Over the years on the road, we have stayed at many different RV resorts, private parks, campgrounds, state and federal parks, and more! Between all of these different campgrounds, we have learned a thing or two about campground memberships throughout our years on the road! This is just a brief overview!
Private Parks and State/Federal Parks
When we first started we stayed mostly at private parks and state/federal parks. We quickly learned the cheapest way to stay at a private park was to ask if they had any weekly or monthly rates! Staying at a private park can run you between $30-$80 a night (which is $900-$2000+ a month)! At the monthly rate, that can be reduced significantly! When we paid monthly rates at places, it averaged between $350-600 a month. State and National Parks run much cheaper (between $20-$35 in our experience); but, can still add up! What’s nice is that I have an America the Beautiful pass (see below) which saves me 50% of camping fees at federal parks! That means that $20 a night place is only $10 a night! We’ve even stayed in beyond beautiful campgrounds for that $10 a night! Fort Pickens is probably one of the most beautiful and fun to explore!
We found that a lot of our friends were Thousand Trails members. As we spent more time on the road we learned a lot about it. It’s a membership RV resort membership with preserves located across the United States with all sorts of levels of membership. Currently, there are 86 locations with the majority primarily located in the coastal states. You can have anywhere from a zone pass to an Elite Plus membership. You can kind of look at it like a timeshare for hotels. If you aren’t familiar with that, you pay some amount down, pay a yearly maintenance fee, and get type time “in” the system. However, in hotel timeshares, you generally only get a few weeks a year. In this case, you get an unlimited amount of time throughout the year; but, that also depends on your membership level. No matter your level, the resorts generally have a pool, hot tub, club house/lodge, miniature golf, shuffle board, someone organized activities (like candy bar bingo, water exercise, scheduled walking, dinners, family craft, etc), and more! On the bad side, there are some restrictions during high-use seasons (such as you can only be in the park shorter period of time or may be have to be out longer – we’ll get to that shortly).
We started with a Thousand Trails zone pass. The U.S. is broken into 5 different zones.
When we joined, they had a special buy one zone, get one free for $500. (Keep an eye on their site, they offer this special off and on.) We decided that was a great way to try out the membership, see what we thought, and see if it was worth it financially for us. Basically, you get year-round camping for $500 and some yearly maintenance fee, generally under $600. The only catch is that you have to move preserves every two weeks and have to be out of the park for a week. So, if you stayed at Thousand Trails Orlando for two weeks, you can go straight to the next preserve and stay there for two weeks. Or you could just go to a private park for a week locally and return to the same preserve. After a short while, we saw the membership pay off as we no longer had regular monthly camping fees.
We decided it was worth it to us to upgrade to an Elite membership (it was the highest level of membership at the time with the most benefits). An Elite membership will run you between $5000- $6000. Of course, TT will be happy to finance it for you! After you pay this amount, you only have to pay yearly maintenance fees. With this membership you get to make your reservations up to six months in advance, stay three weeks at a time, and go park to park. Sometimes you can find them on Ebay for between $2000-$3000; but, there are so many different memberships, you may not know what you are getting. The eBay seller is required to give you their membership number and you can call Thousand Trails and make sure the membership is good; but, there are so many contract-specific things that we are afraid to risk it not knowing what we were getting or what we should get. We also didn’t have $2000- $3000 laying around to purchase it! So, we decided to finance it with the (good) intention of just paying more and paying it off early. I’ve not been good at breaking down the costs/budget to see how much out when (as far as private campgrounds and expenses); but, this sure has paid for itself quickly! With the main portion financed and paying our maintenance fees monthly instead of yearly, it’s approximately $150 a month to keep the membership going. When you think about it, I would spend WAY MORE than $150 a month for campground fees! Here in California alone, we are saving a lot because campground fees are anywhere from $600-$1500 a month. Instead of paying that, I’m paying $150 a month.
