Is a Sandals all-inclusive vacation right for you? Here’s how to decide
You may not yet know that Sandals is a chain of about 20 resorts all over the Caribbean and 3 of those resorts have the regions first “honeymoon-style” overwater bungalows. With a name like Sandals you might also not expect that this is a very high-end chain of all-inclusive resorts, but that's exactly what it is.
The overwater bungalows start around US$2,000 per night and I had a chance to visit them at two of Sandals' Jamaica resorts on a recent press trip. The overwater bungalows are indeed amazing but the room rate seemed a bit on the high side so I was anxious to see them in person. After seeing the bungalows and experiencing three different Sandals resorts, I now understand why these places are so popular and have so many repeat guests. If you've yet to stay at a Sandals yourself, the points below should be helpful.
The short version and conclusion
Just so you don't have to scan or read the entire long article below to find out the bottom line, I'll start with it: Sandals resorts are definitely on the higher end of the price scale and those looking for a cheap all-inclusive holiday should probably look elsewhere. But Sandals also provides an excellent and consistent product and the number of repeat guests is one staggering bit of evidence for that.
If you are shopping on price you will probably be happier elsewhere in the Caribbean. But if you are looking for the most relaxing and soul-soothing all-inclusive resort experience and you can afford at least US$500 per night, Sandals is probably your best choice.
Overwater bungalows at Sandals resorts
As of 2018 Sandals has huge overwater bungalows at two of their resorts on Jamaica and one on St. Lucia. Room rates start at over US$2,000 per night at all of them, but that includes everything in their highest packages along with 24/7 dedicated butler service.
Sandals Royal Caribbean, Jamaica – This resort is only 10 minutes by shuttle from the Montego Bay Airport so it's an ideal choice for shorter visits. The 17 overwater bungalows come in two categories and all of them are located off a private island across the lagoon from the main resort.
Sandals South Coast Resort, Jamaica – This resort is about 90 minutes by shuttle from the Montego Bay Airport and it's much more spread out on a much larger property. It's also more isolated so it's an excellent choice for honeymooners and those on longer trips. The 12 overwater bungalows here are also enormous, and accessible down a private secured pier at the northern end of the beach.
Sandals Grande St. Lucian Resort, Saint Lucia – This resort is about 90 minutes from the airport by shuttle and has 9 huge overwater bungalows that also come complete with full butler service.
First, the negatives: It's the most expensive all-inclusive resort chain
If you are looking for a cheap all-inclusive vacation in the Caribbean, you won't find it at Sandals. It's important to be clear about that up front because Sandals and Beaches (the name for their family-friendly resorts) are generally the most expensive all-inclusive resort chains in the Caribbean. They are also very good value for some people, and I'll explain that below, but they are the opposite of “cheap.”
So if you are actually looking for the cheapest all-inclusive islands in the Caribbean, we have an updated list on our sister site. The short version is that the Dominican Republic is home to most of the region's great bargains. You can get an all-inclusive room for about half as much in Punta Cana, but you'll have to put up with quite a bit in the process.
Room rates start at about US$400 per night for two people, but getting those rates can be confusing at first
When you first start checking rates at Sandals you should be prepared for some sticker shock. The “rack rates” (standard official rates) for even the cheapest rooms start at around US$1,500 per night for two people, but various discounts are always running and your actual price for that same room might be closer to US$500 per night and sometimes even less. That can be a great deal considering all that you get, so it's important to focus on the final price and ignore the “rack rate” when you are choosing.
Here's how to think of the daily costs and value at Sandals:
So the cheaper rooms are around US$500 per night and that might sound like a lot, because it is, but it's also great value for many people.
- Breakfast, lunch, and dinner, including taxes and tips: $100+ per person
If you went to a similarly luxurious Caribbean beach resort where you paid separately for everything, you'd pay at least US$100 per day per person for meals when you include taxes and tips, and probably much more. If you don't typically spend that kind of money then Sandals might not be a good choice.
