"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."