Should You Buy Your Vacation or Honeymoon From BJ's, Costco, or Sam's Club?

These warehouse clubs may not be the first place you think of to buy travel, but they can offer big savings compared with booking directly with a hotel or car rental company

By Hillary Richard

At a time of high fuel prices and skyrocketing inflation, the savings BJ’s, Costco, and Sam’s Club offer on gasoline, groceries, and other purchases may be especially appealing. But many people may not realize that they can also find great deals on travel at warehouse clubs along with their rotisserie chickens and 12-packs of paper towels.

And the benefits of buying travel from warehouse clubs aren’t limited to savings. In a December 2021 nationally representative CR survey of 2,073 U.S. adults (PDF), far fewer people reported booking travel through a big box store in the past three years (9 percent) than reported using a travel booking website like Expedia or Travelocity (42 percent). But when we asked people who had used each kind of service how they felt about it, big box stores had about twice as high a percentage saying the value and customer service were "excellent" compared with travel booking websites.

To find out how the stores compare with one another in terms of offerings and savings, we recently priced out a handful of car rentals, hotel bookings, and vacation packages. (BJ’s and Costco both also sell cruises, but we did not evaluate cruise offerings for this article.)

All of the warehouse clubs offered savings over booking directly in certain cases, but some of the clubs were clearly better than others, depending on the type of travel being purchased. (Note that hotel, air, and rental car prices change quickly and frequently. The prices and packages we found are a snapshot in time and may no longer be available.)

Rental Cars

According to CR’s December 2021 survey, rental cars were the most common travel purchase made through big box stores, with nearly half of Americans who had booked travel through one saying they had rented a car—compared with just one-third of those who booked anything through a travel booking website.

To get an idea of the savings warehouse clubs might offer on car rentals, we first searched for the cheapest rental offered by each warehouse club for a given location and time period and then compared that price with the lowest one offered when booking the same vehicle type at the same location and for the same time period directly with the car rental company.

All of the warehouse clubs offer cars from a variety of rental companies. Based on our experience, warehouse clubs do sometimes offer savings over booking directly and frequently offer prices that match the lowest offered by the rental car company’s website. But even when a warehouse club does not offer a lower rate, it may offer more generous terms than booking directly with a car rental company. For example, warehouse clubs may have more lenient cancellation policies than those offered when booking directly with a car rental company and the clubs may also not require advanced payment when rental companies do. (As with any travel purchase, always read the fine print before booking to avoid surprise charges.)

Scenario #1

An eight-day rental of an intermediate car (a Toyota Corolla or similar) from Miami International Airport (returning to the same location) with unlimited miles.

Scenario #2

A 7-day rental of an intermediate car (a Toyota Corolla or similar) from Dallas Fort Worth International Airport (returning to the same location), with unlimited miles.

Hotels and Travel Packages

Travel packages offer the convenience of one-stop-shopping for the major components of many vacations: air, hotel, and rental car. When we compared the prices warehouse clubs offered when bundling some or all of these elements, we found that you can save significantly compared with booking directly with the hotels, airlines, and rental car companies. We also discovered savings when we tried booking only a hotel.

A Luxury Holiday in Hawaii

The details: Seven nights in an ocean view room at the Four Seasons Resort Maui at Wailea for two adults, with full-sized rental car and round-trip economy air from a New York City-area airport.

Booking directly

The Four Seasons hotel site quoted a rate of $21,658, including taxes and fees. Alamo quoted a rate of $881, including taxes and fees. Economy class tickets on United from Newark to Maui for two (one stopover outbound and a direct return) cost $1,202, including taxes and fees ($601 per person).

Buying From BJ’s

Total: $23,425 (from JFK, returning to Newark)
Savings over booking directly: $316 (plus a $1,000 in-store credit)

BJ’s initial package offered a different room with no ocean view, but the same ocean view room was $529 extra. Free cancellation insurance was available for a fee. There were round-trip flight options to and from JFK and LaGuardia, but not Newark. To choose the same Newark flight Costco offered was an additional $1,836 per person. The rental car (through Dollar) added up to another $6 per day. As a perk, BJ’s gave a 5 percent gift card on the total cost, which in this case comes out to roughly $1,000 to use in the store.

