Travel Hacking via credit card incentives is a popular money saving strategy in the FIRE community. However, credit card companies are starting to tighten up the rules of their offerings. The new rules are intended to limit the frequency with which consumers can apply for new cards and earn sign up incentives.
I recently read a blog post which surmises that timeshare ownership (a.k.a. vacation ownership) may be the next popular trend in travel hacking in part due to the new credit card restrictions. (See: Are timeshares the next frontier in travel hacking?)
Timeshare ownership is a complex and contentious topic, and anyone considering buying into a program should think long and hard, and do plenty of research, before pulling the trigger on a purchase.
I do not own a timeshare. However, I have attended a few timeshare presentations over the years, including three in the past four months! Why would I volunteer for such torture? … For the gifts, of course.
Attending timeshare presentations is a popular and much simpler way to do some travel hacking as compared to actually buying a timeshare.
I would be the first to admit that I’m no expert in the timeshare arena, and I’m sure plenty of websites have experts who teach the ins and outs of the industry. Even so, I thought I’d share my personal experiences with timeshare presentation travel hacking as an introduction to any newbies who are curious.
How did we get started?
My wife and I are always looking for ways to save money, which is what led us to our first presentation.
In 2015, when our kids were in elementary school, we took a family vacation to Arizona for Spring Break. After going to the Grand Canyon, we stayed for three nights in Sedona. The desert town is famous for its spectacular scenic beauty, and it also has a ton of great family activities.
One of the tourist attractions we were interested in was a jeep tour in the red rock desert. As we were exploring the town, as luck would have it, we stumbled across a timeshare marketing booth. The booth was promoting a mobile home timeshare property (I’m pretty sure it was Sedona Pines Resort) and offering gifts in exchange for attending a 90-minute timeshare presentation.
Lo and behold, one of the incentives was a Coyote Canyons Sunset Tour from Pink Adventure Tours, the only guide company permitted to use that particular trail in the red rock desert. Looking at their current price list, this was over a $400 value for a family of four.
Even though our time in Sedona was limited, this seemed like a good return on investment for sacrificing a couple hours of our trip.
So, what was the timeshare presentation like?
After meeting our sales representative, he gave us a tour of the facility. Walking around a couple of the units in the park, we saw how the company was turning standard mobile homes into compact but luxurious and attractive accommodations. The experience was novel and fun.
After the tour, we sat in the sales office with our rep for about 45 minutes or so. I don’t remember his sales pitch vividly, but I think his presentation was mostly on paper and included some brochures. We had no intention of seriously evaluating the offer, let alone buying into the timeshare. When that became obvious, they did not pressure us too much, and we collected our voucher for the jeep tour. I think the total time we spent was the same or less than they had promised.
Verdict and Takeaways
- The overall experience was not too unpleasant or stressful.
- The time commitment bordered on being too much, since we were in Sedona for only three days, and the presentation cut into our leisure time.
- We received fair and meaningful compensation for our time.
Best of all, the Pink Jeep Tour (for which we may not have otherwise splurged) was extremely scenic and a total blast. Here are some photos:
This past summer, in July, we took a two-week family vacation with my parents to Hawaii. We started in Kauai, where we stayed for over a week at Marriott’s Waiohai Beach Club. This resort is a Marriott Vacation Club, which means that it is not a regular hotel, but instead a timeshare condominium resort. However, if you are not a member of the Marriott Vacation Club, you can still book rooms and pay by the night (like it’s a hotel).
We shared a two bedroom/two bathroom “villa” with my parents, which included a full kitchen, a dining area, a living room, a washer and dryer, and a balcony with an ocean view. Our bedroom had both a king bed and a foldout queen sofa bed where our two kids slept — i.e. six of us in all stayed in the villa.
In terms of decor, the condo was nicer than your typical big chain hotel room (and of course, much larger), but not as luxurious as condos we have seen at other (newer) timeshare properties. On the resort’s website, you can see photos of a typical unit. We are not upscale travelers, so for our needs, the unit was cozy and restful.
