The prize fight

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An anvil seemed to be strapped to the top of my head, and someone was striking it with a sledgehammer at regular intervals. It was one of the worst headaches I'd ever had.

"Let me get you a glass of water and an aspirin," said the pleasant-looking salesman seated across from me in the cubicle. It was the least he could do since he and a fellow salesman had caused the headache in the first place.

I probably shouldn't have been there. But curiosity can lead a travel journalist in strange directions. In this case it was on a quest for an elusive goal: a free trip.

My odyssey began last fall, when I received several phone messages at home from someone named Gil. Each time he told me I had been "selected for a three-day, two-night vacation to Cancún [Mexico] or Jamaica for two, including airfare. There's no purchase required to receive your vacation." The first two times, I erased the message. The third time, I jerked back my hand just as I was about to hit delete. "Maybe I should check this out," I thought.

Promotional offers that promise cheap or free vacations are pervasive. They pop up on computer screens and arrive by e-mail, snail mail, fax and phone. Often they're tied to the sale of time-share properties or vacation clubs. When they mislead consumers, the Federal Trade Commission sometimes steps in, filing complaints and seeking restraining orders. "Unwary consumers can lose lots of money or end up at the heartbreak hotel," said Cindy Liebes, an assistant regional director with the FTC.

I wondered how hard it would be for me to collect the prize Gil was offering. After nearly a year of jumping through hoops, I knew the answer: difficult. Eventually I did get a trip, but it wasn't to the place advertised, wasn't when I wanted to go, and it wasn't free. In fact, I spent more than if I had planned and booked it myself.

But I was blissfully ignorant of all of this the night I listened to the phone message. I called the number Gil left and reached a receptionist who asked about my income and scheduled an appointment. "There will be a 90-minute reception," she said. "Don't bring any children or guests."

So there I was on a Tuesday evening, with a headache the size of Cleveland, sitting in a small cubicle in an Irvine office complex.

I could be released from this hell if only I'd write a check for $9,500.

That would buy a 20-year vacation club membership, the salesman said, his family smiling up at me from a framed photo on his desk.

"Is this a time-share program?" I asked.

"Not at all," he replied. "It's an innovative way for people who like to travel to save money."

If I joined, Global Discount Travel — his company — would be able to snag huge travel bargains for me. I would get wholesale rates, he said, just as a travel agent does.

"Where would you like to stay for a week? How about a condo in Maui?" he asked, pushing some keys on his computer. "Here, Embassy Suites, Maui, a beautiful oceanfront property," he said, turning his computer monitor so I could see the pink, pyramid-shaped hotel on his screen.

"That's my least favorite hotel in Maui."

Undaunted, he rushed on. "Well, there are others. The point is, if you wanted to rent a luxury condo for a week, you'd spend hundreds of dollars per night. With our discounts, you could rent one for $57 per night. You'd spend just $399 or $499 for a week."

His voice rose enthusiastically as he whipped out more figures: Rental cars would cost $7 a day, and five-star hotels would be $150 per night instead of $400. I could save 80% on cruises, 70% on plane tickets, 70% on package tours.

"What about the trip to Cancún that I was selected for?"

He ignored me. "Our vacation club is designed for people like you who enjoy traveling."

I pressed on. "I'd enjoy a free trip to Cancún. What about it?"

He smiled. "Before we give you the certificate for the trip, you need to hear about our program," he said.

"Then the trip isn't free," I responded. "You said on the phone I'd been specially selected for it and no purchase was necessary."

He pursed his lips, drew in a deep breath and called in Salesman No. 2 for reinforcement.

Round 2No. 2 was older, smiled less and was more forceful.

"How much will you spend on vacations this year?" he asked.

"I don't know," I said.

"Just guess," he urged.

We argued for several minutes about my travel expenditures and how much money I could save booking trips through Global Discount Travel.

By this time, the salesmen had offered a shorter membership and the price had dropped from $9,500 to $7,500. The price — and the term — continued to decrease in the next hour until it hit $2,500. I still wasn't buying.

No. 2 said he couldn't understand how I could let such a bargain go by.

"I'll think about it and let you know tomorrow," I said.

No way, he told me. According to California law, I had to make an immediate decision. Global Discount Travel couldn't make the offer tomorrow, No. 2 said. "We can't offer a same-day special and give it to you tomorrow," he said. "It's the law."

"I never heard of that law," I said, my headache growing worse.

"It's the time-share law," he answered.

He was right, I learned later when I checked with the California attorney general's office. State law prohibits companies from lying to pressure a customer into buying. If a company tells a customer it is offering a one-day-only special, it can't sell the item later for the same low price. The law was created to check abuses once common in the time-share sales industry.

But at the time, I was openly skeptical. No. 2 could see that.

"If you don't trust us, call the Better Business Bureau. Do it right now," he told me.

"It's 8 o'clock. They're not open at night."

