Is a Thousand Trails Membership Worth It?

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Thousand Trails (TT) is a campground membership organization that operates in a similar fashion to a resort timeshare. You pay an upfront cost and then are able to use the facilities for given amounts of time throughout the year.  Many full-time RVers buy into TT to save on camping costs. The prevailing attitude is that it’s a necessary component of full-time RV travel. We disagree.

TL;DR

While a TT membership can significantly decrease your living expenses as a full-time RVer, the system kinda sucks and hasn’t suited us well.

Caveats:

We have stayed in 4 TT parks and visited another.  All of these were in CA, AZ, and OR.

Pros:

Price.

Cons:

Everything else.

Customer Experience

The TT system is very disjointed. They don’t have a single consolidated website. They have:

Their many programs and websites creates a horribly confusing experience as a user.

Business Issues

It doesn’t take much google-fu to find stories of TT treating members poorly with shifting business practices, outsourcing to collection agencies, and not delivering what was promised during the sales talks.

Thousand Trails is owned by Equity Lifestyle Properties - which also owns conventional trailer parks, etc. If you want to see what kind of company Lifestyle Equity Properties is just do this Google search.

Equity Lifestyle Properties is headed by one Sam Zell, whose nickname is The Grave Dancer and who is worth a reported $4.9B.

Research/Purchase Process:

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There are two ways to buy into the TT system: purchase their current new membership or buy a used one.

I think TT intentionally tries to make the purchase process confusing.

They’d rather sell you a new membership because they make more money that way.

Used Memberships

Used memberships are a better deal overall but are hard to research.

The membership options have changed over the years, new limitations have been added, and none of the information you need is on their website. TT as a company has changed hands which adds to the confusion.

In order to find out the specifics on a given used membership you have to call, give them the member id number, and then play 20 questions as there are some aspects of the membership that they won’t tell you unless you ask.

The burden for discovery is on you, even though there is one employee who seemingly does little else besides answer questions about membership deals.

It’s so bad that research has been crowd-sourced and captured on Facebook, where current members do more to explain the whole system to newbies than anyone from Thousand Trails does.

I got so frustrated that I gave up trying to get the “best deal” and instead bought the simplest/cheapest plan possible for our immediate need.

Purchase Process

We bought our Zone Pass during a time when they were offering $100 off the normal purchase price of $525. They also wave the $795 enrollment fee for your first zone.

When our membership information came they also included a $50 Wal-Mart gift card, which was the previous promotion they were offering on the website. Not willing to capitalize on someone’s potential mistake we then had to call and see what to do with the gift card. We could keep it, so that lowered our purchase price to $375.

Nice and all, just indicative of organizational issues.

Booking Issues

On one of our initial stays of 10 days we received a note that we hadn’t shown up for our reservation or called to cancel. TT was going to charge us a $32 fee. The notice of this fee came to us via regular postal mail.

We had to call TT to resolve the issue, and they waived the fee. Those camping days weren’t “on the system” now, so they didn’t end up counting against our “free” 30 days of camping. Again, nice, but shows how disorganized TT is.

Locations

Thousand Trails locations are mostly remote (assuming due to their ‘resort’ heritage). What you save on camping fees you can quickly spend back on gas driving to that place you really wanted to visit.

There are vast regions of the USA where there simply are no TT parks - especially the Midwest. Our home state of Michigan has only two parks and they aren’t close where we need to be.

Internet Coverage

2/4 of the parks we were in had no coverage on either AT&T or Verizon. One offered paid wi-fi that was acceptable, but increased the cost of our stay.

Park Quality

The parks are just “meh”. It looks as if they are barely hanging on and doing only the most minimal of maintenance.

We saw:

  • Construction projects dragging on way longer than the signs said they were going to.
  • Lots of sites “closed” for electric or water issues.
  • Lots of desolate looking seasonal or full-time spots.
  • Storage lots with rigs in them that looked like they hadn’t moved in decades.
  • Sites too small for our 30’ fifth-wheel with a single slide.
  • Sites so unlevel side to side we would have had to use all of our leveling blocks.
  • Crumbling poorly-marked narrow roads

It’s NOT FREE CAMPING

I can’t count how many times I’ll be reading a blog post or comment from a TT owner and they’ll write:

We’re staying in a TT park and since we’re members we stay free for 3 weeks at a time!

