If you want to know if it’s safe to book your next trip through a warehouse club like Costco, just ask Hiroko Ambo.
Last year, she bought a travel package through Costco Travel to Seville, Spain, for herself and her two daughters. But she ran into trouble after American Airlines canceled the final leg of her trip, from Philadelphia to Los Angeles. Ambo called Costco Travel for help, but the company just referred her back to American Airlines.
“Because my daughters needed to get home to California, I had to purchase tickets on another flight,” recalls Ambo, an editor from Carlsbad.
Ambo asked for a refund for her canceled flights and for help covering the extra expenses of the cancellations. But according to her written correspondence with Costco, the company repeatedly referred her back to American Airlines.
Her case raises the question of whether it’s safe to book through a warehouse club like Costco. Short answer: Yes, usually.
Long answer: It depends on your definition of safe.
Let’s find out:
- What do warehouse clubs offer for travelers?
- What are the advantages of buying travel through BJ’s, Costco, or Sam’s Club?
- What are the disadvantages of buying travel through a warehouse club?
We’ll sort through all the questions, and I’ll explain when you should — and shouldn’t — book through a warehouse club.
What do warehouse clubs offer for travelers?
Warehouse clubs like BJs, Costco and Sam’s sell travel to their members, usually online through their websites. Here’s what you’ll find:
- BJ’s Wholesale Club sells cruises, vacation packages (including escorted tours, all-inclusive resorts, and build-your-own), 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% Best Price Guarantee” on vacation and cruise bookings, meaning that if you see a lower price, BJ’s will match it and 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 smartphone app, or by calling (888) 743-2735.
- 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 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), and 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 (866) 921-7925.
- Sam’s Club offers hotel stays, rental cars, tickets for theme parks and seasonal experiences such as water parks and ski resorts. You can also buy add-ons to your vacation, such as CityPass tickets and day tours. Sam’s claim to fame is 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 $60 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, through the Sam’s Club app or by calling (833) 494-7267.
Bottom line: You can find some impressive deals by shopping for travel through a big box store.
What are the advantages 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.
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. Resort fees are mandatory daily surcharges that cover everything from the “free” phone in your room to pool towels, and can drive the price of your vacation up by 30 percent or more.
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.
During the recent car rental shortage, O’Connor found a $380 weekly car rental through Budget. It was a 52 percent savings from the going rate. They booked a vacation package to Orlando in February that included a hotel suite with a full kitchen and a rental car for $980. O’Connor priced the items a la carte and calculated he was paying just $400 for four nights at the Sheraton Vistana Villages Resort Villas.
“That was quite a feat during high season,” says O’Connor, a freelance financial writer from Sylvan Lake, Mich.
What are the disadvantages of buying travel through BJ’s, Costco, or Sam’s Club?
But there’s a downside to buying travel products on BJ’s, Costco or Sam’s Club. For starters, you won’t find everything under the sun. The products are limited, or “curated” as they like to call them.
Although the prices are often lower, you get service levels that are comparable to those of an online travel agency, rather than a travel advisor, say experts. (Related: Here’s how to find a qualified travel advisor.)
“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 advisors provide. They’re also unable to help you if a problem arises with your booking, before or during travel.”
Also, read the fine print on your purchases. Travel products booked through warehouse clubs often have terms that differ from those booked through an online agency. They are sometimes more favorable and flexible, but sometimes not.
Where are the best deals at a warehouse club?
When the topic of saving money through one of these companies comes up, it invariably leads to Costco’s rental cars — and cruises.
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. She loves the fact that she doesn’t have to prepay to get the discount. She can also return to the Costco site to see if the price has changed. If the rate goes down, she can rebook without incurring a penalty.
Also, members rave about the cruise discounts and some of the perks they receive, like 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.
Should you book your next vacation through a warehouse club?
If you don’t mind the limited selection and the online travel agency-level of customer service, you could save a lot of money on your next travel purchase. Then again, you could spend a lot of money, too. That’s the allure of shopping at BJ’s, Costco, or Sam’s Club: You see how much you’re saving by buying more — so you buy more.
But a review of our recent warehouse club cases shows a pattern that matches Ambo’s experience. The warehouse stores offer cut-rate packages and cruises and are efficient at taking their members’ money. But when it comes to standing behind their product, they often leave something to be desired.
My advocacy team and I are sitting on a stack of warehouse cases. They remind me of the online travel cases from the late 1990s. You know, where the agencies claimed they were nothing more than sellers of travel but not true travel agents. Leonard, the travel advisor, is right: You’re just buying a ticket — that’s all.
We’re trying to help Ambo recover her money from her canceled flight, but it’s complicated. She was on a code-share flight, and there’s some confusion about whether her flight was delayed or canceled. It’s exactly the kind of situation an experienced travel advisor could help with.
Warehouse clubs seem to have the same attitude toward travel purchases as they do for their some of their durable goods. If the customer has a problem, refer them to the manufacturer.
And in travel, that just doesn’t cut it.
About this story
Late last year, our advocacy team started to get more questions about booking travel through Costco and other warehouse clubs. My team started monitoring our warehouse club cases. We discovered that most of them were black holes. The cases went into our system without a clear resolution. The optimist in me hopes the companies took care of their customers. But knowing what I do about how the system works, it’s likely many of our readers gave up and abandoned their claim. We won’t be letting that happen in the future. This story was researched, edited and fact-checked by Christopher Elliott, edited by Andy Smith and his team, and illustrated by Dustin Elliott.