Brian O’Connor and his wife joined Costco after their son, Casey, was born, expecting to use their membership in the warehouse club to save money on diapers and formula. But then they discovered something even better: They could also book their trips through Costco.
“That was quite a feat during high season,” says O’Connor, a freelance financial writer from Sylvan Lake, Mich.
In an economy where inflation continues to run hot, warehouse clubs have become go-tos for travelers trying to save money. BJ’s Wholesale Club, Costco and Sam’s Club offers deals such as Hawaiian resorts and deep discounted Caribbean cruises. But is it worth joining one of the warehouse clubs to buy travel?
What do wholesale clubs offer for travelers?
BJ’s offers options like cruises, vacation packages (including escorted tours, all-inclusive resorts and build-your-own outings), chain and boutique hotels, car rentals and day tours. BJ’s Travel has one of the widest selections of cruises among the warehouse stores — more than 30 — and most cruise purchases qualify for a BJ’s gift card of up to $500. The membership club also offers a 110 percent “Best Price Guarantee” on vacation and cruise bookings, meaning that if you see a lower price, BJ’s will match it, then add another 10 percent discount, according to BJ’s spokesman Peter Frangie. You must be a member to qualify for the discounts, and you can book through its site, via the BJ’s app or by phone.
Costco offers what it calls “buyer-curated” vacations to destinations such as Hawaii, Mexico, the Caribbean and Europe. “We feature cities across the United States, such as Orlando and Las Vegas, and also offer hotel-only stays and build-your-own bundles to hundreds of cities in the U.S. and Canada,” says Costco website merchandising manager Penny Anderson. Costco is well known for its cruises and car rentals. It offers sailings on 11 cruise lines and a rental car “low price finder” that lets customers compare prices between four rental car companies (Alamo, Avis, Budget and Enterprise), then select the one that’s right for them. Membership is required to qualify for the deals, and you can book online or by calling.
Sam’s Club offers hotels stays, rental cars, tickets for theme parks and experiences such as water parks and ski resorts. You can also buy add-ons to your vacations, such as CityPass tickets and day tours. Sam’s is best known for its hotel and theme park discounts. Members can get discounts of up to $35 on gate prices at Disneyland, $100 off gate prices at Disney World and up to $65 off gate prices at Universal Studios. Hotel discounts may be as high as 60 percent, according to Doris Davis, a senior merchant at Sam’s Club. The discounts are only available to Sam’s Club members and are accessible online (you must be logged in), through the Sam’s Club app or by calling.
What are the perks of buying travel through BJ’s, Costco or Sam’s Club?
BJ’s, Costco and Sam’s Club leverage their buying power to negotiate lower prices on cruises, hotels and rental cars. Then they pass those savings along to their customers. “Warehouse stores like Costco and Sam’s Club offer exceptional deals on travel to help you save big,” says Andrea Woroch, a budgeting expert.
Buying through one of the membership stores allows you to lower your travel costs in several ways. For example, in addition to discounts, hotels often waive their resort fees for members who buy through BJ’s, Costco or Sam’s Club.
Woroch recently booked a hotel on Kauai through Costco, saving $300 off the listed room rate. The hotel also dropped its $35 per day resort fee, and she received a $230 Costco Shop Card, which she used to buy groceries and sunscreen. Costco bundled a rental car for $50 per day through Budget — far less than the going rate of $130 per day on the Hawaiian island.
Are there disadvantages of buying travel through BJ’s, Costco or Sam’s Club?
The travel products you find from BJ’s, Costco or Sam’s Club are limited — or “curated,” as they like to call them. You won’t find every hotel or tour operator, but rather a selection of the most popular ones.
Although the prices are often lower, you get service levels that are comparable to those of an online travel agency, such as Expedia or Booking.com, but not the same level as those of a human travel adviser, experts say.
“You’re buying a ticket — and that’s all,” says Dan Leonard, a travel planner with Key to the World Travel. “They’re unable to help with the more detailed planning services that travel advisers provide. They’re also unable to help you if a problem arises with your booking, before or during travel.”
Brandi Taylor, a travel adviser who runs Brandi the Travel Genie, says that, for many travelers just looking for an inexpensive hotel or airline ticket, that’s fine.
“However, for a specialized location, I wouldn’t recommend it,” she adds. She says a warehouse sales agent can’t match the years of experience travel advisers like her have in terms of product knowledge and personal service.
She also said travel products booked through warehouse clubs can have terms that differ from those booked through an online agency. They are sometimes more favorable and flexible, but it helps to be aware of them.
What are the best deals at Costco and other clubs?
When the topic of saving money through one of these companies comes up, it invariably leads to Costco’s rental cars and cruise deals.
Jill Kaiserman, a retired teacher from Wayne, Pa., always does her homework before booking a rental car. She has discounts through AARP and is a frequent renter with several companies.
“Costco is always the best deal,” she says.
Kaiserman estimates that she routinely saves between 30 and 40 percent off the cost of a vehicle when she rents through Costco.
Also, members rave about the cruise discounts and some of the perks they receive, such as a BJ’s gift card. All of the warehouse clubs offer deep discounts on cruises, but BJ’s is known to have one of the widest selections.
I’ve shopped at all three warehouse clubs but am not a member, because I live abroad. But one story I hear repeatedly is that members were saving hundreds of dollars per rental during the rental car shortage, which more than paid for their memberships.