Perspective | Confessions of a serial gym pass user


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On the ride to the Seattle-Tacoma International Airport, I received a text from a fitness center on the Olympic Peninsula about my upcoming appointment to tour the facility. I had been using the gym during my Christmas vacation, but my trip was over. I texted back that I was no longer interested.

When traveling, I am a serial free gym pass user. One typically ranges from a day to two weeks.

On the online application, I fill in my name, address and phone number — my real information, because I am not out to deceive. The fine print might state, “Only local residents are eligible.” If a staff member flags my out-of-town Zip code, I am ready to explain. In all my years of signing up for passes, however, this has never happened.

If I have to sign up for a tour in return for access, I am always game. I will set up the appointment toward the end of my stay, to avoid the “uncomfortable conversation” with membership.

To squeeze the most out of this perk, I follow a few guidelines. Some gyms activate the free trial as soon as you submit the form, so I wait until I am ready to work out to press send. I avoid a starting date that falls on a weekend or holiday, in case I need to meet with a staff member who works only standard business hours. I visit during off-peak hours, to avoid interfering with paying members.

In addition to the health benefits, my local gym habit has cultural advantages. For as long as the pass is valid, I am part of the local community. At a facility in New Orleans, I would chat with the front desk attendants about Mardi Gras parades and accept their offer for a slice of king cake. In Tampa, I talked football and humidity. In Ulaanbaatar, I tried to pick up a few phrases in Mongolian while pedaling a bike old enough to have been used by Genghis Khan.

I don’t roll into a new town ready to pretend that I’m interested in becoming a member, the main purpose of a trial program. It’s a last resort.

Ideally, my hotel will have a gym, a safer and more convenient option for after-dark workouts. Plus, the fitness center is technically free. The next-best option is a property that partners with a local gym, so I can use the facility free or at a reduced price.

Bed-and-breakfasts, no-frills motels and vacation rentals don’t typically offer the amenity, so I cast a wider net. I will check community centers, YMCAs and national chains for daily guest passes. If my trip is short, I don’t mind dropping $10 to $15 a day. But for an extended stay, the costs add up. I might as well buy a used bike.

Of course, I feel a tinge of guilt for misappropriating the trial pass. After my Washington state trip, I called Kevin Volpp, founding director of the Center for Health Incentives and Behavioral Economics at the University of Pennsylvania. I asked him whether I was taking advantage of the fitness centers’ generosity.

Volpp said gyms assume that some members will barely use the facility. So, in a way, these sluggards are subsidizing my sweat sessions. He shared an economics theory that soothed my conscience. Fitness centers just need to meet their target number, he explained. They are aware that not all pass holders will join the gym, and they factor my kind into their calculations.

One downside to this strategy is having to deal with a barrage of emails and texts from the membership department. When an employee from the Olympic Peninsula gym messaged me, I told him I was undecided. But, I added, when I was ready to commit, his gym was at the top of my list — a true statement, if I ever decide to move to Washington state.

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