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How To Camp For Under $550 – PER YEAR!!!*

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At the Natchez Trace campground in Tennessee

*When this post was originally written, the price of a Zone Pass was $545/year.  As of October 2017, the base price has risen to $565, but discounts are still easily available.  There are still plenty of national memberships available (used and new) with dues ranging from $500-$700/year after the initial cost to purchase the contract.

There is already info out there from other full-timers and their experiences with Thousand Trails memberships, but I think it’s something that could use a few more articles.  So, here is ours!

When we first began dreaming about our full-time RV lifestyle, we envisioned a lot of boondocking.  Not only can it be fun, adventurous and picturesque, but most of the time it is FREE!!  We had a goal to make our lifestyle and RV self sustaining for up to two weeks before finding a place to dump waste tanks, refill fresh water supplies and top off batteries.  While this is still a goal of ours, we probably won’t be able to test our true boondocking readiness until we head west of the Mississippi for 2017.  Being in the eastern half of the country, there are few true boondocking opportunities available.

What is Thousand Trails?

So knowing that we’d need regular campground access and also because it’s always nice to have an easy backup plan, we began researching Thousand Trails. For anyone unfamiliar with Thousand Trails, here is some background to get you caught up:  TT is a nationwide chain of campgrounds.  At this time, they have a total of ~86 campgrounds in the US and British Columbia.  This number has grown over the years as they purchase smaller, regional chains of campgrounds.  TT is a sister company to Encore RV Resorts and they are currently owned by Equity Lifestyle Properties.  The easiest way to understand Thousand Trails is to think of them as a time-share.  Each member purchases a contract entitling them to a certain amount of access.  Along with the upfront cost of membership, each member also pays annual dues.  The access that each member gets ranges wildly and can get quite confusing.

What are the Memberships?

map-bigZone Camping Pass

The most basic, and least expensive, level of membership is called a Zone Pass (Also called the “The Camping Pass”).  This is the only membership that you will find any information on through the Thousand Trails website – think of it as the gateway drug to TT memberships.  The Zone Pass gives a member access to one of five geographical zones.  Each zone has 8-23 campgrounds.  A Zone Pass member can stay up to 14 continuous days in a campground before they must be out of the Thousand Trails network for at least seven days.  A Zone Pass member can move park-to-park (with no time out) as long as they do not stay longer than four days in any one park.  These memberships have no real membership cost, just annual dues, starting at $565/year for one zone.  The $565/year gives the member unlimited nights of camping per year – within the restrictions of the contract.  Zone Passes are often on sale and have been frequently offered as “buy one zone, get a second zone free” (I was immediately offered a 2-for-1 when I contacted them).  If this is the membership that you’re interested in, and there aren’t any current specials, it would definitely be worth contacting a TT sales person and playing hard-to-get.  You never know what they may offer you to seal the deal.

Elite Membership (and older equivalents)

Not that you would know it by looking at their website, but TT does offer other memberships besides the Zone Camping Pass.  I believe their ideal model would be to have a new member sign up for a Zone Pass, use it for three to four months, and then upgrade to a new Elite Membership.  That is one way to do it, but not the most economical.  What an Elite upgrade will give you is substantial in comparison to the Zone Pass.  First of all, it gives access to all TT parks, nationwide – no more zones.  It also allows for stays up to 21 consecutive days WITH the ability to move park-to-park (no time out of the system).  The only catch is that a member must stay out of the individual park they’ve stayed at for seven days, unless they stayed for less than seven days.  In that case, they would have to stay OUT for the same amount of days they were IN (maximum of seven).  The number of nights allowed per year are unlimited and there is no nightly fee at any point.  Another benefit over the Zone Pass is a 120 day reservation window, versus 45 day.

Elite is the current premium membership offered (actually Elite Connections is, but it’s very similar, just with a 180 day reservation window and a couple Encore parks added in).  In the past, this premium membership has had different names and each iteration has been slightly different.  Some of the more popular past memberships are: Platinum (very similar to Elite, just with fewer parks since TT didn’t have as many parks when these contracts were written and a 60 day reservation window) and VIP/Basic Elite (Same parks as Platinum, but 120 day reservations and no “high-use restrictions”).

At the Thousand Trails Peace River in Wauchula, Florida
At the Thousand Trails Peace River in Wauchula, Florida

There are a bazillion variations on these memberships along with many others.  Remember that similar to a time-share, each contract can be slightly different and offer different privileges.  The new, upfront cost of an Elite membership is an unknown to me since I do not know of anyone who has purchased a NEW, premium membership without already being a TT member.  Everyone I’ve spoken to has either upgraded from their current membership or purchased on the used market (much more on this later).

