''Where do we go this year?'' For a growing number of families thinking about vacation plans, that is a question they don't have to ask. They can skip all those brochures and avoid long sessions with travel agents trying to book four discount seats to Florida the week of spring vacation.
For over half a million Americans, the decision was made last year, or several years ago. That's when they agreed to buy resort timeshares. After plunking down $5,000 to $10,000 for the right to ''own'' a timeshare unit for one week a year, plus $175 to $200 in annual maintenance fees, timeshare owners can ski in Colorado, sail off Newport, R.I., watch leaves change color in Vermont, or surf in Hawaii.
Not having to worry about where to spend a vacation and knowing there is a place waiting when the families get there has helped propel timesharing to a nearly $2 billion industry in just over 15 years. Last year alone, timeshare sales reached $1.2 billion, says Victor S. Parra, executive director of the National Timesharing Council, an industry group. New units are being sold at a rate of 10,000 a year, he adds.
One reason for this kind of success is the United States Postal Service. Millions of Americans receive at least one solicitation in the mail every year urging them to visit a timeshare resort. The resorts are usually within a few hours' drive from their home. In return for the time spent on the visit, the letters usually list a dozen or so prizes that the prospective customer has won - if only he will show up on the appointed day, with his spouse if he is married. Often, the prize turns out to be a small radio, a TV with a mysterious brand, or some other item that is only slightly more valuable than the gasoline burned to drive to the resort and back.
This, Mr. Perra admits, has been one of the problems for his organization: marketing abuses that can come from a business which has grown too fast to be adequately regulated. Over the years, Perra says, he has heard the complaints of cheap promotional gifts, high-pressure sales tactics, and promises of ''swaps,'' or exchanges of timeshare weeks that don't make seasonal sense or can't be kept.
The council, he asserts, is trying to police this adolescent industry, including drafting model legislation to limit abuses. While ''no one state has passed our model bill in toto,'' he says, ''there are 28 states with some sort of timesharing regulation.'' These include the four states with the most timeshare resorts: Florida, California, Colorado, and Hawaii.
Strictly speaking, a timeshare is just that, a share of time that you purchase. The time is almost always measured in weeks and buying a week or two gives you the right to occupy the unit - an apartment, duplex, cottage, or mountain cabin - for that time. You might, for example, ''buy'' a two-bedroom apartment in Florida on the Gulf of Mexico for two weeks every March or April.
The price you pay for that apartment can vary widely, depending on whether it faces the Gulf or the highway, how high in the building it is, and what time of year you want to be there. A week in Florida in July, for example, would probably be cheaper than a week in March.
Still you may want to get away for a week in July, but because you own a Florida timeshare, you can't afford to buy another one for summer.
This is where swapping may be helpful. Many timeshare companies work with one or more exchange groups. Most commonly, the exchange works like this: you buy that week on the Gulf of Mexico for February. But you also buy another week at the same resort for another time, in May, for instance, because you'd like to exchange it for a week of golfing and hiking in the Midwest. But problems can arise when you try to find someone who wants to spend a week in Florida in May and someone else who wants to give up a week in the Midwest that same month.
To help people find swap partners, several exchange networks have been set up. The largest, Resort Condominiums International (9333 N. Meridian Street, Indianapolis, Ind. 46260) has over 750 resorts in its network and claims to be able to satisfy over 90 percent of the exchange requests it receives.
This success rate, however, means that RCI managed to put people in one of eight choices they gave, generally in time periods of equal or lesser popularity.
Unrealistic promises of timeshare swapping have been one of the more frequent complaints about the business, says Dean Fournier, an attorney in the Seattle regional office of the Federal Trade Commission (FTC).
''Many timeshares are sold on the basis of the exchange privilege,'' Mr. Fournier said. ''In theory, it works fine, but in practice there are sometimes a lot of limitations. If all you have is a week in a winter month in Boston, you can't trade that for anything anywhere - except maybe a week in Minnesota.''
