Tips for first time all inclusive travelers to Mexico

Jun 7, 2004

The Bottom Line Having gone to Hawaii at least 30 times in the last 30 years, I highly recommend Mexico. The all inclusive resorts can make for a fabulous bargain.

We went to our first all inclusive resort in Mexico last year. Since then we have gone back two times and have a fourth trip scheduled.

This is designed to help people who have never done the all inclusive trip by sharing what we’ve learned.

My spouse was apprehensive about going to Mexico. We had gone there about 18 years ago and she got sick as a dog. We did not do an all inclusive then and eating out at various places obviously hadn’t worked well. But it also left a bad feeling about traveling there.

In addition, although we have traveled extensively (both of us are million mile flyers), I generally plan the trips and we make all our own reservations. I wasn’t sure if I wanted to leave this to a travel agency.

However, we were harried late last summer and needed some time off. I stumbled across an offer from Suntrips for a new resort in Cancun, the Riu Cancun. When I investigated it I found most people had a lot of good things to say about it and they had a dynamite offer for 7 days all inclusive including air, transfers, etc. for less than $800. We couldn’t pass it by so we signed up.

Overall we found Mexico and the all inclusive experience to be great. The beaches and the water are fantastic (Gulf coast). The all inclusives that we have stayed at had good to great food and although they haven’t been the “perfect” resort, I do believe the perfect resort would cost a lot more. Finally, we found what we wanted, but we did do our homework.

What I find when I review what other people say is that if they are unhappy it is for one of three reasons. First, they didn’t do their homework and went somewhere that didn’t have what they were looking for. Second, they had a bad experience which colored the entire trip and they didn’t enjoy anything. Or third, their standards were not going to be met in Mexico (see my comment about the perfect resort).

Some of the basics.

In traveling to Mexico you need a passport or a copy of your birth certificate. If you are a single parent or a grandparent taking kids to Mexico for vacation you will need a notarized letter granting you permission from the parents or the other parent to take the child to Mexico.

Most all inclusive will give you a wrist band to identify you so you can get drinks, food, etc. They may have a towel card system to insure you return the towels you use on the beach. Others like the Sunscape Tulum didn’t have any of that. No wrist bands, no towel cards, etc. There were no other resorts close by, so this system was doable and worked great.

There are a number of travel companies who have all inclusive offers for Mexican travel. These include Apple Vacations, Suntrips, and Funjet to name a few. I have never used Apple Vacations. I’ve used Suntrips twice and found them to be very good. But I particularly like Funjets website. It allows you to put in dates for travel and then offers you a list of the carriers who travel from your city to where you are going. So rather than being booked on Continental flight with a layover in Houston, I can pick a nonstop on Frontier to Cancun from Denver.

On our last trip to Mexico, rather than buying a package from one company, we found a great deal on the hotel, found ground transportation to and from the Cancun airport and I arranged my own plane reservations. I would not recommend this to first time all inclusive travelers to Mexico. The travel companies have it down to a science and rather than have to worry about all the details, I would go with one of them.

In addition, they will give you some great advice too. For instance, when you arrive in Cancun you will find just outside the immigration all kinds of nicely dress people with small booths offering to check your documents or give you information. Our flight crew told us to ignore them; they were trying to set you up for a timeshare presentation. I’m pretty sure if I hadn’t been given that advice, I would have ended up talking with them.

You can look for special deals at the Travelzoo at and the Travelfleamarket at In addition, Frommer’s keeps an eye out for travel deals and you can check the packages there at All of these are taking the best deals being offered by a myriad of travel agencies across the country.

When you review these specials many of them will seem too good to be true. And in fact many of them are. You need to do your homework.

The first thing I do when I see a great offer to investigate the resort the offer is at. The best place on the web is Trip Advisor ( . Trip advisor has write ups on most of the all inclusives in Mexico as well as a huge number of hotels around the world. These write ups are by people who have stayed at the hotel and gives their opinion of the resort. If it is just Mexico or the Caribbean you are interested in, you can also find good write ups at Ron’s All Inclusive ratings and Judy and Marie’s .