Other Variables

You’ve already seen how a few key variables affect membership.  The big ones are: included campgrounds, maximum nights allowed to stay at one park consecutively (usually 14 or 21), number of nights (if any) out of the system between stays, and reservation window.  There are also a plethora of other little variables that are offered with some contracts.  They include: exemption from high-use restriction, frozen dues at the age of 62, contract length, ability to give passes to family, cabin rental discounts, membership to other discount camping/travel services, and many more.

High-Use Restrictions

High-use deserves its own paragraph so that expectations are properly set.  “High-use” is a term TT uses for their parks that are extremely busy during certain times of the year.  For most premium contract holders (except those rare contracts which are exempt), this means only being able to stay 14 days at a time, even if they have 21 day access in their contract.  It also means only being able to have two reservations at high-use parks at any one time.  Currently, we’re in Florida in February and all three of their Florida parks are in high-use season.  So we have to move every two weeks instead of three and we have to book a reservation each time we check in so that we can be sure to get a spot, but it’s been fine.  The parks are crowded, but we’ve always been able to get a spot when and where we wanted.  Most parks in the system have no high-use periods, so it’s definitely the exception, not the rule.

How to Buy a Premium Membership

As has been stated above, it is rare (if not impossible) to purchase a new Elite Membership without already having a TT membership.  If you were starting from scratch and wanted to purchase new, I believe the fastest route would be to buy a Zone Pass and then immediately upgrade to an Elite.  This would be very expensive though since I’ve heard that you are not credited anything back from your unused Zone Pass (wasting $565).  If you weren’t concerned with buying retail, there is a large market of previously-owned contracts, just like time-shares, and it can save a bundle!

Pickleball court in Orlando (Clermont)
Pickleball court in Orlando (Clermont)

If you Google “Thousand Trails membership for sale”, you’ll find many ads out there.  Most will be on RV forums, eBay and Craigslist.  This is not a bad way to purchase a contract, but you have to know what you’re doing.  If you find a resale contract that fits your needs, the first thing you should do is request the owner’s last name and member number.  This is not secret information and if the owner is unwilling to give it to you, move on.  With this information, you would then contact TT Member Services and request the details of that contract.  Do not take a seller’s word for it when it comes to the specifics of their contract – they may have no clue!

There are also agencies out there that specifically handle the resale of used campground memberships.  One in particular is Campground Membership Outlet.  We will share our experience with them and what I feel are the advantages to using their services in a moment.

No matter how you decide to purchase, if you purchase used, know that it is not an instant transaction.  Once all the forms are filled out, signed and submitted along with payment, there is still a two to four week wait for a member number.  Why it takes this long is a mystery of the universe.  As long as the purchase has been made, TT Member Services should have no problem booking stays at campgrounds while you’re waiting for a member number (which grants the ability to login online to book your own reservations).

What Does a Premium Membership Actually Cost??

That’s the magic question… and there isn’t a simple answer.  Just like the contracts vary in privileges, they also vary in cost.  The upfront cost will be representative of the amount of access the contract has to the system and also on the annual dues.  A Platinum contract will typically be $2,300-$2,500 and a newer (used) Elite will likely be $3,500+.  This may seem like a lot, but in comparison to a retail priced upgrade through TT, it’s a bargain.  At the Tampa RV Supershow, we were recently quoted a “Show Special” rate of $5,000 just to UPGRADE from our current membership!!  It didn’t take long to realize we could purchase another resale contract, in addition to our current membership, and have money left over.

One of the swimming pools at Thousand Trails Orlando
One of the swimming pools at Thousand Trails Orlando

The annual dues are much more uniform.  Typical rates seem to be $549/year.  I’ve seen some contracts which had higher annual dues, but they also cost less upfront to purchase.  For instance, a resale contract with dues of $630/year cost $2,000 to buy, versus $2,500 for a contract with $549 annual dues.  That simply becomes a math problem with time as the variable to figure out which is the best deal.  Some resale contracts also may be for sale with dues already paid for several upcoming months, which are transferred to the new buyer – this would drive up the initial cost, but usually it just all washes out.  One key thing to remember is that nearly all contracts have a $750 transfer fee that has to be paid when it is transferred to anyone outside the owner’s immediate family.  If you’re buying used through classifieds, it’s important to ask if that fee is included in the seller’s asking price.

