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.
Jack Huber is a novelist with 7 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.