All-inclusive resorts make family vacations easy -- easy to budget and easy to handle. Besides knowing exactly how much your vacation will cost, an all-inclusive price means you won't have to play the heavy.
Instead of saying no to your child who wants to windsurf, play tennis and try sailing because the hourly fees are breaking the family budget, you can put your hands in your pockets and smile as you encourage your children to go ahead and try another round. As a result, all-inclusive resorts are a special blessing for sports-minded families, especially those with active teens.
But not all one-price resorts are created equal. Definitions vary. Generally, the fee covers lodging, meals and sports, but even this should be clarified. So you won't have a big add-on bill at check-out, ask these questions before you book:
* Lodging: What accommodations are part of the package? If all rooms, whether beachfront or facing the parking lot, are the same price, can you request a top room for no additional fee, or is there a surcharge for a better room?
* Meals: Some all-inclusive packages come with three meals a day, while others include just breakfast and dinner. If you plan to spend most of your time lying poolside soaking up the sun, then choose a three-meal package. But if you will be off the property hiking the trails, shopping in town and touring nearby ruins, a two-meal plan is often less costly.
* Drinks: Some all-inclusives cover the cost of alcoholic drinks and sodas, and some do not.
* Tips: Are gratuities for waiters, maids, bartenders included?
* Sports: Ask specifically what sports are available and if "free" applies to equipment rental, lessons, court time and greens fees. Be sure to ask if the resort provides child-size snorkel masks, fins, life jackets, tennis rackets and golf clubs, and how many? Should you bring your own gear, or can you reserve equipment that fits your child ahead of time? Ask what sports activities are available for an extra fee.
* Children's programs: Are these included or merely available for extra fee? What is the program's cost, age range, hours, supervision and activities? Do the counselors take the children outside for volleyball, beach games and swimming, or are they confined to a playroom? Is the program available daily, year-round or just during selected hours on weekends and holidays? Be sure that a program for your child's age operates for the hours you want when you will be at the resort.
If the children go swimming, is there a lifeguard on duty, do the counselors know CPR and is there increased supervision? Once at the resort, be sure to observe your child's group when he or she swims to be certain that the level of supervision is adequate.
* Baby-sitting: In addition to the children's program, is private baby-sitting available for tots too young to participate in the scheduled activities? Can you get a sitter so you can enjoy a romantic, adult dinner and evening dancing? Ask the hourly fee, the minimum number of hours required and the amount of notice (it can range from a few hours to a few days) before a sitter can be guaranteed. Find out who these baby sitters are, how they are selected and if the resort stands behind their reliability.
* Add-ons: Does the price include taxes and airport transfers? Are there any additional charges?
While asking the right questions is important, you also have to decide where you want to go. Here are some family-oriented, all-inclusive choices that might meet your needs:
* Club Med: Club Med, one of the best-known of the all-inclusive resorts, offers programs for children at no extra charge. From 8 a.m. to 6 p.m., baby clubs welcome tots 4 months through 23 months at Sandpiper in Florida and toddlers 12 months through 23 months at Ixtapa, Mexico. In addition, children from 2 through 11 enjoy activities from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. at Punta Cana, Dominican Republic; St. Lucia, West Indies; Ixtapa, Mexico; and Eleuthera, Bahamas.
Intensive sports programs for children and adults, at selected resorts, let you really learn to ride and hit tennis balls. For example, at St. Lucia, for $290, adults take intensive horseback riding training and trail rides, and for $190, children 8 through 11 get ring instruction. For an additional fee, at Sandpiper and Ixtapa, adults and children can opt for comprehensive tennis lessons.
An added bonus: Children 4 months through 5 years stay free at Eleuthera Feb. 22 to March 7 and at Punta Cana and Eleuthera the week of April 25. Rates, which vary depending on dates and Club Med locations, start at about $140 daily per adult, about $85 per child ages 6 through 11 and $70 per child ages 2 through 5. Call: (800) Club MED.
* Franklyn D. Resort, Runaway Bay, Jamaica: This relatively new, all-suite resort opened in February '90. It combines the all-inclusive concept with "no problem" Jamaican flair by assigning each family its own "Girl Friday."
This vacation angel tends to your family's needs from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. After 5 p.m., you may hire her at the rate of 20 Jamaican dollars per hour (less than $2 U.S.).
