Booking Strategy Travel Scams

How Can You Tell If a ‘Travel Club’ Is a Scam?

The idea of a “travel club” covers a wide range of organizations and activities, from scam-like timeshares to legitimate memberships that can save you money. All are certainly not equal.

Many are legitimate low-risk operations, such as AARP, AAA, and other independent travel promoters. The most reliable ones are those you’ll recognize the names of. Some resort chains call themselves “clubs,” like Club Med’s all-inclusive resorts. Membership to these is mostly harmless marketing hype, but can offer real discounts: The more exclusive organizations may be exempt from agreements that prohibit third-party agencies from slashing their rates.

Membership fees, if any, are usually nominal—often under $50 a year—and you can easily opt out if the club doesn’t deliver real value. All you have to lose is the minimal initial fee. The discounts they claim may be no better than you could get through other sources, but they’re usually not worse, either. For well-known travel brands like these ones, the scam risk is minimal.

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How to Spot a Travel Club That’s a Scam

Others, however, pose a big financial risk. Some require stiff membership fees up front—usually several hundred up to thousands of dollars—and they may commit you to big annual fees indefinitely. They can certainly be honest in that they deliver what they promise; many travelers are happy with their memberships despite the risks and limitations. Others, however, ask you to pay big up front for some promised future benefit. These may or may not be honest; some are clearly outright scams, and others simply inflate the benefits and disguise the drawbacks.

According to law enforcement officials, oftentimes the promised “discount” and “savings” never materialize: The promoters provide prices that are no better than travelers can buy openly, through a wide range of discount sources, and the promised “dream” vacations never seem to become available. They’re selling pie in the sky, and Marie Callender is better at making pies.

The big-dollar travel clubs are the ones should be subject to your scam scrutiny. Although no approach is foolproof, you can usually find out what you need by asking and fact-checking a few specific questions. Here’s what you need to consider:

The Timeshare-Based Travel Club 

Many large travel “clubs” are nothing more than conventional timeshare operations, operating as clubs to avoid the unsavory reputation of timeshares. What they sell is guaranteed annual occupancy, in multiples of weeks, at a vacation area—typically a beach destination, maybe with rights to vacations in a string of different areas. And the questions you need to ask about them are the same as for a timeshare:

What Do I Actually Get?

Examine the offer in detail to find out exactly what it promises, in specific terms. Does it promise a guaranteed specific interval at a specific location? Does it promise enrollment in a recognized exchange system? Check the fine print on the exchange, especially for limitations on how you can use your exchange “points.”

Is There a Switch to the Bait?

Is the asking price the full price? Does the featured buy-in include everything you have to pay up front, or are you subject to additional fees and charges? Does the promotion say or hint that you’d be better off with a higher-level membership? 

What Is My Ongoing Obligation?

In most property-based clubs, your buy-in is only the start. You’re also on the hook for various monthly/yearly “maintenance” payments and assessments. And the operator typically reserves the right to increase these payments without your approval or right of refusal.

Is There Any Asset Value?

Some very high-end vacation clubs actually own a string of vacation properties; members share in the ownership of these properties, and the club operator agrees to repurchase for a reasonable price. But most mass-market vacation clubs offer no asset value to back up your initial “investment.” At best, you own your “membership” and can sell it or pass it along to your heirs. However, some deals are for the term of your life only and revert to the owner on your death.

Is There an Escape Clause or Resell Limitation?

Club promoters may not accept a return, even for a reduced price, and some timeshare-based clubs may limit your ability to resell. The travel literature is full of horror stories of people who just want to get rid of ongoing payments, even if it means giving the interest back to the promoter with no return.

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The “Big-Discount” Travel Club

Other clubs promise they have access to large discounts on airfares, hotels, cruises, rental cars, tours, and just about any other travel service you can name. The ones that charge minimal fees are no more than a nuisance; if they don’t work out, you won’t have to refinance your house. But some ask for big membership fees, and those can be a big risk. As with timeshare clones, you have to ask some questions before you buy into one of them:

What’s My Exposure to Risk?

As with a timeshare, you have to check what you actually get, your future ongoing obligations, and, perhaps most importantly, your cancellation options. Check the fine print to make sure that the discounts are guaranteed. “Subject to availability” doesn’t cut it. 

Are the Claimed Discounts Real?

Challenge—and verify—all claimed “discount” deals. Don’t be gullible: Ask to see a list of currently-available deals, and check them through conventional search systems before you accept any broad claim that it will save you money.

Are the Posted Discount Prices Honest?

One hotel-discount membership organization I recently checked out posted some really attractive original prices. But when I went through to the final buy-it page, I found the initial prices did not include mandatory resort fees, taxes, and fees imposed by the travel club. The all-up total prices were about the same as I could get through Tripadvisor (SmarterTravel’s parent company) search links.

What Do Others Say?

The club’s promotional materials probably highlight gushing testimonials. Don’t take them at face value—promoters can easily satisfy enough travelers to elicit a few genuine rave reviews, which the company will then highlight. Instead, check with review and complaint sites like the Better Business Bureau, Yelp, Google reviews (which usually now appear simply by Googling a business), and any other online review source you like. Also, Google the club to see if it has generated any serious complaints—or, even worse, law enforcement actions.