"Of course they are," he said. "They're open 24 hours a day."

This time he was wrong. The BBB, which reports on 2 million U.S. organizations, has offices throughout the United States that are open from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. But it also has a website (www.bbb.com) that can be accessed around the clock. Absent advice and information from the BBB that night, I muddled along on my own.

No. 2 kept hammering. I kept saying no. But the pounding in my head was weakening my resolve. I felt like caving in so I could leave. Then inspiration struck. "I have a terrible headache," I whined. "I can't say yes under these circumstances."

No. 2 seemed to be growing weary of me. He called in his boss, Salesman No. 3.

No. 3 was stern. No smile crossed his lips when he entered the cubicle.

"The trouble with most people is that they don't have the money," he said.

"Actually, all I want is my trip to Cancún," I said. "How do I know you'll honor it?"

No. 3 dismissed the question and returned to his "you-just-don't-have-the-money" tack.

But we both knew it wasn't working. Finally, he threw his hands in the air and slid a glossy four-page brochure across the desk to me. "Fill out the certificate inside and mail it in," he said, walking away. I looked at the brochure. A headline advertised two round-trip airfares for two; inside was a form and pictures of Cancún, Jamaica and other vacation spots. I slipped it into my purse, smiling as I left because I'd run the Global Discount Travel gantlet and emerged triumphant.

What a fool I was, I thought later, when I looked more closely at the brochure. Global Discount Travel had passed me along to another company, Millennium Travel & Promotions Inc. of South Daytona Beach, Fla.

My two-hour sentence in Global's sales office was only the beginning of my odyssey.

The Millennium brochure offered to provide two adults with two round-trip airline tickets and two nights' accommodations at a choice of six destinations: Cancún, Jamaica, Las Vegas, Orlando, Fla., Phoenix or San Francisco. But it spelled out 12 lengthy terms and conditions I would have to fulfill to receive my trip.

The first requirement — due immediately — was a "$50 per person, good faith refundable deposit in U.S. dollars (postal money order, money order or cashier check only)." I called the state attorney general's office again, where I learned that the requirement was legal.

Then I marched off to the bank, where I spent $4 to purchase a $100 money order, and then to the post office, where I spent $4.42 more to have the check sent by certified mail.

I felt queasy sending $100 to a company I knew nothing about; the feeling continued for a month until I received a letter from Millennium requesting "three valid travel dates."

These were tricky: The first date had to be at least 60 days away, and the choices had to be at least 45 days apart. None could fall on a holiday — or during the week before or after a holiday. Not so difficult, I thought at first. Then I realized Millennium's holiday list was lengthy and included all of March and April (spring break). I also had to arrive at my destination on a Tuesday or Wednesday. After an hour, I came up with three dates that seemed to fit all the criteria: Feb. 24, May 11 and July 13.

About three weeks later, another letter from Millennium arrived. I ripped it open: Would I be going to Cancún on Feb. 24?

I'd have to wait to find out. This letter simply offered "enhancement options to make your vacation more enjoyable." For an additional fee, Millennium would extend my stay, rent a car for me or add extra passengers to my package.

Then I read to the bottom of the letter. It had to be signed and returned within 10 days "to continue processing your travel request, even if no options are taken." Seven days had already elapsed. I signed — declining the enhancements — drove to a FedEx office, where I plunked down $11.83 for second-day delivery.

It would become a new pattern in my life.

Millennium stayed in touch. Letters arrived saying, "Millennium Travel is unable to confirm your date of … due to availability." Then I was told to select new travel dates or discontinue the reservation. There were always instructions to sign the letter and return the form immediately "to continue processing my request." I'd drive by FedEx, drop off my envelope and spend a little more money.

On May 4, seven months after my evening with Global Discount's salesmen, a "tentative travel itinerary" arrived by mail. I'd be going to Orlando on July 13, returning July 15. I skipped to the bottom of the letter where I saw:

Total due: $508.86 Total paid: $0.00 Balance due: $508.86How could this be? I wasn't going to Cancún, and I was spending $508. An itemization listed hotel tax, applicable tax, Sept. 11 security fee, courier fee, processing fee, surcharge, transfer and travel insurance. I called Millennium, waited 17 minutes on hold, and talked to a travel counselor.

"I'm very confused," I said. "I understood this was a free trip."

"We pay for the air tickets and the hotel," she said. "But you have to pay for the document fees and taxes and surcharges and other things. It helps cover costs."

"But I already sent you $100. What about that?" I asked.

"This is in addition," she said. "After you complete your trip, contact us and we'll return the $100."

"What about Cancún? I wanted to go to Cancún."

"Trips are subject to availability. It must not have been available," she told me.

The optionsI hung up and considered my options: If I sent in the $508, I would be spending $667.33 — including the deposit, bank and mailing fees — for a trip to a city I didn't particularly want to visit at a time of year when I didn't particularly want to go.

