Note: At least two or three times a month I hear from readers who are new to RVing and want to know how membership campgrounds work. Here is a blog post from a while back that covers the topic.
The first thing we should do is understand the basic differences between a discount camping club like Passport America and a membership campground like Thousand Trails. A discount camping club consists of a large number of campgrounds owned by different people and companies, who agree to give RVing members a discount, usually 50% off of their regular rates. Membership in a discount camping club is much less expensive than it is for a membership club, no home park is required, and there is usually no long term membership obligation. You just pay your annual dues and use the participating campgrounds.
A membership campground system on the other hand, is usually a more expensive proposition, and (according to the folks who sell the memberships) comes with benefits and privileges not available to the general public.
If you have ever attended a membership campground sales pitch, you probably know that the people hustling these memberships have hard sell down to a science. I’ve known more than one RVer who has walked out of the room after being pushed too far one time too many.
Years ago, after we attended one such sales presentation at a membership campground in Oregon, the sales rep came to our motorhome at 10:30 p.m. asking if we had made a decision yet, and telling us that if we did not purchase right then, we’d be “blackballed” and would never be allowed to purchase a campground membership from any company in the future. Can you guess where we told them to stick their membership?
When you join a membership campground system, you are assigned a home park, and then you can stay at any other campgrounds in the system for a given period of time. Depending on your particular membership, that may be one to three weeks, and again, depending on your membership, you may be able to go directly to any other campgrounds in the system, or you may have to be out of the system for one or two weeks.
Campground memberships can be very expensive, up to several thousand dollars, and annual dues can be more than $500 a year. The salespeople will assure you that your membership is an “investment,” and that if you ever decide that you no longer want it, it is a valuable asset that you can sell. Yeah, and once you do, I have a bridge to sell you with all of that money burning a hole in your pocket.
Used campground memberships are a dime a dozen, and with just a little research and effort, you can pick up a used membership for pennies on the dollar, or sometimes even free, because the current owner is tired of paying the dues. For example, a few years back we bought a used nationwide Thousand Trails/NACO membership with all the bells and whistles for $100, plus the transfer fee of $750.
You have to be careful when purchasing a used campground membership because there are dozens of different memberships out there, and most membership systems have offered many different levels of membership, with different benefits, over the years. Do your homework before you buy any new or used membership.
The biggest membership campground system around is Thousand Trails (TTN). The Thousand Trails website says that between all of their affiliated campgrounds, they offer over 80 camping locations in 22 states and British Columbia. This includes NACO and Leisure Time Resorts (LTR) campgrounds, two smaller memberships that fall under the general Thousand Trails umbrella. (Not all TTN members can use the NACO or LTR campgrounds.)
As I stated above, we picked up a used Thousand Trails/NACO membership, and later upgraded it to the Elite level, giving us access to more of the campgrounds in the system. We have stayed at TTN affiliated campgrounds in Arizona, Pennsylvania, Texas, Ohio, Indiana, Tennessee, Massachusetts, Florida, Oregon, and Washington. Some of the campgrounds were very nice, and others were outdated and in need of major upgrading.
I always tell new RVers not to obligate themselves to any membership campground system until they have been on the road at least a full year. It will take you that long to get out of vacation mode and begin to define your own traveling style.
When and if you do decide that a campground membership is right for you, research the different systems, and then look for a used membership. We found ours by putting a simple post on the Escapes forum saying that we were looking for a used Thousand Trails membership. I had over 15 different memberships offered to me by the next day.
You can also find used memberships in ads in the back of RV magazines, on campground bulletin boards, and even on eBay. But again, don’t spend a lot of money on a used membership. The seller may believe he really has an “asset” to sell. Wait until you find someone to whom the membership and its annual dues have become a liability and you can get a heck of a deal. With Thousand Trails it seems like no two memberships are the same and what you get all depends on how well the buyer was able to negotiate the original l purchase. Before you by any used membership, contact the main office with the membership number and ask what is included and if anything changes when the membership is transferred. And be sure to ask what the transfer fee is.
So, is buying a campground membership a good idea? That depends on how much you use it. We spent several winters in Florida rotating between Thousand Trails parks every two or three weeks, and it averaged out to about $7 a day for a full hookup site. Two years ago we did the same thing on the Oregon and Washington coasts. That’s a heck of a deal. But like anything else, if you don’t use it you are just throwing money away with a campground membership.
Congratulations Wade Jensen, winner of our drawing for an audiobook of Caddo Cold, the seventh book in my friend George Wier’s popular Bill Travis mystery series. We had 63 entries this time around. Stay tuned, a new contest starts soon.
Thought For The Day – Do yourself a favor and learn how to walk away.