Deciding which board basis you want when on holiday can be tricky. Should you go All Inclusive? Or is Half Board enough? What’s the difference between Half Board and Full Board, or perhaps more confusing… what’s the difference between Full Board and All Inclusive? And let’s not get started on other terminology like ‘All Inclusive Ultra’, or ‘Half Board Plus’! Or perhaps you should book a Room Only or Self Catering option? Is Self Catering cheaper? Here I answer all of your questions about how to choose the best meal plan for your family holiday.

All Inclusive vs Self Catering

… and everything in between

Choosing All Inclusive vs Self Catering isn’t always simple. It’s unique to each family travelling and the destination your travelling to. Having said that there are some good rules of thumb to follow when deciding which board to book for your holiday.

Board Definitions

Let’s start by reviewing the terminology. While it can vary slightly between accommodations, on the whole, the terms are pretty much the same the world over.

The most common board terms:

Self catering

This means you have to provide for yourself. There is no food or drink included in your stay. Usually there will be a kitchen, or a small food prep facility available to you in self catering accommodation. More often than not self catering accommodation is laid out like an apartment, or is a villa or house for rent not within a hotel or resort complex. There are exceptions to this though. Some larger hotels have Residences where you can get a self catering apartment near or in a resort complex, enjoying the cheaper self catering option and the privacy of your own property with access to the facilities of the resort or hotel. These residencies are often aimed at people staying a little longer than the average holiday so you might also find they offer more room and extra facilities like a washing machine. Atlantis Residence, Bahamas is an excellent example of this.

Room Only

This terminology is essentially the same as self catering BUT it’s more often used in the hotel setting and you might not have kitchen facilities available to you. You’re likely to be expected to pay for meals in the hotel restaurant or go out to eat rather than cater for yourself in your accommodation. This is perfect if you just want a bed for the night and don’t plan to eat in the hotel much (or at all). We’ve used this option at times when we’ve got an event in London and just need a bed to crash in afterwards. We get up and head out into the city for breakfast because London has amazing options.

Bed & Breakfast

It’s all in the name – with B&B you get your bed for the night and breakfast provided. “Breakfast” can vary hugely from hotel to hotel so it’s worth double checking what’s on offer. Some hotels will include Bucks Fizz or a sparkling wine, lovely coffees, and an a la carte menu. Others will have epic buffets. And you’ll sadly find some who just offer a breakfast snack bar with a carton of orange juice in a box. I’m not even exaggerating… we were offered this once at a hotel in London and they wanted to charge us about £15 each for the pleasure. No thank you! I’d rather wander out into the city and eat in one of the many nearby cafes.

Half Board

Sometimes referred to as Dinner, Bed & Breakfast, Half Board (HB) means you get breakfast and dinner included in your accommodation rate. Again, the food in hotels can vary drastically so it’s always worth checking exactly what ‘dinner’ means. Some hotels have one restaurant offering fairly similar buffet options every night. Others have dozens of a la carte restaurants within the resort and you can eat at any of them. While drinks are usually included with breakfast, drinks are usually extra with dinner when you’re on a HB plan. Or sometimes soft drinks are included but alcoholic beverages are chargeable. It’s worth remembering that if drinks are included with your meals they will only be included in the restaurant while you are having that meal.

Full Board

A Full Board plan will include breakfast, lunch and dinner. It’s unlikely to include drinks. You might be offered water or soft drinks at meal times but it will not include alcoholic beverages.

All Inclusive

This is the ‘all singing, all dancing’ option. Everything is included. Except it might not be so it’s always worth checking! All Inclusive will give you access to at least 3 meals a day and some drinks. Some hotels will only include local wines, beers and spirits and charge extra for premium brands. Other will literally include everything you can think of and feed you around the clock. I’ve been to some fab all inclusive resorts where the kids can order ice cream anytime they like, afternoon tea is included and a bottle of fizz will arrive by your side at the pool with a click of the fingers. Ok well not a click of the fingers but at a nice request to the bar staff.

Other terms you might hear

All Inclusive Ultra

For our Maldives trip I have booked All Inclusive Ultra – this just means they include a little more. For this hotel they included a day trip out of the resort and a spa treatment – things I would have paid for anyway so it was better value to book it as part of the package. What’s included in a AI Plus or AI Ultra package will vary so check what’s on offer and see if it’s something you’re likely to use.

Half Board Plus

This is a term often used to suggest alcoholic drinks are included with your evening meal when staying on a HB plan.

Dine Around

In some hotels you might be offered a Dine Around option. This can be wonderful because it gives you so many more choices for your evening meal. A great example of this is the Jumeirah brand in Dubai. Often you will be able to eat dinner not just in your own hotel but in a range of the (many) other Jumeirah hotels in Dubai.

Choosing your holiday meal package

So how do you decide if you want Half Board or all Inclusive? Self Catering or Bed & Breakfast? It can be a bit overwhelming.

Essentially it comes down to what kind of holiday you want to have. For me, self catering is less of a break. From the moment you arrive you need to be thinking about where the nearest supermarket is and how to get there. You might need to hire a car to get to a real supermarket rather than spend a fortune in the mini market designed for tourists to buy snacks. It works best if you know the area and don’t intend to stay in your hotel very much.  If you’re staying somewhere for quite a while and you want to experience living like a local then self catering could be a brilliant option.