Buying From Costco

Total: $16,056 (for air, hotel, and rental car)
Savings over booking directly: $7,684 (plus a $961 gift card)

Costco presented this in a nicely bundled package, with a flight from Newark to Maui via Chicago on the way there; nonstop on the way back. The car through Alamo included unlimited mileage and a second named driver. As a perk, Costco threw in a $961 store gift card.

Buying From Sam’s Club

Total: $23,705 (for hotel and rental car); $24,907 (including separately purchased airfare)
Savings over booking directly: $0

Sam’s charged $22,660 for the room. The car was through Dollar ($1,045) with limited mileage and free cancellation. Sam’s does not offer flight booking. When we added the $1,202 cost of the flight, this option cost $1,166 more than booking directly.

A Luxury Hotel in London 

The details: Four nights in a superior queen room at the Savoy in London for two adults.

Booking directly

The best price we found on the Savoy website was $4,087, after converting from GBP, with penalty-free cancellation until 24 hours before arrival.

Buying From BJ’s
Savings over booking directly: $958

BJ’s also offered considerable savings, though not as much as Sam’s. The rate is also fully refundable until three days before arrival

Buying From Costco
Savings over booking directly: $0

The price is actually $219 more than booking directly with the hotel, though it includes round-trip private car transfers between London Heathrow airport and the hotel, and a $400 credit toward excursions with Golden Tours, which can be applied to anything from a hop-on, hop-off bus around London to a visit to Stonehenge. So, you could end up saving, depending on whether or not you would purchase private transfers and a tour or two anyway.

Buying From Sam’s Club
Total: $2,868
Savings over booking directly: $1,219

Sam’s offered a deeply discounted room rate and the stay was fully refundable until three days before arrival.

A Midlevel Honeymoon Package in the Bahamas

The details: Seven nights at the Royal at Atlantis on Paradise Island in a premium double queen terrace view room, departing from Chicago.

Booking directly

The Atlantis website offered a rate of $2,698 for the room alone (no airport transfers included). Adding economy class main cabin flights on American Airlines with a layover in each direction brought the total to $4,149.

Buying From BJ’s
Total: $4,063
Savings over booking directly: $86

BJ’s first showed a rate of $3,844, but that price included a return flight of just over 12 hours with a nearly 4-hour layover in Panama City. Changing to the same, more convenient, American Airlines flights with a main cabin fare we used for all of these scenarios raised the price to $4,063. BJ’s offered a private van transfer to and from the airport in the Bahamas for an additional $120, which would bring the total to $4,183. Because this package cost $69 more than Costco’s when transfers were factored in, we deemed it less of a value.

Buying From Costco
Total: $4,114
Savings over booking directly: $35

The package on the Costco website included private car transfers to and from the airport in the Bahamas and the same American Airlines flights we used to price booking directly. The included airport transfers mean you would likely save much more compared with booking directly, unless you found a way to get to and from the airport at no charge.

Buying From Sam’s Club
Total: $4,149
Savings over booking directly: $0

Sam’s offered the room for $2,698, identical to booking directly. Sam’s does not offer flights. Separately booking the same American Airlines flight itinerary we used for the other itineraries added $1,451 to the price, for a total of $4,149.

How the Warehouse Clubs Compare

While you can find travel savings at all three stores that will easily cover the cost of joining (typically $45 to $60 for a basic membership), each store excels in different areas. Here are the pros, cons, and extra perks you can find.

BJ’s offers a vast selection of hotel and flight options and is best for savvy or flexible travelers who are willing to scour the multitude of options for the best value and most convenience. If savings is a priority over convenience, BJ’s sometimes has the advantage.