Then I took a spin through the Internet to compare what I was getting to what other companies had to offer. Several Orlando airfare and hotel deals were available July 13-15 on third-party websites such as Travelocity and Expedia; some were as much as $150 less. I could buy a three-day package to Orlando for two on Delta Airlines and stay at a Travelodge for $520. Or I could stay at a Holiday Inn for $558. I could choose the dates I wanted, instead of having them dictated by Millennium's restrictions, and I'd know the hotel in advance. With the Millennium package I wouldn't find out until I arrived.

I decided to send the money. Once again I visited my bank to buy the required "cashier's check or personal money order," and the post office, to send the check by certified mail.

Seven weeks later I received an airline e-ticket from Millennium.

On July 13 — about nine months after my evening with Global Discount's salesmen — I flew from LAX to Orlando on American Airlines Flight 244 and checked into a plain but tidy room at a nearby Holiday Inn.

I spent the next day sweltering at Disney World, dropping $116.62 on tickets to the Magic Kingdom and Epcot. I spent $123.53 on a rental car and $170 on gas, food and parking at LAX.

Before leaving Florida on Thursday, I drove 65 miles to Millennium's office in South Daytona Beach. Although I had no appointment, President Tony Armand seemed happy to talk to me when I told him I was a journalist who had just taken one of his trips.

He explained how his business worked:

"If you're a Mercedes dealer and you're selling the same Mercedes as the dealer down the street for the same amount of money, you need something to help sell your cars," he said. "So you offer my trip as an incentive." He said many of his clients were car dealerships. The businesses pay him for the trip certificates, he said, but he declined to say how much.

"Don't people believe they're getting a free trip?" I asked.

"We never tell people it's free," he said, saying that the businesses that distribute his promotions sometimes misrepresent the trips. "We tell them [the businesses] they shouldn't do that."

I asked why I'd encountered so much red tape in taking the trip. "Sometimes people pick popular dates or destinations, so it takes awhile to fill their requests," he said. "We depend on repeat business. I want to send you on a trip that makes you happy." His packages are good deals, he said, because he buys in bulk and finds inexpensive airfares and hotel rooms.

"Why did I find cheaper rates elsewhere?"

He looked up my file: "The transfer and the travel insurance were optional. You shouldn't have taken those. Did you ask for your $100 deposit back? As soon as you ask for it, we'll send it back to you." Eliminating those costs — and figuring in the refund, which I received without having to wait further after telling Armand I was a journalist, would have lowered the price to $389.33.

Pros and consAfter I got home, I called Global Discount Travel and told owner and general manager Peder Seglund I was a journalist who had taken one of his trips. I described the difficulties I had encountered. He blamed Millennium.

"We prepay for those trips," he said. "We want to make it as easy as possible for people to take them." He declined to say what each certificate cost but added, "We spend tens of thousands every month on those vacations and pay for them whether the client goes or not. I already paid them [Millennium] for the certificates, so if people don't take the trips, they're that much further ahead." Seglund said his employees were told never to use the words "won" or "free" but agreed that many customers thought they were getting "something special." It's true. No one had ever used the words "won" or "free" in conversations with me.

I asked about his insistent salesmen. "It's their job and their income," he said. "They're going to try to convince you to become a client."

And he wanted to make a pitch for his company, whose headquarters are in Royal Oak, Mich. "You can compare my [membership-only] website … with any other website and you'll find thousands of dollars in savings," he said. "We try to do our very best to make our clients happy. But like everyone else, we make mistakes."

I tallied up the pros and cons of my recent trip. The plus side of the ledger was blank. On the minus side:

•  I had spent about $200 more for a trip than I had needed to spend.

•  Instead of vacationing in Cancún, I went to Orlando.

•  I visited in the middle of summer, when the temperature was 95 and the humidity was 95%.

Then I thought of a bright spot: My experience could have been worse. I could have been there a few weeks later during hurricane season.

*

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

How to avoid trip traps

It's old advice but worth remembering. "If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is," said Cindy Liebes, an assistant regional director with the Federal Trade Commission. "Ask a lot of questions before you buy: Where will I stay? What's your refund policy? How much will I have to pay?" Other tips from the FTC and the U.S. Department of Transportation:

•  If you are told you've won a free vacation, ask whether you have to buy something else to get it. Get a confirmed departure date, in writing, before you pay anything.

•  Remember, the deadline for disputing a credit card charge is 60 days, so if you're told you can't leave for at least two months, you'll lose this option.

•  If you're considering the vacation offer and are confident you have established the full price you will pay, compare the offer to what you might obtain elsewhere.

•  Learn the vocabulary. "You've been specially selected to receive our vacation offer" means you'll be given the opportunity to pay for a trip. "Subject to availability" means you may not get the accommodations you want when you want them. "Blackout periods" are dates when travel is not available, usually around holidays or peak seasons.

•  Don't be pressured into buying. When in doubt, say no.

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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