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Scam Rules to Know for Any Kind of Travel Club

Make sure any club you’re considering can pass an easy scam test. Often, you can answer the scam-or-not question before you even see the details of a club promotion. Initial claims often can offer some early scam clues:

Scam Clue 1: The promotion is claiming that you’re getting something “free.” No travel service of real value is ever free. The club promoter is making a profit somewhere along the process. Nothing is free. Repeat this to yourself as often as is necessary.

Scam Clue 2: A promotion claiming you’ve “won” something. If you didn’t knowingly sign up for a sweepstakes run by some outfit that had terms and conditions you agreed to, any out-of-the-blue “winner” notification is almost surely a scam.

Scam Clue 3: A promotion claiming you’ve been “specially selected” for membership. A lot of robocalls are currently making this pitch. The only outcome you’ve been selected for is a fleecing.

Scam Clue 4: A promotion demanding that you “act now” or lose the deal. If a deal is actually honest, it will still be there after you take a day or so to check it.

Scam Clue 5: A promotion that poses as an investment. Some property-based clubs claim, or at least imply, that your membership is an investment. That’s just false for anything that’s not outright property ownership. Fractional ownership such as timeshare may be a good way to vacation to the same place every year—but it’s a lousy overall investment.

I can’t guarantee that following these guidelines can totally shield you from a scam (no one can). But they’re a good start to protecting yourself.

Editor’s note: This story was originally published in 2015. It had been updated to reflect the most current information. Prior reporting by Calvin Hennick contributed to this story.

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Consumer advocate Ed Perkins has been writing about travel for more than three decades. The founding editor of the Consumer Reports Travel Letter, he continues to inform travelers and fight consumer abuse every day at SmarterTravel.

Airport Business Travel

A Guide to Global Entry Renewal

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If you’re a Global Entry member, you probably agree: It’s the best $100 you’ll ever spend on travel. Once you’ve skipped the painfully long border control lines on return to the U.S., you don’t want to go back to waiting with everyone else—so you’d better make sure you don’t let your membership expire. Here’s what you need to do for Global Entry renewal.

When to Start Your Global Entry Renewal


  • You can renew your Global Entry membership beginning one year before yours expires.
  • Customs and Border Protection (CBP) recommends that members renew Global Entry early to prevent a lapse in membership.
  • If you renew early, the additional five years will be added on to your expiration date, so you aren’t losing any time by completing your Global Entry renewal before the deadline.

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How to Renew Global Entry

  • Log in to your Global Entry account on the CBP’s Trusted Traveler Page and fill out the “renew application” form.
  • Pay $100, which covers your membership for the next five years.
  • In some cases, you may be required to complete an in-person interview, so you’ll need to schedule an appointment at a Global Entry office in order to finalize your renewal.
  • If you aren’t flagged for an interview, you will be mailed your new Global Entry card to the address you have on file.
  • Once your Global Entry renewal is conditionally approved, you’ll receive an email indicating a status change to let you know that you’ve been either approved or conditionally approved with a requirement to schedule an interview. (This information is also posted to your Trusted Traveler account.)

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Important Tips for Global Entry Renewal

  • If you also need to renew or get a new passport or driver’s license, you must also update that information on your Trusted Traveler account.
  • Changing your name? You won’t be able to update that online, so once you’ve received your new passport and driver’s license showing the change, you’ll have to go to an enrollment center to add the new documents to your account. Appointments are not accepted for this service, so you’ll need to do a walk-in.
  • If an interview is required for your renewal, and you are booked on an international flight, CBP may offer you the option of doing your interview upon arriving home.

Personal Experience with Renewing Global Entry

I submitted my Global Entry renewal about one year before my membership was due to expire. I was not notified that I had been approved, but approximately three months later, I received my new Global Entry card in the mail, along with a letter of approval.

Traveling? Aim for a Carry-On That Does MORE

The Bigger Carry-On from Away

3 words: lightweight, durable, & multi-functional. The Carry-On from Away makes traveling that much easier, especially with its removable, TSA-approved battery for your electronics.

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Caroline Morse Teel posts plenty of travel tips, including on Global Entry renewal. Follow her on Instagram @TravelWithCaroline for advice and inspiration.

Editor’s note: This story was originally published in 2018. It has been updated to reflect the most current information.

Booking Strategy Budget Travel Miles & Points Passenger Rights

Can You Sell Frequent Flyer Miles?

Airlines insist you can’t sell frequent flyer miles or rewards, and courts in the U.S. have generally backed this claim. But a court in Sao Paulo, Brazil, just ruled that frequent flyer miles can be sold, and it ordered American Airlines to reimburse one traveler for the tickets the airline canceled after citing a violation of the airline’s rules.

[st_content_ad]Could this change things? Don’t get too excited, yet: A Brazilian court’s decision is unlikely to impact American’s frequent flyer program rules or any other airline’s rules. But the precedent is interesting, and the legal rationale could, conceivably, be applied in other countries—hopefully, ones that have more clout with U.S.-based airlines than Brazil does.

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The Case for Being Able to Sell Frequent Flyer Miles

The idea of selling frequent flyer miles has an interesting history. To help win over lost customers after an airline strike in 1977, United handed out simple coupons to travelers as they deplaned their flights. The coupons were good for either a big discount on a future coach flight or a free upgrade from coach to first class. American quickly matched the move with its own coupons. Some enterprising business people, recognizing that those coupons had potentially huge cash value, headed out to big airports and offered travelers cash on the spot for them. The coupons were basically currency, so the buyers, or “coupon brokers” could and did sell them on the open market.

