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The Best Vacation Clubs of 2016

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Why Join a Vacation Club?

The top performers in our review are Marriott Vacation Club, the Gold Award winner; Starwood Vacation Ownership, the Silver Award winner; and Holiday Inn Club Vacations, the Bronze Award winner. Here’s more on choosing a system to meet your needs, along with details on how we arrived at our ranking.

Picture your perfect vacation. Are you lounging in a hammock under the warm sun with the sound of waves crashing into the shore as the tide slowly rises? 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.

How Do Vacation Clubs Work?

A vacation club isn't quite like Club Med, which is an all-inclusive resort vacation. A vacation club operates similarly to a timeshare, in that you invest your money into a particular unit and a particular week in the year. However, timeshares have become more flexible with the points system. So, 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 vacation 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 lock you into a contract with the club. In most cases, you are making a real estate purchase and can pass the right to use 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. So, vacation clubs can be a good investment in your time off if you have the means.

When you look into travel clubs and timeshares, 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 you buy into for a week in someone else's timeshare unit. The best vacation clubs give you a membership to these groups and include the fee for it in your membership dues. You can learn more about these exchange groups in our articles about vacation clubs.

Vacation Clubs: What to Look For

When trying to decide which vacation club to join, you have to 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 sort of benefits you'll get as a member. You have a multitude of choices when it comes to your vacation, but these timeshare resorts that we reviewed are the best vacation clubs available for many reasons.

Price
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. The prices we list were accurate when we published this article, but prices are subject to change based on season and availability. Use the prices as a general guide, and then 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 your points up.

Membership Details
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 your home resort unit for one in another location. Also, not all real estate purchases will stay in your name forever – some clubs impose an expiration date.

There are perks to consider too. Some clubs offer you access to tour guides in the area and vacation planners or concierges who can help you make the most of your stay. If travel insurance is a must for you and your family – especially when traveling out of country – then be sure to choose a club that offers it as an option.

Destinations
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 slopes or sailing the high seas.

Discounts
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. Clubs also offer lower prices on recreation, dining and other activities.

Member Support
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 of day or night. Typically, you can contact support by phone, email and, in some cases, live chat on the companies' websites.

Vacation Clubs: What We Evaluated, What We Found

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 actually 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. If taking vacation is important to you and you need a good reminder to go, then a vacation club is a great choice, so long as it is within your means.

Any utterance of "timeshare" can prompt raised eyebrows and whispers of fraud. Timeshares have developed a bad reputation over the years, which is partly why the industry coined the phrase "vacation club." There are fraudulent companies that exist solely to prey upon unsuspecting consumers, but there are ways you can protect yourself from these shady outfits. You need to read your contract from top to bottom and even consult your attorney if that makes you feel more comfortable.

When we compared vacation clubs, we looked at how much it would cost to buy a one-week time block during the summer months in Florida. The purchase price is only the tip of the iceberg for most vacation clubs, because you can expect to pay annual dues every year that you own a piece of a timeshare – and those dues are likely to increase based on inflation, repairs, renovation, tax increases and other incidentals. For example, Disney disclosed that dues have increased by 3 to 6 percent each year.

We also priced 20 years of vacations through three travel sites, including Expedia.com. The costs ranged from $13,860 to $25,060, which is comparable to owning a vacation club share, and your family can potentially own the timeshare for generations.

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 have to 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 have to say about the best vacation clubs available.

Our Recommendations

Our top picks for the best vacation clubs include some of the biggest names in the industry. Marriott Vacation Club offers thousands of choices in resorts and hotels at almost any destination you can dream of, and the purchase you make is deeded, so it is yours in perpetuity. These are just a few reasons why the club gets our Gold Award title. The Silver Award goes to Starwood Vacation Ownership because it offers similar benefits as the top-ranked club, but it has higher fees. Holiday Inn Club Vacations wins our Bronze Award for its flexibility and hardworking customer support team.

Although Disney Vacation Club didn't make our top three, it ranks higher than most on our top 10 list because of its multiple perks and discounts. However, after 45 to 50 years, you no longer hold the title to your portion of the timeshare. For a more traditional timeshare, you can look into Perennial Vacation Club, which is the least expensive option on our list, but it is subject to availability. You don't get as many resort choices with it, but if you're happy with the options it offers, it could be a great choice for you.