Two years before our planned launch into the full-time RV unknown, we decided to purchase a Thousand Trails membership, especially after doing a fairly thorough investigation. We had seen a few Youtubers talking about it and the formula seemed pretty simple: Pay a big membership fee upfront, pay a small annual fee each year and camp for free at any of their 80 or so campgrounds around the country, mostly in the east and west coasts. We did the math and it seemed like a good plan, and you'll see below that it actually has been working in our favor.
The first thing we did was discuss the purchase with a reseller. He was able to get us a Platinum Thousand Trails (TT) membership for about $2,100 and an annual fee of $549 that gave us access to all TT resorts for up to 21 days at a time and no required out-of-network time. In other words, we could move from park to park without a waiting period in between. Keep in mind that the current initial price of such a membership from TT directly is between $5,000 and $7,000. There is also a reservation lead time of only 60 days, though the current (expensive) Elite plan allows up to 180-day lead times.
Last year we added the Trails Collection to our annual membership fees, which went up to $849, to add several Encore properties to our availability list, giving us 168 total resorts to stay in. These come with a few caveats: The max stay in the Trails parks is 14 days (or less, depending on the park and season), you have to be out of the system for at least 7 days between Trails stays (a non-Trails TT stay counts as out of the system), and some Trails parks charge up to $20/night out-of-pocket.
So, there we were in Colorado, fresh new TT members and nowhere to stay. We were both still working full-time and the midwest is terribly lacking TT resorts. There were none within a reasonable distance for a long weekend. We bided our time and were finally full-time on the road in April this year. However, our first several stops were still in Colorado, eastern Utah and southern Wyoming, none of which sported TT campgrounds.
Eventually, in June, we stayed for 14 days in a TT resort for the first time. It was a huge park, the O'Connells Yogi Bear Park in Amboy, IL, with over 600 sites plus a small village of seasonal residents. But the campground was very clean and spacious, and other than a bad rust problem with their water lines and huge numbers of mosquitoes, we enjoyed our stay. As advertised, we were not charged a camping fee, but did pay an up-charge of $3/day for 50-amp service. We have only had to pay this fee in a couple of resorts and it seems a small enough fee, if annoying.
So, the math:
Up until next Sunday, 10/28/18, we will have stayed in TT parks for 82 nights. By the end of the year, that will total 119 days and nights of camping. Keep in mind that we didn't go full-time until April and our first TT stay wasn't until June. At an conservative average of $35 per night in equivalent full-hookup resorts (i.e. O'Connell's Yogi Bear Park charges the public $75 per night, Hershey's Thousand Trails is $108 per night, while most KOA's are between $30 and $70 per night) we would have been out-of pocket $4,165 in 2018. In 2019, we have tentatively planned 230 nights in TT and Trails parks, which would be over $8,000 using the $35 average cost per night. This year we will be money ahead, even adding in the past annual fees and next year is golden.
There have been downsides. Thousand Trails parks are typically older and less maintained, though usually clean. TT corporate actively sells seasonal sites, often selling park models for those sites, but some of the parks we've stayed in felt more like trailer parks than camping resorts. The 60-day reservation limit is a pain, since our plans are laid out well beyond that timeframe. There should be more visibility of the available hookups and additional fees at each park. Finally, when you want to call in a reservation in from spring until fall, you may spend up to 45 minutes on hold waiting for the next specialist to pick up. However, the good news is the their online reservation system is working now and that has made reserving space or changing reservations faster and much simpler. They also have added a feature on the account page that lists all the resorts available to us in our membership contract. In the past, with all the different plans and park groupings it was often difficult to tell what park was on our plan.
We would definitely recommend a Thousand Trails membership as a cost savings device for full-timers who don't spend a lot of time in the Midwest. You could spend the big bucks and purchase from Thousand Trails directly and still expect cost saving over time, but these savings will come much quicker if you get a "used" membership from a reseller. Make sure you read and understand the contract fully before pulling the trigger.
We lived near Buffalo, NY, for several years but did not yet own an RV, so most of our travel back then consisted of day trips and the occasional long drive to visit relatives. Since becoming full-time RV'ers last April, we have worked our way across the country from Colorado and spent most of the summer in far eastern Midwest and the northern east coast.
Most of this was new to us, especially staying in the areas' campgrounds, and we have made several observations about travel in the northeastern United States, especially compared to travel in the west. Here are the top 9 of those observations.
9. Even though we were at or near sea level for most of the summer, in many places (when we had the elusive clear skies), the lack or blocking of city lights made the night sky enjoyable. Often the Milky Way was visible, as were the Pleiades and Little Dipper, constellations that are seldom seen near cities. Before this trip, I had only seen them from the mountains or high deserts in the west.
