My hand shook over the paper as I reached out to sign my name. I felt sick. Only a month ago, I crashed in a borrowed apartment at a European metal festival, and now I was buying a time share? How did it come to this?
Rewind to the Fremont Solstice Festival. I moved up and down the aisles of the fair under the blazing sun, hardly noticing the vendors as I tried to keep track of my five-year-old, my ten-year-old and her friend, and my mother, each moving in different directions at different speeds.
“You won a two night vacation!” my mother beamed.
“What?” I wrangled three kids as I tried to follow her story. My mom had spun a wheel and won a stay at a Wyndham Worldmark timeshare. But since she lived outside the area, they graciously allowed her to award the prize to me. All I had to do was pay a $40 deposit and attend a property tour. After the tour, they would refund my deposit.
Of course I had no intention of buying a timeshare. I just quit my job. But that meant I had no money for travel. I could sit through a sales pitch for a free weekend trip. At least it would make a good blog post, right? I used my mom’s credit card to pay the deposit. I didn’t expect to see the $40 again, and she got me into this.
While I was scheduling my tour, the girls got to spin the wheel. When my 10-year-old won a Ride the Ducks tour, and my 5-year-old won some stickers, I filed the information as evidence.
Since I’m married, I had to bring my husband to the tour. I almost forfeit the deposit rather than confess to signing up for a timeshare sales pitch, but eventually got up my nerve. Like the saleslady at the festival, I emphasized that lunch was included.
We brought our 5-year-old to be helpfully distracting. It turned out that there was no tour, only a personal sales pitch over sandwiches at a small table in a room crowded with personal salespeople at small tables. After assuring us that he was only there to present the deal and had no motivation to do the hard sell, our salesperson, who looked remarkably like Walter Mitty, proceeded with a hard sell that lasted over two hours.
The system was confusing, of course. Wyndham Worldmark doesn’t sell individual units. It’s more like a vacation co-op, where you buy shares that give you a certain number of points to redeem for time at any of the properties in the network. It seemed like there were about 40 properties, mostly west of the Rockies with a couple glamour properties – Bali, Mexico, Hawaii. A week in Hawaii naturally required more points than a midweek stay in rural Oregon.
Walter emphasized that using your shares to stay in these properties was not what made “the lifestyle” such a good deal. This network was partnered with a couple of other networks (their properties were different colored dots that filled in the rest of the U.S. map). I’ve already forgotten, if I was ever clear on it, whether you used your shares to stay at these or if they were cash.
But it was this cash program that Walter really promoted. You could schedule last minute stays just about anywhere in these networks for about the per night cost of a Motel 6. There was a final network of overseas properties, including one in Qingdao, where my daughter was born, a yacht in the Bahamas, and a converted palace in Rajasthan. This one had me mighty tempted. The same last minute cash deal applied, but you also had to have a higher level membership in the club to access these properties.
To be honest, it looked like the membership might be comparable to what we would normally spend on family travel – although it was different from the kind of trips I’ve done in the past. The cash-based stays at extra networks seemed like a genuinely good deal, especially if you had the higher level of membership that gave access to international destinations.
Part of the hard sell was that there was a “buy now” package that looked pretty sweet and a “buy later” package that even Walter admitted was just there for contrast – no one would actually spend that much more to get that much less. I rarely decide to buy jeans without sleeping on it first, so the idea of dropping 10-20 grand on the spot really grated on me. They kept coming back with tweaks to sweeten the deal, and I was almost afraid to test the theory that I could just stand up and walk away. We were starting to feel like hostages.
So we signed. We took our stacks of paper home and read through them carefully. And the next day we sent a rescission letter by registered mail and got our money back.
We could not afford membership at the level that gave access to the really cool resorts. Actually, we couldn’t afford anything right now – see “quit my job.” The vocabulary in the materials we took home was different from Walter’s, and he hadn’t sent any of the actual materials used in the pitch, so we couldn’t compare the two. The super-cool travel concierge service and the members only section of the web page where you can actually shop around and reserve rooms wasn’t available until after the rescission period expired. Until then you were directed back to your sales agent. Then I discovered cleaning fees that brought the Motel 6 prices back up to Best Western rates.
There was no guarantee that annual fees would remain reasonable, and I couldn’t find any mechanism for giving up your membership. We looked on Ebay and found that the $10,000 package resold for about $3000. The materials in my stack of papers said people who bought aftermarket shares didn’t get the same privileges as people who bought directly from Worldmark, but authorized dealers online claimed otherwise. In any case, I wasn’t sure the pure-member perks were worth $7000.
I don’t think the whole system is a scam, though. I can even imagine it making sense for us when we’re in a different place. (Although I’m pretty sure we’d buy on E-Bay). But maybe not. After all, my favorite hotel of all time is Gringo Pete’s in Costa Rica, where I brushed ants off my top bunk in a room with two dozen beds. The next morning I sat in the garden and drank coffee with strangers from half a dozen other countries while birds I’d only seen in zoos sang in the bushes around us. I paid $3, breakfast included.
But for people with a little more money, who like to travel heavy and have personal space when they get there, people who care about thread count, Worldmark might actually be a pretty good deal. I think even for those folks, though, getting your money’s worth means making a hobby out of keeping track of club rules and special promotions.
Oh, and the free trip? It turns out that only certain of the Worldmark properties are included in the prize. Although the network is concentrated in the northwest, none of the prize properties are within easy driving distance of Seattle. We would have had to buy plane tickets to use our voucher.
The $40 deposit? It came back as an American Express gift card. It’s around here somewhere.