In love with exotic places, but should we join the club?

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When you are on holiday, you want to relax. The biggest challenge you are prepared to tackle is avoiding getting sand in your suntan lotion. Your defences are down, and that is when the sales reps strike. They spring out from behind a palm tree and offer a free holiday in return for a few moments of your time. And in your advanced state of relaxation, it is hard to resist.

But if you succumb, you face a high-pressure sales pitch for a holiday points club, essentially a flexible alternative to timeshare where, in return for a lump sum and an annual fee, you receive a fixed number of holiday points each year, with which you can book accommodation in selected properties.

The rep will tempt you with five-star holiday accommodation for life, anywhere in the world, then ask you for anything from £3,000 to £12,000. More than 10 major holiday club companies make sales pitches at resorts, including Resort Condominiums International (RCI), Grand Vacation Club (GVC), Hapimag, Club La Costa, International Vacation Club (IVC) and Flexiclub.

Brenda Hardman, from Kent, joined RCI. She said: "We thought we were getting enough points for two, two-week holidays, but we have enough only for a one-week break. We never have enough points for what we want and the only thing they suggest is buying more. We've had so many bitter experiences we're desperate to leave the scheme."

But Tony Pearce, from Bolton in Lancashire, joined the GVC points scheme in 1998 and is happy. For £6,300 and an annual fee of under £400, he gets three weeks in resorts around the world. The trick to avoid feeling cheated is to pay the right price, and do not buy at your first presentation. You must do enough research to know if you are being conned. Sales reps often work for marketing companies or developers rather than directly for the clubs, and some take liberties.

For 15 years, Frank Cullen, who recently moved to the Costa Blanca, owned a timeshare at Lanzarote Beach Club (LBC), and regularly exchanged his week for others through a company called Interval International. In 1999, he was approached by a salesman.

Mr Cullen said: "He told us Interval International had gone out of business and we would no longer be able to exchange. We were then shown how, if we upgraded to IVC, we could carry on going to resorts worldwide." He swapped his timeshare, and £7,000, for IVC membership, then found Interval International was still thriving.

Alexandra Obolensky, director of communications at RCI, said: "Licensed points affiliates charge varying amounts depending on their own costs. So the price can vary depending on what they are selling, how they are selling it, and who they are selling it to. It's up to the consumer to decide whether it's worth what they're asked to pay."

RCI, Club La Costa and Flexiclub all offer the chance to cede timeshares, where you swap the use of your weeks for points. You may have to buy more points and pay a transfer fee, but the industry body, the Timeshare Consumers' Association (TCA), says this is still cheaper than buying points directly.

You can also buy second-hand points through websites such as Ebay. To buy GVC points second-hand, you have to be a GVC member. Mr Pearce suggests buying 40 points from GVC - the minimum allowed - and any extras second-hand.

Even if you buy all your points at a presentation, you can still haggle. Try threatening to lose interest, or approaching the salespeople who look keenest for a sale. When calculating the cost of a scheme, remember to factor in the annual charges. If you get a poor deal on points, annual charges may make a scheme too costly.

Sandy Gray, TCA chairman, warns: "Clubs may have up to 1,000 weeks' accommodation through the year, but demand is mostly in the 13 weeks of school holidays, so they can't give all members what they want."

But if you can take advantage of late-booking discounts, you can get great deals. If you have more than £8,000 invested with Holiday Property Bond, any holiday booked less than four weeks in advance is points-free. Mr Pearce said: "I spent £6,000 on 90 points, which is enough for two weeks, but I usually get three. I'm flexible about when I go, and I book within 59 days of the holiday, so I usually get half-points ones."

How to get out of a holiday points scheme is another problem. If you ceded a timeshare for points, you can uncede and sell your timeshare. If you bought pure points, you will need to sell them. Buyers may have to pay a transfer fee and endure bureaucracy to register the points, so you can suffer a discount of up to half your investment.

This article also appeared in 'Moneywise'.

'You just have to know when to book'

Bob and Pauline Barrows, a Manchester couple, ceded their four-week timeshare in Tenerife to the RCI points scheme in 2001. They had owned the timeshare since 1993 and had become unhappy with the exchange system.

"We were unable to exchange for what we wanted, and points had much more flexibility," Mr Barrows says. The couple have used points to travel to the Canary Islands, Thailand, Singapore, Bali and the US.

They got a good deal by biding their time until the offer was right. Mr Barrows says: "Whenever you go to a resort, you're assigned a rep who will try to sell you more weeks or transfer you to points. We were approached about points in 2000, but we held off for 12 months until they came up with a better deal.

"Pauline is a teacher, so we have to travel during the school holidays. We booked July's holiday last summer." But he will risk booking late for a deal. "You just have to know when," he says.

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