hgazette.com, Haverhill, MA

May 9, 2012

Poor Tom's Almanac: A heat wave in winter

Tom Vartabedian

The heat was on. Here it was, the middle of winter, and I was sweating rain drops.

Not the heat of the Caribbean or Vegas in July. Rather, the heat of February inside a posh New Hampshire hotel.

I was sitting in a conference room with my wife and eight other couples listening to some quick-talker giving me a spiel for the trips of a lifetime.

They promised me a gift just for showing up. And dinner. All I had to do was sit through a 90-minute presentation, look excited, nod my head a couple times, and tell them I wasn't interested.

For that, I would get a flight for two anywhere in the continental U.S. — no strings attached. Or so I thought. "Choose your destination," the attractive brochure proclaimed.

It sounded good. Would I join their travel club and get the savings of a lifetime or simply dream about these exotic get-away vacations at ridiculous prices?

Would I take the offer to join the "giddy-up-and-go" herd or remain corralled for the rest of my retired life?

Hey, I love to travel. That was one of the perks I was going to enjoy in my golden years. We've been to Armenia, Europe, the Caribbean a couple times and elsewhere. At the moment, there's a trip brewing to the national parks in September, followed by a cruise in January.

The free flight would come in handy, not to mention a nice gourmet-style meal.

The more I listened, the more I heard. Since 1995, $120 million in vacation services have been rendered. More than 300 families have hopped on the bandwagon. Then came the specifics.

"Look, folks, a week in London retails for $1,650," the host revealed. "Who wants to go for $760?"

Not a hand went up, possibly because of incredibility. I was about to make a mad dash to the men's room with my wallet intact when ...

"You want Hawaii? This retails for $2,500. Who's happy with a week all inclusive with five-star accommodations for — drum roll please — $299 to $799?"

My heart skipped a beat. How can anything like this be so cheap?

"No markup," the host said. "We eliminate the retail and give you the net."

By net, they meant cost, no profit. You pay a premium ($6,000), along with a $195 annual fee and presto! You can travel anywhere in the world for four weeks a year and have enough left over to shop at Tiffany's.

I was on the fence. My wife was more stoic, refusing to yield. Had someone offered her a free trip to Alaska, she would have balked. No gimmicks for her.

A man approached our table and greeted us with a smile, sucking on a peppermint.

"So, how are you folks tonight? Really cold out there, huh!"

The perspiration began to form. Off came the jacket and tie.

"Let yourself go," he said. "Think of travel as a 'goodwill' tour. This will do you a world of good."

I recall one time answering a post card offer for swamp land in Florida. A steak dinner later, I was about to escape the hotel chambers when a sentry stood guard by the door. It sucked the beat right out of my heart. Had I taken advantage, I probably would have been a rich man today.

The land they were selling turned into a lucrative housing development that went for millions. Was this a sure-fire deal?

Another time, I was the guest at a dinner party for time share vacations. I know people who are doing this sort of travel and love it.

"Forces you to get away," they tell me. "There are destinations all over the world. Tahiti was wonderful but that trip to Nova Scotia took my breath away."

A friend of mine owns a home on Cape Cod. He puts a house-swapping ad into Yankee Magazine and winds up exchanging his home for another. They've been to California, Arizona, France and Germany. All it cost them was a flight.

The host was getting edgy. We told him we were not interested and were on a fixed income. He didn't buy it.

"Look," he said. "This is your lucky day."

He grabbed a piece of paper, put down the $6,000 initiation fee, then crossed it out with a marker. In its place appeared $3,000.

"Now, how that does sound?" he queried. "We'll lock you into a VIP gold membership and send you off to the Grand Canyon, Yellowstone or anywhere else you would like to venture."

We left trip-less but had the airline tickets in hand. It wasn't until we got home when we read the fine print. "Good for only two nights with a $196 deposit!" I was landlocked!

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Photographer and writer Tom Vartabedian is retired from The Haverhill Gazette. He contributes this regular column.