8 hidden benefits to your Costco membership
Grocery savings can be terrific, but dig deep for bigger bargains.
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I love Costco. And not just because of the free samples – although there is a 99.9% chance you will find me going to Costco over the weekend strictly for the free samples in hopes that there will be 1. Raviolis, 2. Chips and guac, 3. Pizza, and 4. Anything Mexican.
But in all seriousness, I do get way more out of my Costco membership than just free food and stomach aches.
I’ve been going to Costco since I was a kid. I grew up with 3 brothers, so my family lived for bulk-sized everything. But now that I only live with my fiancé, people are always asking me why I have a Costco membership for only two people. Well, before I declare my love of free samples, I tell them about the SAVINGS.
No – buying refrigerated food and vegetables in bulk doesn’t make sense unless I’m throwing down at my apartment. But buying a gigantic 36-pack of bottled water? So many more savings than just buying a 24-pack. Buying large packs of toilet paper and paper towels? We’re good for months. Buying a 6-pack of microwavable rice? Necessary – and much cheaper than buying individual packs at the grocery store. And don’t even get me started on the travel savings. Every time I walk out of Costco, I grab the travel booklet and start planning exotic trips to Europe and Bora Bora.
There is so much more to the magic of Costco though. Here are 8 benefits to having a Costco membership that you probably didn’t even know about.
1. The deals are in the pricing codes.
Like many stores, Costco’s standard pricing ends in 99 cents. A bottle of Dom Perignon is $139.99, a 3-pack of WD-40 lubricant is $10.99, and so on. But every now and then, you’ll come across a product with a price ending in .97.
This is Costco’s internal designation for a product that's been marked down below its original price, probably because it didn’t sell as well as expected. There's another code, too: An asterisk that sometimes appears in the upper right hand corner of the price tag. It denotes an item that will not be re-ordered. When the current stock is depleted, it’s gone forever.
These codes don’t always guarantee a great deal, or must-buy items. But more than once I’ve used them to get an awesome deal on something I really wanted.
2. Costco Online
I’m not planning to shuffle off this mortal coil any time soon, but when I do, I hope my caretakers will remember to check Costco.com for deals on caskets and urns.
Yes, you read that right. Funeral caskets and urns are among the hundreds, perhaps thousands of items sold by Costco online that aren’t found in its warehouse stores.
In part, that's because what is stocked in Costco’s warehouses varies from one region of the country to the next. Standup paddleboards, for instance, might move briskly in a California store but wouldn't justify the floor space in Kentucky. Additionally, some of these items are seasonally available in stores, but offered year-round at Costco.com.
Among the other unusual items I found online were telescopes, steam saunas, Fitbit wearables, chainsaws, and a 5.3-carat diamond wedding ring. Although Costco stores carry some office supplies (in bulk), I found more items available online, and at considerably lower prices than major office supply stores.
3. Discounted gift cards!
Most grocery and retail gift cards offer the same dollar value as their up-front cost. Buy a $100 gift card to the Apple Store and your lucky recipient can spend $100 there. But not at Costco.
Gift cards sold at Costco are essentially discount vouchers. For instance, two $50 gift cards valid at any Wolfgang Puck restaurant, Fleming’s Steakhouse, or McCormick & Schmick’s Seafood Restaurant retail for $79.99. That works out to a 20-percent discount on dinner.
A couple years ago, Costco sold $300 American Airlines gift cards for $269.99—a 10-percent savings on airfare. Rounds of golf, helicopter sightseeing trips over Hawaii and the Grand Canyon, Build-A-Bear stuffed animals, gym memberships, and movie tickets are just a few of the other discount cards available.
You’ll find many of these online, but the more regional offers are only available at Costco stores in a given area.
4. Different surprises at different Costco stores.
For some, vacations are all about shopping—be it duty-free treasures or local knick-knacks. Not me. If I’m headed to a tropical beach, I want to go straight from the plane to the sand and plant myself there for every mai tai I can.
But on a recent trip to Maui, something caught my eye from the airplane window as we came in for a landing. Barely a stone’s throw from the runway was a Costco warehouse. Of course, my first thought was that this would be where we’d gas up the car before returning it to the airport car rental location. But I was curious: What would a Costco in Maui offer?
For starters, we found the usual stuff to stock our rental condo—wine and local brews, fish and steaks, and Costco’s ubiquitous $4.99 roast chickens. But lo and behold, we also discovered a place to stock up on cheap gifts for home.
From chocolate-covered macadamia nuts to real Kona coffee, the prices were considerably lower than tourist shops. Even better, there were gift cards for local attractions and restaurants that, in total, shaved hundreds of dollars off the cost of our vacation.