Evaluating a resort before you go

Here is the way I go about evaluating a resort. I go to Trip Advisor first and scan the ratings. If they are almost all bad, I cross it off the list. You will find a number of the really good deals are for second or third rate resorts and end up not being good deals. But not all of them are. In fact, you will find some great deals on great resorts as well.

If the ratings are almost all good, I specifically look at the really bad reviews to see what these people found so offensive. I believe we all have deal breakers. If we go to a resort that suffers from our deal breaker, we will write a bad review. When I read these I want to see if their deal breaker is the same as mine. If not, then the resort with a lot of glowing reviews is likely to be one that I would be happy at. For instance, one of my deal breakers is loud (I mean really loud) music playing all day so you can’t enjoy the beach and the sound of the waves. If I find that in the unhappy reviews, I know I would be unhappy too at this resort.

Tip #1. Find your deal breakers. You need to examine what you like and don’t like in a vacation. Think about what a perfect resort would be like. Then think of what makes it perfect. What would be the opposite of those qualities? Some of those are probably your deal breakers. Do you want to be where there is a lot of night life? Cancun is probably where you want to stay. Is a great beach really important to you? Then Playa del Carmen is a better choice than Cancun. Do you want to be relatively close to the attractions? Which attractions are you talking about? I saw a write up by someone who stayed at a resort we did in Tulum who complained it was so isolated (this is a good point for us). At the time we were at the Tulum ruins and met a man who was there with his son. He was staying in Cancun but felt it was so far from everything (he was going to Chichen Itza, Xe Hal, the Tulum ruins, etc). The Tulum resorts were not so remote for him.


Since the resort is all inclusive, this means you will be able to eat all your meals there and I think you would want to know a little about the food service.

Most all inclusives have a buffet and at least one ale carte restaurant. At some all inclusives you can eat at the ala cartes all you want. At others, you are allowed to eat at the ala cartes a limited number of times.

The Riu Hotels we stayed in had two buffets (one general and one specific i.e. a steakhouse) and one or two ala carte restaurants. At the Riu Cancun, the ala carte restaurant wasn’t really ala carte (it had a fixed menu), but it was a sit down and be served restaurant. At the Riu Playacar the ala carte restaurants were two side by side outside restaurants, one a steak house and the other a seafood restaurant. There was a selection of perhaps 5 entrees at each restaurant with a common appetizer, salad and dessert for all the meals.

At the Rius you had to sign up to get a reservation in the morning if you wanted to eat at the ala cartes. Another factor we found odd at the Riu Playacar was that you had to sign up for an early or late seating at the buffet (either 6:30 PM or 8:30 PM). This took some of the flexibility out of the meals. However, the food was good at the Rius.

At the Sunscape Tulum, there was a single buffet and four ala carte restaurants. There was no set time for eating at all of the restaurants. There were no reservations taken for the ala carte restaurants, so you would go over to them and either be seated or get on a waiting list if they were full. The food at the Sunscape was terrific and was reflected that way in most of the write ups. Also, the menus at the Sunscape were great. At the Italian Restaurant, there was a choice of 6 appetizers, two soups, 6 pasta dishes, 4 meat dishes or 4 seafood dishes as entrees and 4 different desserts.

Again, you need to know your deal breakers. Some people don’t like having to “get up at the crack of dawn in order to get a reservation” at an ala carte restaurant, while others wouldn’t like the Sunscape because they might have to wait in line in the evening to get a seat at the ala cartes. I liked the flexibility of deciding in the evening to select what kind of food I felt like eating. So to me, the Sunscape system was better (but neither was a deal breaker).

Tip #2. Make sure that the all inclusive that you are looking at is compatible with you regarding its food. Do you hate buffets? As people describe the buffet does it sound like you would like it? Do the other restaurants serve the kind of food you like? What about reservations? What do the people evaluating the food say? Do you want to have a set time you can go to eat or would you like the flexibility of deciding that evening where you want to eat?


