Are Two Of My Strongly-Held Travel Beliefs Totally Wrong?

I’ve been looking forward to speaking at Wendy Perrin’s Travel Summit in Cancun this weekend along with Brett Snyder. And not just because I was finally going to get to meet Brett’s lovely wife!

Wendy is one of my favorite people, I’ve known her for years, and she first plucked my award booking service from obscurity when she was at Conde’ Nast Traveler putting me on their list of “World’s Top Travel Specialists” in 2010.

I was also looking forward to the event because it’s being held at the Grand Velas Riviera Maya Resort just over half an hour from the Cancun airport. It looks fabulous and researching the hotel in advance of my stay it’s causing me to rethink some of my priors.

  • I avoid Cancun. My mental model is spring break and disappointing resorts. You can use it as a jumping off point to explore the Yucatan but I’d rather fly into Merida for that. It’s super close since I live in Texas and Southwest offers daily non-stops for the 2.5 hour flight (United has seasonal weekend non-stops as well) so if only I could find a wonderful escape there…

  • I avoid all-inclusives. I don’t drink a lot and when I do drink I have strong preferences for what I’m drinking. Do I really want to be locked into staying on property since eating there comes at no marginal cost? Even though each generally has at least one ‘nice’ restaurant the food seems to most often disappoint.

Credit: Grand Velas Riviera Maya Resort

Yet the Grand Velas Riviera Maya Resort – an all-inclusive – looks quite nice. And I won’t get to try it. I woke up sick, decided that it wouldn’t be a good idea to make the rest of the conference sick, and I really didn’t want to fly to Mexico under the weather. The Grand Velas Riviera Maya isn’t cheap and any other time I go I’ll wind up having to come out of pocket..

Wendy Perrin’s Wow List

Her WOW List is a collection of travel planners that began years ago as simply her rolodex — the best travel specialists in the world that have been tested and gotten the best feedback from her readers.

Booking simple airfare is now something you do online, but that doesn’t mean travel agents are dead. If you just need a flight, or to combine a flight and hotel, you can do that yourself. But if you need a trip that’s perfect and seamless that takes people and it takes knowledge.

A few months ago I was helping my cousin set up a honeymoon in Sri Lanka. There are things I know, have experienced, and can do but I also wanted an expert on the ground to review and improve what we had come up with. Her preferences are different than mine, he could listen and match the right guides and activities and transfers in a way I couldn’t. I went to Wendy’s list, I found someone who lives in Sri Lanka and off they went.

It’s the place to check if you want real local tours in a destination given by PhDs. Or if you want access to venues not open to the public. Or a sit down with a world leader when you’re visiting a country. Many of these things don’t come cheap, but she knows the people who know how to get it done right — perfectly.

Grand Velas Riviera Maya Resort

It’s an all suite all-inclusive AAA Five Diamond resort five minutes from Playa del Carman and a short drive from the Cancun airport.

The smallest suite on property is 1184 square feet and the resort is spread over more than 200 acres.

Credit: Grand Velas Riviera Maya Resort

Credit: Grand Velas Riviera Maya Resort

There claim 15 food and beverage options including 24 hour room service, something regular readers know I think is important in a luxury hotel (especially when you’re coming in from another time zone and jetlagged). It’s even better when there’s no marginal cost for it.

Bathrooms have Molton Brown amenities. Given my stress about coffee, they’ve crucially got in-room Nespresso machines.

The spa looks gorgeous. I was even going to check out the 80 minute ‘water journey’

Credit: Grand Velas Riviera Maya Resort

The natural subterranean level of Se Spa at Grand Velas Riviera Maya is the center of the spa and is entirely dedicated to the relaxation and restorative facilities that comprise the Water Journey.

Almost 40,000-square feet are given to men’s and women’s sides, each with custom-designed amenities including a Clay Room, a circular glass-tile-lined steam room with a fiber-optic “star light” ceiling, an Ice Room with floor-to-ceiling window, and hot-and-cold Experience Showers.

A central infinity pool has powerful massaging faucets throughout and carved-stone chaises with jets set just underneath the surface of the water on which guests recline. Two stunning slate-grey stone-tiled walls bisect the central hydrotherapy pool, dividing the equally spacious and especially private men’s and women’s sides.

…A spa valet provides bottled water and towels but most importantly guidance to make sure guests get the most out of the truly relaxing hydrotherapy experience— such as how to alternate the various hot and cold rooms and pools, and how long to linger in them.

This may be the only spa I’ve come across that offers sorbet and not just hot or cold teas (as part of their ‘Vitamin C facial’).

