Usually, we run from the words “all-inclusive packages” as they tend to be rip-offs, where every operator for the segment of your trip gets their cut. But when one of my colleagues at Princeton told me of a positive, good value-for-money, all-inclusive experience he had in Orlando, Florida, and I happened to come across the inexpensive all-inclusive Sandos Cancun Luxury Resort soon after, Christian and I decided to take the plunge and take a four-day trip to Cancun to see what the hype was all about. We were also only doing the all-inclusive hotel, and not a package deal with hotels plus flights etc., so we were happy to dip our toes in the all-inclusive experience without going all in.
Flights to Cancun from the US, especially the main airports such as JFK and Fort Lauderdale,
tend to run on the cheaper end: we managed to get our tickets for less than US$300 roundtrip from Newark (closer to Princeton, where we were at the time) over a long weekend (traveling over the week obviously could be even cheaper!) Most flights have a layover in Miami, which is a comfortable airport to spend a few hours in if need be.
We used to do seven hour layovers. Now, three hours is the most at best…
It’s also advisable to load up on snacks and drinks before your flight in the airport (which offers a reasonable variety of restaurants) as the US domestic flights offer few complimentary refreshments.
We traveled to Cancun in August and the temperature was comfortable – not too hot and humid as long as you spend your days lying on the beach and cooling off in the turquoise blue waters of the Gulf of Mexico. The sky was muggy on one day (especially as you traveled inland) but it was good weather throughout. Having lived in Greece, and my coming from Sri Lanka, we tend to have pretty high expectations of sea and ocean experiences, but Cancun blew us away. The azure waters lapping on the white sandy beaches made for endless days and nights of lying by the beach, just listening to the ocean as we sipped on our pina coladas and filled up on fresh calamari (are we a beach couple cliché? We didn’t realize…)
We were picked up from the airport by a Sandos representative and whisked away to the hotel strip in Cancun. Fair warning – this strip is the height of tourism. If you’re looking for a more local experience, this is not the place for you. We were looking to relax and enjoy the ocean as much as possible, and didn’t mind the hotel experience for a few days, so it was perfect for us. We did however attempt to compensate by engaging drivers and locals in conversation as much as possible (which was an extremely informative as always – we highly recommend you try it out!)
Do: Call in to confirm your airport pick up a week in advance
We ran into a few problems as we called a few days ahead (less than a week). The airport pick up is also usually not included in your “all-inclusive” experience but you can usually negotiate that in with a bit of luck!
From the moment we arrived to when we were picked up for the airport, we had a wonderful experience at Sandos. We were greeted with welcome drinks, roses, and smiles, and even when we ran into some technical difficulties during check in (on our part) they were extremely courteous and helpful. We were given wristbands to indicate our all-inclusivity and boy, did they deliver. When they say all-inclusive in the hotel, they mean it. From the penthouse suite to yoga lessons to Tennis to to drinks (anything on the menu) to snacks, food, buffet spreads, breakfast in bed, everything was included.
Mexico is a great place for budget travel. The all-inclusive hotel ended up costing less than US$150 per person per day, which was well worth the luxury experience we enjoyed. The most upscale activities cost between US$30 and US$70 per person. Well worth the price.
There are of course plenty of other hotels on the strip that offer all-inclusive packages but we found Sandos to offer the best value for money during our dates.
The Japanese restaurant on site had a fantastic chef and a continuous stream of Sake…
The lunch and dinner buffets offered an excellent variety with wonderful service, and our breakfast in bed service was prompt and delicious.
The staff was wonderful. We’d heard a lot about missing valuables in high-end hotels in Cancun but personally ran into no problems (always travel smart!) All-inclusive experiences usually mean “all-inclusive except for…” but in this case, we definitely recommend the Sandos Luxury Resort folks for being true to their word.
Do: Venture out of the hotel
While Christian was perfectly happy spending his days at the pool and ocean drinking and eating his body’s weight, I as usual wanted to fit in some sort of cultural experience into our trip. So we compromised on one full day of traveling out of the hotel to visit Chichen Itza. This is the difficulty of booking an all-inclusive experience; you don’t want to venture out of the hotel for worry of wasting money. One way to compromise on this is to do what we did – have all your meals at the hotel but still spend one entire day exploring. Another way is to book your all-inclusive hotel for a few days of full relaxation, and stay at a regular hotel or B&B for a few days after (or before, depending on what you prefer!). You can then use these days to travel around, while having experienced the complete relaxation and pampering that a good all-inclusive deal has to offer.
I was thrilled to visit their Mayan temple and learn more of this incredible history, and while we usually stayed away from group tours, decided to take a standard tour of Chichen Itza and the Sacred Cenote. The hotel as usual had an information booth on tour operators in the area and we extremely helpful in setting up our tour for an extremely reasonable price of US$70 per person for an entire day of touring. Our tour lasted 12 hours, and we had a phenomenal time. There were no added costs, no frills, no strings attached.
Don’t: Rent a car
Others may have different experiences, but we were told not to rent a car as driving the “highways” in the area were both dangerous and expensive. We’re big fans of driving around and exploring on our own but decided to heed their advice this time around… we’d love to know if you’ve had different experiences!
