Over the years, we get questions about vacation clubs—some from people who just wonder what they are, others from people looking for the “best” club. The most recent was simple:
“Are there any civilian vacation clubs like Armed Forces Vacation Club (AFVC)?”
The short answer is, “Yes; there are lots of vacation clubs, although none quite like AFVC.” We last covered vacation clubs three years ago, so a review and update are in order.
The Basic Vacation Club Idea
Vacation clubs are essentially a variation on the timeshare theme: programs that offer vacation stays in participating accommodations. As with timeshares, you buy into the program for an initial price anywhere from around $5000 to as much as $1 million; once enrolled, you select the resorts where you want to stay and pay for each occupancy. You may also pay extra annual “maintenance” or “membership” fees.
I can see two general distinctions between a vacation club and a conventional timeshare program:
- With conventional timeshare programs, you generally “own” a base week interval (or multiple one-week intervals) for specific dates at specific resorts. Most timeshares, however, participate in exchange programs, and in those you can usually exchange your base intervals for intervals at other equivalent locations and times within the exchange program.
- With a vacation club, you may have no base interval location or time. Also, what, where, and how long you vacation depends on how much occupancy you buy. Stay options are not limited to one-week intervals—you can sometimes visit just a night or two.
Some vacation clubs allow you to sell or transfer your membership; as with timeshares, you can sometimes buy one of these club memberships as a resale. With others, however, your interest is not transferrable. Check here here for more information about resale.
Only a few of the very high-end vacation clubs promise to buy back your initial membership “investment,” at full value or at a set partial value. With most midprice and inexpensive programs, you’re either locked in or on your own to recover what you can in a resale market.
Three General Groups
Vacation clubs fall into three general categories, based on sponsorship and management:
- Major hotel/resort chain: Many of the biggest names in worldwide hotels/resorts operate vacation clubs, including Disney, Four Seasons, Hilton, Hyatt, Marriott, Ritz-Carlton, Starwood, Westin, and Wyndham. With these vacation clubs, your vacation choices are usually limited to locations that belong to the chain.
- Condo/resort chains: Other vacation clubs operate their own networks of owned or affiliated vacation facilities that usually are not affiliated with any large hotel chain. Participating properties range from conventional condos for midprice programs to separate “villas” for higher-end programs. Most are located in major resort areas, but some are in large cities, and higher-end programs may include cruise options.
Players include Bluegree , Diamond/Sunterra, Royal Aloha, Shell Vacations, Vacation Internationale, World Vacations Club, and WorldMark. The AFVC, cited by our reader, focuses on military families (and apparently charges no entry fee or dues). Of course, the two giant timeshare exchange programs, Interval International and RCI, are de facto vacation clubs.
- High-end ownership programs: Several programs operate as associations of individuals that own expensive properties around the world: Members buy into an equity position in which they share actual ownership of the participating properties. Initial buy-in starts at around $100,000 and can be as high as $1 million. Many promise recovery of all or most of that buy-in when members want to leave the program. These operations often call themselves “Destination Clubs.”
Among the high-end players: Distinctive Holiday Homes Distinctive Holiday Homes , Equity Estates, Everlands, Hideaways Club (Europe), M Private Residences (Canada), Markers Destination Club (focus on golf), Oyster Circle (Europe), Quintess, Solstice, and Ultimate Escapes. Destination Club Forums, Halogen Guides, and Sherpa Report maintain excellent databases and bulletin boards for detailed information about these high-end programs.
Pros and Cons
The advantages and disadvantages of vacation clubs pretty much follow those for timeshares, generally:
Pros: Accommodations are usually larger than individual hotel/resort accommodations, with kitchen facilities; many are in excellent locations; annual occupancy costs can be less than for comparable hotel/resort accommodations.
Cons: Except at the very high end, you generally can’t recover the initial buy-in price; you may be locked into certain types of location; accommodations when and where you want them may be hard to find; operators can increase fees without recourse; vacation clubs have been prone to some of the same high-pressure sales tactics as timeshares. Check Complaints Board, My 3 Cents, The Owners’ Advocate, Ripoff Report, and Squeaky Wheel for representative complaints about vacation clubs.
As with timeshares, generally, lots of vacation club participants—probably a majority—are happy with their programs and pleased with the results. Unfortunately, even some of the biggest names seem to be guilty of high-pressure sales techniques and questionable promises. Don’t let this deter you if you like the idea, but even more than in other parts of the travel marketplace, buyer beware!