Picture your perfect vacation. Are you lounging in a hammock under the warm sun as waves crash into the shore? Perhaps you're perched on the edge of a ski lift as you prepare to take on a double black diamond trail. Maybe you have an affinity for history and can't wait to explore 14th-century castles in Scotland. If your time away from work and home is important to you and you start planning your one- or two-week vacation a year in advance, you might want to consider becoming a member of a vacation club.

Our Suggestions: Which Vacation Club Would Suit You Best?

To get the best investment for you and your loved ones, consider what you value most during your vacation time. Aside from prices and the technicalities outlined in vacation travel club contracts, what do you look for and what would make the biggest difference for you in a vacation resort that you will be using for years to come?

Great for Many Discounts

Discounts and reduced prices are always welcome and come in quite handy when vacationing with children who often cherish keepsakes from beloved vacation spots. It's always nice to get a lower price on high ticket items such as airline tickets and rental cars. You undoubtedly would appreciate lower costs for things that are less expensive but still add to the excitement of your vacation such as rounds of golf, skiing, restaurant meals, activities in the area around the restaurant, and souvenir items to take home to remind you of all the fun you had. Discounts can help save money and make you feel good about your travel club vacation investment. Most vacation time-share clubs offer some discounts, but the more discounts that are available, the better you'll feel about your purchase.

Disney Vacation Club

If you and your family are eager to visit Disney theme parks every year, you could benefit from buying a time-share through the Disney Vacation Club. In addition to being able to choose any Disney-owned resort for your vacation, you can use the RCI exchange group to trade your week for a week in another resort almost anywhere in the world. You get greatest benefits as a member of the Disney Vacation Club because of the many added rewards and discounts. For example, you can get discounts on annual passes to some Disney theme parks, merchandise, a host of fun recreation activities and dining within the resorts.

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Great for Flexible Points

Points are gold in the vacation club world. These vary from one vacation travel club to the next, but the best companies allow you to bank or borrow points, so you are never locked into a particular vacation time. This can be a godsend if a family illness, financial problem or other troubles derail your usual vacation schedule. On a more positive note, having points you can use often permits you to take a break in a locale that you never dreamed you would visit: a vacation spot in a stunning beachfront resort, a luxurious location in downtown Paris or skiing in a breathtaking resort equipped with sumptuous surroundings.

All the top vacation travel clubs offer some kind of point program, but how each works can vary substantially. Besides the number of points you get with your time-share, you also need to consider how these can be used and how flexible your vacation club is when it comes to using them. It's important because your plans may change, you might want to divide points between different resort locales, or you might need to change your vacation schedule. With lots of flexibility in how you use your points, you can be assured of plenty of wonderful vacations for you and your family in years to come.

Marriott Vacation Club

Marriott offers a variety of vacation ownership options so you can buy a portion of a unit in some of the world’s most sought-after spots. You won’t be tied to that one unit or resort, though, since the Marriott Vacation Club has a points program, which allows you to travel to a different place every time you take a vacation. By purchasing one week at a Marriott-owned unit, you are making a real estate purchase, which means you own a portion of the deed and you can bequeath that piece of property as part of your estate to whomever you would like.

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Great for Many Resorts

Top-notch vacation clubs possess a variety of time-shares that you can buy from them. However, it's also a good idea to look beyond what the company itself can provide and see what exchange program it belongs to, and all the products we looked at are part of some kind of exchange, either external or internal, that expands your vacation destinations.

Sheer numbers are always impressive, but before you sign anything, take a good look and ask plenty of questions about the kinds of facilities that would be available to you besides the time-share you buy. Maybe your home resort in Maui will suit you perfectly for years, and if so, that's great. But if you are more adventuresome, you might want the opportunity to make a selection from a villa, resort or even a hotel located someplace else for your vacation. Maybe you or your family want something new this year – it's always great to have that option available just in case.

All the products in our lineup offer thousands of choices, through their own villas and resorts and through exchange programs, but the kinds of accommodations can be quite different from one place to the next, from one point system to the next and from one vacation club to the next. It's always good to investigate these kinds of things thoroughly before you buy so you and your family can get the most from your vacation travel club investment.

As with any large purchase, you must seriously consider what the investment is for you. Buying a membership to a vacation club may give you a portion of real estate, but what you're purchasing is the right to use a unit within a resort for at least one week each year. You won't exactly have anything physical to show for your purchase. What you're actually investing in is your time.

