Planning a vacation shouldn’t be stressful, but sometimes, deciding where to go and how to travel can feel like a lot of work. When it comes to the perfect hands-off vacation, many people are torn between a cruise or a stay at an all-inclusive resort.

Both offer travelers an opportunity to relax and unwind, but each caters to a different travel style. A cruise typically allows you to travel to multiple places in comfort, making the most of the journey and the destinations themselves, while all-inclusive resorts focus on a more relaxed and localized experience.

To help you determine which style of travel is right for you, we’ll compare and contrast all of the main differences, highlighting the pros and cons of each type of trip. We’ll also answer some of the most common questions about these types of vacations and highlight which tends to be the better choice for different people.

Main Differences: Cruises and All-Inclusive Resort Vacations 

As you can probably guess, cruises and all-inclusive resorts offer different vacation experiences. Cruises provide the unique and exciting opportunity of visiting multiple destinations in a single trip, so you get a seamless blend of entertainment, relaxation, and adventure from the comfort of a floating resort. 

On the other hand, all-inclusive resorts act as land-based havens that allow you to unwind and immerse yourself fully in one location. The localized experience tends to focus more strongly on relaxation rather than blending relaxation with adventure.

One of the biggest factors for undecided travelers is the cost differences between cruises and all-inclusive resorts. Given that they are entirely different types of vacations, it’s not surprising that there tends to be quite a bit of variation in price. 

Cruise fares usually cover accommodations, the majority of meals, and a base list of onboard amenities; however, additional costs can include gratuities, alcoholic beverages, specialty dining, and shore excursions.

Carnival Panorama Atrium (Photo Credit: Ritu Manoj Jethani)

As the name implies, all-inclusive resorts usually cover accommodations, all meals, and unlimited drinks, including alcoholic drinks. Additional costs at resorts tend to include spa treatments, room upgrades, premium wines and spirits, and off-site excursions, like snorkeling, kayaking, or scuba diving. 

Since resorts cover everything, they tend to be a bit more expensive than cruises. Cruise lines anticipate that a significant number of passengers will pay for onboard upgrades.

Plus, a full-sized cruise ship tends to be able to accommodate more people than a typical resort, so costs are spread over a greater number of guests. This makes it easier for cruise passengers to stick to an affordable budget if they are careful about onboard spending.

Atlantis Resort, Paradise Island, Nassau, Bahamas (Photo Credit: Dennis MacDonald)

Resorts also require transportation, as they are almost always located in tropical locations that need to be flown to, where it’s possible to drive to a domestic embarkation port when you travel by cruise ship.

Example: A 7-night Caribbean cruise for two might start at $2,050, whereas a comparable all-inclusive in a Caribbean destination could begin at $2,950. However, these are just base examples, and cruise prices and resort costs can vary drastically. 

Gratuities are rarely mandatory on cruises but are added to your onboard account when you set sail. This helps reward the ship’s hardworking staff, but passengers can request gratuities be removed by visiting guest services. 

The automatic gratuity charged to guests per day of travel will vary from one cruise line to the next, but it tends to be pretty reasonable, given the hard work the staff puts in.

Cruise Tipping

On the other hand, all-inclusive resorts usually work on more of a cash-based system, with guests tipping staff for most actions. Since many are located in countries with lower living standards, staff tend to be heavily motivated by the tips they receive, leading to preferential treatment for those willing to hand out tips. For example, bartenders will serve those who offer a cash tip for each drink and ignore those who do not.

Even though almost everything is included, there is an underlying pressure to carry cash with you for tipping purposes. 

Dining options tend to be more varied on cruise ships than at all-inclusive resorts. From casual buffets to specialty restaurants and even recognizable chains like Starbucks, a cruise ship acts almost like a floating food court, catering to all tastes and preferences.

Restaurants on a cruise ship will have different schedules and dress codes, giving passengers more flexibility in when and where they would like to eat.

Photo Credit: Melissa Mayntz

All of this variety can come at a cost, though, as specialty restaurants and menu items almost always charge an additional fee. Certain cruise lines offer dining packages, where passengers pay an additional fee to have all of their dining costs offered at one flat rate, but these packages can be somewhat expensive.

Worth Reading: Can You Bring Food On a Cruise and How Much?

All-inclusive resorts tend to have several on-site restaurants, but they have a more general theme. While there is usually less variety, just about everything is included under the all-inclusive banner, making it easier to budget costs. 

Cruises tend to charge for alcoholic beverages, which can get expensive for heavy drinkers. With a typical beer costing between $6 and $8, prices can rise.

