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DON'T DISCOUNT THE SAVINGS REAL TRAVEL CLUBS OFFER

You'll often hear travel clubs described as deceptive promotions or even scams. I disagree. Quite a few legitimate clubs provide worthwhile services. In fact, the only way for consumers to avail themselves of two important services -- road service and half-price hotel deals -- is to join a club (or buy into an equivalent pay-up-front program).

Except for campers and those who limit their travels to visiting friends or relatives, anyone who travels frequently should belong to a major hotel-discount program. Half-price programs -- they offer a nominal 50 percent off regular rates at thousands of hotels -- are probably the most popular.

To get your discount, you call the hotel for a reservation and identify yourself as a member. If the hotel doesn't expect to be more than about 80 percent full, you get a room at 50 percent of the rack (regular) rate.

As part of their hotel discount program, some programs also provide discounts at rental properties -- condos and "villas" in popular tourist destinations. Some also offer restaurant discounts.

Anyone who drives extensively should also consider an auto or touring club that offers, at a minimum, emergency roadside assistance. These days, emergency roadside service may be included when you buy a new car. But if it isn't, you have to arrange it through a separate program.

AAA affiliates are among the clubs that provide both roadside service and hotel discounts. I especially like AAA's excellent maps and driving directories provided at no extra charge, as well as assistance in coping with local motor-vehicle bureaucracies. However, AAA hotel discounts are usually not as large as 50 percent.

Also good bets: Gulf Motor Club, (800) 633-3224, $49.92 a year; Road America Motor Club, (800) 262-7262, $59.95 a year, and Shell Motorist Club, (800) 355-7263, price varies by state. They provide both roadside assistance and access to a major half-price program.

If you don't need road service, more than two dozen additional clubs provide hotel discounts (as well as other features) without road service. While you can buy a hotel-discount program separately, the cost is about the same as you'd pay for a full-service club, so you may as well get access to the extras a club offers.

However, if you don't need either half-price hotels or road service, you can forget about a travel club. There are other deals:

Several clubs promise terrific air-fare and cruise deals. When Consumer Reports Travel Letter checked recently, however, we didn't find any club deals that were better than those available -- without club dues -- through ordinary discount agencies.

A few clubs give you a one-time dollars-off certificate for some air fares. They're similar to the certificates that crop up every so often in supermarket and bank promotions. (Many directories from Entertainment Publications, a prominent hotel-discount program, also include similar coupons.)

Quite a few clubs provide access to a travel agency that rebates part of its commission to you. You won't save much -- about 5 percent -- but you save it on almost any big-ticket travel service you buy through the agency. Again, that useful service is widely available without joining a club.

Only a few clubs sell discounted air tickets. Here I mean true discount tickets from consolidators -- where you pay less than the airlines ask -- not the airlines' own "discount" tickets, which are merely highly restricted tickets at list price.

You can save up to $300 a ticket on some long-haul international flights. But you certainly don't have to join a club to find discount tickets -- dozens of agencies around the country sell them, without asking you to pony up "dues."

Sure, some scams operate under the "club" formula. And quite a few clubs, while not scams, provide nothing of value that you can't buy elsewhere.

But roadside service and hotel discounts, at a minimum, can be important. As long as you have to pay for access to those services anyhow, you might as well take a look at the other features you get with a full-service travel club.

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