For the entire villa, we paid around $870 per night (including resort fees and taxes), and our share was half of that. We thought this was a good value because a standard hotel room with less space and none of the extra amenities can easily cost $400 or more in Hawaii. Also, I forgot to mention that the Waiohai Beach Club is one of the few resorts that is located right on Poipu Beach. When you walk out of your room, you are only steps from one of the prettiest beaches on the island.
Since the Waiohai is a timeshare resort, we were not surprised that the resort staff was inviting guests, including us, to attend a timeshare presentation. In our case, as an incentive, they offered to comp us an entire night’s stay (i.e. close to a $900 value!). For other guests, who may be staying for only a few nights, I think they offer lesser incentives (e.g. free rounds of golf).
Since we had plenty of days on the island to do everything on our agenda, we decided quickly, without much mental anguish, to sign up for a presentation.
The presentation was scheduled for two hours. It ended up running closer to two and a half, if I recall correctly. We did not take a tour of the facility, which made sense since we were already staying there. The sales rep was mostly low-pressure and low-key, and he gave us a polished multimedia presentation on a large screen TV (in a private office).
The vacation ownership plans offered by hospitality giants like Marriott and Hilton are incredibly complex and take some time to grasp. This is one reason presentations tend to run long, especially if you ask questions. The complexity also makes it challenging to evaluate (especially on the spot) whether your travel style and habits fit well into the program. You’d have to do some careful mental calculations to determine whether you’d be able to get enough value out of the purchase price and annual maintenance fees (as compared to traveling the usual way).
We found the Marriott program to be somewhat compelling, but we are not impulse buyers and did not seriously consider buying an ownership package. Toward the end of the presentation, once it got to the nitty gritty of the actual numbers, the situation inherently became more high pressured.
Timeshare presentations typically stress that you will get the best offer only if you buy right now and not if you come back later after more research. I don’t trust anything about this type of sales tactic, but if you don’t have strong willpower, you might fall into their trap.
After we declined the offer with the initial sales rep, we met with another person to get our gifts and give feedback. She offered us a test drive package where for around $900 we could get a week in Vegas or elsewhere at one of the Marriott clubs. If later we bought a package, that amount would go towards the purchase price (so the Vegas trip would net out as free).
We were a little tempted to take this offer, as Vegas is on our list of possible trips for 2019, but in the end we passed it up as well. Later, when we researched the Las Vegas Marriott Vacation Club property on TripAdvisor, we felt validated — it was nothing special and the rate Marriott had offered us was not a particularly good deal.
Verdict and Takeaways
- The presentation itself was interesting and informative (especially since it was the first time we had looked at a big program like this).
- The amount of time was reasonable, but the appointment ran longer than planned. If you are not disciplined and ask too many questions, or show too much interest, the presentation will run longer than advertised.
- The compensation we received for our time was excellent.
- For anyone who attends a timeshare presentation and decides to buy ownership, do not say yes right away to the rep. Say no and then meet with the second rep and extract as much extra incentive as you can before your purchase. Make sure the timeshare company is not leaving anything on the table!
By the way, we loved Kauai; the island lived up to its reputation and our expectations.
For the last three days of our Hawaii summer vacation, we stayed at the Hilton Hawaiian Village Waikiki Beach Resort, which is on a prime stretch of Waikiki Beach.
The Hilton is a huge resort with several hotel towers (including the one we stayed in). The resort also includes some condominium towers which are part of the Hilton Grand Vacations Timeshare Ownership Program.
Can you see what’s coming?
After hiking to the top of Diamond Head and spending time at the Hilton pools and on Waikiki beach, we felt we had some extra time. We weren’t interested in the World War II monuments for this trip, and we had not rented a car (to see other parts of the island).
So, my wife talked to a concierge to find out what incentives were available for attending a timeshare presentation. I think the choices were a boat cruise, luau tickets or $100 in resort credit. We were not interested in the first two (my father and I had already done a Napali Coast boat tour in Kauai and we had also seen a luau there).