Fast-forward to the early 1980s, and all the big airlines had started frequent flyer programs. Although flyers couldn’t sell frequent flyer miles as such, initial program rules didn’t prohibit the sale of rewards—so the former coupon brokers quickly started buying and selling the rewards.

Because planes back then were usually only about 60 percent full, reward seat availability was usually a sure thing. For example, at that time my wife and I flew first class to Buenos Aires (on now-dissolved Eastern Airlines) for about the same cost as economy tickets by buying rewards. Within a few years, however, airlines tightened their rules to prohibit the purchase and sale of awards, and they sued most coupon brokers out of business.

The Brazil ruling is interesting because it’s the first legal test of frequent flyer program rules with a pro-consumer outcome. What remains to be seen, though, is if anyone outside Sao Paulo will pick up the idea and run with it.

More from SmarterTravel:

Consumer advocate Ed Perkins has been writing about travel for more than three decades. The founding editor of the Consumer Reports Travel Letter, he continues to inform travelers and fight consumer abuses every day at SmarterTravel.

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Airport Booking Strategy Entertainment Experiential Travel Frequent Flyer Luxury Travel Money Travel Trends

Are Independent Airport Lounges Worth the Price?

Private, independently operated airport lounges are expanding in major U.S. airports, and offering one-time access for a fee. The typical airport lounge’s entry fee is $40 to $50 per person per visit, but some lounges charge as little as $25. Airline-sponsored lounges have been around at least 70 years, but independent ones are a fairly recent development in the U.S.

Are Independent Airport Lounges Worth It?

[st_content_ad]The business model for independent airport lounges appears to be based on two sources of income: fees for individual access, plus, in some cases, deals to provide premium-class lounge service for airlines that lack the traffic to support their own lounges. These days, if you want into a lounge, you can get in—for a price. 

What You Get

When I first covered lounges, I called them an “oasis of calm” in the airport’s typically hostile environment. Since then, that contrast has changed a bit: As they’ve grown popular, lounges are no longer as tranquil as they once were. Airports, on the other hand, have improved somewhat in offering places to wait out a departure. Still, lounges retain a big edge in providing a comfortable environment for those times when you have an hour or more to kill. They offer comfortable seating, workplaces, Wi-Fi, laptops, maybe printers, TV, magazines, newspapers, and private rest rooms, sometimes with showers. Typically, you’ll have to present an ID and a valid boarding pass for same-day departure or arrival.

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To many, the primary appeal of independent lounges is now in what you get for “free” once you’ve paid your way inside. In most cases, that means no-charge coffee, soft drinks, beer, wine, and liquor. It also means food—snacks and (more increasingly) hot food that can actually serve as a full meal. Given that a typical airport drink costs around $10, having even one or two at the lounge substantially offsets the cost of entry.

Almost all independent lounges are located past security. An independent lounge operator may have multiple locations in large airports with decentralized terminals. Some lounges post flight information on display, others don’t. Guest privileges vary by operator, but in most cases, guests will cost you extra.

What You Pay

A provider called The Club is the U.S. leader for independent airport lounges. Lounge locations include Atlanta, Baltimore, Boston, Cincinnati, Las Vegas, Orlando, Phoenix, Pittsburgh, San Jose, and Seattle-Tacoma airports. Day passes cost $40 per person and are available online.

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American Express operates Centurion lounges at Dallas-Ft Worth, Houston/Bush, Las Vegas, Miami, New York/La Guardia, San Francisco, and Seattle, as well as in a handful of foreign locations. Day entry at U.S. airports costs $50 for holders of most AmEx cards, and entry is free to Platinum cardholders and their guests at most locations. AmEx lounges are ranked among lounge-using travelers as some of the best. Because AmEx has a deal with Delta lounges, Centurion lounges tend to be located in areas frequented by American and United Airlines.

The leader in Canada is Plaza Premium, with locations in Edmonton, Toronto, Vancouver, and Winnipeg airports. Day passes start at $30.

Swiss-based Executive Lounges operates Aspire Lounges at Calgary and Montreal, but is mainly operating across Europe and Asia. Prices vary by location.

One-of-a-kind lounges include Mortgage Solutions Financial at Colorado Springs, Club America at Miami, PGA MSP Lounge at MSP, Wingtips at New York/JFK, Art & Lounge at Newark (landside), Salon VIP at Quebec, and Royal Palm at Sanford. Prices start around $35 per person, per day.

Priority Pass

It seems that most independent lounge users gain access through Priority Pass, the 800-pound gorilla of the lounge membership business. It provides access to more than 1000 lounges around the world—a mix of airline lounges, airport premium lounges, and independent lounges. Coverage in the U.S. is limited to a mix of independent lounges, including many available on The Club, plus Alaska Airlines Lounge clubs, at 21airports: Atlanta, Baltimore, Boston, Cincinnati, Colorado Springs, Dallas-Ft Worth, Houston/Bush, Las Vegas, Los Angeles, Minneapolis-St Paul, New York/JFK, New York/La Guardia, Newark, Philadelphia, Phoenix, Pittsburgh, Portland, San Francisco, San Jose, Seattle-Tacoma, and Washington/Dulles. Notable exclusions include Cleveland, Denver, and Salt Lake City. Canadian locations are Calgary, Edmonton, Montreal, Quebec, Vancouver, and Winnipeg. Coverage is extensive in Asia, Europe, and the Caribbean.

