Last Updated on July 14, 2023 by Stacey Levesque
Star ratings, price, and destination are how people often shop for all-inclusive resorts. Why are the prices of 4 stars so varied? Even 5-star – some are less than 4-star prices? How does one figure out the best value when star rating and price are the primary search filters?
The cost of all-inclusive resort packages is driven by several factors:
Real Estate: Smaller, more expensive tax havens such as Grand Cayman, Turks & Caicos, Barbados, and Bahamas have less land and banks with deposits from all over the world. The land on which a resort resides is very expensive, especially if the zoning and available beachfront are even more limited. Cuba is a communist country where the government owns all the land. The length of Cuba is more than half the width of the United States! Government-leased land on hundreds of miles of pristine beach and nearby cays means the portion paid in real estate is much lower.
Economic Development: Places such as Aruba, Curacao, St Maarten, and more, have more developed and diversified economies other than tourism. Residents live in good economic conditions, including retirement from overseas, and as such the real estate and labour market is more developed and competitive. Hawaii is another great example. Cuba, Dominican Republic, Jamaica, and Mexico (especially outside large cities and the capital) are less developed. Labour is cheaper.
Location: Even in destinations where land is relatively cheaper, some tracts of land (particularly the first chosen for development) have better settings, better beaches, closer to desirable areas (towns, tourist attractions, vistas, etc.). People pay more for a better location.
Space per Guest: It’s not the size of the resort, but how much area is available for each guest. “Small” resorts may still have a wide beach, manicured grounds, multiple pools, multiple restaurants and bars, larger guestrooms, low-rise buildings, a comfortable lobby, gym, and spa. Add up this area and divide it by the number of guests, and the per-person price is higher. Just like a business class seat, more space per guest comes with a cost. The opposite is true. Narrower width beaches on deep (skinny) lots, with multi-story room blocks, and outdoor space used functionally for more deck chairs around a massive pool will mean lower cost per guest. Horseshoe-style buildings tightly ribboning a narrow property with an expansive middle pool area maximize the land use. Often you will find the beach and pool area “crowded” by comparison – deck chairs are in hot demand. Line ups at pool bars.
Food Availability: Islands have limited agriculture and most food is imported. Basics are imported by ship; luxury and smaller-demand foods by airplane. A better meal on a small island will cost more than a place like Mexico where agriculture is a competitive industry and goods are shipped by truck at lower cost. Cuba has an embargo with the US, limiting imports from the US, but US companies operating elsewhere. Purchasing power of the Cuban currency is limited. Shortages are common. Jamaica and the Dominican Republic are hybrids where agriculture exists, but a significant number beyond basics are imported.
Food Culture: Beyond available and limited ingredients, cooking style varies by historical origins and ethnic diversity. Coming from Canada, especially in large Canadian cities where ethnicity is highly diverse, the choices in many destinations are more limited. This has improved over time, with international companies training chefs in big cities worldwide. Resort chains based in Europe and the US will invest more in training and menus, and resorts with multiple restaurant offerings will specialize more in different styles (Italian, Japanese, Indian, etc.).
Service: Good service is often described as friendly, but it is beyond a friendly smile and good intentions. Good service relies on more available labour, better training, good management, and employee retention. Beyond the human aspect, good service relies on consistent delivery – good systems, infrastructure, and supply chains.
Rooms: Building age and quality are factors in the reliability of the room. New builds typically have better plumbing and look fresher. Quality buildings cost more. Room space costs more. Bathrooms in particular are a large driver of the cost of a hotel room. Furnishings, including bed quality, and furniture, as well as soft touches such as art, linens, curtains, and blinds, make a difference. Not all rooms can be oceanfront, oceanview, pool view, and certainly not “swim out”.
Grounds: If you have your garden or know someone who does, you’ll know that thick, green, weed-free grass takes a lot of work and water. Plants need to be pruned, beds weeded and watered. Gardens, pathways, waterfalls, features, and lighting all make a difference in the experience. This has upfront and ongoing costs. Some resorts are tropical paradises giving a feeling of space and zen. Others are mostly concrete and simply functional.
