Costco, America’s beloved wholesale behemoth best known for its bulk goods and Kirkland Signature™ private label, has long been one of the country’s favorite one-stop shops. Here, you can get high-end perfume and camping gear. Although most people know that Costco has great deals on household paper goods, they may not realize that Costco has been in the travel business since 2000. Costco Travel offers members discounted rental cars, cruises and guided group trips, as well as domestic and international vacations.
Because Costco Travel is a division under the regular Costco umbrella, its users can expect the same benefits shopping for a vacation as they would shopping for chicken. Here’s how it works: Costco Travel is made up of buying teams, just like the dealmaking foot soldiers who work for regular Costco. These buyers work with travel vendors to negotiate lower prices on a limited number of goods (i.e., hotel rooms or cruise fares), then offer those discounted rates and packages to the many millions of Costco members. Buyers don’t work on commission or incentives; their job is simply to secure the best value.
Other wholesale stores like Sam’s Club and BJ’s Wholesale Club also sell discounted travel experiences, but Costco’s cult-like following and robust vacation package options make the company stand out from the pack.
Perhaps the nicest part of booking with Costco Travel is that it’s straightforward. The prices advertised on the website already include taxes, so you don’t end up with a completely different estimate at the end of the process, unlike other online travel agencies (like Booking.com or Hotels.com).
Intrigued? Before you book a trip with Costco Travel, here are a few things to keep in mind.
1. There’s something for everyone
There isn’t one kind of Costco Travel vacation. The most popular itineraries usually involve Hawaii, Mexico, the Caribbean and cruising, but there’s much more out there to book. Costco Travel has trips for adventure-seekers, for young people ages 18 to 35 who want to travel with fellow young people, or people who want to drink a bunch of wine in a new place.
You don’t have to book a big blockbuster vacation to reap the Costco Travel benefits, either. You can use the service to book an individual hotel room, or a hotel and flight. And according to insiders, one of the best-kept secrets is its rental-car business.
2. Look for Buyer’s Choice vacations or cruises, or Kirkland Signature vacations
Costco Travel insiders say that where the real savings lurk are in Kirkland Signature vacations, Buyer’s Choice vacations and Hot Buys, or limited-time deals that are advertised online and in Costco email newsletters. These trips will offer added value and amenities beyond what regular Costco Travel experiences already deliver.
3. Take advantage of flexible payment options
Costco members have options when it comes to how to pay, like setting up recurring payments to cover the whole cost. You’ll probably have to pay a deposit on packages or pay for your airfare upfront, and some payment requirements may depend on the time of year. People who are able to pay early may be eligible for bigger savings.
4. Do your research on airfare before you book
Shalen Fairbanks, a Costco member who lives in Silver Spring, Md., first started using Costco Travel six years ago. She has booked five trips for her family to Mexico, Jamaica and the Dominican Republic. Her advice to potential Costco Travel users would be to shop around for flights before booking a trip, because she has occasionally found better airfare deals than what Costco offered.
“You pick where you want to go, [Costco Travel] gives you a bunch of different options of hotels and packages, and then I do look at airfare separately,” Fairbanks says. “Sometimes it’s cheaper to go buy your own flight and then book the rest of the package” through Costco Travel.
If you do go with Costco Travel’s airfare option, which often comes with airport transfers, make sure you book any upgrades ahead of time. Charleston, S.C., resident Michael Fanning booked an African safari through Costco Travel when he noticed that it cost drastically less than what he had seen elsewhere.
“The trip was fantastic,” Fanning says. “I mean, it really was extraordinary.”
But one thing he would’ve done differently: “The one part that was not as fun was the 14-hour plane ride on South African Airways from JFK to Johannesburg,” Fanning says. “That’s a tough trip. We would have preferred to have upgraded our seats, but we weren’t allowed to do that through the package.”
5. Get cash back on your vacation purchase
Depending on your membership level, you may be able to get even better deals on a vacation when you book with Costco Travel. Executive Members (whose annual fee is $120) earn 2 percent cash back on their Costco Travel purchases.
Members who book their travel with a Costco Anywhere Visa Card by Citi credit card (a card with no foreign transaction fees, by the way) earn 3 percent cash back.
6. Costco Travel trips come with perks
Executive Members are treated to benefits like food and beverage credits, spa credits, room upgrades and more for the primary cardholder booking the trip. The extras that get thrown into vacation packages are one of Fairbanks’s favorite parts of using Costco Travel.
“They’ll give you a $250 Costco Rebate Card,” she says. “The [trips] we’ve been on have a $100 or $200 spa credit per room. The one to Jamaica, we had a spa credit per room, plus we got $200 to use toward the local activity” company.
That Jamaica trip also included access to a VIP departure experience at the airport that got the Fairbankses through customs quicker. Accounting for the perks her family of five earned, Fairbanks estimates she saved the cost of one person’s trip.
7. Costco can’t control everything
While the planning and booking can be seamless, keep in mind that Costco Travel trips can have hiccups, like any travel experience. For example, the Fairbankses’ airport transfer didn’t show up for their scheduled pickup. “But that’s a problem on the company that made this transfer,” she says — not Costco’s. “Their driver didn’t show up that day.”
In the event that anything goes awry, pick up the phone and contact a Costco Travel representative to assist with any issues.
Correction: An earlier version of this story misnamed the airline flown by Michael Fanning. He used South African Airways. This article has been corrected.