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In addition to conventional lounges, Priority Pass is expanding into new territory: partnerships with airport bars and restaurants, starting with Portland, Oregon airport options like Capers Café Le Bar. Priority Pass members get $28 off the bill. Also new are programs with airside mini-hotels: Minute Suites at Atlanta, Dallas-Ft Worth, and Philadelphia. As with the bars, the deal is $28 off each visit, with regular rates starting at $40 per hour or $140 overnight.

Priority Pass offers three membership options:

  • Standard, unlimited visits at $27 each, $99 per year.
  • Standard Plus, 10 free visits plus additional visits at $27 each, $249 per year.
  • Prestige, unlimited free visits, $399 per year.

Many Priority Pass users in the U.S. gain membership as a feature of a premium credit card. Cards that include Priority Pass membership are AmEx Platinum, Chase Sapphire Reserve, Chase Ritz-Carlton, and MasterCard Black. The “Select” membership level available through credit cards provides unlimited free lounge access for the member, plus up to two guests, depending on local lounge policy.

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Lounge Locator

Priority Pass members can locate participating lounges on the Priority Pass website. Other travelers can search on LoungeBuddy, which sells day passes to more than 250 lounges worldwide and provides useful information like reviews. As yet another approach, you can visit the airport’s website to find information about both airline and independent lounges.

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How Good a Deal?

The value of one-time airport-lounge access depends on your individual trip, your travel habits,you’re your budget. For many, the lounge value equation depends on what you consume there: If you have two free drinks, you can figure those, alone, offset about $20 of the entry fee, and the snacks can easily offset another $10 to $20. You might assign some value to the environment: Opting to pay $25 to $50 for a private area and free booze for a five-hour layover in a busy air hub might sound like a good deal. On the other hand, paying several times that for your family if you’ll be there for just an hour may be unnecessary.

For frequent travelers, the most compelling case for independent lounge access is to get annual Priority Pass as a key benefit of a premium credit card. Add lounge access to the various other credits and benefits, and the value of the total package can easily exceed the card’s $450 to $550 annual fee. That’s how I get into private lounges, and I consider lounge access a big plus for my premium card. Given all the other premium card features and annual fees of $450 to $550, most travelers would be better off accessing Priority Pass through card perks rather than separately at $399 for Priority Pass only. And paying $99 then paying $29 per visit doesn’t seem as attractive, either.

Have you used independent lounges? Was it worth the price? Comment below.

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Adventure Travel Beach Booking Strategy Experiential Travel Family Travel Food & Drink Group Travel Health & Wellness Island Luxury Travel

10 Things to Know Before Booking a Club Med Vacation

For more than 50 years, Club Med has been a world unto itself. For many Americans, it’s both a familiar name and a big question mark. How is a Club Med vacation different than a typical all-inclusive resort stay? Can it be a good fit for non-all-inclusive types?

Club Med Vacations: What to Know Before You Book

Here are 10 key things to know about Club Med to help you decide if it’s right for you

Club Med Is About More Than Location

[st_content_ad]Most travelers start with a destination and build the vacation around the place. But because offerings vary among the 68 Club Meds around the world, it often works better when planning a Club Med vacation to find your passion, then choose the destination.

For instance, Club Med Punta Cana in the Dominican Republic and Club Med Opio in Provence are currently the only two properties in the world to have CREACTIVE, the Cirque-du-Soleil staffed circus-skills playground for adults and kids. Club Med Columbus Isle is an adults-only getaway on an island that’s surrounded by endless beaches—and very few people. And Club Med Sandpiper Bay is home to Club Med Academies—sports training facilities staffed by top pro instructors in beach volleyball, tennis, sailing, golf, and other sports.

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Club Med Believes in the Power of Travel

When Club Med started as an NGO in the 1950s, its goal was to bring the joy of vacation back to Europeans who had survived the tragedies of World War II. After opening the first Club Med—a modest summer “village” of tents on the Spanish island of Majorca—former French resistance fighter and Club Med founder Gerard Blitz explained, “Our purpose in life is to be happy. The place to be happy is here. And the time to be happy is now.”  And while the Club Med brand has shifted upscale in recent years, its roots shine through in the continued spirit of joy and community.

There’s Terminology

You’ll find Club Meds in far-flung destinations around the globe, but even the English language can feel foreign on a Club Med vacation if you’re not familiar with Club Med-specific terminology. The people who greets you when you arrive? Those aren’t employees, they’re G.O.s—gracious organizers—and G.E.s—gracious employees. You, the minute you step foot on the property, are transformed from a guest to a G.M., a gracious member.

Club Med G.O.s and returning G.M.s use these and a few other Club-Med-specific terms regularly, so get ready. And keep your eyes peeled for “crazy signs,” the property-specific dances you’ll see on stage, in the pool, and at the clubs.

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Club Med Is the Sort of All-Inclusive That Expects You to Come and Go

Many all-inclusives expect that you’ll stay on the property for the length of your vacation, and that can create a sense of mild claustrophobia—especially among people who aren’t totally sold on the all-inclusive concept. But an increasing number of Club Meds are built in proximity to incredible destinations, and they expect that guests will come and go.

Consequently, there tends to be a flexibility in offerings on Club Med vacations that allow for people to come and go without missing out on the abundance of offerings—including meals, sports lessons, and activities—built into the Club Med all-inclusive experience.