The $100 in resort credit seemed like hardly enough compensation to sit through another presentation, especially only a few days since the last one, but in the end we decided to go for it. That money would cover a dinner and maybe a few extra goodies.
The presentation was scheduled to last for about two hours. We started with a tour of the newest vacation club tower. We saw a two bedroom condo which was large and incredibly luxurious. The Marriott villa had been just fine for our modest needs, but the Hilton unit was on an entirely different plane — much nicer than any hotel we have ever stayed in (or any house we’ve ever lived in).
After the tour, we went with the sales rep to his office and sat through a presentation very similar to the previous one with Marriott. Overall, our impression was that the Hilton program was the stronger of the two and would have been better suited to our needs. That said, we still had zero interest in buying ownership with the club.
The sales rep for Hilton was far pushier than those in our previous experiences. His platitudes along of the lines of “I sincerely care about your family” were pretty hard to stomach. Once we got to the actual offer, he put on more pressure and started to resemble a sleazy used car salesman.
As a tactic to end the discussion, I mentioned that we would not make any big money decisions before talking to our financial advisors (which is true, by the way). He replied in disgust something like, “Oh, I thought I was talking to the decision makers in the family.”
Including the tour, this presentation last over three hours, and in the end, it left a bad taste in our mouths.
We collected our $100 in resort credit. We used half of it for a dinner with our kids at the onsite Round Table Pizza. With the remaining $50, we bought souvenirs at one of the ABC Stores on the property.
Verdict and Takeaways
- The experience was unpleasant, and if we had to do it over again, we would have skipped the presentation.
- The gift was insufficient compensation for the amount of time we spent and the ugliness of the experience.
- For people like us, who are comparison shoppers and researchers, high pressure sales tactics are not effective.
Truckee (Lake Tahoe Region)
In early October, we attended the Loomis Eggplant Festival, a local street fair near the Sierra Foothills (where we moved in June as part of our FIRE journey). While we were there, my wife noticed a booth promoting Welk Resorts.
The booth attendant was scheduling timeshare presentations for a condo development at Northstar Village. Northstar is a big ski/vacation resort in Truckee, CA — not too far from Lake Tahoe and less than 90 minutes by car from our home.
As it happened, we already had a day trip scheduled for later in the month to go to Truckee to attend a local FIRE meetup hosted by Tanja Hester and Mark Bunge of Our Next Life fame.
This was sounding serendipitous. Could we kill two birds with one stone?
Talking to the marketing rep, my wife played hard to get and extracted every last incentive they could offer. Here is the full rundown of what we ended up earning courtesy of putting down a $50 refundable deposit and attending the timeshare presentation.
- A $50 restaurant voucher at Northstar Village (which covered nearly all of our dinner expense on Saturday night).
- A free Saturday night hotel stay at the Hampton in Truckee (the night before our presentation). At discounted AAA rates, the room would have cost us over $200 with taxes.
- A $75 travel credit (which we received in cash).
- Four movie passes.
- Three nights hotel stay in Northern California (San Francisco, Napa Valley or Lake Tahoe). We had actually wanted to select the Vegas package with two plane tickets and two nights of hotel accommodations, but the travel restrictions were so severe that we knew we would not be able to redeem this gift.
In the end, our entire getaway weekend to Truckee was free, since the $75 was enough to cover the dinner overage, gas costs and other ancillary expenses. On top of that, we have a year to use the three night hotel stay (likely a trip to Lake Tahoe next summer). As an added bonus, we squeezed in a quick visit with my brother who lives in the area.
For the most part, the Welk timeshare presentation was the lowest pressure and most pleasant of the four we’ve attended. The rep made a comment which (if true) leads me to believe that the sales staff is paid on salary instead of commission.