Pros: We found that the BJ’s travel site was the easiest to navigate and had the nicest interface, with plenty of useful filters to help you find what you want. In terms of value, BJ’s sits right in the middle. It’s rarely the cheapest, but it may offer fully refundable options when other sites do not. BJ’s offers 5 percent cash back on “qualifying” travel bookings in the form of a store e-gift card. (The company did not respond to repeated requests for further information on this program, including specifically what travel bookings qualify.) According to its website, BJ’s offers a 110 percent Best Price Guarantee on vacation and cruise bookings within 48 hours of purchase. You must meet several conditions for the guarantee to apply, so read the fine print carefully.

Cons: Sometimes the cheapest option is completely impractical, like the one-stop, 18-hour journey from Miami to Aruba the site offered us. To avoid a nightmare itinerary like that, you need to pay close attention to search results.

Costco is a good choice for those who want a one-stop shop for ready-made trips to popular destinations like Hawaii, the South Pacific, Europe, Mexico, and the Caribbean. It wasn’t always the cheapest (though it did offer thousands of dollars of savings in one instance), but it adds on a lot of extra perks, like airport transportation, room upgrades, or a store credit. Sometimes these justify a higher rate compared with its competition, but sometimes they don’t.

Pros: Costco has the most price transparency of the warehouse clubs we evaluated. It gives the total price up front, including taxes and fees (which can change the total cost significantly). We didn’t find any hidden fees or other surprises on the final itinerary. If the hotel requires any fees paid to them directly (like parking or a resort fee), Costco flags that clearly when you try to book. Their refund policies vary from booking to booking, but those are very clear as well. Costco Executive Members qualify for 2 percent rewards on Costco Travel purchases. The Costco Anywhere Visa by Citi card earns 3% cash back on eligible travel purchases.

Cons: We found that Costco offers fewer hotel options than Sam’s and BJ’s, and that it does not offer any hotel-only options in certain destinations. Travelers looking only for a hotel room and who want the widest selection of hotels to choose from may be disappointed.

Sam’s Club
In our experience, Sam’s is best for hotel bookings. In one instance, it offered a savings of more than $1,000 compared with booking directly with a luxury London hotel, though it did not deliver savings consistently. According to a spokesperson, Sam’s core members are families with children who tend to buy tickets to major theme parks like Disney World, Disneyland, and Universal Studios. We did not evaluate these offerings.

Pros: Sam’s offers a very wide variety of well-priced hotel options around the world, as well as tickets (some of them discounted) for day tours, Broadway shows, Disney, entertainment options (like movies, theme parks, concerts), and other tourist attractions. With a Sam’s Club Mastercard, members receive an extra 3 percent cash back on any travel or entertainment purchase to use at the store. According to Sam’s website, it offers a Best Rate Guarantee within 24 hours of booking, but with a $150 maximum refund and a lot of fine print.

Cons: Sam’s does not offer flights, so anyone looking for ready-made vacation packages that include air will need to shop elsewhere. Some of the rental car offerings we found did not include unlimited mileage. Sam’s doesn’t include the taxes and fees until check out, so if you’re comparison shopping, it’s harder to get the full picture until the very end. Sam’s also doesn’t include resort fees (or anything else payable to the hotel, like parking), which is explained in the fine print but, again, may make it difficult to know how much you’re going to pay in the end.

Keep In Mind
When buying travel from any third party, including a warehouse club, assistance may be limited if you run into a problem, such as a flight cancellation. Customer service representatives aren’t travel agents and, though a company may say that travel experts are available around the clock, that was not our experience. Bottom line: If you need to reschedule a flight or there is an issue with the hotel, you should be prepared to deal with the travel provider directly and not assume that the warehouse club will come to the rescue.

Always compare rates with the hotel directly. A hotel website may offer special packages that could include extras like breakfast or spa credits that could actually make them a better deal than comparing the room rate alone.

Finally, always check the fine print. Cancellation and refund policies may differ between sites and even among different travel purchases on the same site. Double-check the terms of any booking before you pay.

More from Consumer Reports:
Top pick tires for 2016
Best used cars for $25,000 and less
7 best mattresses for couples

Consumer Reports is an independent, nonprofit organization that works side by side with consumers to create a fairer, safer, and healthier world. CR does not endorse products or services, and does not accept advertising. Copyright © 2022, Consumer Reports, Inc.