Drawbacks To Buying Used

For us, there were very few drawbacks, but there are some.  Typically when a contract transfers, some of the perks fall off.  These may include the ability to buy an “out week” (the seven days out of a park before you can check back in) for a very low price several times a year; the ability to freeze annual dues at the age of 62; side memberships to other discounted travel; ability to share camping passes with family; free or discounted cabin rentals; and possibly the ability to resell the contract intact at a later date.  Most of these weren’t of concern to us.  The one of concern is the ability to potentially sell our contract later, with privileges intact.  In the original paperwork, there was a clause pertaining to this, but a quick call to Member Services got the go-ahead to cross out that clause, but with the condition that they couldn’t promise that ability to the next owner when they’re ready to sell it.  The only other drawback would come from the buyer’s mistakes of buying something they don’t truly understand.  Hopefully this article will help to avoid that.

What Did We Buy?

We learned a lot from fellow bloggers, particularly RVLove.  They have a couple great TT posts that really helped us feel confident in our purchase.  After our research and our contact with Campground Membership Outlet, we settled on a Platinum Membership.  Our privileges include 60 campgrounds nationwide, 21 day stays, moving park-to-park, and a 60 day reservation window.  We purchased this right as we were heading out full-time and it’s what we thought would suit our needs for the least amount of money.  After using it, I think we did well.  There are times when having a longer reservation window would be nice and being able to stay at some of the more recently acquired campgrounds would have worked well, but we didn’t pay for that.  As was mentioned above, we have looked into upgrading to a new Elite contract, but at this time, it’s not worth an additional $5K+ to us.

Campground Membership Outletheader

We purchased our resale contract through CMO and we couldn’t be happier.  There is no way we would do it any differently if we had to repeat the process.  They are experts when it comes to these contracts and their word is equivalent to that of TT Member Services, in our eyes.  Even still, they fully condone and recommend contacting TT and asking questions of the individual contracts they have for sale.  Not only do they have a catalog of contracts ready to be sold, they know what they’re worth.  When we first contacted them, they only sent a list of the contracts they knew were priced right.  They had many more contracts which the owner’s were asking too much for and they didn’t even offer them until the owners brought the asking price to a competitive amount.  Even though contracts had different prices, for seemingly the same privileges, there was always a reason and it always washed out in the end (higher or lower annual dues, prepaid dues, etc).  They handled all the paperwork electronically, collected the funds, and worked directly with TT on our behalf – I’m sure this saved weeks over doing it on our own.  Whenever we had questions, we contacted them and they quickly responded with an answer or whom at TT we should contact for the answer.  The best part??  It cost us ZERO DOLLARS!!  CMO doesn’t charge the buyer OR seller ANY money for their services.  They make a commission on the previously mentioned transfer fee, directly from TT.  For these reasons, I can’t imagine not using them.  If you’re at all interested in a TT membership, contact them – it doesn’t cost anything and you will get an education, at a minimum. 1-800-272-0401 – Tell them Ryan McCready sent you!!

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At the Clerbrook RV Resort – an overflow park for TT Orlando during the winter

What Are TT Parks Like?

Ehhh… they vary.  Some parks are really nice and others really need some work.  Most of them we’ve visited have very nice swimming pools, hot tubs, tennis/pickleball courts, shuffleboard, and many planned activities.  I would say the biggest complaints you’ll hear have to do with road surfaces and site maintenance.  It seems most, if not all, TT parks we’ve been to leave quite a bit to be desired for the roadways.  Many potholes and deteriorating pavement.  The site quality can also be hit or miss.  We currently have a very level, shaded grass site with a large concrete patio, but we’ve also had a couple sketchy, small sites that weren’t close to being level.  The only park we’ve been to that I don’t think we’ll be revisiting is Carolina Landing.  The topography and tight nature of the park was very tough for us and our 40+ feet of RV.  Our guess is that when that park was built, 40ft RV’s were only a dream.  That can be seen in many RV parks, though, TT or otherwise.  For the most part, we’ve been able to find quality hookups with 50 amp at nearly every park we’ve visited – although some parks will require a $3 nightly surcharge for 50 amp over 30 amp.

In Conclusion

If we were going to do it all over again, I don’t think we’d change anything when it comes to the purchase of our TT membership.  Maybe we would have spent more and gotten an Elite resale membership, but honestly, our Platinum has been just fine and it left $1,000+ in our pockets.  There is no doubt that we’re getting our money’s worth.  It’s early February and our $549 annual dues have already paid for themselves.  We think that for anyone who likes to stay with full hookups frequently, full-times, or just likes to have an extensive safety net, Thousand Trails can be a great way to go!

See you on the road!

