Caribbean Cruise vs. Caribbean All-Inclusive Resort: Which One Is Right for You?

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What better place to relax, recharge, and have fun than the Caribbean? The balmy region has long drawn visitors with its swaying palms, white-sand beaches, and crystal-clear waters. Today, there are innumerable ways to enjoy this slice of paradise -- so many, in fact, that it can be daunting to plan a vacation to the destination. For example, should you choose a Caribbean cruise or Caribbean all-inclusive resort? Each option has its pros and cons, so to help you decide, we’ve put the two head to head in a number of categories, including beaches, weather, food and drink, activities, and more.

Best for Caribbean Beach Vacations

If your idea of a perfect Caribbean vacation involves sunbathing on the beach, swimming and snorkeling in the ocean, and enjoying breezy massages, then a beachside all-inclusive resort is for you. Staying on land gives you more beach time, as well as the freedom to take long, leisurely strolls on the sand and impromptu dips during the day or night. Caribbean destinations like the Bahamas, Dominican Republic, and Jamaica are home to a range of all-inclusive resorts that sit along stunning beaches. When doing your research, make sure to pick an option that has plenty of beach space, so you don’t have to worry about reserving loungers in the morning.

Of course, you can enjoy the beach on a Caribbean cruise vacation, but your time is limited to daytime port of calls. You should expect to wait in lines while exiting the ship in the morning, plus you’ll have to find a way to the beach (most likely a taxi). Check for local resorts that offer day passes for a fee, or a public beach that offers chairs, umbrellas, facilities, and refreshments for a price. Make sure to leave plenty of time to get back to the ship (and factor in traffic), as passengers are usually required to be back on board 30 minutes before the scheduled departure. And, trust us, the ship won’t wait for you.

Winner: Caribbean All-Inclusive Resort

Best for Island Hopping in the Caribbean

Carnival Cruise Ship

Carnival Cruise Ship/Oyster

You can explore dozens of exotic and historic ports around the Caribbean without getting on and off a plane. If you’ve never been to the Caribbean, a cruise offers the opportunity to get a taste of several islands while returning to your ship each evening for dinner. This is a nice way to check off major tropical destinations from your travel bucket list, snag lots of Instagram-worthy moments, and pick up a range of souvenirs without needing to pack or unpack. And if you fall in love with a particular destination, you can always return on a separate trip down the road (think of it as future travel planning). Of course, if this sounds exhausting, and you’d prefer to visit one Caribbean island at a time, then an all-inclusive resort is a better option for you.

Winner: Caribbean Cruise

Best for Food and Drink in the Caribbean

Glass of wine by the ocean

Wine on a Cruise/Oyster

These days, cruises have several food and drink venues onboard, so you don’t have to worry about being stuck at a table with the same passengers every day. Many of these establishments are complimentary, while additional options require a cover charge. Also, cruise fares typically charge extra for drink packages as well as gratuities. In other words, be prepared for a bill at the end of your voyage. When planning a cruise, research the food and beverage packages that are offered (each cruise line provides different options) and decide if it’s worth the cost. For first-time cruisers who aren’t familiar with added fees, there’s often a bit of sticker shock when it comes time to settle the bill. Your best bet is to contact the cruise line before setting sail to better understand what is and isn’t included.

When it comes to food and drink at all-inclusive resorts, the quality and selection vary wildly. At mid-range properties, you’ll typically find a main buffet for all three meals along with some specialty options for dinner, like Mexican, Italian, French, and Asian cuisine served with house wine, domestic beer, and generic liquors. Meanwhile, upscale all-inclusive resorts tend to offer much more impressive multi-course menus and top-shelf liquor. If this is an important factor for you, research each resort closely before committing. An added benefit to staying at an all-inclusive resort is the ability to leave the grounds in order to sample the local fare on the island. Cruisers, for the most part, are confined to their ship once they board in the afternoon, thus eliminating the option for any evening local culture.

Winner: Tie

Best for Activities in the Caribbean

Most cruise lines present passengers with a newsletter that lists the scheduled activities and events for the day. This can include movies, exercise classes, arts and crafts, cooking shows, live performances, and even dance parties. Planners, take note: Popular activities (think surf simulation), spa treatments, and shore excursions (like zip-lining, parasailing, and ATV tours) are best booked before boarding. Reservations tend to fill up quickly during peak season. Another bonus: Excursions can be expensive and are often cheaper when booked in advance.

