Late in 2018 I wrote and posted an article on my blog entitled, “First Report- Is Thousand Trails Worth Its Cost?” In that piece I determined that yes, it was. To further substantiate that opinion, let me quote from my podcast:
“In 2019 we drove a little over 18,000 miles and stayed 260 nights in Thousand Trails resorts. Our Thousand Trails membership made those nights free, saving us … about $12,000 in camping fees, not counting the $1,000 per week we saved in the [Florida] Keys, where we only paid $20 a night. We stayed in [Thousand-Trails-affiliated] RPI parks for 21 nights, saving $735.”
It’s simple math. Campgrounds and resorts cost an average of $45 to $50 per night, depending on who you ask and where you spend the majority of your camping. We have lived full-time on the road in our fifth wheel for over two years and, not counting boondocking, have spent from $24/night in an RV campground to $94/night in a KOA resort, and everywhere in between. Our Thousand Trails membership plan reduces out of pocket to nothing on most of their resorts and campgrounds. Simply said, we could not be full-timing, with the quality of life we have today, and still see vast portions of the country, if we were not members.
Thousand Trails ("TT") offers a Camping Pass and three upgrade plans, each with its own purpose and cost. I hope here to cut through some of the confusion about these plans to give some generalizations and summarize each you should consider.
Before I unburden myself of some of the pitfalls we have experienced with Thousand Trails resorts, let me remind you that we highly recommend a TT membership for full-time and seasonal RV’ers. Let me also interject that non-TT campers often have problems and difficulties in private and public campgrounds around the country, so issues may not be with TT specifically.
The TT collection of parks, campgrounds and resorts used to be a group of private and TT-owned parks but are now are almost entirely owned by TT. Most of the original TT parks are splendid, but many of the previously-private campgrounds are anything but. They provide various levels of quality and services, and are nearly all first come, first served, for full hook-up sites. That can mean that, although we may have placed reservations months in advance for a specific resort, we may find that we don’t have a sewer hook-up when we land there. For weekenders, this might not be a problem, but for those of us taking showers and using our bathrooms for more than a few days, it makes life extremely challenging. TT tells us that all of their campgrounds provide bathrooms and showers, and some actually prefer the park facilities for longer showers, so you can easily get by without sewer hookups.
Being first come, first served, very few times have we been able to choose a site on a lake or river shore, or any upgraded space with cement pads and grass yards. Older campgrounds may not even have level sites at all, especially for the size of RV most people have today. We couldn’t even get level at a park a month ago, even with the spare tire under the kingpin sitting on the ground.
There is a void of TT campgrounds and resorts in the Midwest. Fifteen states from Utah to the Mississippi River have no TT parks. Nada. The reason for this may be the shorter camping seasons in these states, both too cold in the winter and too hot in the summer, for the average camper. Fortunately, you can fill in east-west travel with a few of the TT-affiliated RPI parks. More about that later.
There are seven or so “high use” properties around the country, TT resorts that fill up in the 2.5-month-long high season. In these parks a member can only stay for a maximum of two weeks, though the Ultimate Odyssey plan does include the ability to extend another week twice per year for a fee. The high-use cap won’t affect Camping Pass members because their stays are already limited to two weeks anyway.
Now for the good news. TT seems to be placing a real effort into upgrading their parks, adding sites, services and hookups, though it could happen faster. As full-timers, winter camping in any western or southern state (except Florida) is easily possible and many desirable locations have spots available during the entire season.
Most TT resorts have the minimum set of desired amenities and more are improving their services all the time. Nearly all have laundry rooms with pay kiosks or coin-op controls, and most have pools, mini-golf, shuffleboard, playgrounds, showers and a clubhouse with free wi-fi. Some also have billiards, hot tubs/spas, fitness centers, tennis courts and off-leash dog parks. All have sites with power and water hookups – it’s just the sewer hookups that may be limited.
TT’s online booking system is one of the best I have ever used. You can always call in, which I often do when modifying my itinerary, but adding or canceling reservations are easily done in the system. They maintain a list of available parks for your membership plan, resort info pages with photos (some have 3D exploration), a history of your reservations and a summary of your current reservations.
Introducing Rob Kenny, whom we met while camping at a TT resort in Northern California in the spring of 2019. He is an interesting family man from Ireland that traveled full-time with his wife and four kids in a large fifth wheel. I had sought him out because he was helping install RV solar systems and I had an interest in finding out more about that. We crossed paths twice more that year, as can happen regularly as full-timers that use the TT system often are bound to see one another in several places around the country. Robbie became a work-camper in an Oregon TT resort and we were thrilled to see him once again when we camped in that park.
Rob has since become a TT Membership Specialist and he gave me the real scoop about their sometimes-confusing set of plans and programs, as well as his personal take on them.
There are four membership plans- including the Camping Pass and three available upgrades to the Elite Basic, Elite Connections or Ultimate Odyssey plans. This means that to purchase an upgrade, you must first get a Camping Pass. Rather than boring you with a list of benefits for each, which you can get from any TT sales organization, I thought I would discuss the basics of each plan and differences between them, at least those that I think are important. I’ll use the term “day” for any 24-hour period and all prices quoted are as of this article’s publication date.