Ryan, Kim and Jet

9 thoughts on “How To Camp For Under $550 – PER YEAR!!!*

  1. So on a zone pass, it’s 14 days in and 14 days out? Then I can return to that same park? Also after my free I believe you said 30 days, then I pay just 3.00 a night for 30 amp hookups? And the dump is free? I’d like to stay I. Just one area, and not travel except boondocking my 14days out. Did I get it right for the zone pass?

    1. Hi Tami! Thanks for reading! The Zone Pass (now called “The Camping Pass”, but it’s still broken up in five zones) has changed slightly since I wrote this article. I just confirmed with TT that there is no longer a limit to “free” nights with the Zone Pass. Before, it was 30 nights per year and $3/night thereafter. Now, there is no limit to the number of nights a member can use per year. There is still a 14 night limit per stay. If a member stays for more than four nights in a row at a single campground, they must stay out of the TT system for seven nights before re-entering that same campground or any other TT park. In theory, you could stay for four nights at a time and go park-to-park for every day of the year – but that would be a lot of moving.

      There is still the possibility of a nightly charge for 50 amp electricity (instead of 30 amp), depending on the park. This applies to all members, regardless of their membership or number of nights.

      I hope that helps!
      Ryan

  2. Thank you for this detailed post! We’re looking at going on a year-long RV trip and have been considering TT. I’ve seen their map–would you consider TT pretty much “enough” for seeing a good portion of the US driving camp-to-camp? We realize we’d probably have to couple it with some Passport America sites to see the most, but I like the idea of having most our camping already paid for… And how far in advance do you book each site?

    1. Thanks for reading and commenting, Christopher! Of all the “knocks” on TT, I would say that location is a big one. Most campgrounds are in rural areas. For us, that’s fine since we frequently don’t have a specific destination and just like to explore. If you’re wanting to see the big cities and specific attractions, it might be tough to justify. If you’re not as concerned with exactly where you are and more just about traveling, then I think it could work well. There are definitley some holes, but if you stick to the edges, then you’re pretty well covered. The middle of the country is pretty barren. My contract allows for a 90 day reservation window. Some parks are tough to get into at certain times of the year (Florida in the winter and many parks during holiday weekends, for example), but for the most part, I don’t have issues getting reservations only a couple weeks in advance.

  3. I have been a zone TT member for almost a year in California. I’m retiring at the end of the year and plsn to spend a lot of time in the Texas area with forays up the Eastern seaboard. I agree with you that after exploring many options, a TT elite makes the most sense for me. I will have some cash after selling my house but will otherwise be on a small fixed monthly income (about $2000). In order to guarantee housing for the rest of my life, I decided TT Elite.

    I was quoted $5,600 one time payment and then a rate of about $545 a year, with rates locked in when I turn 62. Also, as I currently have a 4 year zone pass for $425 a year, I was told the balance of that would be prorated and subtracted from my new plan when I purchase.

    Most of the 7 parks in Texas are very “resorty” and it will be nice. My only concern is that I don’t tow a vehicle. Been wondering if those grocery delivery places like Wal-mart will deliver to an RV resort? Lol.

    I enjoyed your information and will continue to follow your adventures.

    1. Thanks for reading and leaving your comment, Tina! I think you made a great decision by purchasing an Elite membership. Getting your unused portion of the Zone Pass is a cherry on top!! I’m beginning a series of campground reviews and many of them will be TT parks. If you have any questions on others that I haven’t yet reviewed, please contact me and if I’ve stayed there I’m happy to share my thoughts 🙂 Safe Travels!

  4. Thanks for explaining your experience with TT! I still don’t get it 100%, but I am closer than I have ever been to understanding it. Have you ever figured out how much a night of camping costs once you figure in your membership and dues – and any other fees? If so, I’d be interested to know. That is how I am tracking my expenses – how much a night costs.
    Thanks for a great blog post!

    1. Hi Kim! Thanks for your comment! If I was to figure out the cost per night right now, it would not be great. This is due to the fact that we bought the membership just last year and had to pony up $2,400 for the contract (including the $750 transfer fee) in addition to the annual dues of $549. Obviously time is on our side and the longer we use the contract, the better our nightly rate will be. If you look at it just from an annual dues aspect, even just 40 days into 2016, our nightly rate would be ~$13.73. That number will only get lower as each day passes that we stay at a TT campground.

      Assuming that we stay 300 nights per year at a TT campground, after three years, we’ll be looking at a total cost of ~$4.50/night. Each year that number will go lower as the initial purchase price of $2,400 gets spread more thin.

      Cheers!
      Ryan

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