The Children's Center offers supervised storytelling, crafts and games for toddlers through 12-year-olds from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. and from 7 p.m. to 10 p.m. Adults, teens and school-age children can indulge in basketball, tennis, exercise workouts, windsurfing, snorkeling, sailing and even golf, with nominal fees for club rental and caddies.
With each paying adult, one child under 14 stays free. Rates are $1,570 to $1,650 a week per adult. Information: (800) 654-1 FDR.
* Boscobel Beach, Ocho Rios, Jamaica: Boscobel Beach offers a complete program for children ages 3 through 5 and 6 through 11 from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. There's a petting zoo with pony rides and climbing equipment. Nannies watch infants during the day at the mini-club, and evening baby sitters can be hired for around $2.50 per hour.
Teens have a schedule of coketail parties, tie-dying and computer games. Children love the beach bar with its free hot dogs, hamburgers and ice cream.
Because the beach is small and the number of windsurfers and sailboats limited, active older teens may be disappointed. Weekly rates start at about $1,250. Information: (800) 858-8009.
* Club Cozumel Caribe, Cozumel, Mexico: This resort is located on the Mexican Caribbean, known for its diving and snorkeling. While your 4-to-12-year-olds are kept busy Monday through Saturday from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. with crafts, water balloon contests and pinata-whacking, you and your teen 12 and over can learn to dive among the splendidly colored reefs. The resort diving program costs $50, and certification courses range about $300 additional.
The seven-night package, which includes three meals, all drinks, children's activities, tennis, windsurfing and sailing, as well as one two-tank dive daily for certified divers and airfare from Baltimore-Washington International Airport, starts at about $1,100. Children under 12 are charged $50 per day (plus airfare) when sharing a room with parents. Information: Barbachano Tours, (800) 327-2254.
* Rascals programs: Besides booking parents and children into friendly lodgings, Rascals, a family travel agency, creates special family departure weeks with such bonuses as a baby sitter for each family and an early children's dinner. When four or more families sign up, Rascals hires an escort to organize nature walks, crafts, storytelling and games for the children.
Some Rascals programs are all-inclusive, and many are semi-inclusive with the upfront price covering accommodations, most meals and activities. Rascals books trips in the Caribbean, Bahamas, the United States and Canada, as well as the South Pacific and Africa.
For example, a family week for two parents and two children ages 3 through 11 in a two-bedroom villa at Hotel Club Akumal, Mexico, including breakfast and dinner, activities, and escort, costs $2,155 to $3,130. The departure dates are March 21 through 28, April 11 through 18 and April 18 through 25.
A family week at Guana Beach Club, Abaco Island, Bahamas, including three meals daily, baby sitter, escort and activities, costs about $2,800 for a family of four. Departure dates are April 18 through 25. Information: (800) U-Rascal.
* Hyatt Caribbean Resorts: The Hyatt resorts in Aruba, St. John, Grand Cayman and Puerto Rico (both Hyatt Regency Cerromar and Hyatt Dorado Beach) offer all-inclusive pricing. Hyatt Vacations will make planning easy by giving you one price for airfare, meals, car rental and the sports option you want.
All these resorts offer children's programs year-round on weekends and daily in summer and on holidays. The ages and activities for the children's programs vary. A three-night package at Hyatt Regency St. John, with three meals daily and drinks, starts at $565 per person, double occupancy, with children costing $119. There's an additional fee for the Camp Hyatt children's programs. For Hyatt reservations, call (800) 233-1234, or for Hyatt Vacations to design your own special all-inclusive package, call (800) 772-0011.
* Cunard's Hotel La Toc and La Toc Suites, St. Lucia: This hotel offers a different type of all-inclusive program as an option. The program is especially appealing for couples with infants who are looking for a romantic, take-the-baby-along getaway.
Waterskiing and tennis are provided free to guests, and the greens fee for golf is nominal (the resort has one of the few golf courses on the island). The Savor St. Lucia program offers a seven-night package that includes meals at the hotel's two restaurants, plus a dinner at San Antoine, one of the island's best restaurants.
Rates begin at $899 per person in the low season from April 21 through Dec. 22. With the resort's Nannies in Paradise program, baby sitters can be arranged by the hour for an additional fee. Call (800) 222-0939.