Costco Or Sam’s Club: Which Is Better For World Travelers?

My family does a decent amount of our shopping at Costco. I’ve never really convinced myself that the prices are that much better than buying stuff on sale at the grocery store, but my wife says it’s convenient to buy a gigantic box of granola bars all at once. So that’s what we do.

As part of our annual membership, we get a print subscription to Costco Connections delivered to our house each month. (Though anyone can read it on the website.) It’s basically a lifestyle magazine that seems like a cross between Reader’s Digest and the IKEA catalog. While it’s not exactly Pulitzer Prize winning literature, I’ll read pretty much anything, especially if it’s on the table next to my bowl of cereal.

Sometimes the fake debate between two so-called experts can be rather amusing too — like this months “Is Artificial Intelligence a Good Thing?” where they have the CEO and Director of the X-Prize arguing in favor, and a filmmaker arguing against. How is that a fair fight?

Anyway, the July edition has a feature called “The Global Warehouse” and it goes on to talk about how many Costco stores there are around the world. The number might surprise you. It also got me to think about how Costco’s international footprint compares to Sam’s Club, and which one is better for international travelers.

Costco's lifestyle magazine
Costco’s lifestyle magazine

The Global Warehouse

Costco has 679 stores, of which 200 are outside the US. Those 200 are spread across 8 countries, including:

  • Spain (1 store)
  • Australia (7)
  • Japan (20)
  • Taiwan (10)
  • South Korea (11)
  • the United Kingdom (26)
  • Canada (89)
  • Mexico (36)

In total, 30% of Costco stores are international and that is expected to grow to 35% in the next decade.

The article describes in general the items that those stores carry and that “65% of international merchandise is specific to a given country — mostly foods that cater to local taste preferences. The remaining 35% comprises mostly non-food items you’d see in a US Costco.”

Then there is a short write-up on each of the countries, including the most popular item sold there and one unique item found there that you can’t get in the US. In South Korea, for example, the most popular item is Bulgogi Beef, and they have Sea Cucumbers. Australians, meanwhile, go to Costco for hearing aids. It’s kind of interesting, especially if you’re into learning about how other cultures embrace the American way of buying crap-tons of stuff all at once.

Who doesn't buy sea cucumbers in bulk?
Who doesn’t buy sea cucumbers in bulk?

Costco vs. Sam’s Club Outside The US

I then wondered how the international presence of Costco compares to Sam’s Club, their Walmart-derived competitor. As best as I can figure, Sam’s Club, has 848 locations, of which 198 are outside the US. Those stores are in Mexico (160), China (11), Brazil (27), and do not include the 11 in Puerto Rico. (Apparently they closed the Canadian Sam’s Clubs in 2009.) That means their international footprint is about 23%, which I’m sure is also growing.

samsclub

The numbers show that both Sam’s Club and Costco have about the same number of stores (200) outside the US. In the case of Sam’s Club, however, a vast majority of those are in Mexico. Costco is much more diversified, even though they do have a strong emphasis on our neighbor to the north.

Our (sort of) Experience

Even though we shop at Costco about semi-weekly, I’ve never been to a store outside the US even though my family travels internationally multiple times per year.

We also enjoy grocery shopping in foreign countries — for the cultural experience, the cost savings, and the sanity of not having to eat every meal out with the kiddos. Yet, the most exotic Costco stores I recall going to were on the islands of Hawaii and Kauai, and one of those I think we just ducked in for a couple of hot dogs at lunch. We actually got our first Costco membership on Kona specifically to save on groceries while staying with my folks in a VRBO apartment. To this day, our membership renews in March and reminds us of that trip.

The Costco Kauai food court is open air
The Costco Kauai food court is open air

On our recent Korean trip, we rented places on AirBnB in both Seoul and Jeju, South Korea, that had full kitchens. Since we found groceries to be relatively expensive, a visit to Costco could have resulted in some decent savings, especially given that we had four adults and four kiddos on the trip.

Although I did check, the Costco stores around Seoul were just too far outside the city to justify a trip, given the limited number of days we had there (without a car). Had there been one on Jeju, I can easily imagine we would have made a visit.

Other Considerations

Of course, the presence of a lot of international locations isn’t the only factor in determining which warehouse club is best for travelers. Both Sam’s Club and Costco have travel deals, though I’ve never used either. I have read of some folks getting good discounts, however, using the Costco car rental code.

And let’s not forget that back in the Great Recession, Costco sold Hyatt vouchers at a 20% discount. I bought a bunch, maybe $1000 worth, but my stash is long gone. Costco still has some useful travel related gift cards from time to time, but it’s more hit or miss.

Bottom Line

I expect that most people choose Sam’s or Costco based on some combination of the goods they sell, the prices, and maybe most importantly, the proximity to their house — I doubt that the international presence ever factors into the equation.

