Memorial Day is here, and summer vacation season soon will be in full swing.
I don't have to tell you how expensive vacations can be. If you're like me, you're always looking for ways to cut the cost without reducing the fun. If you think joining a travel club will save you money, do your homework before signing up because if you don't, you may find yourself regretting it.
Clubs promise they can offer discounted travel to popular destinations. But I've heard from several people, including a Whitehall Township resident just last week, who told me that after signing up they found the prices weren't better than what they could find on their own, or the travel options were limited.
I'm not saying you shouldn't join a travel club. I'm saying you should take your time and make sure it's the right fit and worth your money. That means looking at its offerings, comparing prices and making sure the club has a good reputation before dropping thousands of dollars on a membership.
Don't be rushed into a decision on the spot after hearing a slick sales pitch in some hotel conference room or other leased space, where these presentations often are made to people who are lured by offers of airline tickets and cruises just for attending.
Nationwide, more than 2,000 people filed complaints last year with the Better Business Bureau about travel clubs.
The Better Business Bureau in Dallas said in a report last month that the complaints "provide a glimpse into a complex network of evolving and widespread travel club schemes that deceptively operate throughout the country."
Authorities nationwide have taken steps to shut down clubs, including in Pennsylvania.
The state attorney general's office is seeking about $850,000 in fines and restitution from Daryl T. Turner and clubs the state says he operated, Dreamworks Vacation Club and Five Points Travel of Willow Grove. The state sued them in 2010, alleging they misrepresented travel packages they sold.
A hearing is scheduled for June in Montgomery County Court.
Turner, of Marlton, N.J., and his attorneys did not return my calls. In court papers, Turner denied the accusations.
The difficulties that local residents told me they've experienced after signing up for travel clubs are consistent with what the Better Business Bureau found during its recent investigation.
"Consumers are often dismayed that the deals they were promised during the presentation were highly inflated, and the deals they can receive through their new membership aren't significantly better than the deals that they can find online using many popular and free online travel deal websites," the report said.
According to the BBB, the sales process starts with a marketer who sends vague solicitations saying you've been selected to receive a cruise or airline tickets. The BBB says that when you call to claim your award, a scheduler who is equally vague tries to get you to attend a sales presentation.
"Consumers accuse schedulers of being deceptive in their methods of booking the presentation as well as evasive in disclosing that the consumer will need to attend a sales presentation to receive their gift," the report says.
If you attend, the BBB says, a travel club distributor who is paid on commission will try to sell you a membership.
"Many consumers throughout the country accuse distributors of high-pressure sales tactics while often using dishonest and deceptive terms," the BBB said in its report.
And what about those airline tickets or cruise you are entitled to? The BBB says they often turn out not to be free as you may have assumed, "and you'll have to work the system just right if you ever want to receive them."
That also matches what a few local people told me they experienced after attending presentations. They said they learned they'd have to pay $70 to "activate" the airfare and then another $50 to $65 per person in fees. The cruise costs were even more.
If you get a postcard or phone call awarding you airline tickets or a cruise, don't start packing your bags just yet. A Berks County man recently sent me a solicitation he received saying he had qualified for an award of two airline tickets.
Pay attention to the fine print. My wife got the same mailing at our home and on the back it says taxes, registration and processing fees are not included.
I called the number on the letter and was told the tickets were being provided by a wholesale travel company. To get them, I'd have to attend a "short open house" where the company would introduce its services. I was told I would not be subjected to a time share sales pitch or "high-pressure sales."
If you receive an offer like this and decide to attend a presentation, don't let yourself be rushed into making a decision on the spot. If a club is legit, it will be happy to take your money a few days or weeks later, after you've had time to check it out.
The Watchdog is published Thursdays and Sundays. Contact me by email at email@example.com, by phone at 610-841-2364 (ADOG), by fax at 610-820-6693, or by mail at The Morning Call, 101 N. Sixth St., Allentown, PA, 18101. Follow me on Twitter at mcwatchdog and on Facebook at Morning Call Watchdog.