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2 Cases Where Membership Does Have Some Privileges

Discounts: AARP and Diners Club have little in common except offering their members a chance to save on travel costs.

April 19, 1998|CHRISTOPHER REYNOLDS | TIMES TRAVEL WRITER

Sometimes it pays to be a joiner. And sometimes the groups it pays to join are outfits that you've always taken for granted as organizations for other people. Two examples--that is, two long-standing, often-overlooked organizations that can save travelers a good bit of money--are the American Assn. of Retired Persons and the Diners Club.

The two haven't got much in common, beginning with the fact that AARP is a nonprofit organization, Diners Club a for-profit enterprise run by Citibank. But both trace their roots to the late 1940s, and both can save you money in ways not immediately obvious.

AARP: In the heat of a debate over whether this organization deserved tax-free status, former Sen. Alan Simpson (R.-Wyo.) once denounced the AARP as "millions of people in search of airline discounts." This is, of course, incorrect. They want hotel discounts too.

And AARP members get them, usually from 10% to 30%, occasionally more. Look closely at hotel brochures and you'll frequently see such phrases as "AARP members and seniors over 55 get 15% off" or "discounts available to AARP members and other travelers over 62."

The percentage of the discount is not the only important number here. AARP membership is open to anyone, retired or not, age 50 or beyond. And since many hotels ask only for the card, not your birth date, joining the organization (at $8 a year; spouse of any age included) gives you access to discounts you'd otherwise be denied for another five or seven or 10 or 15 years.

A couple of caveats: If you're already an American Automobile Assn. member, you get basically the same discounts at most of the same hotels that AARP works with. (And no, you can't stack AARP and AAA discounts atop each other. It's one or the other.) Also, despite Simpson's suspicions, no major U.S. airline has a ticket discount agreement with AARP. Instead, each sets its own seniors policy.

AARP (tel. [800] 424-3410; Internet http://www.aarp.org) had its genesis in 1947, when a retired California school principal named Ethel Percy Andrus organized a group of retired educators to buy health insurance.

Every member gets the discounts on hotels, as well as discounts of 5% to 30% from Avis, Hertz and National rental car agencies, and 10% from Gray Line tours in most of North America (but not Las Vegas, Orlando, Santa Fe and a few other places). Virgin Atlantic Airlines offers discounts of 12% to 25%. Also, Carnival and Holland America cruise lines offer discounts of $25 to $200 (with various restrictions), and World Explorer Cruises offers AARP members 15% to 20% discounts from brochure rates.

Diners Club: The concept was developed in 1949 by entrepreneurs Frank X. McNamara and Ralph Schneider over dinner at Major's Cabin Grill Restaurant in New York. They designed a single card that allows its bearer to charge expenses at various businesses associated with travel and entertainment. This revolutionary idea laid the groundwork not only for Diners Club's growth (about 8 million members worldwide, less than half of them in the U.S.), but for the global networks of Visa, Mastercard and American Express.

The card's not cheap. There's an $80 annual fee, and all balances must be paid off within about 60 days. And the card is not accepted universally enough to replace your favorite credit card. But its benefits can make it a mean supplement.

There are no interest charges. Through its free LeCard program, Diners Club (tel. [800] 234-6377; Internet http://www.dinersclub.com) gives its members 20% discounts at about 1,800 restaurants in the U.S. (more than 60 in Los Angeles County). The card also works as a charge card at most restaurants and with major U.S. airlines and other travel-related businesses. Diners Club members get access to 66 private airport lounges worldwide (but none at LAX or New York's Kennedy airport) and cash advances via ATM.

Every dollar spent with the card accumulates as part of a Club Rewards frequent travel program, and can be transferred, one mile per dollar with no expiration, to any major U.S. airline's frequent-flier program, and more than 250 foreign carriers, as well. That flexibility is unavailable with any other U.S. credit-card mileage deal.

Another key benefit is rental car insurance coverage. While other travelers puzzle over whether they should trust their auto policies at home or lay out $10 to $15 per day for CDW (collision, damage and theft) insurance from the rental car companies, Diners Club members know that throughout the U.S. and Europe (except Italy, where laws are different) and in many other countries, renting with their card gives them primary CDW coverage in most rental cars, with no deductible.

Many charge cards include rental car insurance coverage, but unless you hold a premier-level card (gold or platinum, typically), yours probably offers only secondary insurance. In other words, the charge card's backing institution will pay only for the losses that your primary insurer at home doesn't cover. And after your primary car insurance carrier at home has covered those losses, it may decide to boost your premiums. With primary coverage like Diners Club's, the insurer covers losses without involving your car insurance company at home.

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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