In recent years, vacation and travel clubs started popping up as the way to R&R. Resorts, airlines and other companies in the travel industry advertise these members-only clubs as great alternatives to timeshares and play up their discounted travel options.
But the truth is, as bad as timeshares are, these clubs aren’t any better. In fact, they’re worse. They not only have all the restrictions, money traps and sneaky fees of a timeshare, they have more of them—including creative new ones you’ve probably never heard of.
Now, that might surprise you if you’ve heard good things about these clubs or are even thinking of buying a membership. So, let’s dig into the details. We’ll show you how these clubs work, how they waste even more of your money than timeshares do and why you’re better off keeping your distance.
How Timeshares and Clubs Work
Before we explain why clubs are as bad for your budget as timeshares, we want you to know the differences between them.
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A timeshare is a single property you visit year after year. You purchase the timeshare, then pay maintenance fees. The timeshare company lets you vacation there at preset times, usually a week or two each year.
To join vacation clubs, you pay an initial membership fee. After that, you pay monthly or yearly membership and maintenance fees.
In return, the club gives you a discount on a vacation from their list of possible destinations and travel dates. Don’t get too excited, though—by the time you get done paying the fees, there’s not much “discount” left.
Travel clubs are a type of vacation club. They have a lot of the same expenses and destinations, but in a travel club, members vacation together. The company gets them group rates, so they usually pay less for memberships and fees than vacation club members.
The Risks of Vacation Clubs and Travel Clubs
Timeshares, vacation clubs and travel clubs all sell people the idea of a fairytale vacation at a bargain price, but don’t be fooled. These dream vacations come with nightmarish problems.
A timeshare is super restrictive, since you visit the same place every year. Timeshare companies know people don’t want to do that, so they created vacation and travel clubs with different destinations. That’s right—the people who created the timeshare you hate also created the vacation club you want to join. That should tell you something right there!
Plus, you still can’t go wherever you want.
Some travel clubs say they’ll give you “unlimited destinations.” Really, that means you can go to any resort the club owns. If they don’t own property where you want to go, you can’t go there—at least, not through the club.
Vacation clubs also limit you to club-owned properties, but they take it a step further by adding upgrade fees. Basic memberships let you visit cheaper, less desirable destinations. If you want to stay at a popular, luxury resort, you’ll have to pay extra.
Restricted Travel Dates
With a timeshare, you and the other owners are competing for time in the same home—so you can see why you can’t just show up whenever you want. Somebody else might already be there.
Club companies may own a dozen or more resorts, so you’d think you’d have a better chance of scheduling your vacation when you want. But no!
Members still face restrictions, called blackout dates. Basically, the club says, “You can’t vacation at our resorts during any of these six weeks, because they contain holidays.” The way to vacation during blackout dates? Pay more money.
Most clubs won’t tell you that outright, either. It’s in the fine print at the bottom of your contract, so small it’ll make you go blind. Why? Because these companies are sneaky!
Restricted Family Access
When you have a timeshare, you can bring whoever you want to the vacation home, as long as it’s during your allotted time. But with club memberships, your family may not be able to vacation with you. Many clubs only give the membership to the person who paid for it, so just because you bought it doesn’t mean they’re invited.
That means you can forget about inviting Uncle Billy and Aunt Brenda to the beach for a family reunion. But here’s the real kicker: Depending on the club, these restrictions can also apply to your immediate family! So if you bought the wrong membership, your spouse and kids can’t go with you.
You might be fine with that if you don’t like your family. But if you do want to take them along, you’ll have to buy a pricey family membership. And to top it off, that membership will likely limit the number of family members you can bring. Some clubs cap family plans at three people, so if you’re married with two kids, one of them is going to be recreating Home Alone while the rest of you vacation.
These restrictions tack a huge emotional price tag onto your vacation. And that’s before you look at the dollar amount.
Clubs ham up their “discounts,” then hit members with thousands of dollars in fees and upgrades. It’s important to know all these costs—up-front and hidden—so you can see why vacation and travel clubs are truly bad investments.
We’ve already covered how much timeshares cost, so we’ll skip ahead to club memberships. Some cheap vacation clubs offer memberships for around $5,000. Which sounds good, unless you know that the average American vacation costs way less—around $2,037.1
Besides, most clubs charge more. An average membership price is $20,000–30,000. For a luxury membership, you’re looking at anywhere from $100,000 to $1 million.
Travel clubs have cheaper up-front costs than vacation clubs (typically $2,500–20,000). But first, that still doesn’t mean they’re cheap. Second, you may get lower rates, but you’re giving up your private vacation.
