new resorts for visitors (and where World of Hyatt members can use their points), up from about a dozen.
Just weeks before Hyatt's news, Marriott had also expanded its all-inclusive footprint by adding 20 properties under a new brand dubbed "All-Inclusive by Marriott Bonvoy."
Leaning toward luxury – both on and off-property
With these new all-inclusive offerings, hotels are emphasizing luxury. At Hyatt's Zoëtry Montego Bay Jamaica, all accommodations include an in-house concierge. Some have private swim-out pools.
"The Zoëtry Wellness & Spa Resorts brand is all about exceptional amenities," says AMResorts senior vice president Miguel Oliveira. "There are no check-in or check-out times, unlimited top-shelf spirits and 24-hour concierge."
Marriott CEO Anthony Capuano said in a March 2021 earnings call that luxury rooms account for more than 10% of Marriott's pipeline.
"Leisure demand has led the recovery, and we are well-positioned to continue growing our lead in resort destinations, including in the high growth all-inclusive space," he said. For example, among Marriott's recent additions is the Royalton Antigua, where visitors can stay in Antigua's only glass-floored, overwater bungalows.
Story continues below.
And while the rooms are luxurious, increasingly more all-inclusive resorts promote getting outside the resort area.
Twin Farms in Vermont offers ski equipment and fat-tire bikes for use on its private slopes. A partnership with Volvo allows guests to explore Vermont's countryside by taking a drive in vehicles made available by the resort. Nightly rates sometimes run close to $6,000.
Baja Expeditions offers a glamping experience at San Ignacio Lagoon in Mexico. Guests stay in windproof, heated tents with en suite bathrooms, and head out on whale-watching excursions during the day. The four-day experience costs about $5,000 for two guests and includes a charter flight to the lagoon.
Rewriting the all-inclusive playbook
This year has provided travelers with a different type of all-inclusive experience when Walt Disney World Resort opened Star Wars: Galactic Starcruiser. In its simplest form, it's Disney's "Star Wars" hotel, but it's a lot more than that.
"The Galactic Starcruiser experience is part dinner mystery theater, part high-production show, part escape room, part video role-playing game, part cruise, and part resort stay – all rolled into one," says Beci Mahnken, founder and CEO of travel agency MEI-Travel.
The cost starts between $1,500 and $2,400 per person for two nights and valet parking. It includes activities such as lightsaber training, and tickets to the theme park. It also includes themed food like bantha dumplings, a beef-based dish supposedly made from "bantha," a fictional "Star Wars" mammalian beast.
Why is all-inclusive travel becoming popular?
For travelers who care about costs, all-inclusives – while sometimes more expensive – can be worth it as they simplify planning and budgeting.
When pricing an a la carte vacation, travelers have to account for hidden costs like mandatory gratuities and resort fees. Then, they factor in minor expenses like bottles of water and parking. With all-inclusives, these expenses tend to be – well – included.
While the Star Wars: Galactic Starcruiser is far from a budget vacation, Mahnken says that when you compare individually priced theme park tickets, entertainment and meals with the cost of the all-inclusive experience, then $3,000 – while not exactly cheap – might sting less.
"Is it for everyone? No," she says. "However, when you look at each element of the experience and what you would pay for each experience separately, the price is a very good value."
Even still, Mahnken advises understanding what's covered when booking. Especially among cruises, it's common to see similar rooms and itineraries at vastly different rates because some include gratuities, alcohol and fine dining, while others don't. For some more travelers, the opulence plus convenience can be worthwhile.
"The ability to pre-pay and not have any surprises or a bill waiting for you at the end removes many aggravating factors of travel," Mahnken says. "It's easier to budget."
Sally French is a writer at NerdWallet. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: All-inclusive travel is getting a higher-end rebrand: What to know