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Prepay Your Vacation Meals? The Skinny on Dining Plans

photo: Tom Mascardo 3

While planning your next vacation, it pays to think well in advance about what you want to eat.

Don’t worry: we’re not talking about choosing now between pasta and lobster on Friday night. The more pressing decision for budget-minded travelers is whether you want to plan and pay for meals as you go, or trust a resort or cruise line to feed you via a dining plan.

Meal plans are part of the deal when you stay at an all-inclusive property or take a cruise, and they’re often an optional add-on at other big resorts. Their big advantage is knowing how much you’ll spend on food before you even start packing, says Donna Zabel, the owner of DreamMaker Destinations, a travel agency in Munroe Falls, Ohio. “You know what you’re paying upfront,” she says, “and there are no surprises when you get your credit card bill.”

That’s what appealed to Daniella Sarkis of Brooklyn, N.Y., who opted for the $140 daily meal plan at Half Moon Resort in Jamaica on her honeymoon last year. “It was very nice to be on vacation and not have to think about how much all those delicious drinks at the beach and pool would add up to when you checked out,” she says. Using menus from the resort, Sarkis figured that she and her husband would have spent much more on food alone without the dining plan, which also included alcohol and mini-bar purchases.

But dining plans aren’t a value for every traveler. On Frugal Foodie’s recent Caribbean vacation, she said, “no,” to the optional resort meal plan, choosing a mix of grocery store-bought breakfasts and snacks, a la carte lunches and off-resort dinners. It was the right choice to match her adventurous and frugal eating habits, and she’d do it again. (Mmmmm, conch salad and jerk chicken.)

Faced with an optional or required dining plan through a cruise or all-inclusive resort, you’ll need to crunch the numbers to compare against what you’d pay on your own. Ask these seven questions to ensure you’re getting the best deal:

What do I want to eat?

Resort star ratings are a good indicator of the type of dining options you’ll find, says Zabel. Three stars or fewer, it’s mainly buffets. Higher-star ratings tend to offer more restaurant-style dining. For food quality, check recent user reviews. Look for reviewers who have similar tastes (vegetarian, wine lover) or needs (family friendly, night-owl hours). Most resorts and cruise lines will also provide sample menus.

Do my dietary needs affect the value?

“For vegetarians, a dining plan isn’t nearly as good a deal as it is for those who eat meat,” says Heather Ford, who blogs about her Disney vacations at WDWNotJustForKids.com. Her $20 potato gnocchi entree didn’t make as much of a dent in the roughly $40 daily dining allowance as did a companion’s $26 prime rib. Even a slight price difference could make it a better deal to dine a la carte — especially if menu options that fit your dietary needs are slim. (Vegetarian options were good at Disney, Ford says.)

What isn’t included?

Look for the gaps to see where you’ll incur out-of-pocket costs, says Kayt Sukel, a partner at TraveSavyMom.com. Tax and tips are usually extra, and may be based on what you actually ate rather than your per-diem plan rate. Some cruises and properties don’t include alcohol or soda, but offer add-on plans for drinkers. (And no, you can’t bring your own.) Even at all-inclusive resorts, top-shelf liquor and luxury menu items may carry an extra supplement. “Many resorts offer free well liquor or watered down beer and wine for free but the good stuff at a serious mark-up,” she says. “After a few bad drinks, you may think you need that $50 bottle of wine.”

Exclusions may also extend to restaurants. Dining plans are grouped to include only certain on-site venues, with more expensive plans expanding your access, Sukel says. Make sure you’re happy with the dining options. Sukel’s family had a frustrating trip to an unnamed resort that offered five dining options. “We could only eat in the one with a limited menu and odd meal hours,” she says. “We spent a lot of extra money [elsewhere] on food.”

Can I get reservations?

Slots fill up fast, especially if it’s peak season, says Michael Suhrbier, the founder of Disney vacation site ExploretheMagic.com. Make reservations as soon as you confirm travel arrangements, or you’re likely to find many of the more popular venues fully booked or available only at odd hours.

Are there good off-site options?

Frugal Foodie would rather try a hole-in-the wall local restaurant with good reviews than have an old standby at a big restaurant chain. Check to see if there are restaurants nearby or within walking distance, Sukel says. Dining a la carte locally is likely to be cheaper than doing so at resort restaurants.

Is there a deal or discount?

Resorts routinely offer deals and promotions that might sway your meal plan decision one way or another. On her recent Disney vacation, Ford had to choose between taking a AAA discount on her room, or a free meal plan promotion that entailed paying the full room rate. (She went for the meal plan because it offered more savings in her trip’s daily budget.) Frugal Foodie’s room-and-airfare booking at Atlantis in the Bahamas, on the other hand, included free extras including a sushi and sake tasting, and margaritas and martinis at two bars. Having one dinner and two Happy Hours taken care of swayed her away from the optional meal plan, which cost $75 to $115 per person per day.

Do I eat enough?

Feeling obligated to hit the buffet line multiple times, or get an appetizer, entree and dessert just because your meal plan covers it is not a good thing. Folks who skip meals or eat lightly may want to reassess their a la carte dining options.

Frugal Foodie is a journalist based in New York City who spends her days writing about personal finance and obsessing about what she’ll have for dinner.