- Alcoholic and non-alcoholic drinks: US$100+ per person
When you include juice and maybe a bloody mary or two in the morning, along with a couple strawberry daiquiris by the pool in the afternoon, and then a fun evening where you let your hair down a bit because you are on vacation in paradise, the cost of those drinks would easily be US$100 per day and could easily reach $200 per day or more. At a similar beach resort you'd be paying US$20 per strawberry daiquiri by the time you include the tip.
Again, if you aren't much of a drinker then you should probably steer clear of any all-inclusive resort because a good chunk of the room rate goes to paying for alcohol for those who do drink.
- Activities: US$20 to US$100 per person
Many if not most Sandals guests are there primarily to just relax, but they also provide a long list of included activities and at least a few of those will appeal to anyone. They have scuba diving, Hobie Cats, windsurfing, standup paddle boards, water skiing, snorkeling, kayaking, and included short glass-bottom boat tours that leave several times per day. Almost all of those things come at an extra charge even at most other all-inclusive resorts, and you'll be getting some value out of them here.
That list doesn't even include nightly entertainment and daily things like trivia contests and such, which are common even at other all-inclusive resorts.
Per day that is:
- US$200+ in meals
- US$200+ in beverages
- US$40+ in activities
That is US$440 per day in minimum value, NOT including the room.
With that in mind you can see that a room rate of US$500 per night can be excellent value, and paying US$700 per night for a room that has its own swim-up patio is amazing value on a beautiful beach setting.
Rooms aren't as large as you might expect, except the overwater bungalows
Especially if you are coming in December or March, you can easily pay at least US$700 per night for a room for two people at a Sandals resort. For that money you might be expecting a giant suite with a separate bedroom and large living room, but that is not what you'll find here. Except for the overwater bungalows, which are indeed enormous, the rooms are quite modest in size and the attention is put on the details and amenities.
Sandals knows that in the Caribbean the idea is to spend as much time outdoors as possible, so having a huge air-conditioned room would be a waste of space and money. Instead the resort focuses on smaller air-conditioned bedrooms that also have a living area attached, and the best parts are the amazing balconies or decks, some of which are literally incorporated into a swimming pool.
When you first are shown to your room you might have expected it to be larger, but once you are there for a day or two you'll realize that your room is meant to be a place to rest in comfort and that the outdoor areas are where you'll spend most of your favorite times.
That said, here is why Sandals might be your best choice
Assuming you can afford it, Sandals will probably be the best vacation you've ever had. Here are the things that makes it so special.
Sandals is like a cult, and I mean that in a good way
On any given night, about 40% to 50% of the guests at any of the Sandals resorts are repeat visitors, and those numbers are monstrous by industry standards. In fact, most Sandals guests tend to keep going back to the first resort they visited, primarily because they want to closely repeat what they consider to be the best vacation of their lives.
When I was at the three Sandals resorts as a guest of the company I talked to countless other guests and it actually seemed like almost all of them were repeat guests. It helps if your first experience in the Caribbean was at one of the less expensive all-inclusive resorts because it's a HUGE contrast between the way you are treated at those places compared to at a Sandals.
Simply put, people feel like they've found the best resort and love the way they are treated there, so they stop considering other options. Another part of it is likely that those who can afford to stay at a Sandals are rarely looking to save a bit of money at an inferior resort. Once you buy a Bentley you've probably bought your last Toyota.
Sandals is the most peaceful vacation possible
Probably the most appealing feature of an “all-inclusive vacation” is paying one price before you leave home, and being able to live it up without ever worrying about spending any more. At most all-inclusive resorts in the Caribbean and elsewhere you get an included “base” experience and then countless extras are available for purchase. You might even be pressured into tipping staff every time you order a drink or interact with them in any other way. At Sandals, it's truly the all-inclusive experience you dreamed of.
At other resorts you can actually feel like a cheap skate if you are eating at the buffet at dinner when many other guests paid extra for the a la carte options. It's the same if you are ordering a local (included) beer or obscure brand of rum while others are paying extra for the top-shelf choices. At Sandals it's all included and you can order anything you like without worrying about paying for anything.
