Tuesday, June 10, 2008

My Dream Vacation (well, really just my "Not-Nightmare" Vacation)

I just had a great travel experience, which is rarer and rarer to hear about these days.  And my trip could have gone wrong so many times, but I'd like to think it's my travel savvy-ness that protected me from a ruined trip.

It all started months ago when my father-in-law asked for my help to find a good price and to book him a hotel room.  His stay went great, but that's not my story.  I was attracted to the sales pitch given by the Ramada agent during that transaction.  I ended up laying out $150 for a 3-day, 2-night vacation, which money would be refunded after I attended a 90-minute "vacation club" (=timeshare) presentation, along with the promise of hundreds of dollars in vouchers and rebates.  I picked Ft Lauderdale as our destination since we love that area, and it would be a great way to escape the Northeast during the winter.

So yeah, I got a little bit suckered in, and many people tell me that timeshare companies readily give out more goodies than that... so I could have gotten a better deal maybe but it was painless in my case because I read the fine print.  Turns out the package had a 9-month expiration date on it, so I had to use it before June 30th.  Things were busy, projects at work kept us tied down at home all winter, and I didn't get to use it for an escape as I had hoped to do.  But I knew I had to use it before the expiration date, so I reserved the room (but only after confirming that affordable flights were available for those dates -- more on that process below) and we set out on our trip with a couple of weeks before expiration.  Oh, and when I reserved it, I declined their initial request for "only $49" per night to stay at the featured resort.  I asked for a stay at the hotel that wasn't going to cost any extra.  And then I checked that the hotel had a good reputation in the travel community, and that it wasn't a fleabag place in a dangerous neighborhood.

I pre-paid for our rental car on Priceline, which is my favorite travel site.  But the best way to avoid disappointment with a service like theirs is to understand fully how their system works.  I love www.betterbidding.com for the great Priceline guidance they give there, including an introductory post that gives advance warning of the common problems people have when they use Priceline without understanding it completely.  Like the No Refund policy, etched in stone almost -- that one can really bite you if you're not expecting it!

I got a good price on Southwest for our flights, again a provider that works best when you understand what to expect. I researched my fare options for about an hour, selecting flight times that were realistic for our family (we don't do 7 AM traveling).  I picked flights that had low-low-fare seats still available, because of being off-peak travel times for that route.  Who besides a leisure traveler would be flying at 11:30 AM on a Tuesday from Ft Lauderdale?  I refused to take anything but a non-stop flight to reduce the headaches caused by delays.  We were fortunate that our flights both departed on time and landed early, but I was mentally, emotionally, and logistically prepared for delays.  For example I purposely avoided taking the last flight of the day, which is a strategy recommended by many many travel advice columnists.

I read the Southwest website carefully to understand their boarding procedure, I printed my boarding pass early to get a good spot in the A boarding group, and I arrived at the airport early enough to eat a sit-down meal in the airport and didn't have to fly hungry.  I brought my noise-canceling headphones.  I divided our clothes between two checked bags so that the loss of one bag wouldn't leave one person with nothing; for the same reason I didn't check both bags under the same name.  One was checked under his name and the other was under my name.  I know the rules for getting through security at the airport, so I was able to comply without any difficulty.  I had my eyes open for posted signs to inform me of any new or changed rules too.  The TSA is still learning, I think, how to do what they do.  They run pilot programs at select airports and you have to stay alert to detect whether YOUR trip through security is going to be a little different than it was the last time.

When we picked up the rental car, I declined their initial request for "only $7" extra per day for the great car that had been reserved "for me."  No thank you, I want the car that I don't have to pay any extra money to rent.  I paid what I've paid and I'm not going to pay any more.  We also brought our portable GPS unit from home so that it wasn't at all tempting to pay $10 per day to rent one from the car company.  Also decline the optional insurance -- it would cost me the same if I crash their car as if I had crashed my own car at home.  Many personal auto policies cover rental cars the same as your own car.  (Yeah, if you crash, the car company will charge other fees not covered by car insurance, but those fees could easily equal what the insurance coverage will cost.)  And I always decline the fuel option.  But I make that choice with my eyes open, knowing what I'll need to do to avoid any fuel fees.  I've had to dispute fuel fees before, sometimes they're automatic and you can only get them removed by questioning them.  To challenge the fee successfully, you're best off knowing what they will want to see: a full fuel gauge isn't enough - you'll do best if you have a receipt showing that you bought gas within the last hour and within 10 miles of the airport.