First, we toured a two bedroom unit in their condo tower right next to Northstar Village. The quality was on par with the unit we had seen at the Hilton at Waikiki Beach, which is to say it was almost decadent in its level of luxury, not to mention its ample size. One thing is without a doubt: the accommodations you can get in a timeshare program are beyond anything you will ever find in a hotel (unless you are filthy rich and can afford large suites).
After the tour, we sat with our sales rep in a lounge area with window views of Sierra Pine trees. He was friendly and low-key. Refreshingly, he predicted based on our initial discussion that their offer would not be for us and that the meeting could be a lot shorter than scheduled.
Since we already knew the ropes of how timeshares work, he quickly went through his standard sales pitch, breezing through certain parts. His presentation was not as slick as the ones at the Hilton and Marriott (e.g. he used a tablet for a few slides vs. the elaborate big screen TV presentations at the other hotels). That said, the Welk program is more straightforward and easier to understand. On the surface, given the purchase price and maintenance fees, the program looks like it could be a good value.
Welk has a very limited number of directly owned properties, but like other vacation ownership clubs, they have exchange programs with big timeshare networks like RCI. They also have an elevated relationship with Disney as compared to other timeshare programs. If we were seriously considering a timeshare program, then Welk would definitely be a contender. Fun fact: the company was founded by famous bandleader Lawrence Welk, and his heirs still own and run the private, family-owned business.
After we declined to buy ownership, our sales rep passed us off to the next rep who would collect feedback and deliver our gifts. Not surprisingly, he first tried to sweeten the deal. He offered us an 18 month test drive for around $3,500 which came with a huge allowance of points plus a week at just about any destination in the RCI exchange network. Similar to the previous Marriott offer, if by the end of the 18 months we purchased a timeshare, the $3,500 would be credited toward our purchase price (making all the accommodations during the trial period free).
We did debate this a bit, as the test drive offer might have fit some travel we are contemplating for 2019. However, in the end, we stuck to our guns and decided against committing any money on the spot. This second rep was more old school salesy which hurt his efforts to sell us on the idea.
Verdict and Lessons Learned
- This was easily our best timeshare presentation when considering the overall experience and the compensation.
- The presentation lasted a little more than 90 minutes, less than the advertised two hours because we were disciplined about not asking too many questions. It would have been even shorter if my wife had not inadvertently let her guard down for a moment and asked about properties at the Anaheim Disney Parks.
- You should always vet the fine print of the incentives. We made several calls to Welk customer service before our appointment to verify that we understood all the conditions and exclusions. For example, the Vegas trip required travel to start on a Tuesday and could not include any weeks before or after a major holiday. With school aged children, the restrictions made that incentive virtually impossible for us to redeem, which is why we switched to the more flexible Northern California hotel incentive.
- Always play hard to get and ask for extra incentives. The marketing folks at timeshare companies are usually eager to keep piling on gifts to get you to sign up for a presentation.
We think that our travel patterns are too eclectic and variable from year to year to be a good fit for a timeshare program. I also wonder whether Airbnb and its competitors are a threat to timeshares since they provide a similar value proposition. Via Airbnb, for the price of a typical hotel room, you can get more space and amenities (e.g. by renting a studio or 1-2 bedroom apartment).
Additionally, owning a timeshare limits your budget flexibility, whether you are in the FIRE movement or on a more traditional path. For example, we budget a certain amount of money for travel each year. If were were to experience a financial downturn or have a financial catastrophe, we have the option of cutting our travel budget to zero (i.e. no trips for one or more years). With a timeshare ownership, even if we were to stop taking vacations, then we would still be on the hook for $1,500 or more per year in maintenance fees. On top of that, for anyone who finances their timeshare ownership, they also would owe loan payments.
Timeshare presentations are a great way to save substantial amounts of money on travel, so we may continue to selectively attend timeshare presentations that provide a good ROI for our time. At the same time, we will likely continue to decline offers to purchase a timeshare.
If you would like to share your own timeshare presentation experiences, or have additional tips to offer, please add your thoughts in the comments.
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