Thousand Trails themselves perpetuates this misconception. They described a TT presentation at a RV rally in these words:

Thousand Trails Campground Membership - Is it a Good Fit for your Family? Join TT Liaison ____ for an informative seminar on the Thousand Trails Campground Membership Program and learn how you can start camping for free.

Poor marketing? Or an outright lie?

You are never camping for free at a Thousand Trails park.

Your per-night cost is your cost to purchase the membership (some people pay $3K-$5K) plus your yearly dues (~300-$500) divided by how many nights you’ve used the membership.

For example - if you paid $5K for a Thousand Trails memberhip and $550 in annual dues and were able to spend the entire next year living there (365 nights) your per-night cost is still $15.20 a night.

If you inherit (or are given) a membership and only pay the transfer free and annual dues you can live darn cheap - and it gets cheaper the more you use it. But it still isn’t free.

Here’s a TT owner who tracked his usage and found that after 3 years using the TT system his average cost per night was still $19.97.

That’s a reasonable per night cost.

But it’s not free.

Overall

When you can literally go anywhere you like choosing where to go can be overwhelming.  Having a smaller “system” to work within to limit destination choices works for many people. Their decision making process can begin with the park and then look to see what attractions are around that park.

We settle on a destination and let that be the “anchor” in our planning. That location is our center point. We then look for nearby campgrounds and RV parks to stay at while visiting that destination.

This puts us at odds with the TT system.

Expense or Experience?

Campground and RV park costs are one of the biggest costs in living on the road.

For many families a TT membership is the only way this lifestyle is affordable. For them having that membership and adjusting other aspects (sourcing internet, choosing attractions/destinations, etc) to suit makes total sense.

More important than the expense is the experience.

Put simply, the experience of staying in TT parks hasn’t been inspiring for us. We haven’t woken up, stepped outside the door, looked at the view and thought “wow - am I lucky or what?”

We get that experience in other campgrounds and RV parks and it has made our suburban sacrifices all worthwhile. We’ve been blessed that financially we’ve been able to afford the higher cost of living that experience demands.

If living in TT parks was the only way we could afford to travel full-time in an RV we wouldn’t do it.

Still Useful at Times

Though we don’t prefer TT parks we still keep an eye on the TT system as it relates to our plans. While in Florida one winter we wanted to stay at an Encore park that was close to friends. TT had a “ReadyCampGo” card that was available to the public.

We bought that and saved money over the course of our stay. However, it took MsBoyink four visits to the park office to get everything resolved. The TT customer experience still proved disorganized and disjointed.

Not too long after our visit there TT stopped offering ReadyCampGo to the public. We haven’t been in a TT park since.

Update

In July of 2017 Thousand Trails contacted us as part of a “blogger outreach program”. The email extolled the benefits of the TT system. It described the parks as “stocked with activities to keep our family entertained”. It listed all the amenities we’d have.

They wanted “everyone to know how great these campgrounds really are” so offered us four free nights in any of them, hoping we’d blog about our stay.

Evidently they hadn’t bothered to see that we had already been members. And that we had already written this post.

Which usually ranks around #5 for a Google search on “Thousand Trails”.

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26 Comments Is a Thousand Trails Membership Worth It?

  1. Picture of TroyTroy July 05, 2013

    What do you think about Passport America? We have tried it in our month or so out and have found that the parks can be hit or miss. But the price cannot be beat.

  2. Picture of Michael BoyinkMichael Boyink July 05, 2013

    PP is worth it. While the parks may not be great and the rules/exceptions are a bit of a game you are looking at a $30
    Investment vs $2K or more for a full-fledged TT membership.