And at the rental car counter I also read all the signs they had posted.  One of those signs explained how the automatic toll-paying transponder worked.  If you go through the SunPass lane in your rental car, the transponder charges the toll to your account at the rental car company.  But they charge $1.50 per day that you use it.  That's the important bit of info that I got from the sign, because it's NOT on the window decal inside the car, the one that informs you (if you didn't know already) that the car is equipped with a SunPass device.  In our case, it wasn't worth $1.50 to automate the payment of $3.00 in tolls.  We just went through the cash lane instead, no big deal.

I read the rules for the timeshare-sponsored vacation, so I knew that we had to stop at a "Welcome Center" before proceeding to our hotel.  Any questions I had for the reservations agent I asked for written confirmation by asking where these policies were already spelled out in writing on their site or in my paperwork.  So I didn't have to endure any confusion about the reservation.  I had researched this Vacation Club before attending their presentation, giving me the second of the two reasons I planned to use to evade the high-pressure sales team.  My first reason to get out of ANY sales pitch is always that we have a family policy that  purchase decisions like this are NEVER made in a single day.  I didn't even have to pull out reason number two, which was that this specific company had a bad record with www.bbb.org -- over 300 unresolved complaints against them in the past year.

What would I have done differently?  I would have confirmed the hotel arrangements by phone before traveling.  I didn't have any problems THIS trip, but it's only a matter of time before a glitch in the system wreaks havoc on your plans.  Especially when you're using a system as complex as the one I was using -- where the reservation is transferred between the timeshare company and the local hotel, payment is made through little voucher things, all kinds of things could go wrong.  A phone call would usually uncover such problems while I still have a little time to fix them.  And before we get wiped out from the traveling, grouchy from the hunger, tired from the delays, desperate to take whatever bed they'll offer...

Also I would have ignored some of the timeshare salesman's questions.  I think the whole thing would have been over sooner if I answered "explain why you won't even test out the product with this no-obligation trial period" by ignoring the actual question and giving instead one of those two reasons I had already formulated.  And keep using those reasons over and over to answer every question.  Maybe that would have eased our exit a little better.

We did really like the concept of pre-paid vacations that they presented.  Who knows, maybe one day we will buy a timeshare if it's as good as it seemed.  But I'll first seek out advice from Timeshare Users Group at www.tug2.net and make sure I understand what I'm getting.  Just like my experiences with this vacation, most things work better when your expectations are equal to or below what they'll actually be delivering.

My husband is, let's just say, "less savvy" than I am with these kinds of things.  He appreciates that I take care of vacation arrangements in a way that saves money and still delivers a comfortable travel experience.  He thinks I'm a genius, which is a nice ego boost but really I'm not.  It's just that I read a few good travel blogs that keep me informed of the "gotchas" that are so prevalent in the travel industry.  My favorite is www.elliott.org and I'll tell you why -- it's because he always ends the tale by explaining how the problem could have been avoided.  So the only savvy I can rightly claim is that I learned lessons from the mistakes of others, instead of falling on to the hard lessons myself.  If you ask me, that's a pretty good habit for enjoying life in general.


  1. One of my friends has a system with timeshare sales folks where she simply tells them she cannot make any purchase without discussing it with her CPA, who is on vacation. It has always, always worked for her.

    Most credit cards provide automatic insurance on rental cars.

    Timeshares can make economic sense, dependent upon your family makeup. Once you are traveling with kids and such because then you have a kitchen and probably extra rooms already. Otherwise, you travel in the good years and skip it in the bad and throw the money down on the hotels. It all depends.

    Your trip, for me, sounds like more of a hassle than a vacation. I hope it was more enjoyable than it sounded.

  2. Isn't it nice to get away from all the logistics and planning of everyday life, and just sit back and enjoy a relaxing vacation?