Hilton Grand Vacations

Hilton Grand Vacations Club does a great job of giving you a wide range of time-share choices in some of the most beautiful destinations in the world, which is one sign of a top-notch vacation club. In addition, this vacation travel club offers you a membership to RCI, a time-share exchange group where you can trade your week at your home resort for a week in another participating resort so you can experience an even greater number of vacation spots both in the U.S. and other countries as well.

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How Do Vacation Clubs Work?

A vacation club operates similarly to a time-share – you invest your money into a particular unit where you can stay for a week during the year. However, time-shares have become more flexible with the points system. You still buy a portion of a unit by "purchasing" a week at a resort of your choice, which is known as your home resort.

Through most vacation clubs, your week translates into points that you can spend to stay at different resorts in the club's network. The points work as vacation currency. If you choose a destination, such as a resort in Orlando, during peak season, you need to spend more points to reserve a spot. Alternatively, if you choose to holiday during off-peak season, you can spend fewer points for the same villa.

Most vacation clubs expect you to pay a large lump sum upfront, or you can set up financing. The initial cost covers all expenses for that year and locks you into a contract with the club. In most cases, you are making a real estate purchase and can pass the right to use this on to your heirs. However, some contracts end after a certain number of years or upon your death.

On average, vacation club memberships cost roughly $20,000. Member fees are due annually and generally run from $800 to $1,000. Those fees and maintenance fees, which are sometimes separate from the annual dues, can increase each year. If any major repairs or other work needs to be done to the resort, you should expect to see a bill to help cover those costs too.

When you investigate travel clubs and time-shares, you may run across RCI and Interval International. These are vacation exchange companies that serve as a sort of middleman to help you trade in your week at the resort for a week in someone else's time-share unit. The best vacation clubs give you a membership to these groups and include the fee for it in your membership dues.

What Is Important in Choosing a Vacation Club?

When trying to decide which vacation club to join, you should consider several options. Look at the number of resorts you'll be able to use, whether those resorts are available in the destinations you want to visit, and what benefits you'll get as a member.

How much you spend largely depends on what season you choose. Naturally, the peak season for a beach and theme park destination like Orlando, Florida, is going to cost more. Be sure to call the vacation club you're most interested in to get a quote. Clubs also offer incentives that can bring your total purchase price down or bump up your points.

You have points to spend and don't want to be limited to a single resort for years on end, so look for a vacation club that gives you choices. The more resorts the club offers in its network, the better. Most vacation clubs secure a membership for you in an exchange group like RCI or Interval International and include the fee in your annual dues. Usually, there is an exchange fee, but that should be the only extra charge you incur when you swap out time at your home resort for a stay in another location. Also, not all real estate purchases will stay in your name forever – some clubs impose an expiration date.

If you want to see the country – or the world – make sure you choose the vacation club that offers the most destinations possible through its network of owned resorts and membership through an exchange group, or at least the places you're most interested in. Many clubs have built resorts in the most popular vacation spots, so you can find the best destination whether you prefer surfing in the sun, skiing the slopes or sailing the high seas.

Most vacation clubs offer a variety of discounts to their members that make travel easier. Airfare and car rentals can be pricey, so look for clubs that give you considerable discounts on these necessities. Some companies slash prices on merchandise for members so you can always go home with a souvenir. Certain vacation travel clubs also offer lower prices on recreation, dining and other activities.

It's important to be able to contact customer service at any point in case you have a question or concern. Some vacation clubs offer you access to a customer service representative at any time day or night. Typically, you can contact support by phone, email and, in some cases, live chat on the companies' websites.

Vacation Clubs: Final Thoughts

There are a few caveats to keep in mind when you purchase a vacation club membership. Price is obviously a factor that you need to consider. You must plan your vacations in advance – sometimes as early as a year or two beforehand. If you choose a popular destination during peak season, you must be prepared to use more vacation points. You can expect annual dues or maintenance fees to increase each year. Most vacation clubs offer a rescission period, which gives you at least a couple days, up to two weeks in some cases, to change your mind if buyer's remorse settles in.

Read your contract thoroughly to find out how long your membership lasts, whether you can transfer it to a family member or friend and how much that will cost, and what percentage of an assessment fee you must pay if major repairs take place. Also, keep in mind that a vacation club can change the point cost of particular days and weeks whenever it wants to, so you may not be able to book certain dates at certain destinations without purchasing more points. Being part of a vacation club should be a fun experience, so be sure you know exactly what you're purchasing by reading what we say about the best vacation clubs available.

Contributing Reviewer: Linda Thomson