All Inclusive is the opposite end of the spectrum. If you plan to spend every day in the hotel and not venture out to see anything else it can be an economical way of going on holiday. It’s really nice not to have to worry about carrying money or thinking about the cost once you’re away. But you can start to feel trapped in your resort. You don’t want to leave because everything is free in resort so why would you go elsewhere and pay?

All inclusive vs self catering
Mussels for lunch on Lake Garda
Should I stay half board
Finding beautiful local cafes for lunch is a benefit of NOT going All Inclusive

In between Self Catering and All Inclusive you also have the option of Bed & Breakfast or Half Board (dinner & breakfast included). Half board often isn’t much more expensive than B&B which means if you wanted to go out of the hotel for dinner once or twice you wouldn’t feel like you’ve wasted your money. These options won’t include drinks so if you’re big drinkers All Inclusive might suit you better. 

When in doubt I tend to book Half Board. We have a late breakfast, the kids don’t eat much at lunch and then we know that dinner is sorted for us. We don’t drink much either (especially while I’m breastfeeding) so we don’t mind paying for the odd G&T here and there. 

Pros and Cons of All Inclusive

AI is a good option anywhere that food is really expensive and / or when you are going somewhere quite remote. If you will be eating in your resort or hotel all the time because there is nowhere else to go AI could be the most economical way of booking.

The Maldives is a perfect example of this and I would always recommend booking All Inclusive in the Maldives. Once you’re on your island you’re not leaving! It’s great knowing everything is included because paying as you go can get very expensive. There’s nothing worse than debating having an ice cream because you know your hotel bill is getting bigger with every lick!

You can feel very tied to your hotel if you’re on an All Inclusive package. If exploring local culture is your thing, you probably want to steer clear of All Inclusive resorts.

Pros and Cons of Half Board

When food is expensive locally or you plan to eat in your hotel most of the time HB or Half Board is usually a sensible option. If you have young kids you won’t want to go out to dinner every night so heading to the restaurant in your hotel could make life super easy and relaxing for you. It’s really important to take the kids into account … when mine were younger a buffet dinner in the hotel was perfect. As soon as you’re seated they can help themselves to food. No waiting around means no grumbling toddlers!

Now they’re older they like going into a town, they’ll bring books and card games to play while they wait for food and enjoy looking at the nightlife. In many places the shops and stalls open up at night after having closed in the heat of the afternoon. 

Eating silkworms in the night markets in Koh Samui
A little cafe serving pancakes in Sri Lanka on Shrove Tuesday (aka pancake day!)

With a Dine Around option you can satisfy your need for variety too. I recommend booking at least Half Board in Dubai where food is pricey!

Half board can still feel restrictive if you’re somewhere you want to venture out and explore. If you are a foodie you might enjoy heading to Greek tavernas, or local Thai restaurants and experiencing the local cuisine! Unless it’s unsafe to do so we usually like to get out of the resort and see some of the country we are staying in. Having said that we went Half Board to The Andaman in Langkawi and it was the perfect choice – there really isn’t anywhere walkable from the hotel to go for dinner and they varied the meal options hugely from night to night.

Pros and Cons of Self Catering

If you’d like the option of cooking in your accommodation you’ll need a kitchen. Not all self catering places offer good facilities so be sure to do your research. 

To be honest with you Self Catering is my least favourite board option. It just doesn’t feel like a holiday. Having said that, when we took the kids to India we rented a self catering apartment in Goa for two weeks. It worked brilliantly. We had some cereal and fruit in the apartment for the mornings and then spent every day out and about, eating in cafes and restaurants. Eating out in India is really cheap (compared to the UK) and it was really good to experience all the different food that Goa had to offer. We had our own car to get around and there were plenty of options for meals close by. We got to experience India more as locals than as tourists… one of my most favourite ways to travel!

It’s worth looking into local food prices as Self Catering isn’t always cheaper. When we stayed in Lapland, we stayed in a self catering apartment. Food is expensive in Finland and eating out cost quite a lot. There was only one small shop to buy food supplies so while we did eat well I’m not sure it was much cheaper than booking a hotel with food included.

Self catering in Finland
Dinner in Ruka, Finland

The reason we booked self catering accommodation in Lapland was not because of the meal plan but because of the space itself. Have a read about where we stayed here. It is common with self catering accommodation for you to get more space! Especially if you have kitchen and dining facilities. A hotel room tends to offer just a bed, and maybe a sitting area. Self catering accommodation will often offer a kitchenette and a dining table in addition to sitting area and bedroom. When you’re travelling with kids having that extra living space can be very welcome.

In summary

Half Board is usually a sensible option for a family holiday. It’s good to know your main meals are taken care of and you don’t have to prepare anything. If you’re feeling adventurous and you’re visiting somewhere with a lower cost of living; self catering might be a great choice to give you a taste of local culture. All Inclusive is great for a carefree resort holiday, but not so good if you want to explore the local area.

Has that helped you decide on the debate of All Inclusive vs Self Catering? Let me know if you have any other questions.