It was a few minutes after sunrise and the two guys looked like the "before" half of an ad for a hangover remedy. The two young women with whom they were strolling along the Acapulco beach clearly could have used some sleep, too.
"What time do the tennis courts open?" one of the revelers shouted, looking as if the exertion of even a single serve might put him into intensive care.
"You sure you wanna play tennis?" asked a concerned beach boy.
"You betcha," said the unsteady traveler. "We've still got six hours!"
It took only a little research to discover that this dawn patrol was from a club called the Skylarks, out of Atlanta, Georgia, a travel club that had come all the way to the west coast of Mexico for little more than a long weekend. Asked why, most Skylarks said simply, "It was just too cheap to resist."
Now, American travelers are not normally very enthusiastic joiners, and they rarely take advantage of the lower prices that traveling en masse allows. But one notable exception is the travel club, which offers a combination of social incentives, extraordinary mobility and delightfully low prices, that's causing lots of folks all over the country to join up.
The travel clubs to which I'm referring actually own their own aircraft. Their members, whose social lives and vacation plans often revolve around their club's itineraries, participate in a varied menu of tempting trips.
The clubs were initially a bit of unanticipated fallout from the beginnings of the jet age. As the airlines converted to jets in the early Sixties, a huge mass of propeller planes were left parked on backwater airfields, quietly gathering dust. In 1964, a group of Washington, D.C., businessmen purchased a superfluous, propeller-driven DC-7 from National Airlines and formed the Emerald Shillelagh Chowder and Marching Society, the first recorded "country club of the air." In October 1964, they took of fon their first airborne jaunt---to Montego Bay, Jamaica---a weekend air trip that cost $57 a seat, round trip.
The success of the Shillelaghs was widely imitated, and between 1965 and 1967 more than 100 travel clubs were formed. The sky seemed to be the limit until 1968, when the Federal Aviation Administration began requiring the clubs to conform to the same maintenance and safety strictures as commercial aircraft; this caused the vast majority to fold.
Today, six sizable travel clubs survive and prosper---offering members anywhere from three dozen to 300 trips in the course of a year. The Skylarks of Atlanta, in fact, boast a membership exceeding 11,000.
The six clubs communicate often, and all recognize the importance of the social side of their operations. The Washington Shillelaghs are generally considered the most social of the lot, though the Detroit Nomads hosted 1200 members at their annual brunch last year. Not all club members reside in the city where the club is based. Camaraderie and travel savings seem to make a long drive worth while.
All of the leading travel clubs offer ground packages---hotel rooms, meals, transfers and the like---in addition to bargain air transportation. Staterooms on prime cruise ships are also booked, and a club member may choose the exact mix of elements he desires.
Would these savings offset the club's initial membership fee, along with annual dues, if you were planning to travel only once or twice a year? It's a little tough to create exact comparisons when commercial air fares are in such an unsettled state, but here are a few recent club offerings from which you can judge:
The Ambassadair club of Indianapolis offered its members a trip to Maui in Hawaii for the Thanksgiving holiday. The air-fare portion was $419 per person, round trip, and the best regularly scheduled round-trip excursion fare I could find for that holiday week was $752.20 to Honolulu. Furthermore, the Ambassadair plane was headed for Maui nonstop; a conventional commercial passenger would have had to fly from Indianapolis to Chicago, catch a flight from Chicago to Honolulu, and then transfer to Hawaiian Airlines or Aloha Airlines for the short hop to Maui.
Hotel rooms at the Maui Intercontinental were available at savings as well. All together, a couple traveling with Ambassadair paid a total of $1436 for the holiday. That same duo traveling without club affiliation would have paid about $2185 for the same package.
The Shillelaghs headed for St. Kitts in the Caribbean over the long Thanksgiving weekend. This particular trip, by the way, illustrates the general travelclub pattern of frequent and relatively short jaunts. For a $310 air fare, Shilelagh members left Washington at one A.M. and arrived in St. Kitts six and a half hours later, ready for a full day in the sun. A round-trip commercial flight not only costs $586 but would have taken 12 hours---Wahsington to Atlanta to San Juan to St. Kitts.
European trips also are subject to the same economic advantages. The roundtrip air fare for a Skylarks' trip to Portugal over the New Year holiday was $755, while the holiday-period fare (when nearly all discounts are blacked out) on a commercial carrier was $886.
All of the main travel clubs require an initial membership fee, ranging from the Skylarks' $125 for a single to the $395 for a family membership in Ports-of-Call. Annual dues range from $25 to $125. The rule of thumb is that these fees can be amortized if you plan to take at least two domestic or one international trip each year; any other additional travel provides some real gravy.
For more detailed data:
Shillelagh Air Travel Club, 152 Hill-wood Avenue, Falls Church, Virginia 22046. Telephone 703-241-7595.
Atlanta Skylarks Air Travel Club, 789 Oak Street, Hapeville, Georgia 30354. Telephone 404-763-8100.
Ambassadair, Inc., 2410 Executive Drive, P.O. Box 41619, Indianapolis, Indiana 46241. Telephone 317-247-5141.
Nomads, Inc., Nomads World Terminal, 10100 Middle Belt Road, Detroit Metropolitan Airport, Detroit, Michigan 48242. Telephone 313-861-3604.
Ports-of-Call Travel Club, 2121 Valentia Street, Denver, Colorado 80220. Telephone 303-321-6767.
Jet Set Travel Club, P.O. Box 80443, Seattle, Washington 98108. Telephone 206-762-6300.
Interested in saving money? Travel with a few hundred friends.