We were even supposed to have a dinner at ‘Cocina de Autor’ which is apparently the only AAA Five Diamond restaurant in an all-inclusive resort. Oh did I say I was going there as ‘work’?

Now I Have a Conundrum

The Grand Velas Riviera Maya looks great. Reports are that the food is good, even though it’s an all-inclusive. It’s a two and a half hour non-stop flight away. It appears to be the exact opposite of what I would expect from Cancun and from an all-inclusive. Have I been missing the boat completely?

I got sick and gave up a speaking slot, where I wouldn’t have been paying the freight here. And it’s not an inexpensive proposition. Rooms appear to start at ~ $650 per night. I’ve never spent that much for a hotel room in my life.

But I could begin to justify it to myself. I can visit there much more easily than most of the Caribbean. It’s less expensive to travel there than to Europe or Asia. It’s an all-inclusive so it’s not really a fair apples-to-apples comparison when I think about what I usually spend for a hotel.

Credit: Grand Velas Riviera Maya Resort

And having come that close to staying there I now feel like I need to visit, because it seems like it’s disrupting my mental model of the region and the genre.

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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  1. If they need someone to fill your speaking slot at the conference, I’m available 🙂

    Went to a top shelf resort in Riviera Maya for a week last Christmas and it was fantastic. Beautiful property, very good food, and no drunken spring break types anywhere. It’s a solid hour drive from the areas of Cancun you’re thinking of, and a world away in terms of atmosphere.
    I like Playa del Carmen better than Cancun- much smaller and sleepier, and better access to activities around the Yucatan.

  2. I would never spend that much money in Mexico. Love the people and the country is beautiful but tourism there is overrated. First, it is a place where I would typically go from the airport to the all-inclusive hotel and back to the airport. Second, I don’t like Mexican food and hate all-inclusive places. It is part of my vacation to explore local restaurants. For that money I spent 6 amazing nights at The Romanos resort in Greece and could not recommend it enough.

  3. My wife and I were at the Barcelo Maya palace( 1 hour south of Cancun) in October four 4 days. Used our Citi prestige 4th night free benifit, our cost was $165/night for 2. They have a mile long private amazing beach, great snorkeling right out front. Food was fantastic, and booze sufficient for our needs. The pools and landscaping are very tropical, unlike the high-rise hotels in Cancun, lots of vegetation. We love that it’s a all- inclusive, we know all our costs up front. Already planning for a trip back in May.

  4. @gleff


    So… when I look at these costs, I think that $650 per night for six nights (does that include taxes?) comes out to $3900. My job gives me lots of vacation. For that price, I can travel to some far flung destination for 3-4 weeks.

    Being stuck at a tourist resort limits the amount of culture I can get exposed to. Being stuck at an all inclusive limits my F&B options. I just can’t see paying $3900 for that privilege.

  5. I tend to agree; I’ve never done AI because a big part of travel to me is not only sightseeing but also eating out in the city I’m visiting.

  6. I’ve always reflexively avoided AI as well – just not my cup of tea when taking a vacation. On the other hand, I now have two young children that my wife and I bring with us on (most) vacations. The idea of having everything in once place does have increased attraction, although as Joe above noted, a big part of why I travel is to see and experience as much of the local scene as I can and you can’t do that i you aren’t leaving the resort.

    I live in Austin too so in the same boat regarding getting somewhere fast and convenient.

  7. I’m not a fan of AI (having done them as a poor college student). However, a couple of spring breaks ago we decided to take the plunge and check out what was supposed to be the absolute best one out there…Grand Velas Riviera Maya. For a family of 6 (4 teens), the hotel alone was over $9k…2 rooms, 6 nights (plus airfare, but I think we used United Miles? I don’t remember). Being from the DC area, and being wine collectors, we are kinda foodies. GV didn’t come close. We all thought the food was eh. Drinks were watered down. The room and the facilities were fabulous, though. But for $9k I expected better. If that’s the best there can be for an AI, count us out. Oh, the spa was really cool…but very pricey, especially for Mexico.

  8. Gary, give it a shot and then let us know via a trip report.

    You’re in the trade or business of being a travel blogger. I’m a tax CPA.

    The whole trip is clearly deductible.

  9. I’ve always enjoyed Cancun. I usually stay at the Westin Lagunamar, a non-AI property. Very few, if any, of the spring break crowd, and close to downtown. There’s a lot to do in/around Cancun, and a lot of small places where the locals eat and the tourists don’t.

  10. You’re still not wrong. I like Cozemel better in this region and All Inclusive is just a way to not see the local area.
    Intercontinental hotels have Molten Brown and you can get that in Dallas so why bother.