The Camping Pass runs around $600 per year (this goes up $10-$15 each year) per zone, which is a region of the country in which you can freely use the pass, for up to 14 days in a stretch. A single geographical zone will have between 8 and 23 parks available to use, and you can purchase multiple zones. One caveat is that you can move directly from one TT campground to another, with no “out time,” only if the length of stay you are coming from is 4 days or less. “Out time” represents being out of the TT system, meaning if you stay in a TT park from 5 to 14 days, you must stay elsewhere, out of the TT system, for at least 7 days before you can camp in another TT park. Managing out times is one of the necessary burdens of the TT membership program.
The three upgrade plans are nationwide and give up to 21 or 28 days (with some exceptions) in a single resort with no out times. In other words, you can stay in any of the parks in the system and travel from park-to-park. These upgrades cost quite a bit more than a Camping Pass, as you can imagine, and can either be paid in full at time of purchase or financed monthly through TT. For example, the Elite Basic upgrade costs as low as $135 per month at the time of this writing, the Elite Connections is as little $165/mo. and the Ultimate Odyssey is in the $265/mo. range. Upgrade memberships also have annual dues that are equivalent to the Camping Pass cost.
Besides the parks themselves, advance booking ranges are probably the most significant benefit in all of these upgrades. Currently, a Camping Pass allows reservations to be placed up to 60 days in advance and the Elite Basic allows 120 days, while the Elite Connections and Ultimate Odyssey both include the ability to book up to 180 days in advance of the stay. Mine is an older Elite plan that lets me utilize a 90-day advance window. When you live full-time in an RV, the longer the reservation window the better, and I certainly wish mine was longer.
The camping durations of the plans also vary. As I mentioned, the Camping Pass allows up to 14 days in a single stay, both of the Elite plans allow up to 21 continuous days and the Ultimate Odyssey allows 28 days per stay in a resort. Another benefit of the upgrade plans is an inexpensive extension of these limits twice per year at only $29 per week, but only in non-high-use resorts. However, the Ultimate Odyssey adds two more weeks per year that can be used to extend a stay in a high-use park for as little as $99 per week.
All four TT plans have the Trails Collection add-on option available, which adds over 100 other resorts nationwide to your available parks, even if you have just a single zone Camping Pass. They allow camping up to 14 days, have an out-time requirement of 7 days between Trails Collections parks and the maximum advance booking time is 60 days. Many Encore RV Resorts are among the parks available, which are properties in prime sunbelt locations, 40 in Florida alone. No matter your membership level, the Trails Collection, which costs only $299 per year, is a must-have, in my opinion.
However, there are some things to know about the Trails Collection parks. Some of them, those in high-demand tourism areas, charge members $20 per night out-of-pocket. Some 16 of the 108 Encore Parks in the system are considered high-demand. However, this can be a steal. For example, we paid $280 (plus tax) to stay in the Florida Keys for two weeks, but compare that to the $1,200 per week our non-TT neighbor paid. We were thrilled!
Many of the Encore parks are crowded neighborhoods of park model trailers with RV sites scattered among them. At times we have had difficulty backing into a space between permanent trailers. Many of these resorts are completely paved and don’t have any campground ambiance at all. Some sport ancient trailers, 5th wheels or park models, some covered in moss or think layers of pine needles, making us feel like we were visiting an old trailer park. Also, since most of these parks are filled with permanent residents, we usually get treated like interlopers, which, I suppose, we are. Most Encore resorts have a number of RV sites reserved for transient camping, or less than a month’s stay, with the balance of the park set aside for longer-term customers, seasonal renters or full-time residents. Often the transient camping loops are not the most desirable spots in the park.
Many Encore parks restrict use of pet fences or corrals. Since we have a pet door so our two small dogs can come and go through the front door, not having a pen is frustrating.
An RPI (Resort Parks International) option is also available on the Elite and Ultimate Odyssey upgrades for an additional fee. My older RPI plan costs $89 per year, includes over 100 RPI-affiliated campgrounds (these parks are not owned by TT), and discounts the daily rate to just $10. When you are traveling across the north or Midwest, where there are few or no TT resorts, often RPI resorts are available, a huge benefit.
The bottom line is easy to compute. As I mentioned, we have an older Elite membership that is completely paid for, and we pay around $800 per year in annual dues and subscription fees, which includes our membership and subscriptions for the Trails Collection and RPI Plus add-ons. If you do simple math, at $50 per night in an average private campground, our breakeven point for the annual fees is just 16 nights. Last year‘s savings more than paid for both the annual fees and our original purchase cost. Our plans give us access to 174 TT and Trails Collections parks (even more are available now), plus the 100 or so RPI parks. Retired and working part-time, we simply could not afford our current lifestyle without a TT membership.
That brings me back to Rob Kenny. He has offered to consult with any of my fans, friends and followers, and promises to quote the best price possible to any who ask for a proposal. Rob is an expert in all of the TT programs and details, and I can personally vouch for him. He is not a high-pressure salesman like you may have run across, and, by-the-way, he works from a state with no sales tax. Simply give him my name when you call or email.
Jack's note: Rob is on hiatus from Thousand Trails, so I have changed the contact info below to Eric's, who is taking over for him.
"Referred by Jack Huber"
There are a variety of membership benefits I did not discuss because, in my opinion, they are of less importance in your decision-making, such as membership gifting, cabin discounts or free stays, vacation credits, and more. Let Rob walk you through the maze and answer any questions you have. I asked Rob why he personally owns the Elite Connections level of membership and he responded that the 180-day advanced booking window was the most relevant factor to him, which makes perfect sense to me. What is vital to you will depend upon your lifestyle, RV plans and financial state.
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.