The ultimate guide to joining and leaving a travel club

Here's your ultimate guide to joining and leaving a travel club.

If someone invites you to join a travel club, don’t walk away — run!

But if you’re reading this, you probably didn’t. You fell for the offer of a free cruise or vacation. You attended the presentation, with its laughable, high-pressure sales tactics. And you ended up with a worthless travel club membership. Now you’re trying to figure out a way to leave your travel club.

You’ll need all the help you can get. Travel clubs make timeshares seem like charitable organizations when it comes to their contracts and policies. It’s possible to leave a travel club, but the combination of dubious benefits and one-sided contracts means that the best course of action is not to join in the first place.

What is a travel club?

A travel club, sometimes also called a vacation club, is a monthly or annual membership program that offers discounts on airline tickets, hotel rooms or rental cars. Many travel clubs market themselves as the Costcos or Sam’s Clubs for travel. They aren’t. Instead, they are memberships of negligible value and sold through questionable tactics.

What does a travel club offer?

A typical club will offer an annual membership and may also charge an “initiation” fee. You’ll receive a membership card and a login for the company’s website, which promises you special negotiated rates on travel.

Benefits may include:

  • A 50 percent or more discount on travel.
  • Buy one/get one free airfare, or a companion certificate.
  • A “free” cruise.
  • A “free” two-day vacation.
  • A discount access card that offers a special deal on nontravel items, such as restaurants and attractions.

Wait! My travel club is different

Terms like “travel club” and “vacation club” can cover a variety of travel products. But don’t be confused. For example, the Disney Vacation Club isn’t really a “club” in the traditional sense. It’s a timeshare program, and although it’s one of the better ones, it’s still a timeshare program. Spirit Airlines’ $9 Fare Club, which costs $69.95 a year — that’s right, and I have no idea why they don’t call it the $69.95 Fare Club — just gives you access to some discounted Spirit Airlines flights.

A real travel club is different. It takes your money and may not give you anything of value for it. Yes, some are scammier than others. But in the end, you can get more from your dollar by carefully shopping for the best deal and buying your airline ticket, cruise or hotel room on the open market. No need for a club membership.

Are travel club deals legit?

Travel clubs can offer you deals, but how good are they?

  • The discounts are generally no better than those you’ll find on Expedia, Orbitz, or Travelocity.
  • The companion certificate requires you to buy a full-fare economy class ticket, which costs twice what you’d pay for a normal coach seat.
  • The discount access offers no better discounts than your AAA or AARP membership.
  • And then there’s the “free” vacation or cruise. Let’s dive right into that one.

Is that “free” cruise for real?

Many vacation clubs try to hook you into a presentation with the promise of a “free” cruise, but it’s not a free cruise. Trust me. It’s not. I’ve fielded numerous complaints from travelers who believed they had received a legitimate offer, by mail, of either a free cruise or vacation in exchange for attending a presentation for a travel club.

Read the fine print on the travel club application carefully. The offers are highly restrictive, if not fraudulent. You’ll have to pay to get to the port, and cover unspecified “fees” that may total more than the cost of a cruise you’d buy from a regular travel agent. Also, blackout dates apply to the offer. Once you’ve jumped through all the hoops to collect the “free” vacation, chances are you will have spent more money than if you had simply booked a cruise the old-fashioned way — plus, you might be a member of a useless travel club.

What about affiliated resorts?

My advocacy team has recently heard from customers of travel clubs associated with resorts, such as the Palladium Travel Club.

These clubs operate in a similar way to independent travel clubs in the United States.

The pitch is simple: While you’re on vacation, you receive an invitation to go to a presentation. There, you’re offered a club membership that provides discounts on future vacations at other hotels operated by the same company.

The travel clubs are vague about their benefits. For example, they offer “special” deals without specifics. They give you “priority booking” access when the benefits of having priority booking are entirely unclear.

In other respects, these travel clubs are identical to their U.S. counterparts. You get a relentless sales pitch followed by a contract that you’re not given enough time to read. And, because of foreign rescission laws — or more to the point, a lack of foreign rescission laws — once you sign on the dotted line, you’re obligated for thousands of dollars.