As we mentioned, while we usually stay away from tours like the plague, we actually ended up thoroughly enjoying our tour of Chichen Itza and the Sacred Cenote (along with a host of other towns and villages along the way). Of course, the stops were touristy and little if any of the money spent on the stops along the way would go to the actual crafters and locals in the stores. However, our guide was extremely informative and a native himself, and gave us plenty of time to roam around on our own, away from the twenty-something others in our group. Our only caveat is that finding our bus at the main tour operator stop in the beginning was extremely chaotic, but it is to be expected, with dozens of people heading off on different tours operated in different languages in one place. The tour itself was enjoyable, informative, with enough time for our own exploration and activities, if at all a bit exhausting at the end, given the heat. Pack plenty of water and snacks!
Swimming in the Sacred Cenote was great because it was a first time we’d ever been to and swum in a sinkhole. Was it touristy? Yes. Did we enjoy standing in line to jump in? Yes. Did we wish there were fewer people? Yes. Did we love it nevertheless? You betcha.
Pack an extra pair of slippers, sneakers, a towel, a bathing suit, and plenty of water and snacks on your trip!
Chichen Itza was an incredible experience. It was our first time at a Mayan temple and we enjoyed the tour around, with the guide telling us about Mayan life and sports, where myth and truth become one. We had plenty of time to walk around on our own after the guided tour.
Do: Give a guided tour a try
Especially if you’re only in the area for a few days. It’s a very relaxing experience being picked up from your hotel and to be taken to different attractions. While we wouldn’t trade it in for traveling and exploring on our own most of the time, it’s definitely an experience worth trying out when necessary.
Now for the obvious…
…the party scene
What’s Cancun known for? Spring break parties. We missed the Spring Break action, and while we did look into the different clubs nearby (plenty on offer, a bus ride down the hotel strip) we didn’t end up going given the more relaxed vibe of our vacation. While partying is usually on our agenda, we were blown away by the beauty of the beaches and the comfort of our hotel that we preferred to spend our time outside of Chichen Itza and the Sacred Cenote chilling by the hotel’s more private beach, spa, and beach dinner barbecues (which we loved). Sandos Cancun offered so many day time activities like Tennis and yoga that we were too tuckered out to think of hitting the club in the evening, and we loved every minute of it. For example – we ended up parasailing for the first time during one of our beach days, between drinks and hordes of calamari – and we LOVED IT.
Fair warning: As in most places, you do pay a fair amount for a twenty minute parasailing experience (they may say it’s an hour long but that includes the journey whizzing around on the boat as others in your group parasail!) but it was definitely worth it for us.
Most importantly, do: Keep an open mind.
Things tend to be a bit more chaotic when it comes to organization. I was used to this as a Sri Lanka, frankly speaking, but if you’re used to a more organized vacation, we’d recommend you go with the flow as tour operators find their bearings, immigration queues are sorted, and lines are formed and broken when waiting to be picked up via Jet-ski for parasailing, for example!
Other activities to try are heading to Mexico City, taking the bus to the daily and weekend markets held in and outside of the hotel strip, and Isla Mujeres (highly recommended!)
All in all, we thoroughly enjoyed our all-inclusive experience at Sandos Cancun, and would recommend dipping your toe in all-inclusive packages if you haven’t already, as long as you do your research first. If it seems like a good value of money based on what you would spend if you booked everything separately, as well as your value of time and relaxation during your vacation (and as long as everything is actually included and there are no conditions – we hate that!) you should go for it!
Do: Call ahead to arrange for airport pickups and drop offs.
Do: Try a tour. Pack plenty of water, snacks, extra slippers, sneakers, a towel, and a bathing suit.
Don’t: Rent a car
Do: Venture out of the hotel strip into the Yucatan, maybe even Mexico City!
Do: Visit Chichen Itza and the Sacred Cenote (and any other cenotes nearby!)
Do: Indulge in the buffets, and breakfast in bed, and poolside perks such as food and drink delivery 😉
Do: Try a water-sport! Jetskiing and parasailing are recommended!
Do: Dip your toes in the all-inclusive experience by trying out an all-inclusive hotel first. Or, if you see that the expenses for booking everything separately outweigh the inclusive package, go for it! Do your research: make sure everything is indeed all-inclusive. Call ahead if need be.
Do: Keep an open mind!
A note about conscious travel during our all-inclusive experience: this area is definitely one of – if not the – touristy sections of Cancun. While we encourage everyone to stay and engage with more local businesses when traveling, there’s no harm in trying out an all-inclusive experience, as long as you are mindful of where you are, who you interact with, and what you can do to travel more consciously even while staying at higher-end, more touristy resorts. We believe that conscious travel isn’t just about where you stay, but about how you travel.
Been to Cancun? Planning a trip there? We’d love to hear about your experiences! Share your stories with us below!
As always, be a conscious traveler: Take nothing, and leave nothing behind. Be conscious, be welcome! Read more about conscious travel here.