How to Plan an All-inclusive Family Vacation

Do you select all-inclusive hotels/resorts for your family vacations, especially to places in the Caribbean and Mexico? We do!

If we’re visiting a resort with onsite activities and restaurants, all-inclusive is a perfect fit because it gives us more control of our vacation budget. Also, our son is a creature of habit when it comes to eating and his overall schedule. All-inclusive resorts allow us to reasonably schedule onsite meals and activities and not worry about transportation time to and from local attractions and restaurants.

Here's what we consider when selecting an all-inclusive resort for a vacation:

  • Onsite activities for the kids and parents - seek resorts offering a mix of kids activities and activities that parents and kids can do together.
  • Kids Club - call to check the ages of kids permitted, club hours, staff-to-kids ratio, and request a schedule of a typical day's activities. Do a quick search on to see what's being said about the club.
  • Restaurants - ensure that onsite restaurants have kid menus, with healthy food options. Try to pick a resort with multiple á la carte restaurants (not just the big buffet dining establishment) that are family-friendly.
  • Pools - look for resorts with multiple pool areas/separate pools for kids as well as zero entry pools and/or wading pools. Separate children's pool areas are best, because swim-up bars and adult poolside activities can translate into a pool party atmosphere too risque for kids. (Trust me, you don't want to have to shield your kids' eyes from the bikini contest.)
And, here are five articles to help you plan an all-inclusive family vacation and suggestions for all-inclusive hotels and resorts...
1. All-inclusives: What you should know
"Traveling with kids is hard, which is why many families choose an all-inclusive resort for vacation. Use these tips to help you ask the right questions when picking a resort." San Antonio Express-News

2. All-Inclusives Made Easy: 10 Steps for Planning Your Trip
"Booking an all-inclusive in the Caribbean can be all-consuming. To simplify the process, follow these 10 steps to finding and reserving an all-inclusive." The Washington Post

3. Great Family Vacation Spots (Video Clip)
'Parents' Magazine details some of the best all-inclusive family vacation spots." WNBC TV

4. Beaches vs. Baby Club Med
"If you want to enjoy a food-, booze- and babysitting-rich getaway that lets you lock your wallet in the safe, you may want to look into all-inclusive resorts. We compared the leading contenders: Beaches Resorts (an offshoot of Sandals) and Club Med."

5. Kids and the Caribbean
A reader gets suggestions on all-inclusive resorts for toddlers in the Caribbean. The Washington Post


Bahia Principe Jamaica: My Family Will NOT Return

HOTEL GUESTS - In Jamaica for a family wedding, Mom, Dad, grandparents, and three year old, in two rooms (one with king bed, rollaway bed, desk; second room with king beds and desk) for seven nights.

HOTEL DESCRIPTION - Huge hotel opened in January 2007 with 518 king, 418 double and 64 suites. It's a relatively new hotel and it shows (in a bad way).

DOWNSIDES – Just so you know…We're starting with the downsides because there are so many:

  • The hotel bills itself as a five-star property. It is NOT.
  • Some rooms and common spaces are showing signs of wear and tear and/or poor construction (mold, rust, holes, flaking/bubbling paint)
  • Rocky beach (fake sand covers what appears to be concrete)
  • Lame kids club (peeling paint, worn toys and games, the staff members were nice though)
  • No connecting rooms for us
  • Faded bedspreads (no duvet covers)
  • Mediocre and occasionally terrible food at the onsite à la carte restaurants
  • Very little Jamaican food (only Wednesday dinner at the buffet offers local food) at the onsite restaurants
  • Long waits, limited menu and/or no room service depending on day and time we called room service
  • NO Red Stripe beer in the complimentary in-room mini-bar
  • Only cheap Spanish beers, and terrible red and white house wines offered during dinner (my husband wants me to mention this)
  • NO food available poolside, only a bar, which turned out to be a downside when adult guests drank too much and engaged in heavy petting and other adult activities
  • Bikini contests and other adult-oriented poolside activities
  • People smoking everywhere, especially at the entrances to the restaurants
  • Six dollars a day for the safe (that really got my goat)
  • NO late check-out appears to be available (no matter how empty the hotel is; I had to beg to get them to let me check out 30 minutes late)
UPSIDES – We liked these property features and amenities…
  • Magnificent grounds, beautiful landscaping with native shrubs, flowers, palm trees, etc., and a lone rooster which the kids loved
  • “Junior suites” room size (really just large rooms with sitting area)
  • Large balconies with table/chairs for two (kids can play board games on balcony)
  • Large pool area (actually four “contiguous” pools (separated by walls)
  • Two separate kiddie pools
  • Lifeguards and plenty of hotel staff poolside
  • All-inclusive (sort of)
INSIDER TIPS – For you to use, if you're brave enough to stay at this hotel
  • Don’t bother with Golden Club unless it’s free upgrade. It was only helpful in booking the awful meals at the a la carte restaurants, use of the computers with Internet access in the Gloden Club room, unlimited towels poolside.
  • Insist on a rollaway bed, if you need an extra bed (the sitting area has built-in seating with a hard two-inch cushion that the hotel claims you can use as a bed…not!)