Is there a legitimate travel club?

Travel clubs are among the scammiest products in the travel industry. No one likes their high-pressure sales tactics. Travel companies hurt themselves when they market their products in this way. They may make short-term gains, but they will alienate many customers over the long term.

I’m only familiar with one legitimate travel club: AAA. Its membership rates are reasonable, you can cancel at any time, and you get real benefits.

How do I survive the pitch?

Most travel clubs use direct mail, with offers of a free vacation, to attract you to one of their sales centers. The presentations usually occur either in a rented space in a strip mall or in a hotel conference center.

These high-pressure presentations put the timeshare industry to shame, both in terms of the amount of pressure they apply, and the enormous promises they make. At the same time, because travel clubs are so mobile — they’re usually not tied to a particular product, or to real estate in the same way timeshare salespeople are — they can get away with almost anything, and they do.

If you go, gather a little intel on the club. A simple Internet search for the club’s name, along with keywords like “scam”, “fraud”, or “ripoff”, can reveal a trove of useful information. Remember, travel clubs change their names and locations often, and they use sophisticated search-engine manipulation techniques (sometimes called reputation management) to ensure nothing bad shows up when you search for them.

Here’s a tip: Search for the owners of the club, not the club itself. I’ve seen travel clubs that looked squeaky-clean online, but their owners … not so much.

What to do during a travel club presentation

Secure your prize before the pitch. If you can claim your “free” cruise or vacation before the action starts, so much the better. No prize, no presentation.

Repeat after me: “I’m not ready to buy.” Never, ever buy a travel club in a presentation. If you must, give yourself a cooling-off period to reflect on the offer. To that end, you should leave your credit card and checkbook at home.

Practice with me now: “I’m not ready to buy.”

Beware of audience “plants.” A favorite tactic of travel clubs is having operatives planted in the audience. They applaud, and ask enthusiastic questions to which, inevitably, there’s a canned response. (“How do I know if I’m getting the best deal?”) Ignore those around you. For all you know, you may be the only prospect in the room.

If you think you’re interested in the club, ask to review the contract. Like timeshares, travel clubs have ridiculously convoluted agreements. Ask your sales associate if you can take the contract home to review it, which is a perfectly reasonable request. Better yet, say you want to show it to your attorney. Odds are, your associate will balk, and tell you that’s not allowed. That’s your sign to head for the exit.

Prepare for a closer who won’t take “no” for an answer. You must be prepared to walk out the door. Closers will keep cutting the price of the club, or offer to waive the initiation fee. It’s a sign of desperation. Be prepared to be “guilted” about accepting the “free” cruise without also considering the club. Walk away. I repeat: walk away.

Why you won’t get 60 percent off your next travel purchase (even if you’re part of a travel club)

it helps to understand how products are priced in the travel industry. It’s true that airlines, cruise lines and hotels discount their products, and often aggressively. But they also have contracts with online travel agencies and computer reservations systems that prevent their rates from being overly discounted from their sticker prices to keep that block excessive discounts. In other words, the promised savings a travel club offers either violates a contract or, more likely, it doesn’t exist at all. Either way — run!

Can I get out of a travel club?

Your options to escape the clutches of a travel club are limited. You may have an “out” in your contract, but as before, you should pay attention to what’s in your contract — not what a salesperson tells you.

If you’ve paid with a credit card, you can dispute the charge, but you’ll have to show that you didn’t get what you paid for, and that may be difficult once the travel club has shown your super-restrictive contract to your bank dispute department. Small claims court or your state attorney general are other options, but by the time the law catches up to a travel club, it’s usually long gone, and for you, it’s an expensive lesson learned.

What’s the bottom line on vacation clubs?

Travel clubs are a scam, for the most part. Responding to the direct mailer that offers you a free cruise or vacation is like walking into a trap. You’re better off throwing the offer into the garbage, and never looking back. Remember, there’s no such thing as a free ticket.

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