Learn to share, and travel the world

Timeshare has a dodgy reputation; its salesmen are sharks, the overheads prohibitive. But it doesn't have to be like that. Felicity Cannell investigates

LAST YEAR about 700,000 timeshares were sold worldwide. Far from fading from sight, timeshare, or "vacation ownership" as the Americans call it, has gained a modicum of respectability as some of the major players in the travel industry realise the advantages of locking a consumer into a lifelong commitment. Tour operators, such as Thomas Cook and Airtours, see traditional package-deal holidays under threat, and are joining the timeshare market. The idea, instigated in the States, is to market it as membership of a travel or holiday club rather than a "property share" in a single resort.

The Marriott Four Seasons Country Club on the Costa del Sol, struggles with the image of timeshare in Spain, and is still having to draw in prospective clients with offers of free rounds of golf or vouchers to spend at local shops and restaurants. But that is where the persuasive tactics end. Once in the resort the approach is very much soft sell. As John McDaniel and his wife found: "The salesman was trying to get across to us that it wasn't a timeshare, it was membership of a holiday facility which offered accommodation in hundreds of resorts worldwide. He realised that he was wasting his time, as we had 'timeshare shark' ingrained in our minds, and left us to our own devices, to wander around and see for ourselves."

Of course, Gary and his ilk are liable to swoop on unwary tourists, with a sales technique that can sell a bicycle to a fish. Hopefully, however, we are getting used to saying no. But companies are retaliating by offering bigger carrots to entice the customers: from a bottle of Champagne, (well, something with bubbles) to free holidays with spending money for just an hour of your time at a cocktail supper when you return. But what an hour that will be. You'll be shackled to the wall with thumbscrews until you sign.

The EU Timeshare Directive gives buyers a ten-day cooling-off period if they change their mind after signing, forbids vendors from taking deposits and obliges them to provide full information on management charges and maintenance costs written in the buyer's native language. Even if member countries have not implemented this directive, which so far Spain hasn't, consumers are still covered. The number one rule is not to part with a deposit.

But the Timeshare Helpline reports that developers are putting together packages to get round the law, such as three- or five-year "user" packs, instead of "ownership" - the right to use the property rather than any share in it - and are taking deposits, entirely within the law. "Nothing will stop these unscrupulous salesmen until credit card companies refuse to honour timeshare payments," says a spokesman for the Helpline. "But even then they can get round it by putting payments down as travel sales."

However, now that established hotel chains offering exchange facilities are involved there is little need for punters to take such risks. The timeshare concept may be tainted by hard-sell techniques, but it is a good one. Lynne Lowman bought two weeks' timeshare in Alicante thirteen years ago from a private company, for pounds 1,500. "The maintenance charges are pounds 120 per year, but I let one of my weeks in October for the same amount, and if I want to go at any other time, I rent a week from someone doing likewise. Now that the owners belong to an exchange club we can also go to other parts of the world".

The bigger players such as Marriott or Barratts have always offered exchange facilities in other resorts, but any timeshare property can join such a scheme, and so then can the timeshare owners, for a yearly fee of around pounds 60. What this means is that even if you own a week in Portugal in September you may never have to use it again. The week will be put on the exchange directory and you have a choice of a similarly graded timeshare elsewhere.

The two exchange companies used by the hotel chains are Interval International, with 1,600 resorts worldwide, and Resort Condominiums Incorporated with nearly 4,000. And the numbers are expected to increase. "Last year our membership in the UK grew by 20 per cent," says Andy Fairburn of Interval International.

Interval and RCI both advise prospective purchasers of timeshares to ensure that any development under consideration is affiliated to one of these two exchange companies. "The exchange deal should be crucial to any timeshare sale. If you buy a week in a two-bedroom apartment in Spain, ten years down the line the kids will be older and off on their own and you may want two weeks in a one-bedroom apartment in America," says Fairburn.

Andy Goss at RCI also advises shopping around, as do the Department of Trade and Industry who suggest looking at resale prices for a more accurate value. Or try renting first. The big developments generally have weeks for rent in timeshare resorts.

But even if the figures look attractive for a lifetime deal - anything from pounds 1,600 (two-bedroom, beachfront apartment on the Costa del Sol), pounds 4,000 (three bedrooms in Scotland) to pounds 15,000 (total hedonism in Florida) - they need careful consideration against other holiday deals. Bear in mind that often the most expensive part of any holiday is the cost of flights, and these will always have to be paid. No point in having the use of a five-star apartment in the Seychelles if you can't afford to get there.

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