Although it’s easy to check on clubs’ facilities and activities, determining which membership option is right for you could be a lot more difficult. Some clubs refuse to provide price information over the phone. And even when you can get the information, it can be hard to compare rates since initiation fees, monthly charges, facilities, and many other features vary widely. Even worse, you may be expected to make a substantial upfront financial commitment—a high initiation fee or long-term contract that may cost a lot even if you, like many club members, stop using a facility after a short time.

At some clubs, an already confusing fee structure is made worse by salespersons who try to squeeze prospective customers for everything they can get.

When our mystery shoppers called, some salespersons pushed long-term contracts and mentioned month-to-month or less expensive options only after our shoppers hesitated or asked about them. A common ploy is to offer a steep discount only if you sign a membership contract that day.

In addition to allowing selective price squeezing, multiple pricing plans open the way for other abuses. A salesperson might not quote the best prices because he or she thinks you’ll use the facility too heavily, complain too much, or won’t “fit in.”

Another ploy is the non-discount discount. Many clubs print up membership fee schedules with inflated prices so that they can cut the price during the sales pitch.

The same non-discount strategy appears in advertising. While many advertised specials truly offer lower prices, others are confusing or misleading come-ons.

Careful shopping is your best tactic. When deciding whether to sign up, forget about the discount on the table and focus on how the club’s price compares to prices at other clubs.

Compare Costs

Fees vary dramatically from club to club. Our Ratings Tables report fees for six different profiles, ranging from full access for three months for one person to full access for three years for a couple. Based on the fee information collected from the clubs, we’ve attempted to calculate the lowest possible fee for each profile for each club. For the three-month user profile, we assumed the user planned to use the club for three months and then quit. Charges might be much higher for someone who planned on being a member for a year but quit after three months.

While amenities and services vary from facility to facility, large price differences exist among clubs with roughly the same basic features. If you’re just interested in fitness equipment and group exercise classes, a single membership that provides unlimited access to all facilities for one year costs $150 at Planet Fitness; Main Line Health & Fitness, you’ll pay $865. If you want to play indoor tennis and swim, a three-year couple’s membership costs $2,599 at Northeast Racquet Club & Fitness Center; at Healthplex Sports Club, you’ll pay $5,521.

When comparing fees, keep several factors in mind—

  • Which facilities you can use. One reason for the price differences is that some clubs offer much more than others. Evaluate the price in relation to the facilities, equipment, and activities offered (also shown on our Ratings Tables)—especially those that you expect to take advantage of. Some clubs offer lower fees for memberships that exclude certain features, such as racquet sports.
  • Times of day. You can sometimes save money by using a club only at off-peak hours.
  • Per-use fees. Some clubs, or membership options, require you to pay separately for court time or other benefits, while others offer a broader array of benefits for a basic fee. If you want tennis instruction, regular massages, or other personalized services, check the clubs’ charges for these services.
  • Other clubs you can use. If you are interested in using more than one club location, either locally or outside the area, ask for details on multi-club use opportunities. Our Ratings Tables report whether each club offers membership options that allow customers access to other local clubs and has memberships that allow access to other clubs nationally (typically through a national reciprocal use program that gives its members access to participating clubs for a per-use guest fee). If you are interested in using more than one club location, get a list of participating clubs. Some clubs offer use of only one other local club, while others let you use dozens. If you know you will be using only one club location, mention it to membership salespersons. Health club chains often have lower membership-rate categories for customers who agree to limit their access to one club location.
  • Renewal fees. Some clubs charge lower fees for renewals after an initial contract period.

Ask About Discounts

Check whether you qualify for a discounted membership rate.

Many clubs offer steep discounts for seniors. The age requirement varies by club, with some clubs offering discounts to members age 50 and up. Keep in mind that some clubs limit access of senior memberships to off-peak hours.

You may also qualify for a discount through your employer. Many clubs have agreements with employers for “corporate” rates typically 10 to 20 percent lower than normal rates. If your employer doesn’t have an agreement, you may be able to foster one by recruiting coworkers to join with you. Clubs typically extend corporate rates to employees of companies that have even a handful of employees who are willing to sign up.

Finally, find out if your health insurance plan offers benefits for fitness services. Most health insurance plans offer discounts on health and fitness clubs and other fitness-related purchases to promote healthy habits—or, if you’re a cynic, to attract a large pool of health-conscious customers who are less likely to run up huge medical bills.