8. It rains a lot in the summer in the northeast. Like someone said, it takes a lot of rainfall to keep all those trees green. But, c'mon, a dozen clear skies in three months? I now have a full assortment of scenic photos featuring white sky.
7. The entire east coast and as far inland as Upstate and Central New York seems to be one gigantic forest out of which cities, towns, streets and neighborhoods have been carved. I sometimes felt claustrophobic, with dense woods closing in on me wherever we drove, and the abundance of trees left little in the way of viewpoints or scenery.
6. Speaking of lack of scenery, I have been taken aback by the sheer amount of shoreline, both lake and ocean, in the eastern US that is privately owned and not accessible to the public. As I tried to get photos of certain lakes and seashore, I was foiled again and again by the lack of access, and a couple of times got into some hot water by sneaking a shot or two from in-between houses. Ditto on access for fishing, too. If you don't own a boat (I don't), good luck.
5. Cigar smoke often permeates campgrounds at evenings and nights in the east more than I've ever experienced. Unfortunately I am allergic to cigar smoke so it's more than an inconvenience for me, but I do hate the smell. I'd rather have skunk odor...
4. Speaking of campgrounds, it's astounding how many easterners do their best to convert their campsites into cityscapes. Why come to the forest if all you want are bright colors, flashing lights, complete tiki bars, carpet and big screen TV's (outdoors)? It would be so nice sometimes to experience nature while you are actually visiting nature.
3. For many reasons, streets can be very narrow in New England and surrounding states. I found myself in a Philly neighborhood with at most two inches of space between my rig and the lines of parked cars on both sides of the street. I have had to be very deliberate about my driving path, even when driving my 1-ton pick-up and not towing. I was told that when the Mormons came west and created new towns, they made streets wide enough for a 6-oxen-drawn wagon to make a full U-turn. That may be why the west doesn't have the same street-width issues as the east coast.
Sticking with the driving theme, low-clearance bridges are everywhen in the northeast. The aforementioned Philly drive was caused by a bridge over the Delaware River only having 13' 5" of clearance. Rather than chance it (my fifth wheel is 13' 5" tall), I took the last exit and that's where we landed. We now use a trucker's app to avoid low-clearance bridges and overpasses, but it's not infallible. In Binghamton, NY, I turned a corner and was greeted by an overpass that had not been mentioned in any apps and had a clearance of only 11' 2". That would have left a mark. I was profoundly fortunate to have spotted the sign in time. It took nearly a half-hour to stop traffic and back out and onto a side street to turn around.
2. In the entire time since leaving Colorado on the road, we have seen a sum total of zero wild animals that aren't your regular turkeys, crows and other ordinary birds -- no deer, no elk, no moose, no rabbits, no bear, no porcupines, no possums, nothing. We have stayed in or near the forest nearly every stop longer than a day and have made many day-long excursions through the most remote geography in the midwest and eastern US with no sightings at all. We've never NOT seen deer and antelope in Wyoming and usually see a moose or a bald eagle as well, not to mention the abundant wildlife we often saw in the Rocky mountains. The funny thing is there are moose crossing signs throughout New England, but I still don't know why.
1. If you don't like lobster, rarely will you experience food in northeast restaurants that is particularly good. Nadyne and I both dislike shellfish, including lobster, and every restaurant we visited (in Maine, Cape Cod, Central New York, Vermont, etc.) had mediocre food. Yes Buffalo and New York City are exceptions, but they were a very small part of our journey this summer.
Honorable mention: Easterners often use their horn before their brake. This is definitely an east coast thing.
The advantage of purchasing a three-year-old fifth wheel was that everything worked, far beyond the initial break-in period when most mishaps occur. However, the older floor plans were not really set up for full-time living, so each room needed upgrades, modifications and updates. I've already posted about updating our master bedroom and this post is regarding our rig's entryway.
I've numbered several items on the attached photos so you can see what I'm describing. Who would have thought I could find 26 things we did just in the entryway?
4. Solar motion-sensor lights
We found relatively inexpensive motion-sensor lighting that are powered by solar cells built on them and install six of them around the fifth wheel for safety and convenience at night.
5. Screen-door lever
It's a minor thing, but always having to slide the screen panel over to open the screen door with the main door open was a small frustration that installing this lever removed. Just lift the lever up and the door can be easily opened.
6. White metal storage cubes
We installed a pair of metal cubes along the ceiling of the hallway into the bedroom for additional storage. It's well out of the way and we store prescription drugs and overflow meds from the bathroom in these nicely-sized cabinets.
