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Is Cash Flow Crimping Plan for a Trip? Just Sign Here

Finance: Companies see loans as another way to get you to go. But you may pay more than the vacation is worth. Read all the fine print.

March 30, 1997|CHRISTOPHER REYNOLDS | TIMES TRAVEL WRITER

Looking for travel money? In case your checking account isn't enough, your savings account isn't enough, your American Express card isn't enough, your credit cards aren't enough, and your bank's credit department isn't an option, the people selling you your next vacation also may be offering a loan to pay for it.

The companies behind this idea see it as a chance to woo travelers who bring in substantial incomes, yet have trouble pulling together a sum to cover the costs of an ambitious trip. This prospect raises concerns among some consumer credit experts, who fear that overextended American consumers will now have one more opportunity to live beyond their means.

"There is a portion of the consumers out there who don't ask about percentages and don't ask about terms," warns Richard Pittman, director of counseling and housing for the Consumer Credit Counseling Service of Los Angeles. "All they ask is how much per month."

Earlier this month, Princess Cruises announced Love Boat Loans, pledging a "virtually instant" credit decision. The program extends passengers a line of credit to cover the cost of their cruise fares, charging a $50-per-person nonrefundable down payment. Payment schedules cover 24 to 48 months, and annual interest rates are 14.99% to 26.99%, depending on the customer's credit history--interest rates that are higher than those charged by most credit cards.

"What we hope this will do," says Colin Veitch, Princess senior vice president for marketing, "is open cruising to a portion of the market that up to now has viewed it as inaccessible." He notes that "if you go to buy a big-screen television or a refrigerator or a car . . . there is always a financing option for it. And most travel products don't have that."

And, if a couple's current budget only allows for a standard cabin, Veitch said, "By financing it and spreading the payments out over time, you could get a suite or a balcony." Further, a customer seeking to finance a second cruise may be able to simply tack the new cost onto his or her outstanding debt from the first trip. Princess is running the program in conjunction with a bank, which actually handles the approval processes and credit transactions..

But Princess is not the first travel company to explore this territory. Creative financing in the travel trade goes back at least 40 years to the 1950s, a generation before wide-bodied jets and deregulated competition slashed prices in the airline industry.

The 1956 cost of a Los Angeles-to-London flight was $720, about seven times the current cost, if you account for inflation. To help customers pay such a whopping sum, airlines sold tickets on the installment plan, allowing payments over 20 months.

Much more recently, in 1993, the Westlake Village-based Pleasant Holidays was looking for a weapon against sagging demand, and came up with a loan program that still is in effect.

A major seller of tour packages to Hawaii and Mexico, Pleasant Holidays uses a subsidiary called Vacation Acceptance Co., which like Princess, operates with a finance company as a background partner.

Under Pleasant's program, customers pay 20% down before their holiday. Required payments begin 30 days after the trip begins, with payments scheduled for up to 18 months. Annual percentage rates vary by state, running at an annual 19.8% in California, with no prepayment penalty. Spokesman Ken Phillips estimates that about 10% of the company's customers use the program--about 30,000 last year.

Phillips suggests that one shrewd approach would be to book a trip eight or nine months ahead--thereby protecting yourself against possible later price increases--and pay off the balance in six or seven or eight monthly payments. Since the Pleasant program charges no interest until 30 days after a trip has begun, the customer would have price-increase protection and a free loan. (And Pleasant would have nine months to collect interest on the customer's 20% deposit.)

If you decide to take a second trip while still paying off the first one--like the Princess people, Pleasant has thought of that too. Assuming you've stayed current on payments, the company generally will lend you the cost of the second trip without requiring another 20% down payment.

However, at the Consumer Credit Counseling Service of Los Angeles, Pittman urges travelers to examine their trip-financing ideas this way:

"Is two to four years of payments worth the pleasure of a week's cruise? If you're talking $5,000 for two people, over four years, at 20% interest, that would be about $150 a month. That means you'd pay back approximately $7,300. So for your inability to save, it's going to cost you $2,300 in interest. So is that worth it to somebody?"

Reynolds travels anonymously at the newspaper's expense, accepting no special discounts or subsidized trips. He welcomes comments and suggestions, but cannot respond individually to letters and calls. Write Travel Insider, Los Angeles Times, Times Mirror Square, Los Angeles 90053 or e-mail chris.reynolds@latimes.com.

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