Think back, waaay back, to the last time you returned from an all-inclusive vacation.
Is it fair to say that you got most of what you had bargained? That your flight and hotel stay, paired with a transfer and dining plan, well, they were more or less what you had expected and you had a great time?
Now, think back to the day after you returned home.
More specifically, I want you to think back to when you logged into your online banking and reviewed your spending for the holiday - is it safe to say that you spent more than you had first intended?
"All-inclusive" but what's included?
I'll not call it a problem, but what to make of the unaccounted spending during your time away?
From taxis and tips through to excursions and premium alcohol, how do you better limit your total vacation budget and not just the up front cost of a flight and hotel stay?
Just yesterday, I myself returned from one such trip to paradise. My now wife, Holly and I (we eloped) last night returned from a week in beautiful St Lucia where we stayed at the Sandals Regency La Toc.
That makes today the day after
You're now wondering what surprises were in store for me this morning?
The only large and originally unintended purchase was an upgrade to our wedding photo package as we just couldn't get over how great the photos turned out!
Everything else was pretty much accounted for prior to our departure and it didn't differ much from the original quote back in January.
No credit card surprises means less stress
We absolutely respected our budget and can extend our feelings of relaxation because there's no home finance stress to greet us on our return.
Imagine you've spent several thousand on your holiday months before you departed only to find that you've matched that spend with all the incidental expenditures you've experienced in the week you were gone?
It doesn't have to be like this.
Sandals made it easier in every respect
I own a travel agency. I see it all.
That means I go through the gritty details of which alcohols are or are not included in the premium alcohols upgrade...
That means I understand how spontaneity is an integral part of planning excursions, balanced against one or two must do activities...
That means I know what it feels like to search the best travel deals and wonder exactly what differences exist between resorts...
Sandals took away all of these issues and made it easier for us to plan our holiday around the one need that was integral to our vacation. There was no confusion, just inclusion.
No confusion, just inclusions
To start, it is a little more transparent when pairing a flight to a resort holiday rather than rifling through the seemingly limitless number of packages available.
That's less to do with the variety of rooms and more to do with the fact that the flights are publicly available - so you can choose from whichever airline suits your needs, suits your departure gateway, or your schedule... let's not forget: which suits your budget!
If you're really keen to save, you can work with your travel professional to seek out consolidator flights and maybe save, but you are back to square one with stresses as you will face more potential limitations in your trip's flexibility.
Beyond the wider selection of flights, there is an incredible value in what comes included with a Sandals resort stay.
At the airport and on arrival
Sandals St Lucia has their own lounge for visitors to enjoy a cold drink or simple snack prior to boarding the complimentary shuttle.
There are of course private transfers to be arranged or even luxury private transfers, should you so choose - but getting to and from the airport is a standard inclusion and done so in a comfortable fashion.
Check-in at the resort itself is a breeze, your luggage will meet you in your room and you will likely sit and sip a cocktail instead of stand around a reception desk.
Drink and Dine
Where you'll see an incredible difference in value.
All-inclusive dining means your meals and beverages are included, so far we're on the same page.
The difference at a Sandals property is that there are almost no options to upgrade.
You want to eat something? Just order it.
You want to drink something? It's yours.
You want to tip? Well, it's encouraged for those who've opted for the butler service, but absolutely disallowed for any other drinking or dining experience on site.
Sandals has been doing a great job during the last few years of expanding their wine list, one of the two caveats to the no upgrades I've mentioned. That is, there is a fair selection of wines and champagnes included in your resort dining plan, but there is an optional wine list to be enjoyed at your discretion (and expense).
What I really loved was that there was no added fee or cost for any of the restaurants and that the complimentary inter-resort shuttle allowed us to enjoy our choice of 27 restaurants among the three resorts in Saint Lucia.
Breakfast was either buffet or made to order, depending which restaurant was selected - there were also both buffet and a la carte options for lunch, alongside a pizza bar and a locally famous pastry cafe at the Halcyon.
Dinner was another level of incredible. I've never before experienced such a variety of delicious, quality food at an all-inclusive resort. Truly 5-star dining, we feasted on seafood and steaks, sushi and curries, alongside fine European and Caribbean styles of cooking.
Reservations and dress code
While a dress code is enforced at some of the more upscale dining experiences, there are plenty of options with a far more casual set of guidelines.
