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Join the Club? Don't Let It Become Gullible's Travels

Membership: Be wary of a group's lure of long-term benefits--for a pricey sign-up fee. The group may go out of business or change policies.

September 01, 1996|JAMES T. YENCKEL | WASHINGTON POST

A reader sounded worried when she phoned the other day, and no wonder.

"I just paid $6,000 to join a travel club promising bargain travel," she said, "and now my friend tells me she remembers reading something unfavorable about it. Do you know anything about the club?"

The caller named the club, but it sounded so similar to other travel clubs I've heard about that I couldn't be sure if I did or not. As I told her this, I shook my head in silent disbelief. How could she commit so much money without knowing with whom she was dealing?

Consumers are bombarded these days with unusual travel offers by mail, phone, fax and street leaflets, and sorting the legitimate ones from the scams can be difficult. Some firms operate just barely within the law, and "buyer beware" remains advice to heed.

Our conversation was quick, and I didn't jot down her name. It was only after we hung up that I figured others might benefit from her experience.

For her $6,000, she said, the club promised her access for the next 10 years to bargain-priced, last-minute trips all over the country, and she would get all her lodgings free. "What could be wrong with this?" she wanted to know.

And so I told her.

"What guarantee do you have," I said, "that the firm will be in business a year from now--let alone in 10 years?" In recent years, numerous long-standing, well-regarded travel firms have gone bust, and in some cases their customers have lost money. Cut-rate firms that operate on a slim profit margin can be especially risky investments. "And what if the club's policies change in the future, and you don't like them?"

"Do you know anything about the types of lodgings the club books?" I asked the woman. From my own experience, resort hotels--the sort of lodgings generally available in vacation packages--range from dumps to palaces, but it's doubtful that a club promoting cheap trips will put you in top-notch lodgings. "Can you get your money back if you don't like the club's hotels?"

Stan Bosco, a consumer affairs specialist with the American Society of Travel Agents, raises other lodging concerns. Does the club have the right to substitute a resort if the one you want is full? If so, he warns, the alternative "may be 20 miles from the beach." Or you may be able to reserve a room only in December when you really prefer to go in August. Some discounters put travelers in fine hotels in the weeks before they shut down for much-needed renovations--a period when the property is surely not at its best.

As an enthusiastic traveler, my objection to travel clubs, even the most reputable ones, is that they hold the power to choose your vacation destination--you don't--and that's a decision I'm not willing to relinquish. The club may never offer a destination that really excites you--or the place you read about next week and really want to see.

And, I added: "You probably have committed yourself to stay in big, busy resort hotels, and someday you might prefer to stay instead in romantic little inns, guest ranches or mountain lodges.

"Can you always travel at the last minute?" I asked. To take advantage of last-minute deals, travelers have to be very flexible. Many people are limited by job considerations and school schedules. The woman insisted she was flexible, which is one reason she liked the idea of last-minute bargains. "Fine," I replied, "but can you be sure your present circumstances won't change in the next decade? Can you get a refund if you want out of the club in a year or two?"

By now, I had thoroughly distressed the caller, who seemed ready to try to get her money back. And she hadn't even heard these other potential problems raised by the consumer advisors:

Travel clubs obviously are in the business to make money, and a club that promises free lodgings may charge higher air fares than you could get shopping on your own, notes Art Weiss, an assistant attorney general in the Consumer Protection Division of the Texas attorney general's office.

Travelers alert to today's frequent air fare wars might be able to put together their own cut-rate packages to destinations they really want to visit. Some airlines and travel clubs offer last-minute packages without requiring any membership fee or only a modest annual fee. On the club's flights you might not be able to collect frequent-flier miles, get advance seat assignments or switch to another airline if your original flight is delayed or canceled, Weiss says. Ask the club about these points and get any promises in writing.

"You don't know what your financial and physical abilities will be in the future," Bosco adds. "Your spouse may pass on, and you may not want to travel alone." Or you could suffer a disabling accident or illness that would prevent you from taking advantage of the club's offers.

These are all things consumers should think seriously about before signing up for any travel club. Where large amounts of money are involved, you may want to consult an attorney. Check also with the Consumer Affairs Office of the American Society of Travel Agents ([703] 739-2782) and the Better Business Bureau in the locale where the club has an office to find out if it has been the target of consumer complaints. Your city, county or state consumer affairs office may also be of help.

If you are happy with the answers you get, then the club you are considering may really give you the bargain you are looking for.

But be particularly aware about joining a travel club if you have been subjected to a high-pressure sales pitch in which you are urged to sign up immediately. Never sign without knowing in advance about cancellation options.

Christopher Reynolds is on assignment.

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