  3. Picture of MarciMarci July 05, 2013

    We’ve met lots of people who love TT and Coast to Coast, but we have not been impressed with what we’ve seen.  Passport is definitely a great deal - I can’t tell you how many times over our membership has paid for itself.  The majority of PA parks we’ve stayed in have been very nice, and even if you only get the discount for a day or 2, it still helps . . . and we’ve been in several that have given us the PA discount for our entire stay.

  4. Picture of BoyinkBoyink July 06, 2013

    Thanks Marci - glad to know it isn’t just us!

    We’re currently in a Montana PP park - not awesome but it was handy when we needed it. $20/night with the PP rate.

  5. Picture of WendyWendy August 04, 2013

    Here are the campground rules at Thousand Trails Idyllwild, CA on Internet service:

    Internet is provided by a 3rd party for a fee at your site. However, due to the interference caused by personal wireless routers, MiFi Devices, cellular phones with wireless computer connections, etc., it is against policy to allow the use of this type apparatus during your stay.  This can prevent other guests from accessing the internet.

  6. Picture of Michael BoyinkMichael Boyink August 04, 2013

    Wow. Both bullshit and coercion in one policy.

  7. Picture of BoyinkBoyink December 29, 2014

    2014 update: We are back in the TT system - after a fashion.

    We needed to be in Lutz, FL to visit friends and the most convenient park is an Encore park. The normal rate is $44/day.

    We were reminded of the Ready Camp Go card which TT offers. The RCG card differs from the Zone pass in that you have access to all TT parks but for a limited number of nights at a $20/night rate (plus fees, taxes yadda yadda yadda).

    We called the park to confirm usage, and then bought the Silver RCG card figuring even in the 7 nights maximum usage we’d cover the cost of the card. Any usage from there would be gravy.

    In typical TT “disjointed” fashion, upon arrival the desk attendant was flustered and asked us to come back later. 4 visits to the front desk later we finally got someone who could honor the card usage for our stay.

    We’ll see if it pays off now while still in Florida - there are a couple of popular TT parks here we may end up at in Feburary.

  8. Picture of TamsynTamsyn July 01, 2015

    I’m one of the “I love Thousand Trails” people.  We bought a new elite membership, and paid $5500 for it.  While I do not have a counter response for your bad experiences, I will briefly say what we really like about TT.
    The RPI (resort parks international) membership was included, and there are several campgrounds including the midwest and places we really want to go that there aren’t TT parks.  We pay $10 a night at these resorts, and they ones we have been to have been really nice.
    TT doesn’t charge extra for kids ($5 a kid per night x5 kids can add up really fast!).  They also don’t have a weight limit on dogs, which is a benefit for dog lovers.  (we don’t have one).
    The kid activities have been great- our kids have loved the crafts.
    For us, affordability has been the major factor.  We have a very modest income and would not be able to afford to do this with TT.  We committed to four years and had a discount on our membership dues, which will be $400 the first four years.  On top of that we pay $120 a month in their payment plan, although we plan on paying it off much sooner.  Our first 2 nights of camping before getting into their system was $80.  It doesn’t take many nights at full price to pay for the TT membership.  We have stayed at Wilderness Lakes, Pio Pico, and Idyllwild.  Idyllwild is especially gorgeous, we really did wake up and feel lucky to be there.  So far we have relied on TT for internet simply because we started here and haven’t purchased an alternative route.  The internet has been okay, although I hate the little ad that they have pop up at the bottom.  We paid for internet, why the ad?  Even so, TT internet is cheaper than getting it on our own, so we’re happy.  We’ve had positive experiences at TT, and the staff has been great.  Is it necessary for full-time RV travel?  Of course not.  Is it free?  No, but we’re paying for it whether we use it or not.  This first year we take the $400/12=$34 a month, plus $120 payment plans, which means we’re paying roughly $155 a month for our membership (with a commitment to pay that amount until it is paid off).  That’s roughly $5 a night our first year, whether we are in their parks or not.  Considering water and electric is part of that, it’s pretty cheap!  And when our membership is paid off, it will be less than $2 a night.  These parks have pools, free crafts for the kids on the weekends, entertainment on holidays, playgrounds, puzzles and games to check out, mini-golf, and locations like Yosemite national park, Mammoth caves, locations near Plymouth MA, a few have water parks, there are beach properties in Oregon and Washington, and one 9 miles from Disneyworld.  If there aren’t TT parks on your route, by all means, don’t get it.  It’s not for everyone, and if we had more money we would probably go to other parks more often.  But they do have parks in many of the places I want to go and it was a great choice for us.