Although the bulk of Costco’s footprint is in the U.S., the company also has 198 stores abroad in places like Canada, Mexico, the U.K., and Australia. Even more exotic locales like Japan, Taiwan, and Korea have Costco warehouses. From Vegemite in Australia to sea cucumbers in South Korea, and haggis in England to hoofed Iberian ham in Spain, the selection at Costco always reflects local tastes, as well as favorites from the U.S.
5. Great deals on your next vacation.
Cruises offer some of the best vacation values out there, but all travel agencies sell them for pretty much the same price. Sometimes they’ll offer an incentive, like an on-board credit or a free shore excursion; these are paid for out of the commission the cruise line pays to the travel agency.
Costco’s incentives are usually better. For example: Today, a 14-night repositioning cruise from Port Canaveral to Dover, England aboard the Disney Magic in May 2016 starts at $1,680 per person on the Disney Cruise Line website. Online travel agencies sell the cruise for the same price, but most offer an onboard credit ranging $50 to $150 per cabin—in effect, a kickback for the some of the commission they earn on the booking.
At Costco Travel, the Disney Cruise fare is the same, but the incentive is a Costco cash card ranging anywhere from $260 to $665, depending on the cabin category you choose.
Savings aren’t limited to cruises, either—you’ll also find great deals on vacation packages. But as with the warehouses, keep in mind that not all brands are available. A few major cruise companies are missing (such as Carnival and Oceania), and the selection of vacation package destinations doesn’t include appealing and less touristed locations like the British Virgin Islands or Barbados.
6. And great deals on rental cars!
Costco Travel also offers solid deals on car rentals. The company works with only four brands—Alamo, Avis, Budget, and Enterprise—and rentals aren’t available outside the U.S. and Canada. But in my online comparisons with Priceline, Expedia, and the individual rental companies, Costco came out on top almost every time.
For instance, on a four-day rental in Chicago in October, Priceline said Budget was cheapest for a midsize at $215.10. Through Expedia, Payless was lowest, at $167.79. But Costco found a midsized car through Alamo for $137.69—more than $30 off the best rate elsewhere.
Alamo offered me the best price on a one-week standard size car rental in Seattle for November. The car was $321.07 booked direct through Alamo.com, and the same through Priceline and Expedia. The Costco price? Just $261.01—a $60 savings.
Bonus: Compared to big sites like Expedia, Costco Travel handles cancellations and refunds much more efficiently.
7. Costco’s eyewear savings rock!
In Consumer Reports' latest ranking of eyeglass stores, Costco topped the chart in terms of overall customer satisfaction. Naturally, cost was a big part of the appeal. Name-brand frames (along with Kirkland options) are consistently cheaper than at competing chains like Walmart (though Walmart was slightly more affordable for optical exams).
Contact lenses are an even bigger savings for me. A 90-lens box of Dailies AquaComfort Plus was $64.99 at Walmart and $54.38 at LensCrafters (with an 8-box minimum), while the Costco price was $48.49.
As with most Costco offerings, your choices are limited. You won’t find the latest fashions, and even the contact lens selection isn’t as up-to-date as it could be. But if you’re not too fussy, Costco is a clear win for the four-eyes crowd.
8. Upgraded memberships offer even more.
If you’ve signed on for Costco’s basic “Gold Star” membership ($55 annually), all of the benefits outlined above are available to you. But there are two more options that can extend your savings.
The Executive Level membership costs $110 a year and gives you an annual rebate check equaling 2 percent of your annual purchases. There are a few things that aren't eligible for the rebate (notably, gas and travel purchases), but everything else gets you a kickback. As an added benefit, the Executive card provides deeper discounts on consumer services.
If you’re already a Costco member, stop by the membership counter on your next visit and ask them to look up your total annual purchases. If you spend $2,750 a year, you’ve already made up for the $55 surcharge it takes to upgrade to the Executive card—everything else is gravy, and helps pay down the $55 for the basic membership. Spend $5,500 a year and your Costco Executive membership is 100 percent paid for.
It's also worth giving the Costco credit card serious consideration. Historically, the card has netted a 1 percent rebate on standard Costco purchases, a 2 percent rebate on restaurant and Costco Travel purchases, and 3 percent on gas purchases—all with no annual fee. But this recommendation comes with a big caveat: For the last 16 years, the company has had an exclusive arrangement with American Express, but last February, it announced that its deal with AmEx was on the rocks.
Effective April 2016, the sole credit card accepted at Costco will be Visa, and the co-branded arrangement will be with Citigroup. While all Visa cards will be accepted, I expect that something similar to the old AmEx arrangement (possibly even sweetened) will be available to those who sign up for the Costco-branded card. Stay tuned!
This article was originally published on September 19, 2015. Oct. 13, 2016