FREE Family Activities in New York City

Our top five sources for information on free (or almost free) activities during a family vacation in New York City:

  • Free (and Almost Free) in New York with Kids (Fodor's) "Instead, when your child invokes the inevitable "Now what are we doing?" question, try one of these last-minute ideas that, not incidentally, won't break the bank."
  • Free Boat Rides and Free Museums in New York City (
  • Free New York City! (National Geographic Traveler) "Finding free activities to fill your easier than you might think. With countless cultural attractions and a large city parks system, there is plenty to do that won't cost you a cent."
  • NYC for Free (NYC & Company, the official marketing and tourism organization for New York City)
  • Big Apple Greeter "See New York through the eyes of a New Yorker." Greeters help travelers feel welcome and get more from their stay in the Big Apple." The best thing about this service is that it's free (and tipping isn't permitted).
Bonus Resource: Download's Summer in the City Saving's Pass and Guide. Get discounts to places like American Girl Place, The Skyscraper Museum, Top of the Rock's Observation Deck, hotels, restaurants and more.


Norma's: Breakfast with the Family in Manhattan

The Big Picture
Norma's is a beloved New York restaurant that serves breakfast all day and lunch in the afternoons. With a sleek décor, the restaurant matches the hotel it's housed in - the Le Parker Meridien. Our family felt welcome there with babies and kids lounging in the waiting area, although the closely packed tables were mostly full of adult tourists and those having business meetings.

The Food (Breakfast – but of course!)
The food was the star here and the portions are large (matching the prices). My husband, son and I shared the Blueberry Pancakes with thick buttery Devonshire cream (TIP: request the blueberry compote and cream on the side to avoid soggy pancakes), Eggs Benedict with ham charmingly positioned on top of two tiny pancakes, and a rather large side of Bacon lightly dusted with fresh black pepper (we counted nine pieces). The beverages are also outstanding - free shots of fruit smoothies, the freshly squeezed Orange Juice in "nice tall glasses" with free refills! The coffee was equally good, dispensed by a French press.
The service was frustrating, with long waits to order our food, receive the food, and get the check. (The bill for the two entrees, bacon, juices, and coffee was about $85. Our beverages were comped because of the long wait.)2 Quick Tips:
1. Make reservations weeks in advance for weekends, it's very crowded. (Le Parker Meridien guests receive reservations' preference.) The best time to go seems to be during the week, we got a table for three on a Thursday morning without reservations.
2. Plan to share entrees - don't order one entree for each adult, the portions are too large for almost any adult to eat by themselves.

More Reviews

New York Magazine
City Search


Brasserie Les Halles: Brunch with the Family in Manhattan

The Big Picture
It's Sunday. Mom, Dad and four-year old are staying at the Millennium Hilton in the Financial District ($100/night on Priceline!). Up since 7:00 am, we're starving after a few hours of exploring Battery Park City playgrounds, walking trails and parks. At 11:00 am, we trek over to Les Halles for some "brunch-lunch."
Also located in the Financial District, it draws a Wall Street crowd weekdays and is the kind of restaurant your hotel concierge steers you to on the weekend (our's did).
Supposedly Les Halles is connected to Anthony Bourdain - the celebrity chef, restaurateur and author. We chose it because reservations were not required and it has free wi-fi.

The Food (Sunday Brunch)
The food turned out to be delicious, even if Bourdain has nothing to do with what happens in the kitchen. I ordered the Omelet Montrachet (goat cheese, spinach and tomatoes) and my husband got the Egg's Benedict with ham (he's on a mission to try Egg's Benedict from 50 restaurants - don't ask me why). Each entree came with a small salad, a yummy croissant, and freshly squeezed orange juice. The entrees also came with a heaping portion of perfectly executed french fries, crispy but not too hard. My son had the Croque-Monsieur (you may want to ask them to omit the fried egg on top). And, we were again pleased about how well French food (especially the fries:) works for kids. (The brunch is prix fix at $17.89 for adults and $10.95 for children 12 and under.)

