Nothing is more perishable than an airline seat, a night in a hotel room, or a cruise ship berth. If they go empty, that represents revenue the tour operator has lost forever. Before airline deregulation began in 1978, there was little airlines, hotels, and cruise lines could do about unsold seats except pass along the expense in the form of higher prices. But one result of the new rules is the proliferation of discount travel clubs -- clearinghouses trying to fill charter seats that have not sold through normal channels.
The clubs sell only charter packages, though sometimes a member can buy just the air portion. (The reason: Sometimes tour operators can ``return'' unused rooms to a hotel, but if they've chartered a whole plane, they're stuck with it.)
Here is how the clubs work: For a fee, typically $40-50 per family, a member gets access to a confidential ``hotline'' number, a recorded message of the day's offerings. The trips leave on fairly short notice, typically from a few days to a few weeks. The message is updated daily (often the previous day's trips are already sold out). Then the member calls immediately to book the trip.
Clubs don't give out the names of the companies they deal with; you don't get that information until you actually book the trip. But offerings range fromeconomy to luxury.
They are, of course, extremely seasonal. In January, you get mostly cruises and one-week trips to the Caribbean. Right now there are still plenty of Caribbean cruises; in the next few weeks, trips to Europe will start flooding in.
These clubs only work for the traveler who is flexible about destination, and who can leave on short notice. The reward is reduced prices; many clubs claim that their average saving is 40 percent or more.
Travel clubs work well for the retired person. One sprightly Michigan retiree says that she keeps her bags packed with warm weather gear all winterlong. This past year, she went to Puerto Vallarta ($439 one-week package), Los Angeles ($188 roundtrip airfare) and Florida ($178 airfare).
Clearinghouses also work well for the professional who suddenly finds himself with a vacation -- for instance, a lawyer whose case has just been canceled.
The clubs do have some disadvantages. With a few exceptions, the people who book your trip are not travel agents. They can't give you a lot of guidance or arrange an elaborate itinerary.
In choosing a travel club, be sure to pick one that has plenty of trips from your area. If you live in Los Angeles, charters from New York won't be too helpful.
The great granddaddy of the clubs is Stand-Buys, founded in 1978. All of Stand-Buys' trips are discounted between 25 and 75 percent; the average is 35 to 40 percent, says spokesperson Ellen Barry.
At any given time there are between 20 to 30 trips offered, she says. Stand-Buys, based in Chicago, has a large concentration of members in that area. But it is a national organization, and has 20 regional hot lines featuring trips from each area.
Ms. Barry says that in addition to its usual offerings, Stand-Buys ``is attempting to acquire some of the more unusual trips -- Alaskan cruises, domestic trips, trips to the Orient. There should be a good selection for the person who does not care to go to Europe this year.''
Examples of recent travel bargains: roundtrip flight, New York-London, $374 (normally $489); a 13-day air-hotel package to Spain for $549 (usually $1,019); and a 13-day cruise in the Orient, including air, for $2,339 (usually $3,499).
(All specific trips are listed in this article only to give ideas of the kind of packages available. Do not call expecting to get identical trips. Also, all prices are per person, double occupancy.)
``We advertise that trips tend to be three days to eight weeks away, with a majority of trips three weeks away or less,'' says Ms. Barry. ``A lot of people call up and say they just want to get away -- they are the ideal Stand-Buys members.''
For more information: call 1-800-972-5858. The membership fee is $45.
Another clearinghouse is Moment's Notice in New York City. It began in 1983 as the offshoot of a tour operator who developed this way of marketing his own unsold trips.
According to spokesperson Gil Zalman, Moment's Notice tries to limit the recorded message to ``8 to 10 prime items.'' He says most discounts are in the 20-40 percent range. One time, he sold a one-week trip to Rome, original price $689, for $199; the trip was leaving in one day. But ``it's a rarity to get something that drastic,'' he says.
Most trips are listed three days to three weeks before departure.
Examples of some recent Moment's Notice trips offered from New York: a one-week Greek islands cruise (not including air) for $449; a one-week Caribbean cruise for $820 (normally sells for $1,600); a week in Rio, air and deluxe hotel, for $559; and a Bermuda cruise for $599 (normally $1,100).
Another advantage of clearinghouses like Moment's Notice is that sometimes you can even get a deal during the busiest season. Last Christmas, says Mr. Zalman, their offerings were limited until Dec. 19. Then all of a sudden ``we were placing people all over the Caribbean and every place warm.''
To get a Moment's Notice brochure, call 212-486 0503. The membership fee is $45 per family.
Vacations to Go began in May 1984 and, though based in Texas, already serves 36 cities and has local hotlines. Another difference between VTG and some of the other clearinghouses, says spokesperson Allan Fox, is that Vacations to Go representatives are also travel agents. They can book all sorts of trips at standard prices, as well as their discounted trips.
His company's discounts are in the 20-65 percent range. ``We won't accept a trip that has a discount of less than 20 percent,'' Mr. Fox says. The average discount is around 40 percent; the average notice, three to four weeks, longer for cruises.
``Different travel suppliers have different booking lead times,'' says Mr. Fox. ``Las Vegas is very spontaneous. Most people wouldn't book a trip to Las Vegas two to three weeks in advance. [Tour operators] may not know they have a problem until two to three days before [departure].
``The other extreme would be cruises. A typical cruise will sell the majority of what it's going to sell within six months. [Anything less] the cruise lines would consider a short-notice sale.''
Examples of recent offerings from Los Angeles/San Diego: A one-week Caribbean cruise for $610 (usually $1,009). A transcanal cruise, 17 days, for $1,499 (usually $2,939). A south Caribbean cruise for $874 (usually $1,485).
Mr. Fox says that Vacations to Go usually has 15-20 offerings out of each city they serve.
For more information, call 800-624-7338 outside Texas; within, 800-833-8047. Membership is usually $50, but is now $29.95 until the end of April.
Nate Gans of Discount Travel International, based in Pennsylvania, has been in business since 1982. Bargains average 45 percent, and most trips are for three to five weeks away.
A new benefit: any member who books a domestic flight on a scheduled carrier will receive a 5 percent cash bonus, as well as a 7 percent bonus on any bookings of cruises, tours, or charters. (These are regular trips, not trips on their hotline.)
To get a brochure call 800-253-6200. Their fee is $45 a year.