Remember, you’re traveling with other club members to get discounts. Do you really want how much you enjoy your vacation to depend on whether Carl from Columbus decides to spend the week in a speedo or not?
If you choose to buy any of these nightmares, you’ll have to face closing costs, just like buying a home. Closing costs on both clubs and timeshares tend to run at least $300–500, sometimes more.
Timeshare and club companies offer financing for people who can’t afford the initial purchase up front. And the interest on these loans is absolutely insane.
Take a $20,000 vacation club membership for instance. You don’t have the full amount, so you put 10% down and finance the rest at $260/month for 10 years. That doesn’t sound bad—until you realize you’re paying about 12% interest!
You’ll end up paying $31,000 for that $20,000 membership. That’s $11,000 more! And you still haven’t paid any of the other fees!
Timeshares come with a lot of fees, but membership dues usually aren’t one of them. This is one area where vacation and travel clubs are worse, hands down!
Even though you already bought a “lifetime” club membership (or 30-year, five-year or whatever), you still have to pay an annual membership fee. This could be anywhere from $1,000 to $15,000.
Timeshares have super high maintenance fees, and guess what? So do vacation clubs! In fact, vacation club fees are actually more expensive—they usually range from $3,000 to another $15,000 a year.
Not all travel clubs charge these fees, which makes them the least terrible option in this case (but still not one you should consider).
With a timeshare, you’ve paid for your vacation lodging ahead of time, but that’s all you’ve done. You still have to pay for travel, food and entertainment when you get there. By the time you factor in those expenses and the yearly maintenance fees, you can see that there are definitely cheaper ways to travel than a timeshare.
Clubs are actually a step down from this. They put a price tag on the vacation itself—it’s discounted, not free. You pay the club fees, pay part of the cost of the resort, then pay other expenses like getting there, sightseeing, eating and buying a souvenir T-shirt.
Sometimes, travel clubs promise members “free” vacations. But remember what Grandma used to say: “Nothing is free!” Even if the “free” trip includes airfare or a few meals and activities, it won’t pay for all your expenses.
The incredible thing is, people go along with this nonsense because timeshare and vacation club companies have started taking the pain out of the purchase. They do this by using a points system. You buy points, then redeem them later to pay for your vacation.
The transaction is painless because by the time you use your points, you’ve forgotten the emotional connection you had to the money you bought them with. And that’s how they trick you into spending more money.
Many consumer points systems require you to collect a ton of points—like 10,000 or 20,000—before you can redeem them for something you want. The biggest club companies know this, so they’ve gotten sneaky. They price vacations at 100, 200 or some other “low” number of points. So your brain thinks, Aha! I barely need any points. What a great deal!
But those points typically cost $100–200 each. You might “only” need 100 points, but by the time you pay $150 apiece for them, you’re out $15,000. That’s full price—for a “discount” trip!
Some clubs charge annual dues for the points you buy. It doesn’t seem like much—maybe $5 or $10 per point—but think about this. You already bought the points. You paid for them. And now you’re paying for them again!
Imagine walking into a restaurant and eating a meal. The waiter brings your bill, you pay it and then he comes back with another bill. You’d think it was ridiculous! So why would you pay a second bill for your vacation club points?
The sad thing is, people still fall for this. Their points dues can cost them more than $1,000 extra per year.
You read that right—some club companies actually charge you money to redeem, purchase or do anything else with your points.
That means you have to pay them money to access and use the points you already bought. That’s like paying the bank so you can use your own money!
Another trick companies use is changing point requirements. You buy 100 points this year, to redeem next year. Then next year, the resort raises the price 20 points—so you buy them because you “almost” have enough. Over time, you’ll spend thousands of dollars you didn’t plan on spending, just to get those extra points.
Instead of wasting thousands of dollars on timeshares and club memberships, you know what’s really great? Realizing you have a choice! You can learn how to save money for a vacation and choose trips that won’t break the bank.
Remember, a lot of variables can affect these numbers, depending on the club or timeshare you’re dealing with. So it’s good to remember that they’re estimates based on average prices (luxury prices are much higher).
One more thing: Your travel expenses will add up to several thousand dollars to these totals. So even if you got the cheapest travel club option known to man, you’d still pay more than a regular vacation. At worst, you might think you’re signing up for the cheapest option and actually end up with thousands of dollars in other fees.
The Last Straw
It’s awful, but vacation and travel clubs actually recruit members by offering to get them out of an existing timeshare and into something that’s supposedly more flexible—their club.
Don’t fall for it! These clubs are just timeshares with slick new packaging and more traps to fall into. If you hate the restrictive, expensive timeshare you already have, why sign up for another one?