A look at what these travel options offer

You probably remember those American Express commercials with the slogan “Membership has its privileges.” In the travel world, that can mean joining a vacation club.

It’s easy to see the appeal. What’s not to like about staying at a place that offers a resort experience and a vacation rental setting? 

I glimpsed this world when I stayed at Marriott’s Maui Ocean Club — Molokai, Maui & Lanai Towers and The Westin Ka‘anapali Ocean Resort Villas before the tragic fires. (Note: As of this writing, reservations at these particular resorts were temporarily on hold as the situation evolved.) 

Both are beach-side properties with ooh-and-ahh scenery and the bluest of water. The villas are spacious and modern, and include separate living areas with full kitchens. Unlike a standard vacation rental, amenities like a spa, pools with waterfalls, restaurants, and bars are included. For cultural immersion visitors can take flower lei making, hula dancing, Hawaiian language, and ukulele classes. Then there are sunrise yoga classes on the lawn, private beachfront dinners, water sports, snorkeling, paddleboarding and surfing. 

Sounds ideal, doesn’t it? Here’s what you need to know before you decide if this kind of vacation option might work for you. 

Vacation clubs vs. timeshares

While every company is different, generally vacation clubs offer a membership or points-based system with access to multiple resorts within the club’s network, flexibility to choose when and where to vacation, the option to exchange points for stays at affiliated resorts or external networks, and additional perks such as discounts on flights, car rentals and exclusive events. Membership requires an upfront purchase price, and annual dues or maintenance fees based on usage or membership level.

Essentially, a vacation club is a variation on the timeshare concept. With a timeshare you typically purchase partial ownership in a specific property and purchase access at that location for a specific week or weeks each year. They typically require an upfront purchase price, annual maintenance fees as well as potential additional fees. Flexibility is limited in terms of dates and locations.

In contrast a vacation club membership offers flexibility on travel dates and opportunities to travel to various locations of interest. “Owners get the benefits of owner incentives including special programming, amenities and on-property offers, as well as locking in a price for future vacations to come at today’s purchase prices, acting as a hedge against inflation,” says Jason Gamel, president and CEO of the American Resort Development Association. People also have everything they need, such as washers, dryers, full kitchens and living rooms, and anywhere from one to four bedrooms, depending on the property.

Owners can keep visiting a property they love or choose among many properties and experiences in the company’s portfolio. For example, Marriott Vacation Clubs members have access to over 90 vacation club resorts in the Marriott Vacation Club, Sheraton Vacation Club and Westin Vacation Club network, as well as access to more than 8,000 Marriott Bonvoy hotels, 2,000 vacation homes, and 2,000 unique experiences like cruises, guided and culinary tours, premier events, and outdoor adventures. Vacation-share owners also can exchange ownership to stay at properties outside of the branded portfolio through Interval International. Locations are not limited to the U.S. and include exotic locales like Bali and Thailand.

Senior couple walks along beach
Photo: iStockphoto.com/dmbaker.

Is this the right time of life for me?

“For seniors, joining a vacation club can provide a sense of community and socialization, which is crucial for maintaining mental health and overall well-being in the golden years. There are vacation clubs specifically designed for seniors, which not only offer travel opportunities but also foster friendships among its members,” says Tyler Seeger, managing director of Retirement Being, a free resource for seniors looking for senior living communities.

When contemplating whether to join, Seeger advises looking through a club’s portfolio of destinations to see if they offer amenities tailored to your needs, such as accessible rooms, medical facilities, and activities that align with your interests and mobility. Flexibility in booking and cancellation policies can also be essential, as plans may change due to health or family considerations.

Pay attention to how flexible the club is for booking dates, locations, and accommodations. “Call [for] reservations and inquire about availability at your top destinations, time of year and accommodations,” says Andy LaPointe, a senior advisor and author of Retirement Travel After Work: Unveiling the Ultimate Travel Guide.

Also ask about the activities and amenities at club locations you are considering visiting. Ensure they offer activities not only of interest to you, but for those who might accompany you, such as kid-friendly activities for the grandchildren. If you have ongoing health concerns, ask about the proximity to medical facilities.

Also be realistic about how often you will use the membership. If you only travel every few years, it may not be worth the investment. Vacation clubs are best for the frequent traveler. 

Considering your financial situation is important, too. It’s not just a matter of coming up with the initial costs. “Ask for a complete outline of all costs associated with joining a particular vacation club,” says LaPointe.

Read the fine print

A vacation club may be great today, but what if your health declines or any other life change occurs, and you no longer want your membership? Be sure you understand cancellation policies. Are there penalties? What are the policies if you want to bring guests? How do you earn points and redeem them, and what’s the expiration policy? Are there restrictions on when you can use your points? Ask lots of questions.

Shop around

Research the various benefits and features of different clubs to determine what best suits you. The industry has some big-name players, including Wyndham Destinations, Hilton Grand Vacations, Westgate Resorts, Disney Vacation Club, and RCI.

Don’t think of your vacation club membership as a conventional investment. Vacation clubs don’t offer a tangible asset that you can sell off in the future, so their value is the use you get from them rather than a future resale. This is a lifestyle investment.

“We don’t ever recommend considering a vacation club ownership as a financial investment. The main investment lies in a future of quality vacation ownership, enjoyment and meaningful time for the owner and their family and friends for years to come,” says Gamel.

Know, too, that many of the properties will be in popular tourist destinations. If you’re someone who prefers the road less traveled and aren’t interested in staying primarily in 5-star resorts, vacation clubs may not be the best option for you.

Still not sure? You can book a stay at a vacation club property just like a traditional hotel. It’s a great way to test-drive the notion of vacation ownership.

How Not to Get Scammed

Seniors are prime targets for all sorts of scams, including vacation clubs. Here’s what to look out for before you sign on the dotted line. 

  • If it sounds too good to be true, it likely is. “Always be wary of unsolicited offers, too-good-to-be-true deals, and companies that are pushy or unwilling to provide detailed information,” says Tyler Seeger, managing director of Retirement Being.
  • Know who is behind the club operation and ownership. “The integrity and longevity of the membership is only as good as the company behind it and the company servicing the members,” says Joseph Takacs, CEO of TheMVPService, which provides timeshare support for homeowners association boards and owners.
  • Research the company and read reviews from other members. “If something feels off, trust your instincts, consult with a trusted friend or family member,” says Seeger.
  • Take your time and don’t rush to make a decision. 

Top photo: iStockphoto.com/igoriss.

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