Are Travel Clubs Really Worth The Fee?

Just like shoppers who shudder at the thought of paying full retail price for an article of clothing, few vacation travelers expect to shell out full fare for an airline ticket or a hotel stay. Problem is, it can take a fair amount of legwork to pin down the best discounts when you're planning a trip.

Coming to the rescue of thrifty travelers is a growing number of services offering members deep discounts on air tickets, cruises, car rentals, and restaurants. For a membership fee of $50 to $144, you get telephone access to an agency that provides a variety of deals, often including super-cheap, last-minute ones.

TWO TRIPS. Most clubs can knock off as much as 50% off the regular rates at thousands of hotels, motels, and resorts in the U.S. and abroad. In addition to the other discounts, some give you a rebate of 5% to 10% on any bookings you make through their service. So it doesn't take much to offset the membership cost even if you're only an occasional traveler.

There are dozens of different clubs out there, some targeting special groups such as golfers or gamblers and others throwing in extra features such as roadside assistance. One of the leaders in this field is CUC Travel Services in Stamford, Conn., which boasts 8 million members. It not only markets its own brand, Travelers Advantage, but runs similar programs under the names of credit-card issuers, such as Citibank and Banc One; retailers such as Sears; oil companies such as Citgo; and the three major online services. The companies generally seek out members through direct mailings. The July, 1995, issue of Consumer Reports Travel Letter has a complete listing of travel clubs. To request a copy, send $5 to the publication at 101 Truman Ave., Yonkers, N.Y., 10703.

Although the price of entry to a travel club is low, think carefully before you sign on. "It looks so good that a lot of people spend $50 for membership they never use," says Josef Aukee, an editor at Consumer Reports Travel Letter in San Francisco. "To make it worthwhile, you need to take at least two trips a year." You also have to be flexible with dates. Most discounts are only valid "subject to availability," which means there is no guarantee you'll find a hotel room or air ticket when you need one. So a club makes more sense for retirees and adults without children than business travelers and parents tied to school schedules.

Something else to remember is that travel clubs don't have a lock on rock-bottom rates. If you're a good bargain hunter or you have a diligent travel agent, you can nail down excellent discounts on your own. "If you're willing to hustle, you can call hotels directly and cut a better deal than what your club is offering," says Christopher McGinnis, editor of The Ticket, an Atlanta-based newsletter for business travelers. Alternatively, you can go through a good airfare consolidator, cruises-only travel agency, or hotel broker to snare big discounts. For example, the Hotel Reservations Network (800 964-6835) books rooms at preferred rates in 20 U.S. cities as well as London and Paris.

Still, the main advantage of a club is that it will do the legwork for you. "It's a one-stop shopping strategy which saves a lot of time," says McGinnis. Clubs work best for travelers who know what they want. So if all you're sure of is you'd like to take a vacation somewhere in a nice place, you're better off consulting a full-service travel agency for ideas. But if you're someone who knows where and how you'd like to travel, yet want to shave some bucks off the price, join the club.