All-inclusive activities can include a nice array of land and water pursuits, like non-motorized water sports, bicycle rentals, beach volleyball, archery, and tastings, though it all depends on the quality of the resort you choose. Like cruises, most major resorts put out a daily newsletter with a schedule of events along with desks for tour operators and concierges, who can help you book activities like deep-sea fishing, hiking, or kitesurfing. There’s usually no need to book these in advance, giving you more freedom to decide what you want to do once you arrive and get settled.

Winner: Tie

Best for Staying Connected in the Caribbean

It’s safe to say that most all-inclusive resorts offer free Wi-Fi for guests, so you can stay connected. If this is a make or break issue, it’s best to check directly with the resort in advance. Cruises are tricker, since ships rely on satellites for internet access, though new satellite and direct ship-to-shore systems are making the technological experience at sea faster and cheaper. Upon boarding, switch your phone to airplane mode to avoid being connected to the ship’s phone network. Then, find out if the cruise operator offers internet access onboard and what the prices and conditions are. You can also check if your carrier has a cruise talk, text, and data plan. Better yet, take the opportunity to unplug and enjoy spending time with your travel companions or pick up a good book from the cruise ship’s library.

Winner: Caribbean All-Inclusive Resort

Best for Hurricane Season in the Caribbean

Caribbean Cruise

Caribbean Cruise/Oyster

Hurricane season in the Caribbean runs from early June through late November. Of course, this is also a great time to snag deals on hotels and flights. As for cruising, the likelihood that a tropical storm will impact your trip is relatively slim. For the most part, cruises will redirect their route in the event a storm or hurricane develops. If this does occur, most cruise lines will also issue a refund for port fees that have been skipped as well as a prorated reimbursement if the trip has to be shortened by a day or more. There may also be some choppy water, so if you’re prone to getting seasick, you may want to pack some remedies.

Meanwhile, all-inclusive resorts offer attractive off-season deals (and have fewer crowds) during hurricane season. If this sounds appealing, make sure to research the resort’s hurricane guarantee and/or purchase travel insurance, so that it’s easier to get a refund in the event of a storm. Your best bet? Pick a Caribbean island that’s generally not hit by hurricanes, like Aruba, Bonaire, and Curacao. As for travel insurance, not all plans provide comprehensive hurricane-related coverage. Be sure to check several options and pick one that covers extra expenses incurred if a storm affects your flight or driving conditions to and from the port.

Winner: Caribbean Cruise

Best for Romantic Getaways in the Caribbean

All-inclusive resorts don’t always have a good reputation when it comes to romance, with thoughts of cheesy entertainment, a cookie-cutter design, and mediocre buffet food. However, you just need to shop around. If you’re looking for romantic candlelit dinners, long walks on the beach, adults-only pools, or secluded outdoor showers, you’ll find exactly that in many upscale all-inclusives. Plus, bigger resorts have beautiful gardens and grounds for pre- or post-meals strolls.

Caribbean cruises tend to be crowded, sociable, and fun, but perhaps not always great for couples seeking secluded romance. Sure, you can sneak away from your fellow cruise passengers during shore excursions or in your cozy cabin, but large cruises are arguably better for families and groups who like to meet and mingle. Since everyone on the ship largely shares the same itinerary, you have the opportunity to make some new friends along the way.

Winner: Caribbean All-Inclusive Resort

Best for Room Amenities in the Caribbean

On major cruise lines (think Carnival and Royal Caribbean), there are usually four basic categories of cabins or staterooms, ranging from a cozy 150 to 220 square feet. That being said, waking up at sea and sipping coffee on the balcony tends to be a favorite pastime for passengers, so you may want to spring for this room level. Many ships also have cabins that grant special access to more exclusive areas, like lounges and spas, so these options are worth looking into. Those interested in saving money can opt for an interior cabin or an obstructed view window or porthole, though you’ll likely want to use the main areas of the ship more frequently.

All-inclusive accommodations run the gamut and are usually categorized by proximity to the beach and sea views (or lack thereof). In general, you’ll find that rooms and bathrooms at a resort are much more comfortable than on a cruise. Plus, upscale all-inclusive resorts have become more than just a place to sleep. The best of the best feature amenities like balconies or terraces, private plunge pools, 24/7 butlers, spa-worthy bathrooms, and even private golf carts.

Winner: Caribbean All-Inclusive Resort

Our Favorite Resort and Cruise Wear for the Caribbean

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