Comparing Membership Camping AlternativesJanuary 13, 2011 1 Comment
In Introduction to Membership Camping, I reviewed some pros and cons to joining a membership campground system. If you have decided that this option is right for you, the next step is deciding which system is your best choice. Plan to take some time with this process, as the list of alternatives is mind boggling. Always ask for a review copy of the contract and take at least 24 hours to look it over before making a commitment.
Decoding Thousand Trails
Thousand Trails is one of the biggest campground membership networks in the United States. It’s also one of the oldest, dating to 1972. During that time, Thousand Trails has offered dozens of different membership contracts, many of which are now available on the resale market. The company also sells various new contracts complete with easy financing terms.
It is crucial to make your way through the fine print on any resale contract you are considering. Some contracts are considered “lifetime” with no way to cancel, thus accruing annual dues payments until you are able to find a new buyer. Some contracts offer extended stays, enhanced reservation windows, and access to parks in various other membership systems. Since potential resale contracts vary so widely, it is best to purchase through an authorized reseller rather than on the internet.
New memberships are a bit easier to figure out. Thousand Trails recently debuted the Zone Pass system, which is proving popular with those who camp frequently but not full time. You can purchase a Zone Pass online without going through a sales presentation or even visiting a Thousand Trails park. I do not recommend this, as I think it’s important to see exactly what you are getting, but it is an option.
With a Zone Pass, you can decide where you want to camp. The system’s 81 parks in 22 states are divided into four geographic zones. You can choose to include any or all of the zones in your membership. As of 2011, the one-time enrollment fee is waived for the first zone, while each additional zone costs $795. Each year, you pay $499 total in dues regardless of how many zones you have. There is no contract, and you can cancel at any time. Your dues payment includes 30 nights of camping during the year. Additional nights cost $3 each. You are permitted to stay in each park for up to 14 nights, and must then be out of the system for 7 nights.
Traditional memberships are also available. A traditional membership is a contract for a certain number of years and typically costs a few thousand dollars. Annual dues are a few hundred dollars. Financing is offered. A basic membership allows up to 14 nights in each park, with 7 nights out of the system between stays. Elite membership is offered as an upgrade, and allows you to stay up to 21 nights in each park, and travel directly from park to park without spending time out of the system. You may be offered access to other parks as well, including those owned by NACO, Outdoor World and Mid-Atlantic.
Other Membership Systems
While Thousand Trails is one of the biggest membership campground organizations, it is not the only one. All systems of this type follow the same basic structure, although the details may vary. Always plan to spend at least a weekend in one of the parks before committing, in order to get a feel for the system.
RPI, Passport America and Other Discounters
There is a long list of campground discount organizations that offer substantial savings to members. The parks are not exclusive for members, but instead offer a discount to those who qualify. Some organizations, such as RPI, provide low flat-rate camping. Others provide a 50% discount on the public rate.
Discount organizations do not require lengthy contracts. Instead, you pay a nominal fee each year (typically less than $200) for membership privileges for that year. Since the parks are privately owned, they are free to set their own restrictions on usage. For example, you may only be able to use the discounted rate for a certain number of nights per year or a certain number of nights in a row. The rate may not be valid during peak seasons. The rate may apply only to certain sites (sometimes smaller sites or those in a less-desirable section of the park). The organization may also set limits on usage, such as only allowing you to use the rate at parks that are 125 or more air miles from your home. Some organizations require you to be a member of a membership campground system in order to qualify.
Like membership campground contracts, it is crucial that you read the fine print on any offer. Fortunately, if you make a mistake, you will not be out a significant amount of money or locked into a long-term contract.
Escapees is sort of in a class by itself. The organization operates a small network of membership parks that provide camping at a low per-night, per-week or per-month fee. Some other parks throughout the country offer a small discount to Escapees members. However, Escapees membership provides numerous benefits that go beyond inexpensive camping.
Escapees tries to be a one-stop resource for RVers, particularly those who travel full time. The support network is pretty extensive, including an active internet forum, educational classes at various parks throughout the year, and even a list of members who invite other RVers to park at their homes when passing through town. In addition, Escapees headquarters provides a mailing address and legal domicile for full-timers. Members-only camping events and even cruises are offered on a regular basis.
Perhaps Escapees’ most unique offering is the CARE facility. Located at Escapees headquarters in Texas, CARE provides an alternative for RVers facing a short-term or long-term illness or injury. At CARE, you and your caregiver can live in your RV while dedicated staff and volunteers assist with the activities of daily living. Three meals per day, bi-weekly housekeeping services and weekly laundry services, an adult day care program, transportation to doctor appointments and local stores, and even nursing services are available. The program charges a surprisingly low monthly fee, and is available for all Escapees members with a qualifying medical condition regardless of age.
How to Decide
With so many options to choose from, how do you know which is best? We found that it is best to start small. Live the RV lifestyle for at least six months on your own, without joining any organizations at all. Keep detailed records of where you went, what you liked and disliked about each park, and how much you paid. During that time, research various organizations. Learn where the parks are located and what amenities they provide. Write down specific pricing information.
At the end of the six month period, you will be ready to start making decisions. Some options will probably stick out right away as being inappropriate to your lifestyle. Discard those for now, but keep your notes about them. Once you start RVing, it is not unusual to keep expanding your RV adventures. What makes little sense now might be perfect for you in a couple of years.
Once you have narrowed down your list to a few options, start visiting those parks. Get a feel for each place. Talk to members to get their opinions on both the good and the bad of that particular organization. Participate in scheduled activities. Try to picture your family returning again and again.
When you have identified the organization that seems to meet your needs, choose the smallest membership option. You can always upgrade later if the organization turns out to be a good fit. For example, Dad and I joined Thousand Trails in 2009. We chose a three-year basic membership that was well within our budget. A year later, we upgraded to an Elite membership, which more closely aligns with our needs. But there was no way that we would have invested that much money in an organization that we weren’t already highly familiar with.
Whatever you choose, remember that your decision is not a lifelong commitment. Even “lifetime” Thousand Trails memberships can be sold relatively easily. Make the best decisions that you can with the information that you have now, and revisit those decisions as your family gains RV experience.