More Reviews
New York Magazine's

The Address
Brasserie Les Halles
15 John Street (bet. B'way & Nassau St.)
New York, NY 10038


JW Marriott Orlando (Part 2): My Family Loved It

DOWNSIDES – What we disliked about the JW Marriott Orlando Grande Lakes…

  • Small rooms, think New York City small (our room with the double beds was cramped)
  • Expensive (but tasty) food – all the dining establishments are expensive (more on food below)
  • Pricey parking - $14/night for self-parking, $20/night for valet
  • Expensive Internet access - $15.95/day for in-room wired Internet access (the wireless service was spotty)
  • Limited indoor activities for younger children, there’s only an arcade which didn’t interest our three-year old
  • Most balconies are too small to accommodate chairs (be prepared to stand on your balcony)
  • Often felt like I was at work (hotel is popular convention site, people in business attire are everywhere, even the pool)
  • Car needed to get to most theme parks and attractions (free shuttles to Universal Studios and SeaWorld; hotel can arrange transportation to Disney parks for a fee)
INSIDER TIPS – Improve your stay at the JW Marriott Orlando Grande Lakes...
  • Request a mini-fridge when you book your room and stock up on snacks and beverages from the supermarket
  • Bring snacks and drinks for your kids while at the pool - juice boxes, raisins, crackers, and fruit were the best bet for our kids rather than Quench Bar and Grill’s kids' lunch for $7.95 (our three-year old was so psyched about the pool, we couldn’t get him out long enough to eat a full meal)
  • Take the kids to the organic garden behind Primo restaurant – our older child loved walking through the garden, identifying vegetables and plants, smelling the thyme and nasturtium blossoms, and hunting for lizards
  • Use the Ritz-Carlton kids' pool and playground area for a break from the crowds at the JW lazy river and pool area
  • Do your laundry at the coin-laundry facilities on the third floor of the hotel
  • Sign up your kids for the Ritz Kids Club (ages 5-12) – the staff is wonderful and so nice that they let our three-year old play there on a rainy day (we supervised him)
  • During check-in request a list of any special kids events or activities from the front desk or the concierge
  • Request the family package rate (two connecting rooms, Citron’s breakfast buffet for two adults and two children, free self-parking, late check-out, unlimited ice cream for two kids, and much more)
POOL TALK – The pools at the JW Marriott Orlando Grande Lakes
I can’t say enough about the pools! The highlight is the winding “lazy river,” with fountains and waterfalls, surrounded by lush plants and tropical flowers. The river has a zero entry pool area and is pretty shallow (the depth is 3 feet to 5 feet. Your kids will love floating down the river in tubes ($5 fee). There is a small toddler pool perfect for the wee ones and kids needing time to warm up to getting in the larger pool and lazy river. Food can be had poolside from the Quench Poolside Bar & Grill, which is open for lunch and dinner.

FOOD PICK - Best restaurant for families at the JW Marriott Orlando Grande Lakes…

Citron was our favorite, especially for breakfast. At $23 before tax and tip (FREE for kids under six; $4.95 for kids aged 6-12), the buffet is the best deal during the week. (Weekend brunch buffet prices are $30 for adults, $14 for kids aged 6-12, free for those under six). The breakfast/brunch buffet includes breads and pastries, fruit, cold and hot cereals, milk boxes, smoked fish and carved meats, potatoes, bacon, pork and chicken sausage, French toast, and omelet and waffle stations.

Citron’s indoor dining room has traditional tables/chairs and booth seating - always a hit with kids. High chairs and booster seats are available, as well as a toy box by the entrance. Definitely dine outside on the patio at least once and you'll feel like you’re in the tropics as you eat local papaya and oranges. Also, Citron’s staff is awesome with children. By the second day, the waiters greeted my son by name and even hid the forbidden Fruit Loops from him as we made our way through the buffet.

Our daily breakfast routine went like this - at 7:00 am in our room, we ate fruit and my children had cereal and milk. By 9:30, we were tucked in a Citron booth for the breakfast feast. We were so stuffed that lunch for the adults was fruit and water or we would split a sandwich poolside at the Quench Pool Bar, and then we would all grab an early dinner.

NOTE: Skip Citron’s buffet lunch (generally offered during peak occupancy) and order a food from the regular a la carte lunch menu. My favorite was the grouper sandwich with tarragon mayonnaise and fries. It was a nice change from a hamburger at lunch. Citron is open for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Other JW Marriott Orlando dining choices include the upscale Primo, the Lobby Lounge (features a sushi bar) and Starbucks.

