Booking an all-inclusive in the Caribbean can be all-consuming. Unlike a standard hotel, there are myriad variables to consider: Do you want a full bar in your room or will bottled water suffice, full or limited access to the pools and restaurants, freedom to roam the town or guided tours only?
To simplify the process, follow these 10 steps to finding and reserving an all-inclusive.
1. Pick a destination. Consider the culture, language and off-campus activities. For example, Nassau in the Bahamas has nonstop action with casinos, shopping, booze cruises, etc., whereas Barbados can be a bit more mellow, with English-inflected attractions such as garden tours and cricket matches.
For info on Caribbean islands: Caribbean Tourism Organisation, 212-635-9530, www.doitcaribbean.com.
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Safety is also an issue, as some resorts discourage guests from straying beyond the gates. For example, in Cancun you can often safely walk to attractions off the resort grounds or take a bus, but in Jamaica, touring solo in some areas is not recommended. Brief yourself on safety concerns on the U.S. State Department's website (http://travel.state.gov).
Another factor is flight time. If your vacation time is short, focus on islands with nonstop flights. (See story, 5J.)
On the topic of air, fares vary wildly depending on the destination: For the most part, you can fly much more cheaply to regions with more mass appeal, such as Punta Cana in the Dominican Republic, than to those with a smaller following, such as St. Kitts. Frequent-flier miles may come in handy for those who want to book a la carte, but check packages first before you squander those hard-earned miles.
Finally, if your passport has expired, pick an island where the document is not required, including Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands.
2. Select a travel time. Prices go up in winter and whenever kids are on break and drop when tropical storms threaten. During shoulder season (April 15-May 30 and Sept. 1-Dec. 14), costs are moderate and crowds are smaller.
3. Settle on a type of resort. Knowing your style of resort is crucial. If you desire a kid-free vacation, for example, go for an adults-only property, such as Sandals. If you want your offspring to be occupied from dawn to dusk, find an all-inclusive with a kiddie program, such as Beaches.
Size also matters: A place with one elegant infinity pool will be more intimate than a theme-parkesque resort with three Olympic-size pools, a lazy river, hot tubs and water slides.
4. Check the major onlinebooking sites -- Orbitz, Expedia, Hotwire -- for air and land packages. You'll need to plug in a destination and dates, but you can play around with both to see what options pop up.
Some sites also let you streamline your search by listing only all-inclusives. Travelocity, for example, has a section that features all-inclusives (www.travelocity.com, click on ``All-Inclusive''); Priceline (www.priceline.com) highlights its all-inclusive properties with a blue logo. The sites often post last-minute deals as well.
5. Research travel retailers and wholesalers that specialize in all-inclusives or Caribbean packages. These include MK Tours (305-441-7600, www.mktours.com), Apple Vacations (800-517-2000, www.applevacations.com), and Funjet Vacations (888-558-6654, www.funjet.com).
6. Before booking, visit the resort's website. Check the property and its amenities.
Pay special attention to what's included: Do you have admission to all parts of the resort or are there restrictions with your package? Is food offered 24-7? Any additional perks thrown in, such as golf lessons?
7. While on the resort'ssite, plug in your dates to determine the daily rate and whether the a la carte price is less than the package. Remember that packages often include airport transfers, taxes and gratuities.
Also, check for promotions. Call the resort (many have toll-free numbers) as well, because sometimes not all deals are listed on the website.
If the room rate seems substantially lower than the packages you've found on the other sites (minus the air), start shopping for flights.
8. If going a la carte, search for airfare deals. Go to the major booking websites (Orbitz, Expedia, etc.) as well as the sites of specific airlines, such as Air Jamaica (800-523-5585, www.airjamaica.com) and discount carriers such as USA 3000 (877-872-3000, www.usa3000.com). Also peruse Travelzoo (www.travelzoo.com) for island airfare sales. And if the resort arranges flights, see what price it's quoting.
9. Call or visit a travel agent. A travel agent knowledgeable about the Caribbean and/or all-inclusives can help you sort through the stream of properties and find the best package, hotel rate or airfare. For certified companies, visit the American Society of Travel Agents (www.astanet.com).
10. Book it. Once you have found the lowest price for your desired all-inclusive -- whether as a package or DIY air and hotel -- go back to the booking site or travel agent and get that vacation. Now, you can finally relax.