The post card arrives innocently enough Monday morning. The Happy Holidays message is bracketed by an airplane and Christmas palms. Beneath, it says SOUTHWEST “Getaway” – Air & Hotel Stay. The back of the post card reads, “You are going to receive 2 round trip airfares to most major airports in the continental US. Call within 48 hours. You will also receive as a bonus 3 Day 2 Night Hotel Stay! Call 1-888-709-5786.”
Typically I throw such junk mail away, but the Southwest Airlines gets me thinking. Wouldn’t it be cool to fly to Phoenix for the weekend and have the hotel paid for? Hannah and I lived in Arizona for ten years ; we’d have a warm desert weekend with some cool old friends.
When registering for the vacation planning presentation for 11A this coming Friday, we are promised that it will only last 90 minutes; and at the end of that time we will have our airline and hotel vouchers in hand. So what’s the risk? I’m willing to trade 90 minutes of my time for what seems to be at least a $500 bonanza.
Earlier on Friday over coffee and muffins with Scott and Tree at the Crumb, we tell them of our upcoming windfall. Tree’s face darkens as she shares an unpleasant, still vivid memory from 30 years ago when she was intimidated by a high pressure salesman pushing a condo on her with all his might.
Maybe this won’t be so neat and clean as I think. But I can put up with a little crap for 90 minutes for two tickets to Phoenix and two nights at a Marriott.
Arriving at the Village By The Sea resort in nearby Wells, Maine on an overcast, near freezing December morning, I wonder what form of seduction they will use. As we enter, Hannah reads the brochure and says to me, It doesn’t say anything about Southwest Airlines; it just says a Southwest Getaway. Oooooo. My bad.
As one of five over-60s couples, we are welcomed by Rick, our salesman du jour. With slick backed black hair and a mohair sweater, Rick is energized without being manic. Promising that this will be low key, I relax and start the count down til it’s over.
He introduces us to Netrate Concepts, a travel services company that wholesales vacations by cutting out the middlemen. Rick asks how much we think a week in Vegas would cost. $1200 is one guess. Rick agrees that that’s reasonable, then shows us one of their contracts for only $199 for the same seven days in Las Vegas. Bringing up many more examples from Sedona, AZ, the Caribbean, Hawaii, and Florida, he and his company have saved his members 70 to 80 per cent.
Promising that we can travel more and travel better, he tells us they have 250,000 satisfied customers. At the forty minute mark, he unveils the price for lifetime memberships – silver ($5995), gold ($6995), and platinum ($8995). Whoa! I’m not sure what I expected, but it wasn’t that much. Still with 50 minutes to sell us on the value of membership, he shrewdly plans the flow of the presentation so we won’t be surprised with these figures at the end of his spiel.
We learn that Expedia is owned by the airlines and that William Shatner has made $350 million promoting Priceline.com. Rhetorically Rick asks who is really paying his salary. We learn that there is a $199 annual fee, but we can make it and the membership fee back in the discounts we’ll earn in just two or three trips. An added hook is we can, at no cost, add up to eight family and friends to our membership.
In conclusion, Rick says that the first couple that signs up will get a free upgrade (e.g., silver to gold). No one bites. He then holds up a $1000 bill and says he will take $1000 off the cost for the first couple who commits. Still no takers.
And now 100 minutes in, we still have to meet with Peter, our personal agent, who is there to close the deal. We talk and then I say, I’d like to talk privately with Hannah. Hannah seems hopeful, but I’m leery. Just give me our vouchers and set me free! Peter returns five minutes later with an offer for a gold membership for just $3500. Okay. Could we travel enough to make it worth it? He leaves, and Hannah and I talk more. She thinks we could save Will and Laurel on the cost of their honeymoon. I’m leery about the whole process – the entangled contract, what we will really get, the pressure to act immediately, and the cost of $3500 built on the wobbly foundation of faith in Rick and his company after knowing him for less than two hours.
Peter returns. We wonder about a month in Florida. He hems, we haw. He then writes down one more offer for the Platinum membership for five years for $1500. It finally dawns on me that they are selling “resorts.” We are not resort people. We are travel-and-hike-in-the-States people – Appalachian Trail, California’s bluff trails, the Mountain West, and Oregon.
I tell Peter that this is just not a match for us; without rancor, Peter hands us two glossy 8×11” sheets with our airline tickets and hotel vouchers. It’s been a long two and a half hours, but now we can start planning our sweet flight to Phoenix and a weekend at a Marriott.
As Hannah drives home, I read the fine print on the hotel voucher. We each must send in a $25 activation fee in addition to submitting $50 with the registration form. We are responsible for all taxes and must send a $50 refundable security deposit. There is no explanation of what kind of motel we will get. Phoenix is not even mentioned as one of their destinations.
Oh, it gets better.
The Airfare Vacation registration has small print as well. In this one, we each must send $49 to activate the vouchers in addition to submitting $98 with the registration card. There is a $59 to $89 9/11 security surcharge. We pay all taxes and we cannot travel during major holidays.
As Hannah drives, I just look at her and smile; then I shake my head and my smile grows. This is beautiful. I have just had a two and a half hour reminder that there is no free lunch. What was I thinking? I did a lot of jumping; jumping to the conclusion about Southwest Airlines, being able to fly to Phoenix, staying at a Marriott, and there would be no gotcha.
What I thought would be at least $500 worth of travel for 90 minutes of our time turns out to be an upfront cost of $400. What other costs lie ahead? Can I really trust a company that never mentions the fine print? I just can’t stop smiling and shake my head at my naiveté. Oh, did I ever get what I deserved.
I text Tree and Scott about the experience. It was amazing! I am smiling from ear to ear. I may be the biggest douche bag you know. Let’s talk.
PS We never get to Phoenix or stay in the Marriott, but I am a whole lot wiser. I hope you are, too.