7. Cherry wood coat rack with mirror
One of the few pieces of furniture that we moved from our sticks-and-bricks house, this coat rack has a mirror, two curio shelves and two spaces for pictures
8. Door valence (re-covered)
We re-covered the valence over the door to match the valence updates we made in the living room.
9. Baseball cap holder
I had a couple dozen caps I didn't want to get rid of and this was the best storage device for them I could find. It's a vertical strip that has hanging flaps from floor to ceiling and I've attached it to the wall.
10. Wooden CD cabinet (converted)
We took a large CD/video cabinet from our house, painted it with chalk paint, distressed it for an antique look and covered its glass panels with a semi-clear treatment. I attached it to the hallway wall and added tie-downs so it would be secure in transit. We use this cabinet as our primary backup storage space for bathroom and first aid supplies
11. Carpet strips
We cut three carpet rolls to fit the steps up to the bedroom. The original carpet underneath is very low quality and was always dirty.
12. Wood carving (decor)
We have a wood carver as a friend and I had him make us this artistic tree bark carving as a birthday gift for my wife.
13. Wood handrails
There were no rails in the stairway to the bedroom so we found molding that would fit the bill and not intrude into the space very far.
14. Fire Extinguisher
15. Magnetic pinup board
We found a neat sheet of metal with magnetic "pins" and baskets and installed one across from the main door. It is a convenient spot for keys, RV remote, flashlight and other items that come and go often.
16. Entry mat
This is the space that accumulates the most dirt in the rig, so we put an extra-heavy duty mat there. It is easily shook and cleaned.
17. Wire birdcage coat rack
The space between the slide and the door was wasted, so we placed a nice metal coat rack there that also has artistic value.
18. Wood board with weather station
A small craft project was all that was needed to create, stain and install this mounting board, then we added the weather station with three sensors (outside, freezer and refrigerator) . The unit itself senses inside temps and humidity.
19. Shoe rack
Shoes were always piling up around the door and into the living room and kitchen, so we made a shoe rack out of coated particle board and large coat hooks. Four pairs of shoes fit perfectly and we make sure we don't let other pairs creep into the space.
20. Wire bins
Again wanting to use otherwise wasted space, we installed two wire baskets next to the door that we use for dog cleaning supplies and other canine accessories.
21. Motion-sensor LED light strip
Night-time lighting was deficient in the hallway, so a specialty light strip was the solution.
22. Coin sorter
Another item that made its way from the house to the RV, this coin sorter uses standard paper coin rolls and is battery-powered.
23. Wicker bin
We attached a small wicker basket on the white cabinet for odds and ends.
24. Antler hat rack
What can I say? Antlers belong in an RV somewhere...
25. Over-door hanging rack
It's the only door we have, so we put a hanging coat rack on the hallway side and a hanging towel rack on the bathroom side.
26. Framed US map
This was a gift from our friends in the New Directions RV group so we always know where they are.
Next up: Updating the Kitchen
A Thousand Trails Resort
Address: 493 S Mt. Pleasant Road, Lebanon, PA 17042
Phone: (717) 867-3967
# of sites: 320
Full hookup price: From $108/night
Rating: 5 out of 5 stars
Warnings: mosquitos, caters to families
This park was and still is our favorite Thousand Trails park (so far). It's a large park, set on 200 acres of rolling forest and farmland in the vicinity of the Chocolate World theme park area. We wished we had been able to stay longer than the three days we had planned, but we are certain to return.
Very well maintained, there are a ton of amenities at this resort, including all the services one would expect at a high-end park plus fishing ponds, pickleball and basketball courts, a nice game room and a hot tub accompanying the pool. They have family-oriented events and crafts going nearly every day.
I had a really good experience at a craft beer tavern called Funck's. I still wear the neat cap I got there, too.
While this is a well-maintained park, some things didn't make sense, such as making the check-in staff cover the propane supply tank. I had to wait quite a while for him to be free, then he closed the entrance gate to help me a hundred yards away. Mosquitos were an aggravation we had to endure. Though not unusual in this part of the country, I still believe there is more a park can do to help limit the problem.
That it's a tourist area is a double-edged sword. Traffic was difficult, and the narrow roads didn't help with my larger pickup. Tourist prices were common for gas and groceries.
Hershey RV & Camping Resort is a very lush, well-run and maintained park that has an abundance of amenities, I rated this campground 5 out of 5 stars, one of the few parks to receive a perfect rating from me. We are anxious to return and spend more time here.
Jack Huber is a novelist with 6 mysteries published, along with several books of poetry and photography. Now retired, he and his wife, Nadyne, are free to travel the country in their 32' 5th wheel and 1-ton Ford pickup.