Thursday 19 February 2009

A holiday from abuse?

We all need a holiday occasionally, but perhaps what we need more is a holiday from being abused by holiday clubs.

Yes, we’ve had another problem reported to us about holiday clubs. Before a certain company gets angry and threatens us with all sorts of legal nastiness again, I don’t mean “The Holiday Club” specifically, I mean holiday clubs in general.

Just to refresh your memory, in 2007 we reported on the problems various consumers had reported to us regarding a company called Suntide, who trade as "The Holiday Club". The problem they had was that once they had joined they weren’t permitted to leave. The contract they signed was “irrevocable”, something they could never cancel. We reported on the facts that were reported to us and commented that we felt it was unfair never to allow consumers to terminate a contract, even when they had paid everything they owed. That is just unreasonable. You can close a bank account, you can terminate a lease, you can even end your marriage if you follow some basic procedures and settle your debts. So why couldn’t you terminate a contract with The Holiday Club, that’s what we wanted to know.

So what was their reaction? They instructed their lawyers to send us a variety of threatening letters saying we had defamed them, interfered with their freedom to operate and that we had accused them of being cruel to cute, furry little animals.

Of course we hadn’t done any of these things. We wrote back to them on various occasions and told them to get a grip and leave us alone. Which they did, we didn’t hear from them again.

Now we’ve had another complaint, this time about another holiday club. This time it’s a company called Flexi-Club. The problem goes like this. While on holiday in South Africa a few months ago a couple, presumably after a few of those brightly-coloured drinks with the little umbrellas, were sweet-talked into signing a Flexi-Club membership application. In fact, they signed a 1-year credit agreement to buy the initial membership.

Remember how these clubs work. You pay an initial membership fee that includes a number of points that dictates the value of the holidays you can take. You then pay an annual fee that is dictated by the club for the on-going maintenance of your membership.

The problem that this consumer faced was that once they got back home from their holiday they realised that that had hopelessly over-extended themselves. Along with bond repayments, food, school fees and everything else they simply couldn’t afford the membership. They phoned Flexi-Club, emailed them, wrote to them and faxed them, sent them blood and other bodily fluid samples, pleading with Flexi-Club to let them change their minds. No such luck.

Of course it’s true that they DID voluntarily sign a contract. Nobody held a gun to their heads, they weren’t in fear for their lives. What’s more the credit agreement they signed to pay the initial membership fee did, in fact, have a cancellation clause. OK, a perfectly useless cancellation clause. It says that they can change their minds but only within 5 business days and only if they did so in writing. Which of course was useless because they were on holiday at the time. The cancellation clause also doesn’t count if they signed the agreement at Flexi-Club’s office.

So the problem is that once you sign the contract you’re committed and there’s little chance you can get out of it. However, then there is the other problem. Nowhere in the contract and regulations that the consumer was given does it describe how they can change their minds after they’ve paid the membership fee. There’s no obvious way they can terminate their membership of this “Club”. That’s the problem with holiday clubs in general. They all appear to be lifetime commitments and that’s wrong. It’s particularly wrong as they rarely, if ever, tell you this before you sign the contract. You only find this out when you change your mind later.

That was the problem with The Holiday Club and it seems to be the same with Flexi-Club. It’s very easy to get caught but very difficult, if not impossible, to escape.

We contacted Flexi-Club to ask about how members can leave but they have treated us the same way they treated the consumer who contacted us. We’ve been ignored.

So what’s our advice regarding holiday clubs?

Steer clear of them. They’re not even a very good way of taking holidays. They give you little flexibility, there are huge restrictions on when you can go on holiday, where you can go and, most importantly, they only provide accommodation. They don’t pay for your transport, food, drink or entertainment. You are much better off going to your local travel agent and finding what amazing special deals they have on offer.

If you do a quick search of other consumer advocacy web site you’ll see that we are not the only ones warning people about holiday clubs in general and certain clubs in particular. You can see some links to these reports on our web site. If you fancy some amusement you can also see some of the threatening letters we got last time as well as our very polite letters back to them suggesting where they could stick their silly threats.

This week’s stars
  • Khumo at Air Botswana yet again for outstanding customer care, for energy and dedication.
  • Willem and the entire team at Cafe Dijo for running an incredibly friendly restaurant.

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