To compensate for this, most cruise lines offer beverage packages where guests can pay extra for a set menu of alcoholic and non-alcoholic beverages covered by a flat per-day fee.

Cruise Ship Drinks (Photo Credit: Darryl Brooks)

Passengers who do not opt for these packages can quickly find that mounting drink prices can easily go beyond their vacation budget. 

On the other hand, unlimited alcoholic beverages are almost always included in an all-inclusive resort package. While many will charge extra for premium alcohol and specialty cocktails, you can usually upgrade your drinks package to unlock the entire drinks menu.

Read Also: Are Cruises All Inclusive? – What to Expect

While the nightly fee for a resort stay tends to be more expensive, drinking is almost always less expensive, which can be a big draw for groups who plan on drinking heavily. 

The cost of traveling to your vacation destination is also a significant consideration. Many domestic cruise ports are accessible by driving, which can reduce vacation costs. With countless cruises departing from major U.S. cities each month, driving or taking a low-cost short-haul domestic flight to a port city can be a way to slash costs.

Seabourn Cruise Ship and Airplane (Photo Credit: Markus Mainka)

In contrast, all-inclusive resorts often require international flights, which can increase overall vacation expenses. In many cases, flights, transportation to and from the resort, and resort fees are all rolled into a package, which is then sold off as an all-inclusive vacation.

While this makes things easier for the traveler, it explains why a stay in an all-inclusive can be so expensive, as there is no option to drive or find your own low-cost mode of transportation like there is when you book a cruise. 

While cruises and resorts strive to provide exceptional service, the quality can vary drastically. Cruise lines tend to focus more on providing personalized service to their guests, as each crew member represents a major internationally recognized brand. 

All-inclusive resorts do not have to have the same focus on repeat business, and they tend to be owned by much smaller investment groups rather than enormous companies like Royal Caribbean International or Disney Cruise Line.

Silver Nova Crew

Cruise lines also benefit from a relatively low turnover rate. Crew members are well-trained and well-compensated, leading to a much higher retention rate than in other areas of the hospitality industry.

Unsurprisingly, having plenty of experience and high job satisfaction translates to improved service levels in an industry where many guest-facing staff are motivated heavily by tips rather than career advancement within a major company.

While the layout will vary from one cruise ship to the next, most are designed to provide passengers with easy access to a wide range of onboard amenities. While this can certainly make it easy to get to amenities, the space constraints of a ship can also mean that the top amenities can get crowded during peak hours.

Carnival Cruise Line Deck Party (Photo Credit: Ritu Manoj Jethani)

For all-inclusive resorts, properties can be larger, meaning that guests have to walk further to reach the amenities, but they can also enjoy more personal space when they get there. 

That said, it’s worth noting that a typical cruise ship will offer a greater number and variety of amenities than your average resort. This is because the resort can sell the destination and natural features, like a beach and ocean, whereas a cruise ship has to captivate the imagination of potential passengers by offering the latest amenities and attractions. 

As mentioned, cruise ships tend to offer a more extensive variety of onboard entertainment venues and activities, including live shows, casinos, waterparks with multiple slides, ice rinks, rock climbing walls, bowling alleys, bumper cars, and even skydiving simulators! 

In contrast, an all-inclusive resort will focus more on basic amenities, like a swimming pool, swim-up bar, and live performances showcasing local culture. Not only can the beach and warm weather attract guests, but resorts also have the advantage of advertising off-resort activities that are not part of the resort itself.

Ice Skating on Liberty of the Seas

The cruise industry is also incredibly competitive, with cruise lines constantly innovating and pushing the boundaries of what can be added to their ships.

For example, look at the entertainment options available on the latest Icon Class vessels in the Royal Caribbean fleet. They almost function as a blend of a floating theme park, resort, and city! 

Exploring new cultures and local attractions is one of the most appealing aspects of travel. With cruises, passengers can explore numerous destinations through ports of call. With each port offering unique sights and excursion options, passengers can enjoy a variety of new experiences in a single voyage. 

While resorts can offer off-site excursions, they tend to come with steep additional fees, and guests are constrained to the immediate area surrounding the resort.

Cruise Ship Docked in Cozumel, Mexico

Any sort of excursion far from the resort can be expensive, and transportation to the excursion point can be very time-consuming. This is why the main focus of a resort vacation tends to be unwinding and socializing rather than sightseeing.

Essentially, all of this breaks down into seeing more places with a cruise or doing more in a single location with a resort. If you want to maximize sightseeing opportunities and fit several different destinations and their cultures into one trip, it’s tough to beat the flexibility of a cruise.

