Money

Which membership pays off faster: AAA or Amazon? 

March 1, 2014 at 11:18 AM ET

Want to save money? Join the club.

Price increases on everything from groceries to amusement park tickets can make annual memberships look more attractive than paying a la carte. In February, for example, both Walt Disney World and Universal Studios Orlando raised their one-day, one-park ticket prices, to as much as $99 and $96, respectively. (NBCUniversal, the parent company of Universal Studios, is also the parent of CNBC.) But on the flip side, Amazon has hinted that it may soon raise the price of its Prime service — which offers members free two-day shipping, streaming videos and e-book lending — by as much as $40 from its current price tag of $79.

"Fee-based programs really encourage people to do the math," said Jeff Berry, a research director for Colloquy. "You have to calculate how much benefit you can get, because you're actually prepaying for those benefits." Three points to consider: Whether you'll do enough business with a company to justify joining, whether the benefits represent real savings, and how soon you'll reach the break-even point. 

The answers aren't always clear-cut. Annual memberships are, to some extent as aspirational as the gym that new year's resolution-makers sign up for, said Kit Yarrow, chair of the psychology department at Golden Gate University in San Francisco. Joining doesn't guarantee you'll use them enough to justify the cost.

Or really save any money. Membership programs that carry a fee tend to encourage shoppers to spend more with that business, and maybe more overall, said Mike R. Levin, partner and co-founder of Consumer Intelligence Research Partners. Amazon Prime members spend an average $1,340 per year, while non-members spend $529, according to a December CIRP study. "For your $80, what you're basically getting is the privilege of spending more at Amazon," he said. When programs raise prices, membership tends to grow more slowly — but many current members will simply buy or visit more to justify their membership, he said. 

If the price of joining seems daunting, there are plenty of ways to cut the costs of annual memberships. Amazon Prime, for example, can be shared by up to four people per household, and nonmembers may be able to tag along for deals at warehouse clubs and zoos. Many companies also offer free trials. 

How to crunch the numbers on six different kinds of annual memberships:

Warehouse clubs

Price: Varies by club. Sam's Club memberships start at $45, BJ's, $50, and Costco, $55.

How much you might save at a warehouse club depends on what you buy — and your usual shopping strategies. Warehouse Club Focus, a trade publication, compared unit prices on 49 name-brand foods at the three major clubs, as well as Wal-Mart and Publix, in Jacksonville, Fla., last October. By their calculations, BJ's beat prices at Publix by 39 percent and Wal-Mart, by 24 percent. Sam's Club and Costco beat BJ's by another 4 to 5 percent. "It's not really that difficult to make a membership pay off," said Michael Clayman, president of HHC Publishing, parent to Warehouse Club Focus. Warehouse clubs also tend to have competitive pricing on gasoline, as well as extra savings on travel, automobiles and even bank products, that could help justify the cost of an annual membership, he said.

But if you're the type of consumer who already shops the sales circulars and even occasionally clips coupons, it's easy to beat warehouse club prices on many items, said Teri Gault, chief executive of The Grocery Game. In some of the site's comparisons, warehouse club prices were twice as expensive per ounce on produce as well as packaged cookies and crackers. 

Again, there are a few workarounds that might help you save without paying for a membership. Warehouse clubs' policy often allows nonmembers to purchase alcohol and prescription meds at member prices, Clayman said. Clubs may also offer occasional day passes to nonmembers, who pay a surcharge at the register. (BJ's, for example, charges 15 percent.) That still offers some savings on deeply discounted items, for nonmembers who want to make the occasional visit.

Amusement parks

Price: Varies by park. Passes to Cedar Point in Ohio start at $120, while Six Flags Great America in Illinois charges $71.99 and up.

"An annual pass can be a really great deal for regional amusement parks," said Robert Niles, editor of Theme Park Insider. Even considering that it's easy to pay less than the fate price for one-day admission, most passes still pay for themselves with two park visits. Some passes also wrap in parking, dining discounts and free passes for guests, which can be valuable. A few parks, like Six Flags, also give pass-holders free access to other parks around the country. 

Destination parks like Universal Studios and Disney Parks & Resorts are a harder sell for visitors who fly in for an annual vacation, Niles said. For example, at Walt Disney World, even a 10-day park-hopping and water park pass costs $220 less than the $634 price for an annual pass.

But those parks often offer locals-only deals that can help an annual pass pay off faster, Niles said. Disney has a $62 pass for accessing water parks after 2 p.m., and a weekdays-only park pass for $219, among other options. At Universal Studios Hollywood, visitors can buy a one-day pass for $84 and get free access (with some blackout dates) for the rest of 2014. 