EVERYTHING (almost) is included
From what I saw the only things that weren't included were special bottles of wine (a very fine Robert Mondavi label flows freely) at a few of the restaurants, and a few of the off-site day trips. Scuba diving and equipment rental is included, but private lessons are extra. You have to pay for any items in the gift shop, but that's it.
Some things that ARE included that might surprise some people are airport transportation, a fully stocked mini-bar (including alcohol – see below), scuba diving, water skiing and many other water activities that cost a lot at other resorts, and all of the food at all of the restaurants. There are breakfast and lunch buffets along with other a la carte choices, but the dinner restaurants are all a la carte and high quality. There's also a really impressive Irish bar (air-conditioned) that serves snacks and meals from afternoon until late at night, and all of it is as free as the drinks they serve.
Even many top-shelf extras are included
Another main difference between standard “all-inclusive” resorts and a Sandals or Beaches is that those bottles of special wines are the only drinks that cost extra, and it would be insane of them to give away US$50 bottles of wine as part of the room price. You can order a Jack Daniel's or Jameson whiskey or Tanqueray gin or Absolute Vodka and it's all included.
Better still, this is the Caribbean and many people prefer frozen drinks in the tropical sun. While there is one machine that produces a slush of some kind, the majority of the frozen drinks are made one at a time with a blender and ice and fresh fruit and quite a bit of care. These drinks would cost at least US$20 each including tip at neighboring resorts, but at Sandals they are always included.
And as mentioned, scuba diving along with rental equipment and the boat rides out to the reefs are included. At nearly all “all-inclusive” resorts they say that “non-motorized” water sports are included, and that includes things like kayaks and beach volleyball. At Sandals they will fit you with water skis or sit you on a giant raft for a small family and pull you behind a boat, and it's all included.
Sandals staff are happy, and that also helps the vibe
Considering that Sandals discourages tipping (there is officially a “no tipping” policy except for the butlers and spa workers) and the staff also seem to be much happier than typical resort workers, it made me curious what their formula is. I spoke to several staff members and they confided that they could make more money in the short run at a nearby resort that encouraged tipping, but they work at Sandals because in the long run it's a much better choice.
Not only does Sandals provide benefits such as vacation time and medical, but they seem to treat their staff like family. Many of the staff at these resorts have been there for 10 or even 20 years. I'm told that they have a 6-week training program and even getting into that program isn't easy. After the training they only hire the ones that work well within the Sandals system, and those who they don't hire can actually use the training to get better jobs elsewhere.
The staff obviously start on the lower rungs such as bus person or dishwasher, but then if they perform well they can be promoted into more desirable positions, including management. In other words, if you are a young Jamaican person then a job at Sandals brings you a good income along with prestige and job security. When you are there as a guest the staff come across as strangely happy and pleasant, and I'd guess that this is the reason why.
Each property has many, many room categories, so you can customize your experience
I've stayed at many hundreds of hotels all around the world and I've never seen a system like they have at Sandals where they have close to 20 different individual room categories. Most resorts have “beach view,” “pool view,”
and a few suites. But at Sandals you can pretty much customize the exact room you want so you pay for what is important but not for what you don't care about.
In some cases the differences aren't obvious but after looking into it a bit you'll see that some rooms have luxurious bathrooms and others have a larger living area while others have a deck that is part of the pool as others are more basic and therefore cheaper. Another way of looking at it is that each room is like a suite, but you only pay for the parts of it that you want rather than for all of it.
Sandals invests only in premium locations and excellent beaches
One last thing to consider when comparing Sandals to other chains or resorts is that locations and beach areas in the Caribbean are very uneven. In fact, wide and sandy beaches are quite rare in the Caribbean when you look at the entire coastline of each island. Sandals, being a premium product, only puts their resorts on the prime stretches of beach on each island.
You can get really lovely sandy beaches at some much cheaper resorts in Punta Cana, but you have to be careful because plenty of other expensive resorts all over the Caribbean have only small artificial beaches and most of the coast is actually rocky or cliffs. When you book with Sandals you also insure that you will be in one of the loveliest places in the Caribbean.