ROOM RUNDOWN – Rooms to book OR avoid at the JW Marriott Orlando Grande Lakes…
  • Request a “Lake Golf Front” room for a great view of the lake and/or pool
  • Request a room on the west side of the hotel above the 6th floor to see the nightly fireworks from the theme parks
  • Avoid rooms on floors above the restaurants and restaurant fans, unless you like food smells
  • Avoid rooms that are far from the elevator banks, it can be a long walk
KIDS' ACTIVITIES at the JW Marriott Orlando Grande Lakes…
Given the arrangement with the Ritz-Carlton, the resort has plenty of activities for children of all ages. Most are free, have no age restrictions and do not require pre-registration:
  • Swimming pools and lazy river
  • Playgrounds (one with a sandbox)
  • Croquet and bocce ball courts
  • Sand volleyball
  • Surrey bike rides for the whole family
  • Walking trails (request a map from the Ritz-Carlton concierge)
  • Butterfly garden
  • Fish feedings
  • Kayaking
  • Tennis (three tennis courts)
  • Arcade room
  • Fly-fishing ($)
  • Eco-tours ($)
  • Ritz Kids program for children ages 5-12 ($)
  • Babysitting ($)


JW Marriott Orlando (Part 1): My Family Loved It

HOTEL GUESTS -Who stayed at the JW Marriott Orlando
Mom, Dad, very energetic three and one-year old kids, and Grandma in two connecting rooms (one with king bed, small sofa-bed, desk; second room with two double beds and desk) stayed at the JW Marriott in Orlando for six nights. We chose it because it’s removed from the Disney hotels and International Drive’s hotel row and traffic.

It's a large luxury hotel with 1,000+ rooms and suites, pools, spa, fitness center and golf course. Situated on 500 acres and a lake, it's popular with business travelers and families. The JW Marriott shares the grounds with the Ritz-Carlton Orlando next door (Marriott guests have full privileges at the Ritz-Carlton).

UPSIDES – Why we loved the JW Marriott Orlando Grande Lakes…

  • Top-notch children’s activities, so good that we skipped two days we originally planned to be at theme parks
  • Large pool area with a winding “lazy river” and a zero entry area at the river’s entrance
  • Separate toddler pool with a delightful resident crocodile (FREE swim diapers are available at the pool’s shop, Caribbean Soul)
  • Hotel location is a great buffer from theme-park mania (2 miles to SeaWorld, 10 miles to Disney World)
  • FREE shuttles to Universal Studios and SeaWorld (we used the shuttles to avoid parking hassles and fees)
  • FREE breakfast/brunch buffet at onsite Citron for children under six
  • Very comfy beds and soft, crisp bedding (duvets, no hotel bedspreads!) and FREE cribs
  • Roomy marble bathrooms with separate shower and bathtub; Laptop-sized in-room safes
  • Radios with nature sounds (the ocean sounds lulled my son to sleep every night)
  • Lush tropical gardens with beautiful birds and other wildlife (my son used his binoculars to spot birds during our lakeside walks)
NOTE: We had reservations for the Ritz-Carlton Orlando for the last two nights, but cancelled after we saw the rooms and property features at both hotels. (The Ritz-Carlton’s rooms were larger but the JW Marriott had more kids onsite, a better pool area, and was cheaper by almost $150/night. The Ritz-Carlton does have special “children’s suites” and a separate kids’ check-in area and a welcome gift for children.)


Save on Family Travel this Summer...

Here are our favorite articles from newspapers, magazines and websites on how to stretch your family's travel dollar this summer:

Top 10 Budget Vacations for Families

"With gas prices soaring and consumer confidence at its lowest ebb, we bring you ten family vacation ideas that won't break the bank and make Uncle Sam's summer windfall stretch even further."

Hotels Offering Free Gas Cards

"In response to our pain at the pump, many hotels and booking engines are upping the ante with gas credits of $50, $100, or even $200 per trip. Here’s a round-up of some of the best gas rebates for families this summer."

Affordable Summer Travel for Families
"Summer travel doesn't have to break the bank. Here are five smart ways to have a great experience your kids will never forget, without leaving you with credit-card bills that make you wish you'd never gone in the first place." Budget Travel

Top 10 Ways to Stretch Your Vacation Dollars
"As an avid traveler, with a family of four to factor into my vacation budget, I’ve found a number of ways to help cut costs when vacation planning. Here are my top 10 tips for getting the most out of your vacation buck in 2008."

Stretch Summer Travel Dollars
- "No one wants to spend a summer vacation counting pennies." Here are a few thrifty ways to get away and leave the stress behind." Cincinnati Enquirer

5 Family Road Trips in the South for Under $500
- "Grab the kids and jump in the car for fun-filled trips around the region that won't bust the budget. Here are ideas for five vacations a family of four could take for about $500. Included are approximate gasoline costs, lodging and activities." Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Cut Your Restaurant Bill on Family Vacation
- "The good news for today's parents is that eating out need not eat a hole in your wallet. Here are some tips for cutting mealtime costs." Frommer's