The preserves are not five star places and sometimes are in the middle of nowhere. You get what you pay for! Some locations are a bit run down, not as fancy or well-kept. It’s not terrible though! We actually really love it and it has been a Godsend! Most preserves have full hook up (meaning you get electric, water, and sewage), most aren’t paved, some are a bit rustic (would rather use that word than run down); but, we have all that we need, and more! We have bathrooms with running toilets and showers, laundry facilities, and most have a pool and hot tub (at the minimum). Not too shabby if I say so myself! (If you absolutely need 50 amp, you can usually upgrade for $5 more a night. You can definitely use 50 amp in hot states in the summer! If you check them out, make sure to tell them that Frank and Stacey Schrier referred you (member #298661660). I think that we get a referral bonus of $50 and you get $50 (but that all depends if they are offering something at the time). Thank you in advance, every little bit helps!
RPI, or Resort Parks International, is a peek that we received with our first year of Thousand Trails. I think the yearly fee varies along with the membership levels. Basically we could stay at RPI for $10 a night with our membership (the highest level they had at that time). I think the two cons of an RPI membership is that they have their own restrictions (limited amount of days at each park a year, in some cases, only two seven day periods of fourteen depending on level) and I’ve heard you have to call to make reservations and sometimes you can’t even make reservations, they are first come first serve. See their website for more details. We never ended up using our RPI membership, mainly because we had plenty of Thousand Trails on our route. I don’t remember the exact cost of this membership; but, they have sent us specials to rejoin for around $150-200 a year.
In the beginning we also had a Passport America membership. It is nice in that it offers you 50% off camping fees at a huge myriad of campgrounds and locations across the country. The other good thing is cost; it only runs $44 a year. The bad news is the large amounts of restrictions! A lot of campgrounds in the program only allow you to stay during the week at the reduced rate (versus the weekends when many want to camp or stay at least through the weekend) and many only allow the discount for a short period of time (like a few days). Although the ongoing yearly fee is super reasonable, we didn’t find it financially feasible to keep the membership or stay at many of these campgrounds.
America the Beautiful
I cannot say enough about this pass! This pass is free to disabled, $10 for a lifetime pass for seniors, or runs $80 a year for most people. Also, if you have a fourth grader, they get a free pass! (I don’t know why they arbitrarily choose fourth grade, I’m just happy for those that have fourth graders! It gets you into national parks for free and gives you half-off camping at federal parks. There are times it is barely used because we aren’t near National Parks; or even if we are, we aren’t near one that has a campground. When we are, it is so nice! Don’t forget about parks that look like they are state parks that are really U.S. Army Corp of Engineer Parks! Those are federal which entitle you to half-price camping! I know half-price does not sound like a lot when it’s $10 a night versus $20; but, it adds up fast. That’s a different of $70 or $140 a week. We’ve stayed at some awesome parks for $10 a night like Fort Pickens and Saylorville Lake!
We’ve also used KOAs and their rewards card. The KOA Value Kard costs $30 yearly and gives you 10% off and points at every visit. KOA’s can be more expensive so some avoid them for this reason. We don’t go to KOA’s often; however, we have made some fabulous memories at KOA’s including one gem we found in Florida with a natural sulfur spring. Beautiful, fun, memory-making, just costs extra money!
There are several locations you can find free campsites. This isn’t about campground memberships; but, thought I should include it here because this post is also about camping sites! You can find many places across the U.S. that offer free camping. The majority of these locations are from the Bureau of Land Management (or BLM for short). There are many apps and websites that you can use to find free camping. You can go to the BLM site, go to use Free Camp Sites, use this app for Free RV Campgrounds, or just do a google search. You’ll be surprised at how many places will come up!
Overall, there are many RV camping memberships out there and you need to see what is best for your family and your situation! I only showed you a few of the memberships that my family as dealt with over the years. You really need to look at the costs, benefits, and see which campgrounds fall on your route and see what is best for your financial situation.