“There’s one! It’s still open!” I said, pointing to a storefront sign reading “Tourist Information - Maps Inside.”

My husband, Francis, and I had been aimlessly walking Charleston, South Carolina’s historic district since we’d arrived at noon. With four days left of our trip, we’d decided that a map was necessary to make the most of it. We stepped inside and stood before a colorful display of brochures. A man smiled to us from behind a counter, “How can I help you folks tonight?”

“Just looking for a map,” Francis said, perusing the rack.

“Here’s one,” the man said, pulling a pamphlet from a hidden shelf. “What sites do you wanna see?”

Francis rattled off our wish list, “A ghost walk, horse and carriage tour, the Gibbes Museum, Point Sumter …”

The man leaned over the counter as if he were about to impart a secret tip, “Ya’ll doing anything tomorrow morning at nine?”

We looked at each other and shrugged. “Nope,” Francis said. We were game.

“I can get you complimentary tickets to all these sights, which’d cost you a couple hundred bucks. All you have to do is listen to a short presentation,” he whispered as if his offer was exclusive to us.

At the mention of “complimentary tickets” we leaned in, revealing our shameless penchant for freebies. We never passed up Costco samples, coins on the sidewalk, hotel mini shampoo bottles and church doughnuts.

But when we heard “presentation,” we frowned. Sensing our disappointment, he continued, “Ever been to one of those awful time-share presentations?” We nodded, remembering a long-ago trip to Cancun. “That’s not this. It’s a travel club — all you have to do is show up, drink coffee, get your tickets and leave. Trust me, it’s a great deal.”

The next morning, I whispered to Francis as we walked through the door, “Remember, when it’s over, we grab those tickets and leave.”

“Welcome!” an attractive woman in the exposed-brick lobby said, introducing us to her husband, who smiled warmly. She gestured to an elaborate coffee bar offering French and Colombian roasts, then led us upstairs to a room where five middle-aged couples sat at small round tables. Her husband activated a large screen at one end of the room. Slides of tropical waters, ancient ruins, snow-capped mountains and luxury spa scenes appeared. Our presenter was the kind of unassuming guy that we’d normally hang out with, but we adopted a defensive posture, our legs and arms tightly crossed.

“Y’all like to travel, right, Lisa?” he suddenly directed toward me. I felt like a third-grader who hadn’t been paying attention in class.

“Y-y-yeah, sure,” I stuttered. Francis grimaced suspiciously. The guy went on, describing trips to the wonders of the world, flying first class, staying in luxury hotels and beautiful rental properties — all for half price.

“Travel Club members pay a one-time fee of $12,995,” he said, scribbling numbers on a dry-erase board. There it was - the catch. We still had twenty minutes left before we could leave. I sighed.

“Is it warm in here?” our presenter asked, seeing a woman hormonally fanning herself across the room. He gestured to his wife, who scurried downstairs, returning with a hand-held fan for the woman.

“He’s good,” I thought. He went on, charming us with jokes and calling us by our first names, and dropping the membership price to $9,995. When his presentation was done, he made a beeline for our table, holding a flyer upon which he began to scribble offers. Five minutes later, he’d reduced the club membership fee to $2,995. When we still didn’t bite, he us left abruptly.

“What do you think?” the couple behind us asked as we stood up to leave.

The presenter swooped in before we could answer. “They don’t travel,” he waved us off dismissively. We were dead to him. He scribbled at his next victim’s table like a spider wrapping flies in his web.

On the boat to Fort Sumter, Francis and I opened the map that had started it all, and found a rudimentary cartoon diagram surrounded by paid advertisements. We had played their game and won, but had to concede the undeniable truth: Nothing in life is free.

Read more at and in Lisa’s book, “The Meat and Potatoes of Life: My True Lit Com.” Email:

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