This leads to one of Fournier's strongest suggestions for people considering timesharing. ''Buy your timeshare because this is the place you want to be at that time of the year,'' he says. ''Don't buy it for the exchange. It should be worth the money on its own merits or it's not worth it at all.''
People may be annoyed that solicitations to visit timeshare resorts say both the husband and wife must come to receive the gift, and that they are pressured to sign papers on the first visit, but these tactics make sense, Perra contends. ''It's a mutual decision where you and your wife go on vacation. So both of you should see the resort,'' he said. ''The reason most timeshare salesmen encourage you to buy on the first visit is that most people had had a couple hours driving at least to get there and if they can be spared another drive just to sign the papers, it's worth it.''
However, Mr. Fournier at the FTC cautions against this. A $5,000 to $10,000 purchase should be worth two trips, he believes, especially since he recommends that people try to look into the company offering the timeshare.
Find out, Fournier says, how long the company has been in business, what other resorts it may own, whether any complaints have been filed with state regulators or the FTC, and how these complaints were resolved. You should also have an attorney look over the documents you're planning to sign.
This makes a second visit unavoidable, he says, suggesting that people go to the first visit determined not to sign anything that day. ''You can't, if you're going to check out the company and talk to a lawyer,'' he said.
In some states, even after you sign, you have a few days to change your mind. Because a visit to a timeshare resort is not the same as buying from a door-to-door salesman, the federally-mandated ''cooling-off'' rule does not apply. Nine states, however, have a five-day cooling off period for timeshare purchases, while Florida and Tennessee allow 10 days to back out of the contract.
The most common type of timeshare purchase is called a ''fee simple'' transaction. These account for 68 percent of all the resorts, Parra says, with 30 percent in the ''right-to-own'' category, while 2 percent are ''club plans,'' such as Club Med resorts.
In the fee simple arrangement, buying a week gives you a deed for 1/52 of the timeshare unit. This give you the right to use it, rent it, sell it, or put it in your will for heirs. When all the units of a fee simple timeshare are sold, management of the resort is turned over to an owners' association, which makes major decisions affecting common property much like a condominium.
Right-to-use timeshares only give you the unit for a specified time, say 12 to 40 years, after which ownership reverts to the resort. Some right-to-use contracts prohibit you from leasing or selling the unit on your own. While this gives you less latitude on what to do with the property, you do not have to worry about overall decisions affecting the resort, such as maintenance of grounds; the developer takes care of that. There is, however, the possibility that the original developer might sell the resort to another developer, who may or may not be as conscientious about handling complaints and doing maintenance.
While timeshare salesmen will tell you about the purchase price and perhaps annual fees, they may not be so quick with information on other costs, such as finance charges if you borrow, travel costs to the resort, and possible increases in maintenance charges.
And you will almost certainly not be told how all these charges compare with the cost of renting accommodations - perhaps a motel, hotel, or a resort condominium - in the same area. If you like a particular location as a vacation spot, look around for these other options. While they will also get more expensive after a few years, you may be ready for a change of scenery by then.
This brings up a final point: resale. Experts caution against buying a timeshare unit as an investment. The appreciation and resale record is simply not long enough to take this into account now. While timesharing has been around for 15 years in the US, the large majority of resorts are less than five years old. Also, should you try to sell, you may find yourself competing against the same developer who has units of his own to unload.
Some simple guidelines of timesharing have been published by the FTC. You can get a free copy of ''Ten Timeshare Tips'' by writing Federal Trade Commission, Bureau of Consumer Protestion, Office of Consumer Education, Washington, D.C. 20580.
If you can get these tips before the first visit to a timeshare resort, you'll have a better idea of what to do when the salesman pushes a contract and a pen in front of you.
The National Timesharing Council (5th Floor, 1220 L Street NW, Washington, D.C. 20005) also has a useful pamphlet of tips and information. It costs $2. Ask for ''A Consumer Guide, Resort & Urban Timesharing.''