More vacation sellers are offering layaway, but you don't need to go there

We're all learning how to use layaway again. Once a staple at your local Sears, the concept of buying products on monthly installments before you take them home, which was common in the days before credit cards enabled us to take home things we hadn't actually paid for yet, has made a comeback of sorts recently.

The resuscitation of layaway plans has trickled into the vacation industry. Hurtigruten, which runs ships up and down the fjord-filled Norwegian Coast (including to the Northern Lights) is offering the chance to book its cruises with monthly, no-interest installments. The website eLayaway, which facilitates installment payments, has signed up Hyatt hotels as a merchant and sells gift cards that can be used for stays in its properties. And the website is devoted to the concept of paying for a trip over a year, albeit with cancellation fees that begin at $50.

Layaway isn't the same as buying on credit, nor the same as the "Bill Me Later" option that airlines such as JetBlue, Continental, AirTran, and U.S. Airways are using to get customers back on the hook. Those options let you claim a product or a trip before you've actually paid for it, and they come with fees.

Layaway, traditionally applied, is merely a matter of paying on installment. But unless a layaway comes with strings attached, such as added fees for the privilege (eLayaway levies a 1.9% service fee), when it comes to travel, you'd be better off just saving money yourself and booking your trip when you have enough.Here's why layaway, which can work brilliantly for major appliances and other big-ticket goods, isn't ideal for travel:
Unless it guarantees you a trip that might otherwise sell out, layaway exposes you to an industry that even in the best of times is walking on wobbly legs.

  • When you book vacations through a credit card, at least you've got some recourse should your hotel or packaging company go out of business--a distinct possibility in the precarious travel biz these days.
  • Once you start giving your money to a company without getting a product back right away, you're exposing yourself to fraud.
  • When you commit to buying a vacation way in the future, you're also likely to lose out if the price for that item goes down. In this travel market, when seemingly every company is slashing rates in order to stimulate business, putting money down way in advance simply because it's convenient for you could end up costing you in the savings that last-minute discounts are currently offering.

What's more, by paying for so many months, you lose whatever interest you'd have collected by keeping your money in your bank account until the last minute.

A few companies, such as the affordable packager Gate 1 Travel, are offering their own versions of layaway that require up-front deposits and impose a final payment deadline well before the trip takes place. In those cases, holding your seat early works to the company's advantage, and it can reap advance-booking and bulk bargains that it can pass on to you. So beneficial layaway does indeed exist, but it's up to you to know what you're getting into. Make sure you read the fine print carefully so you know you won't suffer any financial penalties for delaying full payment.

As Tribune Newspapers recently suggested, if you really want something so badly that you're willing to budget a monthly payment and buy on layaway, the only failsafe way to avoid fees is to put the equivalent of a monthly installment in a savings account instead, where you can collect interest on it before making your purchase in one fell swoop.

If you're on a tight budget and still crave the nourishment that travel brings, you don't need layaway. You just need budget discipline. And we're all learning how to use that again these days, too. It gets you farther.

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