  9. Picture of Michael & KarenMichael & Karen March 10, 2016

    Thank for the information about Thousand Trails. We are looking to purchase soon and hope it works out for us. I am a complainer of the highest degree !

    M.C.

  10. Picture of Danielle TateDanielle Tate May 21, 2016

    Thanks for this post. We just did a sales sit through with Coast to Coast and they were extremely rude when we passed on their “deal of the day”.  I was not familiar with TT but it’s something to consider though I like your common sense analysis about “staying free.” I hadn’t thought to break it down like that. I was looking at cost per year of fulltime rving.

  11. Picture of Pat billePat bille May 30, 2016

    We are looking for a “RV stays for “free” or $10/night and no long term contract.  Friends got KM and right off the bat the salesman did not follow through and 3 wkd later have no new owners package or cards or membership numbers—makes me very nervous).  $6,000 contract at 10% int.  Now TT has given me uber nervousness.  Can’t afford the prices in greater Seattle area (e.g. KOA Kent WA 65/nite). Really—NOT. 
        Anybody have an outfit that isn’t shady, confused, bad customer service?  Would love to hear from you.

  12. Picture of Michael BoyinkMichael Boyink May 30, 2016

    Hey Pat -

    Just rule out KOA - they are always expensive. We’ve spent 1 night in a KOA in 5 years and that was only because friends were there.

    Having said that - there is no long term, consistent $10/night camping for RVers. You can still find the odd under $20/night places but it’s not like you are going to live there or find those deals across the country.

    And with good reason - at $10 a night it would be impossible for an RV park or campground to stay in business.

    We’re working at a campground now and have some insight into the financials involved in running a nice place.

    You can find the popular camping memberships here on DitchingSuburbia.com.

    Otherwise look into setting your rig up for extended boondocking and avoid RV parks and campgrounds altogether.

  13. Picture of PatPat June 23, 2016

    I thought we were always assured a site.  Now I find that Mon members can cause the park to reach capacity which leaves me with no place to go.  I will not renew.

  14. Picture of CherylCheryl June 28, 2016

    *comment deleted - see above Editors Note. This isn’t a place to list your TT membership for sale *

  15. Picture of GaryGary July 09, 2016

    We have had a TT mbsp for 20 yrs now, we full-time,  so we try to use our TT as often as possible.  For the first 15yrs I would say it was a great park system & the staff went out of their way.  Now so many of the parks are turning into trailer parks.  The sites are fenced off,  items stacked up all around on the ground, tarps hung over items, it just looks trashy.  With so many sites being sold off in each park, it’s hard to get a reservation into them.  Plus they give them the choice of the nicest spots.  As a full-timer the nice thing is not knowing, where or when, we’ll be at a certain time.  Now you have to call ahead 3 mos.  We do not recommend a membership to any of our friends.

  16. Picture of MichaelMichael July 16, 2016

    We just joined TT in the last month and have found it difficult to book campgrounds.  We have an Elite membership and found that many Elite members we’ve talked to book at least 90 days ahead of their stay.

    We are in Washington and have found that almost half the parks have major repair issues going on or currently their working on.  The campgrounds are usually booked solid for the weekend stays unless you book several weeks or months in advance.

    We have started our journey as Full-Timers now and are wondering how well that will work with the limited places to stay here in Washington.

  17. Picture of me_myselfme_myself July 19, 2016

    TT is a Ponzi scheme that should be clear by now!
    It is easy to research. And those you still buy into an expensive membership now where it is clear to see that the management is already breaking so many promises is a fool.

