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Beware of the hard sell at vacation resorts

Get ready for the hard sell if you’re vacationing in Mexico. The nation’s biggest hotel chains are aggressively pushing travelers to join their “hotel membership clubs,” the latest iteration of the vacation timeshare.

Mexican salesmen approach tourists at the airport and in hotel lobbies under the guise of helping them get a taxi or offering concierge services. They offer free car rentals and discounted snorkeling trips to anyone willing to sit through a 90-minute sales pitch, which is akin to buying a new car.

“It’s high-pressure sales 101,” says Ed Perkins, a contributing editor for SmarterTravel.com. “Some of these are borderline scams. All this stuff is really time-shares in drag.”

In the past few years, tourists have been approached with these hotel club programs in Mexico, on Caribbean islands and in Hawaii.

Last year, Gabe Saglie was offered a free whale-watching cruise at the Westin Hotel in Maui if he attended a sales presentation.  As senior editor of Travelzoo.com, which publishes travel and local deals, Saglie had heard of the programs — complete with the uncomfortable pitches — and said he wasn’t interested.

“It wasn’t a smart use of my time on my vacation,” he says. “I like the freedom of going to different places. But for some people, it works. If you go to these places often it can be a value."

Don’t be surprised to see these pitches become even more prevalent during the difficult economy. Mexico has been particularly affected in the past two years, suffering tourism hits from the swine flu outbreak, drug cartel violence and the economic recession. Occupancy rates have dipped 30 percent to 60 percent. 

"They basically have rooms sitting empty and real estate sitting empty, so Mexico is pushing them extremely hard," says Jeff Lugosi, who follows Mexico's travel market as senior vice president at Colliers PKF Consulting USA in Los Angeles.

Salespeople for the Mexican hotel chain Park Royal Hotels & Resorts now hit up travelers in Cancun, Cozumel, Mazatlan, Los Cabos, Ixtapa and Puerto Vallarta to join its Royal Holiday club. They tell tourists that for about $16,000, people can buy points good for future trips at the hotel chain’s all-inclusive hotels in Mexico, trips on cruise ships and affiliated hotels across the world.

The program is the opposite of a traditional hotel loyalty program, which give points to members when they stay at the hotel and let them cash them in for rooms, upgrades and frequent flier miles.

Perkins warns that any program that asks you to pay for something in advance should raise a red flag for tourists — especially if it’s during a high-pressure sales pitch. “Anytime you’re talking about ‘investing’  $5,000, $10,000, $15,000, the chances are at best it’s a bad buy and at worst you’ll find it’s a disaster,” he says.

In these hotel clubs, people do not buy any assets, and they could end up buying something they may not use or they may not like, Perkins says. The club may also limit where the travelers can go or change the rules or fees at any time.

Park Royal Hotels & Resorts officials were unavailable to comment. The company’s Royal Holiday club lets members roll over unused points from one year to the next and exchange them for free hotel rooms. Food and drinks at the all-inclusive resorts can cost an additional $60 to $80 per person per day. As incentives to join, the Park Royal offers potential members financing for the fees and may throw in $1,000 toward airfare.

Perkins advises travelers to avoid the sales presentations altogether and not be lured by the freebie incentives to attend. The presentations may drag on longer than you want if you politely say “no.”

“You’re on vacation to relax, and it’s not worth the aggravation and pressure,” he says. “Even if you like the idea of a timeshare, that’s not the way to buy it.”

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Jennifer Alsever is an msnbc.com contributor.