Club Med Is French at Heart, But International in Spirit

You’ll see signs of Club Med’s French roots in its attention to mealtime; even at the buffets, you’ll find carefully plated dishes as well as French favorites like crepes, ratatouille, and escargot. But this Francophone approach also means that North American standards—for instance washcloths and conditioner—may not be room standards.

However, since Club Med caters to travelers from around the globe, it’s pretty good at anticipating and adapting to different cultural preferences, and is likely to have what you need if you ask. And if French food isn’t your jam, take heart: offerings at breakfast, lunch, and dinner represent palates from all over, including local specialties wherever you are in the world.

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Club Med Understands That Kids and Grownups Have Different Vacation Standards

Kids clubs are a big draw for parents looking for some downtime on their family vacation. But if the offerings feel too much like daycare, kids catch on quickly and refuse to go back. Club Med vacations solve that by offering kids a parallel resort track focused on creativity and activities.

Kids are broken up by age so that activities can be age-specific, and parents can even venture off property while their kids are safely ensconced in their own mini-Meds. There are even late-evening pajama club childcare options so grownups can have a chance to relive their younger days with a late dinner or dancing.

Kids stay at Club Meds for 40 to 50 percent off adult rates, and there’s no additional cost for the kids club.

Club Med Knows Babies Can Vacation, Too

Most kids’ clubs at all-inclusive resorts don’t allow babies or toddlers. But Club Med has special care for babies four months and older, an amenity that allows new parents the chance to get a break on vacation … even if it’s just napping by the pool or enjoying a diaper-incident-free happy hour.

On Club Med vacations, baby clubs are staffed at a ratio of two-littles per caregiver. Kids under four stay free; there’s an additional cost for the Baby and Petit (toddlers up to three years) clubs. Club Med resorts have everything from cribs to highchairs and strollers on hand to lend.

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A Club Med Vacation Will Surprise You

Following the music into an ancient olive grove and finding a cocktail party. Snowshoeing into the woods at night and discovering piping hot chocolate in a moonlit clearing. Watching a children’s end-of-week performance to discover your shyest child is belting out a tune in front of the crowd. Club Med seems to understand that surprise and delight are the best vacation souvenirs, and it works quietly to make sure surprise is something to be counted on.

There Are Options Beyond the Beach

Club Med made its name along the beaches of the Mediterranean Sea, but it also has outposts in many other landlocked—but beautiful—settings. The Swiss, Italian, and French Alps are dotted with ski-centric Club Meds where the all-inclusive experience takes shape in ski-in-ski-out accommodations, lessons for all levels, and serious apres ski offerings. Club Meds in Morocco, China, and Japan all offer more inland vacations, too.

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Expect to See More of Club Med in the U.S. Soon

With its 22 ski-centered resorts in the Alps, China, and Japan, it makes sense that Club Med would be looking to the snowcapped mountains of North America as well. And it is: There are no exact dates yet, but Club Med is planning to open at least one ski property in the U.S. or Canada within the next few years.

That will mean all-inclusive ski experiences that include lessons, other snow activities, apres ski offerings, plus meals and drinks. And it won’t arrive a moment too soon—in recent years, the number of Americans and Canadians coming to Club Med’s 20 ski resorts in the Alps has nearly doubled, suggesting we’re ready for the Club Med approach to winter wonderlands here as well.

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Christine Sarkis explored Club Med Opio as a guest of Club Med. Follow her on Twitter @ChristineSarkis and Instagram @postcartography for more advice about making every vacation the best vacation. All photo credits go to Club Med.

Airport Booking Strategy Money

10 Rookie Mistakes People Make When Booking a Flight

You’d think that as long as you had money to spend, a destination in mind, and a decent Internet connection, booking a flight would be a piece of cake. Instead, often the opposite is true.

I see you over there banging your head on the computer keys, struggling to make sure you’ve searched every option and weighed every possibility only to discover—the moment after you hit purchase—a significantly lower fare.

I see you and I’ve been you. The good news is that, while mistakes happen, there are things you can do to make sure that it’s the exception and not the rule. These tips will help:

Booking a Flight to the Wrong Place

The Mistake: Flying to the wrong city.

How to Avoid It:  Check and then double-check.

[st_content_ad]I’ve done this one: Sat smugly awaiting a flight to Orange County (SNA) airport only to discover hours before leaving that I’d somehow booked to San Diego (SAN).  I blame the crazy people who set up the airport code system, but the blame game won’t help you if you make a similar mistake. Instead, skip your gut check and do a real check to make sure that the code on your ticket is actually the place you want to go. Tip: Want to go to Florence Italy? You want (FLR)—not (FLO), which is Florence, SC. And HON is Huron, South Dakota, not Honolulu (HNL).

Trying to Book Your Own Ultra-Complicated Flights

Mistake: Booking complicated flights yourself.

How to Avoid It: Consider a travel agent.

Just because you have the Internet doesn’t mean you always have to use it. If you’re losing patience trying to find a flight, there’s no harm in reaching out to a travel agent to see if their help might be worth your money. I did an around-the-world trip and relied heavily on an around-the-world flight specialist back home to help me find the best fares as I went…without the headache of trying to figure out each leg, or wondering when and where I’d need a visa for entry.

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Not Clearing Your Cookies

Mistake: Pulling all-night search-a-thons for the fare you can’t actually buy.