Most all inclusive include liquor as well as food. If you see the word domestic liquor this means Mexican liquor. Other resorts (the more swanky ones) will include top shelf liquor as well. But if you want the top shelf liquor even at the swankier places you need to specifically ask for it or they will use domestic.

Wine is another animal. Most include a local house wine as part of the all inclusive but will have a wine list which will cost extra for better wines. The house wines at the Rius were pretty bad. The Sunscape’s house wine was not bad.

Some all inclusives will have service at the pool and or on the beach. Others will not. Most people who use poolside service tend to find it takes around 15 minutes or more to get a drink. To some people that is too long.

I also found that drinking to oblivion was much more prevalent in Cancun. We took the local bus one night and a group of people got on the bus with drinks in hand and they were three or more sheets to the wind. I also saw it around the pool in Cancun. Of course, you find a younger crowd in Cancun.

Tip #3. Save yourself a lot of time and hassle. Get a large insulated mug for your drinks. You can buy them at WalMart for about $5 for a 20 ounce mug. It does a couple of things for you. The glasses they use at the resorts tend to be small. Your own mug will last you a lot longer than the small glasses. Secondly, you will be the only one drinking out of it. The bartenders will wash glasses as well as fill them up. If you watch them wash it, I think you’ll feel better knowing it’s your mug.


The next factor is the facility. There are a number of resorts in Mexico with a great wow factor for the facilities. The Riu Cancun had gorgeous common areas. The Riu Playacar’s wow factor was the beach. The Sunscape Tulum didn’t really have a wow factor on the facilities, but I found it charming.

There are a number of resorts where the ground and the pool are take your breath away beautiful. Want a swim up bar? Check to see if they have one. Some resorts have posh rooms. Want a Jacuzzi in your room? See if it is offered. If any of these things are important to you check them out.

Tip #4 Again at Trip Advisor there is a link at the top of the page to pictures of the hotel. It will give you some idea of the wow factors.


The room is a factor you want to consider too. You will read a lot of people complain about how hard the beds are. We’ve been to three resorts and all of them had really hard beds. I believe that is just the kind of beds they have in Mexico.

Check to see the facilities in the room. The Rius didn’t have any coffee making in the rooms, but they did have four bottles of hard liquor in a dispenser on the wall (I guess that’s if you need a drink before the bars open at 10 AM).

All of the places we’ve stayed had safes in the room. The Rius had a key type safe while the Sunscape had a combination safe. Riu Cancun had a bathtub, Riu Playacar had a shower only, while the Sunscape had a shower only in the regular rooms and a bathtub in the junior suites (this was a deal breaker for someone at Tripadvisor who got a regular room, but wanted a bathtub).

The Rius had no clock in the room. All the resorts we stayed at had cable TV with a good number of English language channels.

Another complaint you will see is the smell. There is a musty smell in the tropics from the water and the drains in the rooms. We smelled it at all the resorts, but read a lot about it at the Playacar. In fact, when I got back from the Riu Playacar I had to not recommend it because of the very strong odor in the rooms there.

Tip #5. If you keep reading about a problem mentioned by a lot of people, you may want to reconsider using that resort. We all have our sensitivities, but if it is mentioned by a lot of people, it is probably more than one or two people who are overly sensitive.


The size of the resort is something that is a big factor for us. We don’t like huge resorts. They have more facilities, but more people competing for them. The Riu Playacar was a small facility but there were three sister resorts sharing the beach (a big wonderful beach, but crowded with about 2000 rooms in four resort).

Sunscape Tulum was a small resort with only 278 rooms. We found it easier to meet people and you got to know more people at a smaller resort. So what size resort are you comfortable with? 200 rooms? 300 rooms? 500 rooms? More?


A big factor for many people is the animation staff and the activities at the hotel. Many all inclusives have activities by the pool all day. These may include water polo, trivia, exercise, Spanish lessons, dance lessons, etc. Some people want music and activities by the pool all day. Others (like myself) want any activities to be unobtrusive and to hear the ocean not the loud music.

Another form of entertainment is nonmotorized sports equipment. See what they have. Many offer boogie boards, sail boards, kayaks, catamaran sail boats, paddleboats. Many resorts offer these at no expense. Some have a time limitation per day during which there is no charge to use the equipment.

