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Looking For A Bargain Vacation? Get Packing 3/8

June 23, 1988

NEW YORK (AP) _ A bargain vacation this summer doesn’t necessarily mean pitching a tent at a nearby campground or driving out to see Grandma in Florida.

But it may mean packing in a big hurry.

A growing number of discount travel programs has emerged in recent years, offering travelers savings of anywhere from 5 percent to 80 percent for exotic and not-so-exotic vacations worldwide.

The catch is travelers have to wait almost to the last minute to book these trips - in some cases as little as three days - since they’re buying distressed merchandise: deluxe or standard hotel rooms left vacant from late cancellations, leftover airline tickets, cruise-ship cabins or tours.

For annual fees ranging from $30 to $50, companies such as Vacations to Go Inc. in Houston, Stand Buys Ltd. in Chicago and Encore Marketing International Inc. in Lanham, Md., offer travelers telephone hotlines listing several discounted trips, most broken down regionally. Many also regularly mail newsletters and postcards with other details.

They say the average savings are about 30 percent to 40 percent. Each has about 100,000 members nationwide.

And about a year ago, Miami-based Eastern Airlines started an 11-city Weekender Club for those looking for short, last-minute getaways. The carrier sends out a regional weekly ″travelgrams″ listing two- to four-day trips about a week in advance. The annual fee is $100 for a single member and $175 per couple, but the airline says most, if not all, that fee could be recouped after just one trip.

″Essentially they’re liquidators,″ said James V. Cammisa, Jr., publisher of the monthly newsletter Travel Industry Indicators. ″They liquidate perishable inventory for airlines cruise ships and hotels and provide a service to the consumer who can plan on short notice and effect the savings.″

″Once a ship sails away its empty cabins are valueless,″ said Jackie Clarke, a vice president at Encore. ″Anything they can get is better than nothing.″

But experts say there are some drawbacks to investing in such clubs, aside from the fact that the average departure dates are about two weeks after booking.

For one thing, tickets are rarely refundable. And the fast-paced hotline messages can sometimes be a bit confusing.

Callers often don’t find out the suppliers’ name until they make reservations or contact the broker separately. (While airlines, cruise ships, hotel and tour guides like to make money on otherwise empty space, they don’t like advertising these bargain-basement rates.)

Cammisa also warns, ″There’s no exclusivity on bargains. The thing that you need to make clear ... is that the inventory is in constant change and subject to supply and demand fluctuations.″

Sometimes, equally good bargains can be found through retail travel agents who deal with ″air consolidators,″ companies that purchase airline seats by bulk and offer discounts for advance purchases, noted Ron Kurtz, senior vice president for Miami-based Windstar Sail Cruises, who also is researching a book on affordable vacations.

″The key to traveling today is shopping around and comparing,″ Kurtz said.

Still, many consumers feel it’s worth investing in at least one discount- travel club for the chance at a top-notch vacation at a fraction of the normal price.

Encore’s Preferred Travelers-Short Notice Club, for instance, recently offered an all-inclusive, seven-night trip to Jamaica from St. Louis for an average $400 per person. It said the regular price runs about $750 per person.

Among the biggest supporters of these programs are retirees like Dorothy and Kent Cox, of Austin, Texas, with plenty of time on their hands for leisurely travel at a moment’s notice.

″We traveled with some (non-member) relatives once ... on one Caribbean cruise and their fare was at least 25 percent more than ours,″ said the 64- year-old Mrs. Cox, a Vacations to Go member. ″I candidly told them that we were paying much less.″

E. Gordon Seiler, a 61-year-old market planning manager for Georgia-Pacific Corp. in Atlanta, likes jetting off for long weekends in different cities every three months. He said one recent trip to San Francisco, booked through Eastern’s club, cost $175 roundtrip. ″The cheapest (comparable) airfare I was able to find was $268,″ he said.

But Seiler concedes, ″You have to have a job that allows you to pick up at a week’s notice and you have to have freedom. I’m just very flexible.″

″People think they’re more flexible than they really are,″ said Vacations to Go President Alan Fox, adding that only about 10 percent of his company’s members actually go on at least one advertised trip a year.

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