How to Avoid It: Clear your cookies, switch browsers, or buy it when you see it

The jury is mixed on whether the tracking cookies that search engines leave on the sites you visit are smart enough to raise the price on you if you leave a booking site and come back later. Still, there are those who swear by it.

Why take the risk? Clear the cookies on your device before every new search (or switch browsers). Even better: Know what you want to pay and stop looking when you get close enough. Sure there’s a chance there’s a better deal out there, but there’s also a chance you’ll lose the deal (whether to evil cookies or just another consumer) if you wait.

Missing Out on Third-Party Perks

Mistake: Thinking the only thing a travel agent does is book flights.

How to Avoid It:  Consult a travel agent for additional perks.

I know you know how to search for airfares online, but often travel agents can offer than just a cheap flight. Upgrades at your hotel, a rental car at no extra charge, or simply peace of mind if something goes wrong and you need a quick re-route. Loyalty pays: If you’ve got an agent you love, and who loves you, you’ll quickly see the perks pile up.

[st_related]10 Hotel Booking Mistakes You’re Probably Making[/st_related]

Depending on a Single Flight Search

Mistake: Relying on one search engine exclusively.

How to Avoid It: Spread the wealth.

There are some great search engines out there that allow you to compare flight prices on multiple sites at once. But relying on any one of them would be a mistake. Instead, check out the fares at a few different sites. Some to try: TripAdvisor, Google Flights, Skyscanner, Kayak, and Hopper. And don’t forget to compare the fares you find with those offered directly from the airline.

Forgetting to Find Out the Real Price

Mistake: Comparing fares that really aren’t comparable.

How to Avoid It: Factor in taxes, fees, and extra costs.

That $50 return fare you’re drooling over might very well be a $500 ticket. Make sure you check to see if the rates you’re excited about include all taxes and fees. Also consider the other costs (baggage fees, seat choice fees, etc.) you may be facing once you hit purchase. Weigh all of the costs to know if you’re really getting a deal.

[st_related] 10 Mistakes You’re Making at the Airport [/st_related]

Not Getting Creative with Flights

Mistake: Booking round-trip flights all the way to your destination by habit.

How to Avoid It: Check out short-hop one-way options as well.

You’re going there and back so of course you’ll book a round-trip ticket, right? Wrong. Sometimes booking your major flight as a return and then adding smaller, short-haul flights on a play-it-by-ear basis can save you big bucks. Want to fly to Nice? Why don’t you find a great deal to Paris and consider a smaller commuter flight on a local carrier like Easy jet out to Nice? Sometimes the best deals are found when you are actually on the continent you’re looking to explore.  This option isn’t the easiest way to travel (it will mean looking hard at the fare rules and limitations, and leaving yourself plenty of connection time) but it can net some big savings.

Not Booking Enough Time Between Connections

Mistake: Assuming a plane will wait for you.

How to Avoid It: Plan for the worst.

Generally speaking, if you’ve booked your connecting ticket on the same carrier (for instance, one Delta flight to another Delta flight) the airline is aware of any flight delays and will usually act swiftly to help you connect to your flight (or rebook you ASAP). But if you’ve booked individual connecting flights, you’re on your own. Give yourself a fighting chance by leaving enough time between flights to allow you to make the connection, even with delays. (Different airports have different rules about how far in advance you need to be at the gate.) As soon as you realize you’re not going to make it, reach out to your connecting airline by phone, email, or social media so it can get started on the rebooking process.

[st_related] Tight Airport Connections: What You Need to Know About Making a Connecting Flight [/st_related]

Cheaping Out

Mistake: Booking a flight that’ll make you wish you’d paid a bit more.

How to Avoid It: Know yourself, and book accordingly.

Before you even open your laptop, consider what you want out of the flight you’re looking for. The super cheap red-eye flight or early morning option may come with a tempting price tag, but will it seem as attractive when you arrive in a destination exhausted, or so early that you won’t be able to get into your hotel room for eight hours? Choose carefully.

Paying Full Price

Mistake: Paying full fare when everyone else scored a deal.

How to Avoid It: Stay socially connected.

Technology is a traveler’s friend when it comes to scoring really great deals. You may not be at your desk checking websites constantly for deals, but someone is, and you want to know them.  Savvy travelers are finding deals and sharing the wealth. Social media groups like Nomadness Travel Tribe and SecretFlying often post incredible deals on Facebook and Twitter. Sign up for their newsletters and get to know the group members for additional tips and tricks.

More from SmarterTravel:

[st_deals_search search_type=air]

Heather Greenwood Davis is a lifestyle journalist and a National Geographic Travel columnist. Follow her on Twitter @greenwooddavis or keep up with her family’s adventures on is a TripAdvisor Media Group property.

Editor’s note: This story was originally published in 2016. It has been updated to reflect the most current information.

Cities Road Trip

Europe Road Trip: 11 Things You Must Do Before Hitting the Road

Driving is driving no matter where you are, but you’ll want to make sure you take into consideration these 11 things before you get behind the wheel on your European road trip.

More from SmarterTravel:


Airport Budget Travel Frequent Flyer In-Flight Experience Luxury Travel

How to Fly Like a VIP, No Elite Status Required

With minimum-spend requirements now putting elite status out of reach for most travelers, elite perks like flight upgrades and airport lounge access are most accessible through travel rewards cards. Some are even available with affordable annual fees. Here’s how to pick the right card and travel like a VIP without earning elite status.


