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Timeshares and vacation clubs are popular products that generate a lot of money every year. However, do you know the difference between timeshare and vacation club resorts? I didn’t until I had a negative experience in Mexico which prompted me to research the topic.

Our trip to Mayan Palace in Riviera Maya

We recently took a trip to Mexico, after receiving a free four-night stay from a family member. It was part of a raffle prize, and once we redeemed it, we were able to choose our location and hotel from most of the major tourist destinations in Mexico. We opted for the Mayan Palace, just north of Playa del Carmen. Given the stay was won during a raffle, I was feeling a bit cautious about it. I had been suckered in the past into attending timeshare presentations, and wanted to avoid spending our vacation time being pushed to buy a property or join a vacation club. I looked on Trip Advisor and saw several posts of travelers who complained about being bullied into sales presentations. We decided to lower our expectations, especially since this was a “free” trip. However, we were going to stay firm and avoid any sales presentations.

Everything seemed great when we arrived. The resort offered transportation from the airport. When we got to the resort, we noticed that it was one of many properties owned by a company called Vidanta. The service was impeccable during check-in. Though as soon as we received our keys, we were immediately asked to meet with a manager. The manager explained the key attractions and benefits at the resort, then asked if he could invite us to a free breakfast. Red flags immediately went up, and we politely declined. The manager insisted that we attend and wanted to show us all the benefits of becoming a member of a luxury vacation club. We stayed strong and said no. The manager also asked about booking excursions. When we told him that we had already booked our own tours online, he seemed fairly annoyed.

Problems with the service at the Mayan Palace

Fast forward to the evening and we noticed that the room was extremely noisy. The walls were thin, and we had a loose connecting door that didn’t help. We basically could hear our neighbor’s conversations and the music they were playing on their phone. Since we had an early morning tour, we decided to ask the front desk if we could get a different room, preferably one without a connecting room, or at least a connecting room that didn’t have occupancy.

What happened next surprised us! The front desk was unwilling to help us. We went back and forth with the manager for about an hour, and at one point, they agreed to put us in another room. They asked us to pack up our stuff again, and once we returned and waited at the front desk for another hour, we were told that the room was not available and that we would have to stick to our original room.

We decided to leave the resort the next day and forfeit our free stay. Using my Chase Ultimate Rewards points, I transferred 60,000 points to Hyatt and booked a stay at the Andaz Mayakoba down the road. The hotel was incredible, and a complete contrast to our experience at the Mayan Palace.

With that story in mind, I wanted to share the differences between a hotel, timeshare, and vacation club.

What is a timeshare?

For those you who don’t know the difference, timeshares are agreements where several joint owners have the right to use a property as a vacation home, usually for a specific period of time. The key word here is “owner”, as you’re actually purchasing the right to a property, even if it’s only for a week or two in a year.

Timeshare owners typically enter a real estate deed for specific dates at a specific property. It’s like owning two weeks of a furnished condo in Hawaii. You’ll have to pay some maintenance fees for the property, but it should be less than owning a second home or property.

With timeshares, you can usually participate in networks where you can trade stays with other timeshare owners, allowing you to travel to other properties in the world. From what I hear, this can be a bit tricky, especially with popular travel times and locations.

What is a vacation club?

Vacation clubs are slightly different. It’s basically a membership that gives you the “right to access” properties within an umbrella of resorts. The key term is “right to access”. Rather than buying into a property, you are paying a membership fee to use a resort. You get a lot more flexibility on the location and time when you want to use it, but you’ll sacrifice the equity that you would earn with a timeshare.

Timeshare pros and cons

In summary, pros for timeshares are:

    • Ownership / built equity (in most cases)
    • Consistency in timing
  • Flexibility to exchange

The cons for timeshares include:

    • Limited flexibility on the timing of your vacation
    • Annual maintenance fees
  • Less services than you would find with a hotel/resort

Vacation club pros and cons

For vacation clubs, the pros are:

    • More diversity of destinations and resort types
    • Flexibility on the timing of your vacation
  • More hotel/resort services

The cons for vacation clubs are:

    • Typically more expensive than timeshares (both upfront and annually)
    • Limited to availability (i.e., may be difficult to book during high-peak times)
    • No equity/ownership
  • No ability to exchange outside of the vacation club network

Additional tips and considerations

If you decide to visit, purchase, or join one of these resorts, here are some things to consider.

