California resident Grace Watson just wanted to get away with her husband a few times a year to enjoy some much-needed rest and relaxation and to escape her government job. So when she received a flier in her mailbox for a discount travel club, she was interested. The company was San Diego-based Travel To Go, a travel company that offers, among other things, a membership-based “VIP Vacation Plan” that promises members wholesale travel rates not available to the general public. To join the “VIP Vacation Plan” program, customers are required to plunk down a one-time fee of $3,730 (in cash, credit cards are not accepted); they must also pay an annual fee (currently $199) to keep the membership going.

“They said as members we would get condominiums, hotels, airfare or cruise deals anytime at a 50 percent discount,” says Watson, who attended a group presentation about the program in June. It sounded like a good deal, so Watson signed up.

Not long after she joined the VIP Vacation Plan program, Watson tried to book a trip to Las Vegas and was told that there were no deals for the days she wanted to go. Watson then tried to take advantage of a certificate promotion from the company offering a complimentary cruise to the Mexican Riviera. To her dismay, she found that the “complimentary” cruise wasn’t free; in fact, she and her husband would have to fork out $299 each, plus port fees. When she contacted Travel To Go for an explanation, she got a semantics lesson. “Complimentary” doesn’t necessarily mean “free,” she was told, but the $299 fare was a “discount” rate. A month after joining the club, Watson asked for her money back, but no one returned her calls. Watson had a terrible feeling she was being duped by the whole program, so she contacted Tripso for assistance.

I checked the pricing for the cruise. Not only was Travel To Go’s “complimentary cruise” not free, it wasn’t even discounted. In fact, Watson would have paid less had she purchased the cruise directly from the cruise line, Royal Caribbean, which was offering the same cruise for $216 per person, plus port fees and taxes of $51.58.

Travel To Go speaks

I contacted Travel To Go for its side of the story several times over two months, but I received no reply. Only when I left a message saying we would publish this column without the company’s comment did I hear back from Travel To Go.

I spoke with Darla Isaak, Travel to Go’s director of marketing and business development. Isaak told me that Travel To Go has thousands of satisfied customers and that the company has tried to help Grace Watson on several occasions. Unfortunately, Isaak said, Watson’s issues are not with Travel To Go, but with To Go Consulting, “an independent contractor that for a nominal fee purchases the right to sell the Travel To Go Membership and then adds additional markups based on his business operating costs and the weekly per year travel needs of the client.”

“We are not in charge of how they sell [the product],” Isaak said. She noted, however, that Travel To Go does issue marketing guidelines to the distributors and will pull the rug on distributors who are found to be selling the memberships incorrectly.

Watson contends she was not told the difference between Travel To Go and To Go Consulting during the presentation she attended in June. Isaak says that’s impossible, and points out that all the terms and conditions of the program are clearly defined in the contract that Watson signed and initialed at key points. In regards to having no deals to Las Vegas, Isaak said that there was plenty of availability but not for the few nights Watson wanted. As for the “complimentary cruise,” Isaak stated that all applicable fees were clearly spelled out on the cruise voucher.

“There is no way that they can walk away from the membership presentation and not clearly understand what it is that they are purchasing,” Isaak said.

An angry Watson disagrees and now proclaims Travel To Go’s VIP Plus program a scam. “My husband and I normally don’t go for something like this, but the way they presented it sold us on it,” she says. “They were very convincing.”

Protect yourself from travel “deals”

There is simply no getting to the bottom of a case like this, but unfortunately, this kind of thing happens to leisure travelers all the time. Enticed by visions of fun and adventure in exotic places, travelers often fail to read the fine print, or don’t really understand what they find there. For example, many travel companies loudly proclaim “discount specials” but bury any mention of a host of costs associated with the trip. The information is there, but you have to hunt for it.

And then there is outright fraud. According to the Federal Trade Commission, travel fraud is costing Americans $12 billion each year. And the Better Business Bureau says the travel industry consistently ranks among the top 25 businesses it monitors for fraud.

Here’s some general advice on what to look for when you’re considering joining a travel club — or considering any kind of “travel deal” for that matter.

* Be wary of ads that have few details and promise a lot for little money. Remember, the better a vacation package sounds, the more thoroughly you need to verify the details.

* Be cautious of firms that ask you to pay before confirming your reservations. Most reputable travel agents will confirm before payment.

* Never pay by cash or by check – a big red flag missed by Grace Watson. Do not give out credit card numbers over the phone except to a person or company you know and trust.

* Deal with an established firm. If a firm is unfamiliar to you, check with relatives, friends and colleagues. Or check with the Better Business Bureau. Grace Watson could have saved herself a lot of disappointment had she done a simple online business check of Travel To Go on the Better Business Bureau’s Web site. According to the bureau’s report, Travel To Go is not a member of the bureau and has had 42 consumer complaints in the last 36 months. (A Travel To Go representative I spoke with countered that this number of complaints is “miniscule” compared to the thousands of customers the company services.)

* If you are unfamiliar with the agency, request written information on the total cost of the vacation that interests you, and ask that the costs be itemized. Understand that any transportation, lodging, meals or other items not specifically mentioned probably are not included.

* Ask about your right to cancel. If you get sick or change plans you could end up paying for a trip you never take. Also inquire about the availability of cancellation insurance.

* Be wary of vacation offers that are “good today only.”

* If you think you have fallen victim to a travel scam, call the authorities.

In general, heed the age-old advice: If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.

As for Grace Watson, she’s learned her lesson and hopes that others can learn from her mistakes.

Sound off! Do you have a comment, an idea, a complaint or a problem for Anita to solve? Send her an e-mail and you might find yourself in her next column.