Travel Trends

The World’s Weirdest Travel Trends, Explained

You may not hear much about people traveling long distances for 120-degree weather or internationally renowned “phallus festivals”—but plenty of tourists are doing it. In an age of globalization and instant communication, these weird travel trends are coming into the spotlight more than ever before.


Active Travel Adventure Travel Experiential Travel Group Travel Health & Wellness LGBT Oddities Outdoors Solo Travel Travel Trends

Stirring Travel TED Talks to Kick-Start Your Wanderlust

Learning mesmerizing lessons from seasoned experts no longer has to be done in a classroom or workshop of any kind. The beauty of TED Talks is that they’re short, free, and concentrated doses of knowledge shared through storytelling that often ignite an interest in something new. This makes them perfect for travelers, and has lots to offer in terms of travel stories and insight.

Here are some of the most stirring TED Talks for the nomad in all of us.

Like this story? Join the 1 million other travelers who read our free newsletter. It’s full of our best tips, trip ideas, and travel deals. Subscribe here today!

Airport Family Travel Weekend Getaways

9 Ways to Survive Holiday Travel

Don’t get us wrong, we love the holidays. But there’s nothing more stressful than traveling over Thanksgiving (aside from dinner with the in-laws, that is). Here, nine coping strategies for keeping your sanity.

1. Don’t Get Stuck in Traffic

The Wednesday before Thanksgiving is one of the biggest driving days of the year. Leave early (before 4 p.m. if possible) and use the crowdsourcing app Waze for real-time traffic updates. Not only does it gauge the fastest route based on other drivers’ velocities, it’ll also alert you of accidents, cops and speed traps along the way.

2. Get TSA PreCheck

Consider TSA Precheck, or better yet, get Global Entry if you’re a frequent international flier—it’s only $15 more for expanded benefits. Either way, make sure you add your known traveler number when you’re booking your flight to ensure that you’ll end up in the expedited security lanes wherever available.

3. Prepare for Delays

Roughly one in five flights was delayed last November, according to the Department of Transportation. If you want to relay up-to-the-minute information about your ETA to anyone else (say, your parents who are picking you up at the airport), forward your flight confirmation to and you can have updates automatically sent to family or friends via Kayak’s app. You’ll find the smart feature under the “My Trips” tab.

4. Or Get Paid for Delays

Berkshire Hathaway’s AirCare service is like travel insurance just for the “getting there” part: for as little as $34 per domestic flight, the company will replace lost luggage, rebook missed connections, and pay you up to $1,000 for delays. Really!

5. Buy Access to the Airport Lounge

If you’re used to flying over the holidays, you know how crowded an airport terminal can get on peak days. Beat the madness by going the VIP route: even if you’re not paying for a business class ticket, you can usually buy your way into a lounge for as little as $25 or $50. Locate the best options with the help of the LoungeBuddy app, which tells you where to find lounges in your terminal, what they cost, and what kinds of amenities they offer (the ubiquitous WiFi and charging stations are worth it alone).

6. Stay Healthy

Ahead of a flight or road trip, make sure you stay hydrated, load up on Vitamin C, and stash a couple of Cold-Eeze or Emergen-C in your carry-on. Where airport meals and in-flight snacks are concerned, steer clear of fast food, and focus instead on nutritious options like nuts and fruit to keep your immune system strong.

7. Get Out of the House

Just because the holiday is about togetherness doesn’t mean you have to spend every minute with mom. Foursquare has become invaluable for finding worthwhile places to eat, shop, and see, especially in smaller cities. Use it to feel like a traveler in your hometown—or as an excuse to break away from family drama.

8. Leave Your Pets in Good Hands

Finding a pet-sitter over the holidays is a real challenge—your walker deserves to go home for Thanksgiving, too! For that, there’s DogVacay, an invaluable resource for finding pet-lovers in your area who are sticking around and are vetted to lend a helping hand. Plus, you’ll likely pay less than you would at a kennel.

9. Keep Your Fitness Routine

You’ll enjoy the pumpkin pie a whole lot more if you don’t have to worry about fitting into your jeans all winter—and for that, there’s ClassPass. The service lets you pay a flat monthly fee for all-you-can-sweat access to local fitness studios (everything from spin to barre to pilates). The best part: you can sign up for nationwide access so you never have to miss a gym date on the road.

—JetSetter Travel Tips

More from JetSetter:

This article was originally published by JetSetter under the headline Last Minute Thanksgiving Travel Tips. It is reprinted here with permission.

(Photo: Jetsetter)

Airport Frequent Flyer

5 Ways to Get Kicked Out of a Frequent Flyer Program

Frequent flyer programs are anything but simple. The arcane rules, blackout dates, expiring miles, credit card programs, and numerous other complicated details make your annual taxes look like a walk in the park by comparison. One aspect of these programs that is pretty straightforward, however, is that once you join it’s pretty difficult to get kicked out.

Make no mistake: Inattentive program members can suffer lost miles and lost rewards, but actual expulsion is rare and limited to just a few scenarios. That said, it’s not unheard of, and it’s worth knowing what you should look out for. Here are five ways you could get kicked out of your frequent flyer program.


Booking Strategy Senior Travel Student Travel

Best (and Worst) Travel Discount Programs

In response to my recent story on travel rip-offs, many of you wrote in to add travel discount programs to the list. Specifically, membership- or buy-in programs promising travel discounts, freebies, and more seemed to have left you with buyers’ remorse. Common complaints included lackluster perks, inflated pricing, and sneaky “gotcha” policies.