    More people no matter whether members or public have access to the parks than there are sites.
    I predict it wont be long down the road and you will hear more loud complaints from members because not getting a site will be a new normal, maybe even with a reservation. You will see more and more overflow situations. Or folks with expensive memberships sitting on sites with broken hookups. You are better off with boondocking then! At least you have space !

    At the moment the majority of members is silent because they still kind of manage to milk the system to their advantage. But it is clear that a corporation whose members are kind of profiting instead of the corporation achieving a profit cant stay alive. The corporation must be the party that profits, if we like it or not. That is how it works everywhere. Or else no one would start a business. And at the moment TT mostly gains income by trying to suck in more members who pay for a full membership. With the annual dues alone you cant keep the system afloat with all the employees and maintenance needs. That is why at the moment, maintenance is the factor that is neglected. How long until neglected maintenance will turn into overall unbearable conditions? At least when you consider that some folks paid a lot of money?

    However, as I say there will be a breaking point where too many new and old members will want to use their privileges but there are not enough sites to accommodate all campers besides the full timers and the seasonals ( who are another problem for members and a clear breach of contract buy the management)

    And I guess that is the moment when ELS will either sell the TT network to someone who wont credit the old contracts or just falter and declare bankcruptcy.

    Will wait and see.

  18. Picture of Harold BassHarold Bass July 26, 2016

    We have been TT members for about 20 years. During the first 10 years we were satisfied with our membership. After that TT started to be less attractive. The parks were becoming increasingly   unattractive because of poor maintenance. Often, no electrical Service, poor water quality and sites unavailable because they had been sold. Often reservations could only be made far in advance. When we first purchased and later upgraded the membership we were assured that while on a trip and needed to stop at a park while unable to make a reservation, we could always stay overnight, even if the park were full. That proved to be untrue. Gate personnel are generally helpful and courteous but some have an attitude that antagonize patrons and they should be terminated. Have noticed changes made that were not part of the original agreements made at our original purchase. All in all, we are of the opinion that under present management, TT can no longer be recommended and probably will not survive.

  19. Picture of Steve KSteve K September 03, 2016

    I guess it depends on which plan you buy and how you are going to use it.

    We have an annual plan for a little under $500 with two zones. During an average year, we spend about 25 nights at parks that would normally cost $40 to $60 per day.  That would be about $1250 without the pass. Some years, we stay more than 30 days, and the days over 30 with Thousand Trails pass are only cost $3 per day! The savings just keep growing!

    We’ve stayed at many different parks before we joined TT. TT parks are just as nice or nicer. All the spaces were clean and orderly, no “items stacked up all around on the ground, tarps hung over items”; that’s against the rules in almost all parks, TT or not. The park staff knew immediately how to handle TT members. We were treated as well or better than non TT members. Everything was done by phone with confirmations by email. They sent us maps and such in our renewal kit.

    To those complaining that the TT parks are becoming more and more long-term rentals, well that’s a trend across the board, TT park or not. The only exemptions are the State parks.

    And State Parks need a one-year reservation to get into on major holidays.  We called a TT park and they gave us a reservation for Memorial Day with just 3 weeks notice.

    We were just talking to another TT member in the space next door. They have traveled and lived continuously for 3 years in TT parks across the country, and they love it. The only complaint they had was the roads in some states.

    Just make sure you get the plan that fits you, and don’t blame the whole network for a few bad member parks.

    —Steve

  20. Picture of Michael W. ClaycampMichael W. Claycamp September 04, 2016

    Myself and my wife are thinking on getting a membership with TT. But seeing all the negitivity kind of makes you wonder of it’s worth all the trouble. Is it really nice in the southeast region and Midwest. That’s where we would pretty much use it. If any feedback would help change our minds.  we would appreciate it.

  21. Picture of MarciaMarcia September 04, 2016

    I was happy to find your blog and glad to see its still active since your original post date . I must say I think you summed up my experience quite well .

    We are just at the end of our one year zone pass and contemplating whether to renew .  We’ve been full timing for a year and have vistited 8 parks in California . Two of them Encore parks . With the exception of ONE we rate them from poor to just below average . There are always issues , ranging from maintenance , quality or personnel issues .

