Bargain vacation turns into an expensive trip Package: Expenses mount as a California couple take advantage of a travel opportunity offered by a time-share company in Florida.

July 28, 1996|By Christopher Reynolds | Christopher Reynolds,LOS ANGELES TIMES

One piece of unsolicited mail, several credit-card billings, a few pleasant beach days and several uncomfortable hours at sea have arisen so far in my 15-month relationship with the vacation certificate industry. But like many troubled relationships, ours comes down to a few waves of anxiety and a couple of decisive moments.

The most crucial of those moments cropped up on a January afternoon on Florida's southeast coast. My wife and I sat in the last-chance salesroom, the one that many customers don't realize is a salesroom until they're in it. Ahead of us lay the Florida-Bahamas vacation that lured us here in the first place. Across the table, between us and our vacation, sat a saleswoman named Bobby, not blinking.

Bobby wanted to sell us a time-share unit in the worst way.

As she pressed the pitch, Bobby's eyes fixed us with the sort of laser glare I imagine Gen. George S. Patton turned on his troops just before battle, assessing their fortitude. Can we be trusted? those eyes asked. Would we let her down?

Bobby had reason for optimism. Despite warnings from consumer advocates and government regulators, time-share sales in the United States have surpassed an estimated $1.7 billion per year. About 1.6 million Americans now own vacation "intervals" of a week or more, by the estimate of veteran time-share industry consultant Richard Ragatz.

Most buyers pay about $5,000 to $15,000 for the basic product, an "interval" that generally amounts to one week a year in a vacation condominium forever, or for the life of a long-term lease. Though the prices can range widely, research shows that buyers usually agree to a down payment of 10 percent to 20 percent and a five- to seven-year payment plan (at double-

digit interest rates). They also pay annual maintenance fees of roughly $200 to $400.

Florida is home to more time-share developers than any other state, but industry figures show that the leading supplier of buyers is California. An estimated 243,900 Californians own time-shares, and one of the industry's principal tools for marketing those time-shares is the vacation certificate.

"Certificates," says California Deputy Attorney General Christopher Ames, "are flooding into California."

Rapid growth

Why does the time-share business continue to grow so ferociously? In large part, many consumer advocates and government regulators say, because the time-share trade has honed an effective strategy for wooing prospective buyers, tempting them with on-the-spot deals and discouraging prepurchase research.

Ellen Burr, president of the Resort Property Owners Association, a consumer group based in Northbrook, Ill., notes that "there are a lot of happy time-share owners out there. They tend to be people who have owned for a number of years, and they've learned the system." Often, she says, those who are satisfied "have bought at a place that they really like, and they just go back to that place over and over again."

But after nearly a decade of fielding daily letters and calls from regretful consumers who have bought time-share properties on impulse, Burr says, she has settled on this all-purpose advice for anyone who gets a mailing that seems connected to time-share sales: File it in your garbage can.

Back in February 1995, our mail carrier came up the drive with a curious unsolicited envelope addressed to my wife, Mary Frances.

"PACK YOUR BAGS," said the certificate. "You are confirmed to receive a World Class Florida/Caribbean Vacation Package Promotion including all accommodations and a Round-trip Cruise!"

There was no price mentioned. There was no mention of the word free, either.

I called the toll-free number. Rebecca the reservationist answered, asked me many questions, and told me that the company making the offer was Vacation Break, which sends thousands of guests yearly to accommodations in Fort Lauderdale and on Grand Bahama Island. We'd get four nights in Fort Lauderdale, two nights on Grand Bahama. To carry us between destinations, we'd have a cruise ship "much like the Love Boat that you've seen on TV," Rebecca said. But there would be no overnights aboard the ship. (In fact, there were no private cabins, unless you paid extra, although Rebecca didn't say any of this.)

A few more things: We had to get to Florida on our own. And pay "promotional fees" of $199 per person for the vacation. And we'd have to pay $89 each in "port fees." And give them 45 days' notice before we travel. And take the trip within 18 months.

Already, our tab was $576 plus transportation to Florida, plus we'd have to pay hotel taxes.

Just a little tour

And what was required of us? Well, Vacation Break would like to give us a tour of a "vacation ownership" property. A time-share development, in other words. Under California law, the company couldn't make the tour mandatory, but it was recommended.

Now, here is where thousands would say thank you and goodbye. But I was curious. How bad could a week of sun and beaches be? How much could it cost?

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