“Many of the promised ‘free entry’ venues were free to all, anyway!” wrote reader meg.

“I ordered an Entertainment Book on sale last year,” says reader mik. “What they did not tell me is that buying the book includes a ‘membership’ which means they automatically sent me a full priced book this year and then wanted to charge me return shipping to send it back.”

So, what’s the latest with these discount programs? Are there any that actually deliver on their promises to the customer, or are most not worth purchasing? I did a bit of digging to find out.


I put CityPass to the test in three different cities: New York, Chicago, and San Francisco. At first glance, the passes appear to offer good deals.

City CityPass Price A la Carte Attractions Admissions Best Value
New York $79 per adult $124 CityPass saves $45/person
Chicago $69 per adult $121 CityPass saves $52/person
San Francisco $64 per adult $122 CityPass saves $58/person

From a purely monetary standpoint, the CityPasses will save you money compared to buying all the admission fees individually. But let’s put emphasis on the all here: With each respective pass, take a closer look at the offerings to see if they appeal to you. It’s great that you’ll be getting a discount, but if most of the attractions don’t interest you, you’re not getting much value. Additionally, if you have limited time (e.g., just a weekend, say, rather than a week or two to explore), you may not be able to hit every attraction, or at best have limited time at each one as you rush to take them all in.{{{SmarterBuddy|align=left}}}In short, use critical and realistic judgment, taking time, logistics, and interests into consideration when shopping for a CityPass. If you like the offerings and have enough time to see them all, CityPass can be a great deal. If you’re not interested in some of the attractions or are crunched for time, you might want to consider going a la carte.


Many travelers tend to take advantage of AAA‘s travel discount program, particularly in regard to hotel stays. While you can often get a few bucks knocked off a hotel’s per-night rate, be sure to shop around before choosing the AAA rate to ensure it’s the lowest or best fit for you.

I tested AAA prices against other rate classes at several hotels in New York, Chicago, and San Francisco. In two cases (New York and Chicago), I found the AAA rate was equal to the hotels’ other promotional prices, and in San Francisco the AAA price was the lowest available. Additionally, I found that the AAA rate offered greater flexibility than some of the other sales, in that the only requirement was presenting the card at check-in. Some of the properties’ other sale rates required payment in advance, no cancellations or refunds, and other restrictions.

In short, every property is different and may have a variety of pricing structures. Do a little legwork to see what else is on hand before booking. While you may find the AAA rate fits your budget, there may be other sales that offer lower prices—you’ll only know if you do a bit of advance research.


AARP’s “discounts” are the most disingenuous of the programs I researched. On the AARP travel website, you’ll see an “AARP Travel Center” reservations area, affiliated with Expedia. I tested a variety of hotels to see if senior-only special offers or discounts were featured in the search results, and found in most cases they were not—the AARP results were nearly identical with’s own sale offerings for almost every property I checked.

As with AAA, you’ll have to do a bit of digging to determine if AARP’s discounts offer a good value. Don’t assume the first price you see is the lowest, whether you’ve found it on AARP or elsewhere. Compare prices among a variety of providers, and call companies directly to see if senior discounts or other sales (open to anyone) are available.

Student Advantage

The Student Advantage card offers a host of student discounts at retailers around the country, with travel providers such as American Airlines, Amtrak, Choice Hotels, and more represented.

The card costs $20 for a one-year membership, $30 for two years, $40 for three years, and $50 for four years. Here’s where the value proposition comes in: Do you think you’ll use the card enough to offset the sign-up cost? Do you think the perks, once purchased, are worth the membership fees? (Many travel providers offer discounts ranging from 5 to 25 percent off, with some restrictions, black-out dates, etc.)

Browse the available offers with a critical eye to see if you frequently visit participating retailers. If you do, signing up might be worth it. If you don’t, you may want to forego membership and search for non-member deals.

Entertainment Books

Entertainment books offer a variety of discounts throughout a specific region and/or city (e.g., Las Vegas, Orlando, Hawaii, and the like). Each book’s coupons are valid throughout the current calendar year and retail for $35. Additionally, once you’ve purchased your book, you’ll receive a link to a dedicated discount section of Entertainment’s website, where you can print additional coupons not found in the print edition.

Like Student Advantage, the Entertainment pay-for-discounts model requires careful consideration. You can see previews of current offers on the Entertainment website before you buy, as well as a breakdown of what types of retailers are offering discounts. Whether the discounts are a good value, appeal to your tastes, and the purchase price is affordable, is up to you.

Your Turn

Have you found membership and/or pre-purchase discounts to offer good deals? Or do you think they’re rip-offs? Share your thoughts by submitting a comment below!

(Editor’s Note: is a member of the TripAdvisor Media Network, an operating company of Expedia, Inc. Expedia, Inc. also owns

The Pros and Cons of Vacation Clubs

Over the years, we get questions about vacation clubs&#8212some 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&#8212you 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:

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&#8212probably a majority&#8212are 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!

Airport Booking Strategy Holiday Travel Packing Travel Technology Weekend Getaways

8 Rules for Flying in Winter

Air travel is something of a gamble during really bad weather. And that’s not likely to change very much, or very fast, over the next year or two. If you’re planning a winter trip that involves heading to or passing through a bad-weather area, the watchword is simple: anticipate. Here are eight rules of winter-weather travel—none new, but all worthy of repeating.