Most all inclusive also have a show at night. These vary in quality. Some can be very professional, while others tend to be more amateurish. Is this important to you? Large resorts tend to have better animation shows at night.

Topless Bathing

You will find that most places on the Atlantic Coast in Mexico will have some topless sunbathers. It tends to be more prevalent in the Riviera Maya than Cancun, because there are more European guests. If you are taking kids, this is something to you will need to deal with.


Being in my 50s I don’t have little children to worry about. There are adult only resorts as well as family resorts. There is even a couple of adult only rated X resorts in the Cancun area.

If you have kids you want to find out about the children programs, any restaurant restrictions, etc. the resort you are looking at might have, etc. You will read about them at the resources I gave you earlier in this report. For instance, Sunscape Tulum was a family oriented resort but children under 12 weren’t allowed in the Italian restaurant. They had an all day daycare and children’s club, but there was an additional charge if you wanted a babysitter at night.

I actually did read on one of the Mexico forums where some grandparents were looking to take their grandchild to Mexico. The advice from one person on the board was to take the child to Disneyland. But I see a lot of reports where the kids love the resort in Mexico.

Day Trips

There are numerous daytrips you can take from Cancun and the Riviera Maya. We went to Chichen Itza and Tulum. Both are Mayan ruins. Chichen Itza is a large city with some very interesting ruins. We climbed up the Pyramid there and saw an observatory that looked a lot like our observatories today. Tulum is an absolutely beautiful site. It is smaller and has a number of stone buildings spread out. But the site, by the sea is what really makes it memorable. It is very hot there and people recommend you wear bathing suits under your shorts so you can take a dip and cool off (not a bad idea). In addition there are a number of ecological parks that are very nice for the family.

Your tour agency who sold you the trip will also try to sell you some of these trips. In fact, Sun Trip had a representative at our hotel each day to do exactly that. I had gotten a Cancun Card which got me some good prices on some of these trips so I didn’t use them. I have read that some people have gotten better prices from local tour groups than the one they came to Mexico with. You just need to decide if it is worth it to you to try to find a better deal, or just take the convenient way.

You can go on line and simply type in day trips Cancun and get a list of companies that offer them. Here is a link to one, but it is no better or worse than many others.

Final advice

Mexico is a treasure. The beaches are beautiful and you get a lot for your money.

The Mexican people are very hard working. All inclusives advertise they include all tips too. I think tipping is a great thing to do. I’ve found tipping about $15 days will help a lot of people. Does it affect the service you get? Probably yes. Not directly, that is they won’t ignore you if you don’t tip, but they do remember you if you do. For instance, the bartenders tend to remember what you are drinking and will ask if you want the usual. We had the same waiter at the Italian Restaurant at the Sunscape Tulum every night we went to the Italian restaurant. We were talking about getting after dinner coffee, but decided not to order any. Our waiter heard us discussing it and ended up bringing us on his own a pretty good coffee drink. Don’t forget the maids.

Do go a visit some of the Mexican ruins. Would you go to Egypt and not visit the Pyramids? We have Pyramids in the Western Hemisphere and you don’t want to miss them.

Bring an umbrella. During the rainy season it will come in handy and during the sunny season it will shade you from the sun on your trip to the Mexican ruins.

Learn to bargain. At the various markets, the asking price is just that, the asking price. Bargaining is a time honored tradition in many societies.

Learn a little Spanish. Gracias and a few other words will help you a great deal.

Use the collectivos. Some of the people at the Sunscape said they felt isolated. For $2 per person they could get a ride in a collective to Playa del Carmen. Collectivos are white vans than go from Tulum to Playa del Carmen or Playa to Cancun about every 10 minutes. They are in good condition and have an air conditioning system that works well. It’s a good way to get around.

Finally, you are on vacation so enjoy yourself. I’ve read reviews where something unfortunate happened to the person and it seemed to color their entire trip and took the joy out of it. Don’t let one bad thing ruin your trip.

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