But if you are spending an extended period of time in a foreign country, it might be worth thinking about, especially if you have a crew to feed.

Have you ever shopped at a foreign Sam’s Club or Costco? What was your experience?

Comments

  1. I belong to both Costco and Sam’s and I prefer Costco. Overall Costco seems to have a higher quality of merchandise. Their wines and meats are excellent. We live in Hawaii and love their selection of local foods. Each year when we vacation in San Francisco we love their Italian food selection. We’re been to Costco all over the US (California, Nevada, Washington, Oregon, Illinois, Florida, Virginia, Louisiana, etc) and to Costco in Canada, Japan, and South Korea. While much of the hard goods are the same, food is where its at. Just keep in mind they only carry the most popular items. Besides food make the best gifts for friends back at home.

  2. Interesting commentary. I’ve thought about this in the past as well as I have both memberships, and for what a powerhouse Wal-Mart is in the US, it has had major cultural issues internationally, as well as picking the wrong locations to place its proverbial eggs in a basket. http://tinyurl.com/p3l2u4c But the bottom line is my Sam’s is much, MUCH less crowded at all times than my nearest Costco, and Sam’s is much closer. So much so that while I prefer the Costco-level quality of products, I never shop there and almost exclusively shop at Sam’s… Unless I’m on Maui, then it’s a no brainer and Costco wins 😉

  3. Costco wins by the mere fact they pay their employees fair hourly wages and salaries.

  4. I’ve been to many Costcos outside the U.S. And they’re a great experience.

    They include:
    Vancouver, Red Deer, Toronto, and Montreal Canada
    Monterrey, Mexico
    Tokyo, Japan (especially cool to see a massive sushi area but the Japanese were enamored by the U.S. pizza at the food court for Y200!)
    Seoul, Korea (2 stories with everything from the same Kirkland Vodka as in the U.S. But with special things like Korean meats, liquor, vitamins/supplements, etc)
    Birmingham, UK. (My favorite was the 6 pack of fresh baked scones with a tub of clotted cream). I was good for the week!

    It’s funny because all cards work everywhere but there is either a long delay or a funny look when you use a U.S. Card in these places. In Japan, for example, they had to call a supervisor and the supervisor and cashier started bowing and smiling. Gotta love it!

  5. Maybe because I’m Asian, but if i could I would buy sea cucumbers in bulk! SO GOOD! Anyways I love the Costcos in Korea and Taiwan. Haven’t been to others yet. I’ve been to the ones in Hawaii too but the Bay Area ones are similar in that we now have poke sold in Costco and Safeway here too. Also, Costcos in Bay Area have open air dining too 😉

  6. I only can remark about Hawaii locations of both chains. My best buy in Hawaii is always the 100% Kona coffee. Sam’s and Costco are by far cheaper than anywhere else. It is a great gift or just for stocking up!

  7. I avoid shopping at Wal-Mart and Sam’s Club due to the mere fact that there are five Walton family members who are billionaires but around half of their workforce live on government subsidies. I rather pay a bit more to support a living wage but I am in no way support union jobs. The tech and banking industries provide some of the highest paid jobs without union members. The difference is high-tech industry innovates and improves our lives while the other yields little productivity but wealth only concentrates on the very top.

  8. We’re members of both, mostly because Sam’s gave us $40 in gift cards to sign up. Costco is only a few miles from our house, so the majority of our warehouse shopping goes there (and to the cash back AMEX). And what we get back on our annual refund check pays for our membership there. Plus the AMEX card gives us (business card) 4% back on gas, since we’re so close it’s a steal for us. Add in the 8 gallons of milk weekly and you see our situation 🙂 And, by the amount of milk we drink, you can assume we like to hit Disneyland…buying a package there is the same price as direct from DL but Costco throws in a free Premium character meal. A recent 12th bday trip for our daughter and Mom meant they were able to score $90 freebie at the Carthay Circle restaurant (each premium character meal = $45 at any property restaurant). Then the car rental rates have seen potential as well as some of the other Hawaii hotel deals.

    Sam’s gives us other items that we use but need to frequent less often. I suppose we’re probably losing a little on that membership and I’m still confused about their return policy where Costco’s is ironclad (neighbor returned a years old treadmill that broke for a full refund…)

    I suppose that if distance were equal I’d choose Costco, even with the dreadful crowds that also feel the same way.

    Any idea how they’ll restrict Visa usage next March? Or is the Sapphire Preferred the new go-to at Costco?

  9. i LOVE this post.

    I’ve been to a Costco in Mexico City and a Costco in Hiroshima.

    Frankly, both experiences depressed the heck out of me. They were exactly like my local Costco in California. The differences were not stark. I’d say 90% of the products were the same.

