Are Campground Membership Programs Worth the Cost?

Published Categorized as RVs

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A Guide to Choosing a Membership Program That Will Work for You

I will be honest, choosing a campground membership program that works with your travel plans, timelines, and amenity needs can be complicated and, in this column, I’ll share with you folks some of the plans I participate in and why I do so. We’ll also take a look at the cost of those memberships, as well as the benefits they offer and whether those programs may work for you.

Thousand Trails Campgrounds

One of the most popular programs for RVers is the Thousand Trails system. This is a group of nearly 200 privately owned campgrounds that are affiliated throughout their network. In this program, the continental United States is broken up into five different zones and you can purchase a membership in any one zone or all five zones. These zones are the Northeast, Southeast, Midwest, Northwest, and Southwest of the United States.

The annual cost of a one zone pass is $585 and for an additional $59 you can add an additional zone or zones, but each added zone will incur this fee. You can also become a member of the “Trails Collection” which will add over one hundred more campgrounds that you’re allowed to stay at free of charge. For this, they charge an added fee of $299.

What are the advantages of a Thousand Trails membership?

Cost and usage. As a full time RVer, the price of the membership is very appealing when comparing it to the cost of how much you would pay per night at the campgrounds in their system. For example, if you were to stay at most of the campgrounds that participate in their system without having a membership, there’s a good chance that your nightly fee would be $40 to $75 during peak seasons depending upon the amenities offered by these individual campgrounds.

That said, the math speaks for itself. When I bought my membership, it didn’t take me long to figure out that if I stayed 14 days at one campground that charged non-members $50 per night that my membership fee would be quickly paid in full.

Amenities. Most of the Thousand Trail Campgrounds are great places to stay. As a rule, they offer amenities that include health and exercise facilities, which also includes access to a pool, sauna, and hot tub facilities. Additionally, most of these facilities include multiple options per camping site in terms of utility and communication connections.

Close to the attractions in the area. As a rule, many campgrounds that are within the Thousand Trails system are closely located near national landmarks, theme parks, or museums. For example, there are numerous campgrounds located within the Southeastern and Northeastern sections of the United States that are rich in history. While the campground may not be a place of history, in most cases it is in close proximity to a place you’ll want to visit. As an American history buff, some of the greatest campgrounds within the Thousand Trails system’s campground network are located in their Southeastern and Northeastern regions or zones.

What are the disadvantages of a Thousand Trails membership?

Making Reservations. Their reservation system can be confusing and in peak seasons you may have some difficulty reserving a spot where you want to stay. This is especially true for places like Florida or Arizona in the winter and all of New England in the summer months. Remember, these are private campgrounds that participate in this program, so they limit the amount of sites available to Thousand Trails members so their campgrounds aren’t filled with RVers that aren’t paying to stay there, although my sure that do receive some sort of reimbursement eventually from the Thousand Trails programs but I sure it’s far less than what they would receive from non-members that pay full price for their rates.

Their 14-day in and 7-day out rule. The way their program is set up it that you can stay a maximum of 14 days at any campground that participates in the program then you have to leave the system for seven days before you can return to a participating campground. This can sometimes be problematic if you’re in some area during peak season and of course if you go to another campground that isn’t in their system, you’ll be paying full price for seven days. However, there are creative ways to camp for free when you’re out of the Thousand Trails system and I will discuss some of those options later in this article.

The laundry facilities. I know this might sound trivial, but it’s something that I have experienced at every campground that I have stayed at within their system. None of these campgrounds ever seem to have the traditional coin operated machines that most public laundromats have. Instead, you have to purchase a debit card for $4.95 then you have to load money onto the card to use the machines. Sounds simple, right? Not so fast, every campground I have stayed at all sell a different card and they are not interchangeable, so I now have a collection of these cards all with cash still on them. To me, that seems like a racket.

Understanding their membership tiers and programs. The prices and benefits that I addressed earlier in this article cover a basic membership and a couple of add-ons. However, Thousand Trails has numerous memberships with other advantages and understanding them can be very confusing. A good example of this is that some of their campgrounds have age restrictions. Many campgrounds cater to those over 50 years old and while I don’t have problems with that because I’m that age, I would highly recommend doing some research before you decide on what membership will work for you.

Are there other programs out there where I can stay for free?

Absolutely! One program I highly recommend is Harvest Hosts. Although you will need to be self-contained to participate in this program, it costs $79 a year and allows you to stay one night for free at over 1,000 different locations nationwide with some locations in Canada as well. These locations include everything from wineries and breweries to farms, museums and other attractions such as the fun park I visited in Portage, Michigan. I also have stayed at several wineries and breweries, a couple of museums and one of my favorites was a dairy farm in Wisconsin where I enjoyed some of the best cheese in my life.

I have never stayed at a Harvest Hosts that I did not like. Every stay has been fun and at almost everyone one of them I have met and interacted with the owner if it was a smaller business. For example, I have stayed at a few small wineries where I was given a nice tour of the operation, an alpaca farm who also gave me a tour of his facility.

One thing to keep in mind here folks, is that these people are giving you a place to stay one night for free and you should return the favor. If they have a fruit farm, buy some of their product. If you’re staying overnight at their brewery, have a beer or two or maybe even dinner if they offer that. Pay them back for letting you stay there for free. Chances are, it will cost less than what a campsite would have cost you, and you’ll have a good time, meal or product to take away with you when leave the next day.

Also, if you’re a golf fan, for an additional $40 per year, your membership will include an additional 368 golf courses and country clubs to stay at for free for a night and in many locations, you’ll allowed to use the spa and restaurant facilities. That is yet another advantage of buying a Harvest Hosts membership.

Final thoughts

There are other programs for RVers that can save them money on the road. For example, being an active member of the American Association of Retired People (AARP) or the American Automobile Association (AAA) can save you money while RVing. Being a former or active member of the U.S Armed Forces can make a difference in your campsite costs too. I shared my thoughts and advice to those people in one of my previous articles about obtaining a national park pass.

My friends, there are always some deals out there for you if you shop around and do your research. For me, having a basic two zone membership with Thousand Trails and being a member of Harvest Hosts works for me. It has allowed me to stay at some great places, meet some genuine people and enjoy my life. I wish that for you.

As always, thank you so much for following along with my column. Be safe, be healthy. And I hope to see out there some day.

As long as you’re considering places to stay, check out Lindsey’s article on the best free campsites near national parks and my article on the cost of full-time RV living.

By Brian

Born and raised in Michigan, contributing writer Brian C. Noell is a retired hospitality industry professional that now works remotely as a visual artist, writer and photographer as he travels around the United States in an RV with his dog Lizzy, an eighty pound Appenzeller hound dog.