Some of these programs offer pretty good deals. For example:

  • Medicare Advantage policyholders with Aetna, AmeriHealth, CarePoint, Cigna, Humana, Independence Blue Cross, and UnitedHealthcare can get free or very low-cost memberships at participating fitness clubs through the Silver Sneakers or Silver & Fit programs.
  • AmeriHealth and Independence Blue Cross reimburse their members up to $150 per calendar year for fees paid to participating health and fitness clubs once members have worked out 120 times during the year.
  • Many Horizon and UnitedHealthcare plans reimburse members up to $240 per year per person for health club costs. Members are reimbursed $20 each month that they work out at least 12 times. With UnitedHealthcare, both employee and spouse can each earn $20 per month; with Horizon, all eligible household members can earn $20 per month.
  • Aetna and Coventry have relationships with GlobalFit.com, which claims to offer the lowest rates for thousands of fitness centers. (If you find a lower rate on your own, GlobalFit promises to reimburse you the difference, plus five percent.) When we compared its rates with what our shoppers were quoted, we found that most GlobalFit rates were lower.

But it is harder to calculate the savings you might get through programs offered by some insurance plans. Cigna has a relationship with ChooseHealthy.com, which like GlobalFit, promises big savings at participating clubs. Unfortunately, these discount programs don’t provide customers with detailed costs. A 10 percent discount sounds fine, but if you still have to call or visit clubs to gather fee information, you’ll still be subjected to the hard sell that is common at some clubs. Remember, many clubs show prospective customers inflated “regular” rates and then offer discounts to create the illusion of value. If you don’t have fee information in advance, you won’t know whether the discount your health insurance plan offers really is a discount.

The message here? Push clubs for their lowest rates and then ask for any discounts available through your health plan. And don’t limit your choices to participating facilities. A club outside the program may offer a better deal—without forcing you to hit the gym 120 times a year to get it.

Review Contracts

Once you identify clubs that have the range and quality of offerings you want, examine the kinds of financial commitments they require.

You might expect a health and fitness club to let you use it whenever you want for a daily fee. A $10-per-day fee, for example, adds up to $1,040 per year if you used it twice a week. In fact, YMCAs and government-operated facilities—which aren’t out to make a profit—allow such per-day payment.

But most private clubs are not so flexible. Many want to lock you in with a substantial initiation fee, a long-term contract, or both. That’s good for the clubs: They collect your money even if you—like most new club members—lose interest and stop using the club. But it’s bad for you. Oral promises salespersons make when pitching clubs may not be legally binding. If a club does not meet your expectations, or its service is terrible, you still may be responsible for paying off the contract.

Don’t join a club without carefully reading its contract’s fine print. For the most part, clubs are merciless in enforcing their contracts. If you’ve signed up for a year and want to quit after a week, your club may come after you to pay for the full year. You need to examine several contract terms to determine how much flexibility you’ll have.

Initiation Fees

Aquatic & Fitness Center in Bala Cynwyd’s $300 initiation fee would seem stiff if you quit after two months. Fortunately, most initiation fees aren’t so high.

A big initiation fee does more than raise the risk that you’ll waste your money if you lose interest; you also risk losing all or part of the fee if the club goes out of business. In the past several years, many clubs have failed—and many members have lost their fees.

Long-Term Contracts

Some clubs require you to sign up for a year or more. While most clubs let you pay monthly fees throughout a contract’s duration, others demand the full fee for a long-term contract upfront.

Low initiation fees and the availability of month-to-month memberships may also be signs of quality. Clubs that require no initiation fees, or only modest ones, or offer month-to-month memberships, display confidence that you will be satisfied enough to continue your membership.

Cancellations/Refunds

Most clubs will not release you from a term contract or refund payments if you quit. Clubs in Delaware, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania must by law allow you to cancel your contract if you quit because of medical reasons or move out of the area. Some clubs will let you off the hook for monthly fees or refund part of the annual fee in the absence of illness or moving. In many cases, however, you’ll have to repay the club for any discounts received for committing to a term or pay a cancellation fee.

Freezes

For members who need to take some time off, many clubs defer monthly payments during “freeze” periods. Or they may have you continue making discounted payments on schedule but extend your membership and waive the initiation fee when you become active again. Most clubs that allow freezes restrict them to cases of illness or injury, pregnancy and childbirth, or temporary relocation: You can’t just take time off because the weather is nice. But some clubs allow membership freezes regardless of the reason. Many have a minimum length of freeze (for example, at least three months), a maximum, or both. And some require you to pay monthly fees at a reduced rate for the months when your membership is frozen.

If You Have Second Thoughts, Cancel

Since the financial commitment of a club membership is substantial, and since some clubs employ aggressive sales tactics, Delaware, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania laws provide for cooling-off periods. You have three days after signing a contract to cancel and get your money back. You should cancel in writing by certified or registered mail. If you can persuade the club to give you a longer cooling-off period, or trial period, than the law requires, take it.