  11. One of my big conferences was in Cancun a couple of years ago at a non-AI Marriott property and I loved it. Weather was gorgeous, water was drinkable, food was excellent (most of our meals were around town, not at the host hotel). Took a day trip to Chichen Itza, which was much fun. I’d go back to Cancun any time.

  12. Although not of the same standard as your favorites in the Maldives, if your goal is beach/food/spa without any sightseeeing or exploring, this seems like much better value.

  13. If you do it, just make sure you use the prestige fourth night free. I’ve used it at the $600ish/night gourmet all-inclusive el dorado maroma outside of playa Del carmen. Just make sure the rate they quote matches the rate on the hotel’s website. I’ve had to make the travel bookers go back and make sure they get the cheapest rate advertised, not some hokey travel agent rate the front desk quotes them.

  14. I’ve always been dead-set against all Inclusives as well. I was goaded into a stay at the Hyatt Rose Hall in Montego Bay. It was their opening season and had some issues but the food was spectacular. Even the Jerk Chicken shack that was only open for lunch was memorable.

    I think we’re seeing all-inclusive resorts that are more than a beach and a buffet becoming de rigur.

  15. There are actually a few nice *non-all-inclusive* hotels in Cancun. We stayed at the Emporio (a Mexican hotel brand) and got a beach side room for $110/nt. We spent our days on the beach and our nights exploring some of the FABULOUS individual restaurants, both in the Zona Hotelera and in the nicer part of the city of Cancun. Took a couple day trips to the town of Tulum and did some diving in Puerto Morelos, both of which had incredible food.

    One time we went to an all-inclusive to order off the regular menu – they looked at us like we had two heads!

  16. There is a new all-inclusive called Unico opening in the Riviera Maya in March: We have booked there for May, they have some pretty good pre-opening rates. Looks pretty legit and has some serious names behind it (AIC Hotel Group that runs Nobu, Eden Roc and Hard Rock hotels, AvroKo which is the top restaurant/hotel design firm in New York City, a well-known Mexican chef, etc.). We also tend to avoid all-inclusives (the huge exception being Guana Island, which was fabulous and we will be returning to one day), but this new one looks promising and we want an easy vacation so it is worth a shot.

  17. Did the Ritz Carlton Cancun Club Level in November (free upgrade with my RC Visa!) and it was phenomenal. Not AI, but the Club Level was even better. Best sushi I’ve ever had…in Mexico! It was nice and quiet in the off-season. First trip to Mexico. Loved it.

  18. We go to Mexico 3-5 weeks/year. Cancun once/year.

    We use timeshare exchange through RCI. Cost for a week $630 maintenance fee + $230 exchange fee = $830/wk, $119/night.

    This is for Vidanta Resorts, which have been NON all inclusive the past 4 times we’ve stayed there. Perhaps they’ve changed, but not our past experience.

    The Mayan/Vidanta resorts are great resorts, is you do NOT have to pay extra for the AI!

    There are a ton of AIs in Rivera Maya and they ALL are an extremely BAD deal, unless you drink like a fish and can go through $100-$400/night/person to justify being held hostage at one resort.

    The Peso is NMP 21-22/$ and you can live like a king in Mexico for next to nothing, making the AI a sucker bet.

    If you’re a pampered boozer, who has more money, than good sense, AI it the perfect place for you to get a sunburn and miss out on the culture, food, sites and great people.

    Also, SLC does have a CUN DL direct flight, but we usually use a 1 stop SWA Companion pass/points, for much, much less. So, you can get there from small cities. The beauty of travel to Mexico is you’re going N-S, not across a lot of time zones, for jet lag and easier connections, plus lower price, if you actually pay for flights 😉

    I love Mexico!

  19. I agree with DaninMCI on the topic of AI. I have stayed in these types of hotels in Cabo and Costa Rica. Paying for food, entertainment and booze in advance creates a real incentive to spend all of your time at the hotel. It is easy to miss the local attractions and people. When someone wants to travel to another country bu spend all of their time in the hotel, AI is a good option.

  20. When my wife and I were first married, we used trips to AI resorts in Jamaica and Mexico to knit together our “Brady Bunch” family. With 4 children ranging from 14 to 8 when we first married, it was the logical choice to get our children to become close in a fun environment with some degree of not-too-worrisome freedom for the older ones. And, it worked to perfection.

    AI resorts can be useful in certain instances. I won’t pre-judge others’ needs. But, now that our children are grown, they seem best to us only when our grandchildren are present as well.

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