    After one of the more frustrating experiences I did some research on Equity and only then did it start to make some sense as to what kind of company they run and how little they care about their customers /members . I don’t think many people know and if they did it would be eye-opening.

    Beyond the confusion of their website and information they provide depending on who you speak to , their is absolutely nothing consistent in their branding , even with their own signage on the parks .

    When we travel outside the system we have great experiences . And we always wonder how they can maintain with such low standards and maintenance .

    Voicing concerns to them is a waste of time . They have a standard boilerplate response and no follow up .

    Buying a zone pass is OK if you are an occasional camper and don’t expect much . I hear of many people getting sales pitched into elite and life time memberships and are sorry they did . We’ve been approached at most of the campgrounds to upgrade .  Some are quite aggressive - that should be a red flag when you are trying to enjoy your time and someone comes knocking on your coach to sell you something .

    They really need to remove the label “resort” from most locations as they truly fall short . Being at a dirty lake with no sewer hook up is not an amenity .

    We are in one of their parks right now and it’s such a dump we are looking for alternatives .

    There is something to be said that even with the $3 per night what price is happiness ? If we had to rely on only TT to be full timers , like you , we would give up the lifestyle in a heartbeat .

    i would encourage everyone to review the resources you provided - this will give you a good idea as to what type of company TT is .

  22. Picture of CharlesCharles October 11, 2016

    We’ve been full-time for one year.  Without our platinum membership we could not afford to live this way.  We didn’t pay that much for our (resale) membership. So with that being said we travel to locations that we can utilize 2 different TT parks and go park to park.  Our membership has already paid for itself in the first year.  Considering we couldn’t afford to travel full time otherwise we tend to look at the problems TT has as just another sacrifice we make to have the freedom to move around like we do.  Not all of the parks are bad. Majority of them do lack Maintenance. Inconsistencies upholding rules and regulations are (consistent). Managers that seem to be non existent is a norm. The constant state of “pardon our dust while we improve” gets frustrating.  In hopes we’ll start hitting the TT parks that have just completing all these upgrades. All in all the membership is doing for us what we needed it to do and feel like we’re still getting a value.  I have and will continue to tell people who ask that TT is a great value if you do your research and don’t overpay for your membership. Understand what your buying and how it works!

  23. Picture of JuanJuan October 11, 2016

    I always here such mixed reviews about TT, although most seem to be negative, and I am suspicious of the ones that are overly positive. I’ve heard that Encore properties are better than the TT ones and that some people have them included in their membership, do you have any experience with those?

  24. Picture of ShawnaShawna October 11, 2016

    Hi Everyone. Thank you all for your feedback as we are considering purchasing a zone pass for an extended travel period. I have seen a few comments other places that have indicated basically that reservations are not guaranteed and that sites at the Thousand Trails parks are first come first served. Is this across the board or is that a miscommunication at the park level? Does anyone have any experience with not having a space when they arrived? Thanks for any help!

  25. Picture of Rose LailRose Lail October 18, 2016

    We have been an annual member at Green Mountain in Lenoir NC for 6 months.  We found large pot holes in road and electric lines on top of ground some are cut and connected to site decks.  Big liability.  Also. We found drug addicts, drug dealers, moonshine makers and pimps on just turkey ridge the road our trailer is on.  The employees are great except for manager who parties and gets so drunk at his favorites camp they have to drive him back to his cabin.  It is a joke.  We reported it all to TT and they said they would get back to us and that was 1.5 months ago.  So i would not recommend TT to my worse enemy.

  26. Picture of BrentBrent October 19, 2016

    Thousand Trails was great for one summer and very eye opening the second summer.  Our first summer we spent most of the time in Central Oregon and really enjoyed the location.  We traveled back and forth between National Forest Campgrounds and TT.  Plenty of occupancy with exception, Fourth of July. 

    Fast Forward a summer and we explored other campgrounds on the Oregon Coast and Washington.  Very disappointed.  So many of them were permanent and hard to maneuver with larger rigs.

    We cancelled our membership and haven’t had second thoughts.

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