Timeshare schemes sell a lifestyle of holidaying to the everyman, but beyond the glitz and glamour of a polished sales pitch are bills running to tens of thousands of dollars, a no-cancellation clause and a legal commitment lengthier than a 25-year mortgage.
From the outset, these schemes are designed to make the unsuspecting feel they've won the lottery. Scratch cards are issued at major tourist attractions that almost always reveal they've won a 'free holiday'. Sometimes parents are targeted by issuing these cards to children. But in order to claim the holiday, you'll need to sit through a presentation.
Other schemes are based on a referral system, as Vivienne S* discovered. Just by attending a meeting, her friend could get free flights to anywhere in Australia. The meeting, which was held at the Hilton Hotel with a "well dressed" representative from Accor Vacation Club, took an hour and a half, and she walked away with plane tickets to any location in Australia.
She would be a part of a vacation club, staying at different holiday spots in turn with the other people who signed up, in what was described at the time as an asset.
"[My husband and I] paid $13,691. They offered finance at 11.9% interest, which we snapped up," says Vivienne.
Vivienne never had the opportunity to use a timeshare property within the cooling off period. Now she's stuck in a contract until 2080.
"She marketed it to us as an asset we can have forever and we can give it to our children when we die. To think I'm going to leave this to my kids."
There are additional costs. Each year Vivienne is charged a $565 administration fee – for the lowest package available – and she's been paying it since 2007.
The approximately $19,000 spent has bought her fewer than 10 weekends away, most of them just a couple of hours from home, in places that would've cost her less had she booked her own accommodation.
"We've used it, I would say, seven or eight times. The way they set [the timeshare rooms] up makes it almost impossible to book. There's heaps of parameters.
"It's totally impractical for impromptu planning and you have to plan out your schedule way in advance."
The money spent on a timeshare scheme buys points, which can then be used to reserve accommodation. Vivienne – and other timeshare members who spoke to CHOICE – describe the system as confusing because they're never quite sure of the holiday's value.
The annual administration fee adds more points to the balance, 2300 in Vivienne's case, but they expire each year if they are not used.
"Every time we've used it, it's been because I better use these points.
"We have really young kids, so we have to look at a place that's reasonably close, so we end up going places we don't really want to go to just to use the points."
Contracts governing timeshare schemes have a cooling off period, but it's too difficult to book a holiday within the given timeframe, and so many people use the accommodation after it has elapsed.
And because Vivienne never had the opportunity to use a timeshare property within her five-day cooling off period, she's stuck in a contract until 2080.
She maintains the salesperson falsely said she could cancel the timeshare, but company representatives point her to the product disclosure statement.
They suggest "selling the membership on Gumtree as 'some members have had success with that', and Accor will allow it as long as the $300 transfer fee is paid."
But she can't even do that. "There are so many of these websites where you can informally sell [timeshares] to someone else. It appears you can't even give them away because it costs money to maintain them."
Accor could not provide a comment at the time of publication.
*Vivienne S is not her real name. It was changed at her request.
The CHOICE campaign is urging the industry regulator to require operators to disclose upfront:
- The total minimum amount a member would pay for the minimum length of their membership.
- An example of the annual costs a member would be paying on average for one week of accommodation.
- All other fees and costs members will face, including how interest or price rises will affect costs over time.
- The current dollar value for one credit or point.
- The average credits or points required for a one-week holiday for two people and the total amount a member will need to spend on points to obtain this benefit.
- The total minimum cost for the first year of membership.
Stock images: Getty, unless otherwise stated.