Beverage: Resorts can provide an all-inclusive offering of one local beer brand on tap (regular and light), one very low-cost brand of barely drinkable wine in red and white, common spirits (rum, vodka, gin, bourbon), fountain soft drinks and ready-made fruit juices and drinks for mixing. These bars can be lightly staffed with a few waiters doing rounds for service. Guests may line up or wait a while at a pool bar to fight for the attention of the bar staff. Alternatively, there could be a full range of name-brand international brands including multiple beer choices by bottle, scotches, cognacs, and a decent house wine that can be recognized and purchased at home. Better resorts will have red wines that are stored in a wine fridge at the proper temperature, and where the stock turns over with guests buying wine by the bottle. More waiters circulating, bringing drinks promptly, served in proper glassware at indoor bars vs plastic cups are big differences that add cost to the overall resort.
Entertainment: Some resorts offer little in the way of entertainment. Maybe an amateurish set of shows, or a single musician with synthesized backup. Others offer multiple venues of music with higher caliber entertainment with local visiting musicians offering more variety. Some specialize in entertainment, making a larger investment for those seeking more to do, particularly at night. Other resorts may lack onsite entertainment but have walking distance proximity to entertainment outside the resort.
Star Ratings: Tour operators assign star ratings themselves, relative to the offering they present within a destination. There are no standards in North America, and a few countries in Europe have an official government star rating for hotels in their home country only. All one can discern from the star rating is that for that tour operator, in that destination, they believe their 5 star is better than their 4.5 star, which is better than their 4 star, and better than their 3.5 star…and so on. But you cannot compare destinations in the same way. The 4-star in Holguin is not the same as the 4-star in Varadero let alone Aruba.
TripAdvisor: Many of our customers use TripAdvisor, google, and other review sites. There are two problems with consumer reviews. 1st, they are based on expectations versus delivery. Consider a low-cost destination such as Puerto Plata at a mass market resort. The clientele attracted to that destination and resort have entirely different expectations than the clientele attracted to a smaller luxury resort in Barbados. Yet, they all arrive with expectations that are either met, not met, or exceeded in some proportion. Someone going to a luxury resort in Barbados expects more, and if it is not delivered in any way, the review will be affected. Similarly, someone going to Puerto Plata, especially a first-timer, may not know what to expect at all, and be completely blown away leaving a fabulous review and rating.
As such, consumer reviews are essentially an average rating out of ten from 4.0 to 4.9 or 5 (few even make it to 5.0 if there are a lot of reviews). Watch out for the number of reviews based on the average. You can only compare hotels in the same destination based on the average review with a good sample. Ratings lower than 4 often can be a warning sign of inconsistency, but depending on expectations and the destination, resorts with ratings less than 4 on TripAdvisor can satisfy many customers.
Americans represent a lot of tourists (big country). Differences in wealth and expectations for Americans that travel internationally versus Canadians are apparent in reviews. A higher percentage of Canadians travel internationally, and our colder climate creates a mass market for resorts in sunny destinations that are not as developed in the US. Destinations frequented by Americans will affect the average TripAdvisor ratings, as well as destinations not visited (Cuba).
So how to sort this all out…
Our experienced travel agents have been to many destinations. When visiting a destination, they will see many hotels in a week, giving them additional insight into how they differ. Some have visited these destinations multiple times. Our agents share information with each other, and our systems allow for candid comments that we cannot publish (our hotel partners would seriously object). They have an inside track in many cases. The better you express your individual needs, your travelling companions’ needs, and your memorable past experiences, the better the recommendation they will make. Conversely, the better our agents ask questions of you to uncover these needs, the better the recommendation will be. It’s irrelevant what our travel agents liked and disliked; it’s more important what they think you will like or dislike.
Our website has advanced features that many do not take the time to use. In our vacation grid, you can choose multiple destinations – or keep most and exclude some undesirable to you. You can then enter up to three preferences in order. Your first preference chosen will have more impact than your second, and your second more than your third. On tripcentral.ca you are not forced to pick a specific date like other sites. You can choose a month that will show 8 weeks including the 2 plus or minus from the prior and following month. Or choose a week and see all options departing within that week. Our date selector allows you to choose a specific date with specific date selections within 3 days (for example – you can choose to only see Fri/Sat/Sun or Fri/Sat/Sun/Mon. The last thing you should choose is a budget, but it is important to do this. If you don’t choose a budget, we will show you what we think are the best values between quality and price. The budget selector is smart – it will only offer you valid selections and you will always see some prices just above the budget greyed out, so you won’t have to worry about missing something good because it was a little bit more. This is all very powerful, but nothing beats this technology combined with our agents’ experience and your expressed needs.
Related Article: How to express your needs succinctly and Get the most from your travel agent relationship.