In December of 2016, Trail was looking for ways to save money and took a hard look at the Thousand Trails camping pass program. If you are not familiar with them, they are a membership club for RVers where you pay a fixed membership fee, and can then stay in Thousand Trails parks without additional charge, and in affiliated parks at a reduced rate.
They were having a sale where they offered two zones for the price of one, around $550. This would let us park anywhere in their eastern territories, which is exactly where we planned to be over the next 6-8 months. Their pitch is that for one low price, you can camp “all year-round” at any of their beautiful parks located in some of the most awesome places in the US. What’s not to love about that?
Well, a fair bit it turns out. After 8 months of trying to make use of our TT membership in the Southeast and Northeast areas, our experience with it is decidedly mixed. I’ll break it down for you and then get into the details.
- You can absolutely save money camping with them
What’s Not so Good
- The terms of the deal are confusing and annoying
- Booking campgrounds is a pain sometimes
- The parks themselves aren’t all that wonderful (so far)
- They tend to be clustered in certain areas of the country
The bottom line is that if you understand how they work, and can do some planning, you can get a pretty good deal out of it, but you will be limiting yourself to some mediocre parks in limited locations as a result.
Not really All Year Round
The first gotcha of a Thousand Trails Membership is that it is designed to keep you from simply living in their parks full time. The longest you can stay at any one park is 14 days at a time. Furthermore, after any stay of 4 days of longer, you will need to wait at least one week before you can stay in another Thousand Trails Park. So under ideal conditions, you can stay in TT parks about two-thirds of the year.
But it gets a bit more complicated. Camping at TT parks is on a first come first serve basis. You can book in advance but popular parks in popular venues will fill up pretty fast well in advance of the peak season. Sometimes you can get reservations on a given date, but only for a fairly short time. If there is some mistake, and you show up to a full park, you are more or less out of luck. That has not happened to us, but we have read of it happening to others.
Finally, most of their parks are in tight clusters in certain parts of the country rather than widely spread out. Unless you are planning your trip around their parks, there is a good chance there won’t be one in the location you want to go to. They are also divided up into Zones: North West, South West, North East, and South East. A basic membership is for one zone and you pay extras for more. Thus you get the best deal if you are strictly a regional camper. The middle of the country, most notably near many of the big national parks, is completely bereft of Thousand Trails parks.
Put all these factors together and it can be tricky to take full advantage of your membership. With our one year membership, and being on the road full time, we will probably end up spending only about 20-25 days in TT parks this year. The main reason for that is that they just don’t have parks in many of the places we want to visit, but their week-between policy has meant we had to skip a couple TT parks because we were in our blackout period when one was near by.
Yes, you can save money
Despite only spending less than a month in TT parks of our one-year membership, it was still a good deal from a pure-price perspective. If we only end up with 20 nights in TT parks, our $550 outlay means we got to stay for an average of $27.50 a night. Considering the average parks in the East are $45 to $50 a night, that’s a good deal, saving us about $350 to $400.
If you are a strictly regional camper or can plan your adventures around the park locations and availability, you can save a lot more, especially in places where the prevailing park rents are high.
Park quality is not that great
I have not been to the majority of TT parks, not even within the North East region where we spent a majority of our time. But so far, the Thousand Trails parks we have visited have been mediocre at best. Compared to other parks we typically stay at, they are a little below average. Because we often try to find nicer parks to stay at, the Thousand Trails parks are among the bottom fourth of those we’ve stayed at in the last 20 months of traveling the country.
The most common problem is that the parks are fairly old, and not much money or effort has been invested to keep them up. The two ways to make a park nice are to have new infrastructure or to take good care of the old infrastructure. Those in the TT network seem to do neither of these. They have old facilities and only do the minimum necessary to keep them running.
Bathrooms are often bedecked with dead bugs on the walls, cobwebs in the corners and mud on the floor. The shower fixtures are old, rusty, and heavy with mineral build up. Odors of mold and mildew are fairly common, sometimes overwhelming. Overall they vary from, just adequate, to outright disgusting. I’ve yet to see a bathroom in a Thousand Trails that impressed me with its cleanliness.
The quality of parking spots varies a bit more. Some TT parks have had pretty nice lots with plenty of room and fairly level pads. Others cram the campers into tiny spaces on tiny roads in sites that are lumpy with tree roots and potholes. We’ve never had an issue with the actual hook ups, but then again, I can say that of nearly every RV Park I’ve stayed at in more than a year of constant travel.
The lack of a good reservation system is also irksome. Often you will have to roam around the park looking for an open spot with a map that tells you which empty spots are not to be taken because they belong to someone with a year-long lease on the spot. Then you have to report back into tell them where you parked.
Do you like Timeshares?
I ask because Thousand Trails operates a lot like a typical timeshare company. Most of the parks will have a sales person that would be “happy to meet with you and explain all the wonderful upgrades available for your membership.” The contract terms change from year to year and there are all sorts of special types of memberships you can upgrade to. Older memberships are also transferable and there is a sort of gray market on these old contracts that have different rates and terms.
I get the distinct feeling that it’s all a bit of a game where TT is trying to get the most money from you and you are trying to get the most camping from them. They want you to think you can beat them at the game and score a great camping deal. But the truth is, they have a fixed cost in the campgrounds and so they are happy to see you upgrade your membership as much as possible. Ultimately your ability to camp is limited by site availability. We just opted for the basic membership and have done our best to avoid the sales people. They don’t go out of their way to find you so that’s not difficult to do.
They have a money back guarantee, but it’s pretty limited in scope. If you hate your first two days of camping you can get reimbursed. Commit to any more of that and you are keeping your membership and they are keeping your money. If they catch you breaking park rules or cheating on your stays somehow, they can cancel your membership with no refund. I’ve not heard of them using this abusively, but it’s worth keeping in mind. Once you are a member, they have more control than you do over the relationship.
Would I do it again?
Probably not, but I wouldn’t entirely rule it out. If I was planning on being in one of the regions where they have a lot of parks, for an extended period of time, then I think I’d get a regional pass and take advantage of the savings. I think if you get to know their parks, you can pick out the best ones and how to take the most advantage of what they offer.
For me, the freedom to go where I want and when I want is often worth paying a little more for. If I really need low-cost parking, then booking by the month is often comparatively cheap at parks in more rural areas. We’ve stayed at some wonderful parks for as little as $15 a night when paying a monthly or weekly rate.
My advice to you
Don’t believe the hype their sales pitch gives you. Make sure you understand the limitations of membership and have a plan for taking advantage of it if you join. Set yourself a target per night price you want to achieve and figure out how many nights you need to stay in the network to get that value from a given membership price. If you think you can manage to stay that many nights or more, and it fits in with your travel plans, then it could well be a good deal for you.
If quality means more to you than price, stay away from Thousand Trails as there are many better parks out there.