1. Higher resort costs and prices:

My experience at vacation clubs is that prices at the resorts are generally higher for the value than you receive. While I expect the prices for meals to be more expensive on a resort or hotel, I generally don’t mind if I feel like the quality is also high. Unfortunately, we found the prices for meals, drinks, and groceries outweighed the quality and customer service during our Mexico trip. Since it’s often difficult to leave the resort, you can become reliant on what’s available and charged.

2. Prices may not be competitive:

There are tons of stories online of folks who researched a stay at the exact same location and timeframe, and found it to be the same cost or cheaper than their timeshare or vacation club rate. Also, with services like Airbnb, you now have more options when booking a vacation stay. So keep that in mind when considering the fees associated with a vacation club or timeshare.

3. Limited flexibility:

This primarily applies to vacation clubs. I’ve found that these resorts typically want to control the customer experience, and when you deviate from it, you tend to find problems or lack of support. Our story from earlier is a perfect example. Everything seemed great until we deviated from the structure. We refused to attend the sales presentation and booked our own independent tours. Even when we wanted to leave, we were forced to have our luggage transported back to the resort’s main resort lobby, rather than just having a taxi pick-up at our specific resort. When I spoke to the manager, he was unwilling to make an exception. Though other guests were allowed to have a direct pick-up from the resort. This added another 45 minutes to our check-out experience and we felt uncomfortable giving up our luggage since we were already in conflict with the resort.

4. High-pressure sales:

I can speak from personal experience that the sales tactics used by timeshare networks and vacation clubs are extremely aggressive. They usually try to lure you in with gifts or free services like breakfast, tours, or event tickets. Then you’re stuck in a long presentation where the price keeps dropping and pressure to sell increases. I know it’s the nature of the industry to sell, but I personally can’t stand spending my vacation time being pressured and bullied into a deal.

5. Difficulty getting out:

One tactic that’s often used by timeshares, and sometimes by vacation clubs, is the idea that you can commit now, and if you change your mind, you can just call and cancel within a certain period of time (usually two weeks). These sorts of clauses are called a “cooling off period”. This is often mixed in with justifications like “why not lock in this price now? There’s no penalty if you change your mind.” The trick is that they make it very difficult to cancel. You’ll often have to call different offices and send in official paperwork. Some vacation clubs don’t even allow cancellations. Make to check the agreement if you’re considering entering a deal.

6. Payment disputes:

This goes for any hotel or resort stay, not just vacation clubs and timeshares. If you encounter a payment dispute with the lodging, I would suggest refusing to sign the credit card receipt or invoice. While the hotel or resort can still charge you the fee, you basically forfeit your right to a dispute by signing the invoice since you’re agreeing to the charges. We made this mistake at the Mayan Palace, and were stuck with four nights of resort fees when we only stayed there one night. They refused to waive the fees, and told us to contact SFX Preferred Resorts, which is the company that booked our stay. When I called them afterwards, they said that we were misled since they do not deal or receive any of the resort fees. Don’t make the same mistake as us!

Final thoughts

To be fair, I will add a caveat that this is just my personal opinion. I have friends who love their timeshare and find value in it. Having flexibility in my travels is a greater priority to me. And with points and miles and Airbnb, I feel like I’m able to travel and afford things that would normally be out of my reach.

One other thing that is really important to me is customer service and intention. I don’t expect things to be perfect, but I expect there to be an intention to resolve issues. My experience at the Mayan Palace versus the Andaz Mayakoba was night and day. While we felt trapped and unsupported at the Mayan Palace, our experience at the Andaz made us appreciate the importance of customer service and our desire to feel like a valued guest when visiting a hotel.

What are your thoughts on timeshares and vacation clubs? Have you had good or bad experiences with them? If so, please share your story in the comment section below.


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