Credit cards

Price: Varies by card. Chase Sapphire Preferred costs $95 per year after the first year, while the Platinum Card from American Express runs $450. 

The important question here is, does the value of the card benefits eclipse its price? "Annual fees are a little bit taboo," said Odysseas Papadimitriou, chief executive of CardHub.com. "But don't rule it out." That AmEx Platinum, for example, comes with a $200 airline fee credit, free Priority Pass airline lounge membership (worth $399) and a $100 credit to apply for Global Entry travel screening clearance, among other benefits — which could be more than worth the fee for a frequent traveler. 

Ongoing rewards and new cardholder bonuses can be another incentive, he said. (The Chase Sapphire Plus comes with 40,000 bonus points, worth $400.) Plus, many cards also waive or reduce the fee for the first year. Be sure to reassess the card's value once that fee kicks in: At redemption, points are worth about a penny each, meaning without bonuses you'd need to spend almost $10,000 a year just to offset a $99 annual fee.

And of course, the value of any benefits dwindles fast if you're carrying a balance. If that's the case, a fee-free card is likely a better option, Papadimitriou said. Cardholders should also weigh the likelihood of program changes that could devalue rewards. That's more likely with a hotel or airline card — United and Delta, for example, have recently made program changes that require more miles for a free flight on some routes.

Zoos, aquariums and museums

Price: Varies by location. Family memberships to the Philadelphia Zoo start at $115. At the California Academy of Sciences, a family membership starts at $199.

As with amusement parks, annual memberships to a zoo or museum typically pay for themselves with just two visits. Many also wrap in valuable extras such as parking, free guest passes and in-house extras like IMAX movies, rides and tours. Members may also get discounted access at other institutions in the network: Join a museum that's part of the Association of Children's Museums, and you'd get 50 percent off admission to other institutions in the network. The Association of Zoos and Aquariums members might get free access or 50 percent off, depending on the zoo.

Keep in mind that if the institution is a nonprofit, some of your annual membership may qualify as a deduction. For that $115 Philadelphia Zoo pass, for example, $97 is deductible. 

Roadside assistance

Price: Varies by program, region and membership level. In Maryland, for example, an annual AAA membership starts at $71.

Most roadside assistance programs pay for themselves with one lockout, jumpstart or tow, said Phil Reed, consumer advice editor for Edmunds.com. (Past experience is the best gauge on how likely one of those is to happen, he said: "Do you sometimes lock yourself out of your car? Do you drive cars that often need maintenance?") 

"We do really recommend, particularly in urban areas, for people who commute, for people who have intensive driving habits, that they have some kind of coverage," Reed said. "It's a small price to pay for a pretty useful service." Programs also tend to offer other perks such as hotel discounts and free passport photos, that could help defray the cost even if no roadside assistance is needed. 

That said, don't be quick to pay up. You may already have roadside assistance coverage under an auto insurance policy, a premium credit card or as a freebie from the auto manufacturer, said Reed. Compare those terms against paid programs to see if there's a coverage gap (say, a longer towing distance) or other benefits (travel discounts) worth paying for. Then compare auto club prices and coverage for the best deal.

Free-shipping clubs

Price: Varies by club. Amazon Prime and ShopRunner both cost $79 per year. 

Whether paying for free shipping works out depends largely on how often and what you order online. ShopRunner works with 80-plus sites; just shopping at Neiman Marcus, where two-day shipping costs $15, the annual membership pays off in eight orders. (Fewer, if you often have returns — return shipping is also free for members.) At Amazon, two-day shipping rates run $5.99 to $12.49 per shipment, depending on the item category, which means Prime could pay off in seven to 14 single-item orders.

Prime has some unique benefits, including a lending library of e-books and streaming video of more than 150,000 movies and TV episodes. Just the streaming video is worth more than the price of Prime, when compared to Netflix's $7.99-per-month streaming offering, said Levin. (You'd save about $17 a year.) But his research has found that Prime members are apt to keep their Netflix subscriptions and also buy more video content on Amazon — so that cost-savings may not pay out. 

Keep in mind, however, that not every item is eligible for the fast, free shipping to members. It's also easy enough to hit the free-shipping threshold at most merchants, which may make joining less beneficial for shoppers who wouldn't be paying for shipping anyway. And in some cases, you might not need to pay. Select American Express cards include a membership to Amazon Prime or ShopRunner as a free benefit. Amazon also offers discounted memberships to students and new moms. 

—By CNBC's Kelli B. Grant. Follow her on Twitter @Kelligrant and on Google.

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