Join the Club, Save Some Money

Safari deals at Costco; discount lift tickets at Sam’s Club. Add AARP and AAA into the mix of memberships that offer savings on travel.

When Ashlee Laird, 32, a high school adviser in Houston, was planning her honeymoon to Italy in 2015, a friend suggested she look at Costco Travel, the travel division of Costco Wholesale’s retail membership club that operates warehouse-scale stores. Through Costco, she booked an eight-day trip to Rome and Florence for two for $3,800, including round-trip flights, hotels, daily breakfast, private cars to and from the Italian airports, first-class train tickets between the cities and $400 to spend on tours, which they used to see the Vatican and the Colosseum and take a pizza-making class.

In comparison, their flight alone is running $2,600 for two this spring.

“There was no downside,” Ms. Laird said of her Costco package, noting that the travel agent assigned to the couple kept in touch before, during and after the trip.

In addition to bulk supplies of toilet paper, KitchenAid refrigerators and giant packs of canned salmon, Costco sells trips to Europe, as well as Riviera Maya resort stays, Alaska cruises, safaris in East Africa and Disney theme park trips.

Wholesalers like Costco are among a number of membership clubs and associations that, in addition to other benefits, offer discounts on travel, including rental cars, cruises and tours.

Much like large corporations are able to secure travel discounts for their employees, these groups tend to negotiate discounted rates with travel companies through their buying power.

The following examines the costs and benefits of joining the clubs.

Wholesale clubs

Among wholesale clubs, Costco, ranked 14th on the Fortune 500 list of the largest companies in the United States, is far and away the leader in a category that also includes Sam’s Club and BJ’s Wholesale Club, according to Mark A. Cohen, the director of retail studies and an adjunct professor at Columbia Business School.

Their strength, he said, “is supplying value against a narrow band of products and services.” In travel terms, that narrow band includes select Hilton and Hyatt hotels rather than every hotel in a destination.

He added that the company specializes in quality products at good prices, rather than cheap goods at rock bottom rates. “They focus on a package that they believe is a great value and have enormous scale to negotiate on behalf of their customers,” he said.

In cruises, the benefits may include a cabin upgrade and shipboard credits; in rental cars the discounts generally range from 15 to 25 percent, according to the company. To get these, most members pay $60 or $120 to join (the higher level of membership offers 2 percent cash back on all Costco purchases). The Costco Anywhere Visa Card by Citi, which has no annual fee for Costco members, offers 3 percent cash back on Costco Travel purchases.

To test the system, I tried booking a hotel and flight combination, a new offering from Costco. On the Costco Travel website, I searched for a weeklong trip from Chicago to San Francisco for two in mid-April and received a quote of $2,079 for a basic economy flight and a room at the Hampton Inn San Francisco Downtown/Convention Center. When I tried to replicate the reservation on my own, I priced equivalent airline tickets at $866 and the hotel at $1,698 for a total of $2,564: 23 percent more than the Costco package.

Sam’s Club charges $45 for basic membership and $100 for premium, both of which offer access to travel deals including, recently, 30 percent off ski lift tickets at Sugarbush Resort in Warren, Vt., up to 60 percent off an array of Las Vegas hotels and access to three Universal Orlando Resort theme parks for the price of two.

Membership at BJ’s costs $55 or $110, but I found its travel booking engine was faulty. The club’s website recently advertised a four-night stay, from May 18 to 22, at the all-inclusive Royal Sunset Royal Beach Resort in Cancún, Mexico, with airfare for $580 a person. When I proceeded with the booking, it offered airline tickets to Orlando, Fla., rather than Cancún and no way to correct this. A helpful agent who answered the toll-free number was able to straighten it out and secure other dates in April for a similar per night package price of $147 a person.

Associations

In room searches, hotels commonly offer discounted rates to members of the American Automobile Association (AAA).

“With more than 60 million members, there is strength in numbers,” Robert Sinclair, a spokesman for AAA Northeast, wrote in an email.

Annual membership fees vary by AAA club, which are organized by state or clusters of states, and start from $51 in California to $90 in the Mid-Atlantic area.

Travel deals, which tend to be universal across clubs, are chief among AAA’s benefits, which, on the automotive side, include roadside assistance. The association offers discounts on theme park admission, ski lift tickets and Broadway shows in addition to hotels.

Recently, AAA Northeast was selling lift tickets at Squaw Valley Alpine Meadows ski resort near Lake Tahoe, Calif., for $119, a discount of 33.5 percent compared to peak prices of $179. A ticket to four Disney theme parks in Orlando was running $314 a person, or $30 off the regular admission, and an excursion on Maui to see the sunrise atop Mount Haleakala was listed at $125, or $58 off the regular $183 fare.

Like senior rates at the movies, age ushers in some financial benefits, including access to travel deals. Membership in the nonprofit American Association of Retired People (AARP) is available to anyone 50 years old or up, and starts at $12 for the first year ($16 annually thereafter, with automatic renewal).

AARP travel benefits include 5 to 15 percent off rates at more than 50 hotel brands from companies that include Hilton and Wyndham. Its travel website recently listed discount codes for Budget Rent A Car, at $10 and $25 off car rentals costing at least $100 or $175 respectively, or 10 to 14 percent off, and $100 per person off trips with Grand European Travel, including eight days in Ireland, which started at $1,175 a person before the discount.

Other membership affiliations, including alumni associations, professional organizations like the National Education Association and military groups like the United Services Automobile Association and the Armed Forces Vacation Club also offer travel deals and discounts for qualifying members.

Bottom line

Given the low costs of membership relative to travel expenses, it often makes sense to join a club or association.

If you’re only shopping for a hotel, don’t overlook the loyalty programs of large hotel chains, which are free to join and come with perks, including discounted rates. In several budget hotel searches I conducted among major chains, rates for members of AAA, AARP and military personnel were sometimes only slightly less than hotel loyalty program rates.

In addition to good rental car discounts, most club and association memberships seem to pay off greatest in bundled vacation packages. After all, joining a group for $12 to get $100 off a trip is a solid deal.