However, if you want to focus on relaxing and immersing yourself in a single local culture and cuisine without traveling far, a resort-style vacation might be more of what you are looking for. 

Due to basic size constraints, space needs to be maximized on cruise ships, leading to smaller cabins, staterooms, and suites. While you can certainly upgrade to larger cruise cabins, more space comes with steeper fees. However, this does allow more flexibility when it comes to budgeting.

Photo Copyright: Emrys Thakkar

Passengers looking to save money can book low-cost inside cabins, while those with a larger budget can spend more to enjoy more private space, a balcony, and better views. 

All-inclusive resorts have the luxury of more real estate to work with, so rooms tend to be spacious. Some higher-end luxury resorts even allow guests to stay in private villas. 

Since cruise ships don’t have the luxury of using an ocean or sea for swimming, they tend to be outfitted with multiple pools, hot tubs, and even water parks, all of which will have ocean views.

Lounge chairs can be limited during midday when the pools are at their busiest, but there are so many other entertainment options that you can always find something to do if the pools and their decks seem too crowded.

Symphony of the Seas Pools (Photo Credit: Solarisys)

Resorts tend to be centered around a beach and a pool area, so there is undoubtedly plenty of poolside and beachside space for guests. Lounge chairs and cabanas are also more plentiful.

Worth Reading: What Are the Best Cruise Lines for Families?

However, this comes at a cost, as resorts can offer very little beyond swimming and lounging by the water, so a rainy day can turn a resort into a somewhat dull place.

Alternatively, cruises have so many other amenities that are not weather-dependent, making it easier for guests to entertain themselves if they don’t feel like swimming or lounging. 

Adult-only cruises exist but are not overly common, as most cruise lines advertise their cruises as family-friendly vacations. Instead, most cruise ships will have designated adult-only sections of the ship, like over 18 bars, pools, and clubs.

Virgin Voyages Cruise Ship (Photo Credit: EQRoy)

Adult-only resorts are far more common. They focus less on family-friendly fun and tend to have a more relaxed atmosphere for couples and groups of adults traveling without kids or teenagers. 

Cruises offer simplified travel experiences, with the option to customize a trip with onboard activities and in-port excursions. Resorts take this even further by offering structured activities and restaurant schedules. Most have limited flexibility for day-to-day activities, with fewer amenities, restaurants, and off-resort options.

Atlantis Resort in Nassau, Bahamas (Photo Credit: Lostsurf)

With that said, both vacation styles are much easier than other forms of travel, as you don’t need to worry about booking different hotels, finding restaurants in an unfamiliar location, or finding things to do. 

Since cruise ships are self-contained, they are incredibly efficient at recycling and disposing of waste. There is also immense pressure on the cruise industry to implement eco-friendly initiatives.

Cruise ships are also incredibly safe, as they must adhere to international standards for passenger safety, sanitation, etc. They also feature onboard medical facilities, so accidents can be dealt with even while the ship is far from land.

Cruise Ship in Port During Drill (Photo Credit: natatravel / Shutterstock)

Resorts are allowed to play by their own rules in both regards. Local ecosystems and wildlife are often affected during resort development. Sustainable practices can also vary widely, with many resorts being incredibly wasteful by Western standards.

Read Also: Cruise Ship Lifeboats – How Are They Tested?

Most resorts are safe, but measures vary from one to the next. Access to medical care can also be somewhat limited compared to modern cruise ship facilities. 

Cruising vacations are ideal for adventure seekers, first-time travelers who want to see a lot in one trip, and those who want plenty of flexibility in their daily activities. Families with children also tend to have a better time on a cruise, as there are far more kid-friendly amenities. 

Resorts are great for those who value relaxation and a single-location experience. For those who are okay with sitting by a pool sipping on a cocktail, these vacations can be a way to unwind. Couples looking to enjoy each other’s company in a more relaxed and quiet setting might prefer an adult-only resort.

Yes, a cruise is generally cheaper than an all-inclusive; however, the lower base cruise price can increase when you consider additional costs for drinks and certain onboard amenities. Resorts tend to have higher upfront fees but fewer costs once you arrive.

If you want the simplicity of budgeting ahead of time and the freedom of ordering and doing whatever you want without worrying about the financial implications, all-inclusive packages on cruises can be worthwhile. However, if you want to keep costs low and have more control over your final costs, you might be better off with a more a la carte experience. 

Absolutely! Cruises offer a unique blend of travel, entertainment, and relaxation in one package. By choosing a cruise that matches your preferred itinerary and personal budget, you can have one of the most enjoyable and memorable vacations you could ever hope for.

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