Whole life policies are not the best retirement vehicle for the same reasons you gave. They charge lots of sales commissions and fees. The main benefit they provide is tax free earnings growth and insurance, but you can buy a much cheaper term life insurance policy rather than go for whole life.
A Roth IRA will allow you to have tax free retirement savings and you can find no-load (meaning no sales commission) and low-fee options to invest in. Roth IRAs take post-tax contributions (meaning is it not funding with pre-tax money), but allow no current tax write off but you do not pay income taxes or capital gains taxes on the earnings. You can withdraw from your Roth IRA for education, hardship, first-time homebuying and medical expenses, but you have to prove the conditions to the IRS. Even so, you will have to repay yourself. Roths IRAs are also tax free upon distribution if you are over 59 1.2 years old.
I would recommend in this order:
401k or 403b (pre-tax contributions)
once maxed out, go to Roth IRA,
once maxed out or if you don't qualify, Traditional IRA,
then only if you have tons of disposable income and a well diverisfied taxable portfolio, only then look for annuities or insurance like whole or universal life.