    Favorite moment in Japan was the people lining up to “try” the Costco pizza as a sample. I’m like: “It’s Costco pizza. You haven’t eaten it at a million birthday parties?” Oh… maybe they haven’t…

    I did love the water bottle vending machine at the Hiroshima store, with each bottle for 65 JPY. Now that’s value!

  10. i visit the Costco in Seville, Spain every few months. I always purchase stuff but I go more to experience a little bit of America then to actually do heavy duty shopping or save money. Since I travel and visit costco’s in the states a few time a year as well, many of the items are the same in both hard and soft line products.

  11. We shop at Costco on a regular basis. The gasoline is always at least 20 cents cheaper than their closest competitors. The car rental codes are almost always a winner. Seven years ago, we booked a Uniworld Cruise on the Danube…the price was great and they threw in 2 extra nights in Prague, along with a $100 onboard credit that we had a difficult time using because everything was included. 🙂

  12. What….a comparison that fails to mention Costco’s 10% off code for Hyatt?!?! I mean its infrequently used, but still worth mentioning at least.

  13. Still no Costco in Germany, ….
    I still import 70 pound of stuff every 2-3 months between US and Germany. 😉

  14. One important point to note is that Costcos in foreign countries don’t have the American Express exclusive deal, so you can use other credit card types. When I was in Taiwan, I checked out the Costco and I found the prices to be similar to American prices, which is to say on the high end for that economy.

  15. My husband and I visit Costco wherever we travel. Gives a great insight into local habits. A case of green chili in El Paso or poke in Hawaii. We visited the Melbourne Costco. Tim tams!

  16. I have been asked this question by many people and my immediate response is Costco is the best but that is most likely because as many others have stated on this post, is the fact they have higher quality items. The buying power of Costco also is blessed by the buyers themselves, who do a very good job in finding the products to sell at the warehouse, not to mention the fact that each city you go to has the odd variety of products not found at all warehouses. I am Canadian but spend a lot of time in the USA. In fact a few years ago a bunch of my friends and I went on a road trip which we always joked about as being “sponsored by Costco” because we would stop for a quick and very inexpensive meal and fill up on water and road snacks. I have a membership for Sams Club as well, even though in Canada the only stores they ever opened were in Toronto area and I’m in BC, the fact that Sams Club accepts Mastercard (I don’t own an American Express card) was enough reason for me while travelling throughout the USA for “cheap gas”. Most recently the Canadian Costco’s have changed their agreement from American Express to Mastercard so that means I can now stop at Costco gas stations in Canada. Having both cards works for those travelling as you will find not every city you visit has one or the other so you can typically still get the bulk deals you are looking for.

    Even though there may not be as many stores, If I had to choose only one, then it would most definitely be Costco.

  17. @calwatch, Costco ended their Amex affiliation in Canada and I believe announced in US they are replacing it with Citi (Visa/MC).

    also, WM is notoriously bad to their employees, Costco is notoriously good. Walmart=evil

  18. I’ve booked a few vacations through Costco Travel, always at a great value. They offer a fantastic deal for Club Level at the Ritz-Carlton Kapalua, for example. And I almost always book my rental cars through Costco. They almost always have the best price.

  19. I live in Puerto Rico and go to Florida every Christmas to visit our aunt. And go to the south Orlando Costco. Is crowded all the time, like the ones in PR. But Sam’s is a different story. The store is a lot less crowded. My preference is Costco. But if you have the opportunity to go to B&J’s, do it!

  20. My opinion is that, because they have locations in more countries, Costco is the better membership to have. The first Costco in a foreign country that I visited was Tijuana, Mexico. The store layout was almost an exact copy of a US store. What I found interesting…well funny…was the food court. Can you believe it? They had all the same items you’d find in a US store, except churros! No churros.

  21. ​I just left Costco an hour ago, utterly frustrated for the last time, and drove across the street to Sam’s Club. Within one minute, I found what I could not find at Costco. Here are the reasons I returned to Sam’s Club after a year of frustration at Costco.

    1.​ Quick, easy access to Sam’s, both in location and parking, instead of walking a block from the parking spot to the entrance.
    2. Easy in and out of the store–much faster. More on that.
    3. MUCH smaller store, but with basically the same stock. I can find things quickly and be on my way.
    4. Self-serve lanes available at check-out, so I’m out of there much faster.
    5. Prices and selection comparable.
    6. Cheaper membership fee, and with a Groupon, it was less than half as much as Costco’s.
    7. Better photo lab results and service
    8. Milk sold by the gallon instead of having to buy 2-pack. We like buying 2 different percentages of fat, not 2 of the same kind.
    9. It used to be that Costco never opened until 10, even for business customers. They have finally caught up to Sam’s Club on that and open at 7 for Business members, but it sure took them a long time.

    Those are my reasons, and I’m glad to be back at Sam’s Club. I’m just sorry they don’t have one in Russia for when we are there. Costco isn’t in Russia, either.

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