It seems like the impossible dream: a vacation that will be a blast for the kids, let you relax a little, doesn't require much planning, and won't leave you with that sinking "this cost more than I thought it would" feeling on the last day. But look no further than an all-inclusive resort, where you pay a set amount that includes (at least) accommodations, meals, and many activities. Forget the mediocre buffets and watery drinks of your college spring break. All-inclusives have really stepped it up in the last decade, becoming many a family's first choice for a blissed-out vacay. There's minimal budgeting involved once you arrive, and the activities are designed to keep children happy from breakfast to dinner (and sometimes beyond). Even if you were a wing-it kind of vacationer pre-kids, putting the details on autopilot is well worth a try now. Many moms swear it's the way to go.
Beaches (Turks and Caicos; Jamaica)
The "luxury included" chain thinks of every-thing and includes it all: top-shelf liquor, scuba diving, sailing. There are a whopping 16 eateries at the Turks locale! For a fee, the staff will set up a private, four-course candlelit dinner on the beach. The kids' programs rock, from the Pirates Island waterpark for little guys to the super-fly school for DJ's, "Scratch Academy," for tweens. beaches.com
Mackinac Island Grand Hotel (Mackinac, MI)
No cars allowed on charming Mackinac Island, so hop on a ferry to be whisked back in time. A highlight at the Grand Hotel, built in 1887, is the five-course dinner, special without being stuffy. It's set to live music, and kids can (and do) take it to the dance floor. Kids' programs hark back to simpler days with activities like boccie and collecting rocks on the beach. Grandhotel.com
Club Med (Sandpiper, near West Palm Beach, FL; 80 locations worldwide)
The French chain that invented the all-inclusive concept has an exhaustive (and exhausting) list of kids' programs for ages 4 months to 17 years, including the ever-popular Circus School, which lets kids fly high on the trapeze. It's a great choice if you've got kids with a big age gap. Take it from Brienne Tripp of Connecticut: "The food at Sandpiper was awesome, absolutely the high point. I mean, they have their own French pastry chef!" They keep things interest-ing by featuring international foods every night alongside the classics. clubmed.us
Mohonk Mountain House (New Paltz, NY)
A Victorian castle at the base of a mountain range, family-run Mohonk has been around for 140 years. The spectacular grounds are the draw, making this a good choice year-round if your gang is big into outdoor pursuits. Wildlife is easy to spot, from eagles to muskrats to chipmunks. The indoor pool has piped-in underwater music, and kids feel extra special with their own four-course menus. "My kids never tire of the activities, which go on and on," raves Jen Snyder of Lindenhurst, NY. mohonk.com
Kona Village (Kohala Coast, HI)
This heavenly hideaway (the only all-inclusive in the state) looks how Hawaii should: no concrete, no garish faux-Hawaiian decorations, just tropical plants and Polynesian thatched-roof bungalows. The kids' program, called Na Keiki, which means "the children," is all about traditional crafts and arts, including learning a hula dance. Konavillage.com
Read the fine print.
Before you book, take a close look at which activities are part of the package (parasailing, waterskiing, and excursions often aren't) and whether tips and beverages (including the alcoholic kind) are extra. We've all heard "I'm staarrving!" at 10 p.m. "We always stay at resorts where food and drinks are available almost 24/7, which is nice because you don't have to think too much," says Leah Schertz of Wisconsin Rapids, WI. If you're going to Florida or the Caribbean from June through November, check for a "hurricane guarantee," a resort policy that protects your deposit if you cancel due to a storm. Know the terms: Some kick in only if the flight is canceled.
Match the kid(s) with the resort.
The larger inclusive chains, like Beaches and Club Med, have ramped up the offerings for the youngest kids lately: You'll find baby food on the buffet line and a nanny who'll come to your room. "When my kids were younger, they were crazy for the kid clubs, but now they prefer to do their own thing," says Danielle Schochet, a mom of four in Woodmere, NY, whose favorite all-inclusive is Occidental Allegro Play-acar in Playa del Carmen, Mexico. Look for after-dinner hangouts, like game rooms, to keep tweens happy. Often they're supervised; ask.
Though the airfare may be cheaper bundled in a package, you may have to transfer several times and could get whacked with penalties if you make a change. Consider paying a bit more to book it yourself. Check yapta.com or orbitz.com; both make it easy to track fares.
Get to know the staff.
Always sit at the same table at dinner and you'll probably get the same waiter. Befriend him or her. Why? Families tend to eat at the same time (early), so waiters will have lots of kids besides yours who need extra napkins. The result: a more enjoyable meal for everybody. Same goes for counselors. If your daughter clicked with the crafts leader, ask when she'll be working during your stay and plan accord-ingly. That counselor will quickly become your kid's special vacation buddy. She'll be racing to get to the kids' club each afternoon.