As with many all-inclusive resorts across the Caribbean, there are a number of specialty dining experiences - however, unlike most, there is no additional fee unless you opt for the romantic dinner-for-two.
We did, it was a great way to enhance the evening of our wedding and we enjoyed a dedicated server in a quiet corner of the resort overlooking the beach. We had a personalised menu and a fantastic, relaxed experience.
Did I mention our server had an assistant? Did I mention that tips are not allowed???
What to do for fun?
During our stay there were countless opportunities to participate in the pub quiz at the English pub, play bingo or volleyball in the pool or on the beach, enjoy the games room, watch a dance performance, listen to live music, or many of the other resort standard forms of entertainment...
Where Sandals really excels is the available equipment.
Croquet and shuffle board, countless pools, and a huge variety of floating things to get you across, over, or under the waves.
If you can handle a Hobe Catamaran, just sign up and it's yours.
Want to use the stand-up paddle? The sea kayak? How about trying your hand at wind-surfing? There was an incredible amount of equipment for guest use and which certainly enhanced my vacation experience when lounging on the beach got a bit old.
Like to snorkel or dive? What about bigger boat trips?
You guessed it: Included.
While not every excursion runs each day, we simply walked on down to the Island Routes desk to chat with the lovely staff about what was available during the next few days and signed up. It was that easy.
Obviously a diving license is needed for the diving, there is a cost to become certified for the resort and a larger cost to achieve your PADI certification. Bring your log book!
Snorkelling is a little more flexible as no license is required, likewise, we enjoyed a particularly boozy catamaran trip to snorkel between the pitons - all included and all incredible.
What about the wedding?
One of the few experiences at Sandals that may be extensively upgraded, there are all the wedding touches you could ask for and more - some of which come at a cost, some of which are just balanced to keep you from achieving your own excess.
For newlyweds, the wedding itself is included.
Holly and I are simple people with simple tastes. We like to enjoy a few things very thoroughly and opted to enhance our photo package and add a candle-light dinner to the day, that was all.
We were limited to a single tiered wedding cake, but if I'm honest, it was more than two humans could (or at least should) consume in a whole weekend.
The ceremony was about 20 minutes and we had the most lovely officiant in Gloria, a well-spoken and charismatic woman who has more than 25 years of officiating under the belt.
Sandals also has an extensive series of bonuses or perks for those couples who bring guests, they call it their "bells and whistles", it serves to scale the size of the service and inclusions and would make anyone's celebration all the more amazing to share with family and friends.
This place sounds too good to be true, Shy
No such utopia exists without its balance in some respect.
Sandals too features an item or two that should be noted and which might bring us all back to reality just now:
Sandals does seem to supplement its revenues with the sale and services of professional photography.
While expected for a wedding, we did feel it a little on the expensive side - we got very full, professional attention from our own photography consultant to filter through the absolutely phenomenal photos taken during our nuptials (remember, the aforementioned dedicated photographer???).
But the packages were priced in a manner that didn't really reflect the great, inclusive nature we'd come to enjoy in all other respects at the resort.
While I'd certainly not suggest our photos were held hostage, we were simply so blown away by the quality that we were compelled to make a larger purchase during the review. Part of my original claim to have only spent so much more than intended, if you recall.
Regular resort photography
There is a complimentary photo shoot offered to guests and a healthy number of photographers roaming the grounds. That means plenty of time for posing on the beach, at the pool, during meals... wherever.
Again, I'll not call it harassing, it simply depends on how much you like photos of yourself on holiday. The reality is that it's very nice to have such a professionally composed, dynamic set of photos at the end of your holiday (not a selfie stick in sight!).
However, it may feel a bit tiring if you're doing the same poses throughout the week.
To be fair, the photographers will remember you and will remember if they've already asked. And they do ask prior to snapping a pic!
Recognizing true value
As with any travel investment, there's more to your experience than price.
I certainly spent more up front for our Sandals experience.
But in the end, I never had to check my wallet, think twice about participating in an activity, or even pause when making a menu selection.
I returned home spending almost exactly what I had intended to spend oh so many months ago when I made the first payment.
Rather remarkable, don't you think?
If you'd like to know more about a Sandals holiday, plan your own destination wedding or honeymoon to paradise, don't waste any more time - contact us now for your own unique quote and find true value for your travel investment!