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This post is the first installment of our new series on Thousand Trails camping memberships. The series examines the platform that some fulltime RVers use to lower their cost of living.
Cut to the chase (TL;DR)
If used a lot, Thousand Trails (TT) can significantly cut your camping costs - even as a large family. If you buy the right membership and wanted to, you could live in their parks 100% of the time for years on end for only the cost of the original membership and the annual fee.
From a strictly money perspective, it’s a great deal. From other perspectives, that will be included in this series, it might not be worth it or only worth it sometimes. But this post is about the money.
What is it
Thousand Trails is often explained as “like a timeshare, but for RVs”. You buy a membership (perhaps addons) allowing you to “camp” periodically or exclusively, generally without further costs. You can save a LOT if you are in it for years, but your pursuit of freedom and happiness could be frustrated with limited destinations and parks with bad reputations.
You Don’t Need Thousand Trails to Fulltime RV!
This must be said. We want to strongly counter what you may read in other places online that you HAVE to have Thousand Trails to fulltime RV. You DON’T!
We meet fulltime RV families who, from day one, have stayed in the TT system exclusively. It is evangelized online that it’s a pre-requisite to hitting the road.
We promise you, there are no memberships whatsoever that are needed to happily fulltime RV. None!
A Thousand Trail Membership may be economical, but it is not required.
If you decide that TT is right for you, we suggest reaching out to our guy at TT who told us he would get you the best deal they have with any discounts available. We feel this is a good way to review Thousand Trails – by honestly reviewing it and sharing our go-to guy with our interested readers. He created a contact form specifically for us when I called him to fact check a few things (he also set us up with a finder’s fee at no additional cost to you).
Money Is Not The Only Thing
“The money” shouldn’t be anyone’s only consideration for buying a TT membership. Money’s importance might make it the deciding factor, but other things are important too.
Some of the other factors to consider are: community, locations, amenities, weather, drive times, family togetherness time, internet coverage, beauty, nature therapy, etc.
We didn’t get a TT membership till we had been on the road for nearly a year (and we only bought the cheap, single zone camping pass). We loved that year and the “we can go anywhere” freedom that defined our lives! Now, our expenses may have gone down, but we also feel our positive experiences and nomadic flexibility (major reasons why we did this whole thing in the first place) have taken a hit.
Find A Base Cost
To determine “is it worth it” from a money standpoint, we compare to a base cost. Base cost = how much you would spend without TT.
For us, we prefer parks with an average rate around $30 a night. Ours is a frugal figure with emphasis more on nature than on “resort”. Parks with amenities like pools, pull-through sites, cable and even full hookups cost more and we gladly trade those out for a more “in the woods” feel.
Sometimes we spend more - sometimes less, but when we look at TT we have that $30 figure in our head. When the average annual cost of TT drops to below $30 a night, we feel like it was worth it for us … from a strictly financial perspective.
Considering TT? New to it all with no clue what your comparison price should be? Decide what you need/want out of a campground and what you could (or would prefer to) live without. Find corresponding campgrounds and call for rates and read recent online reviews. Only research or experience will produce a comparison cost that applies to you.
Buying Used To Save Money?
TT memberships can be bought two ways – new or used. Used memberships can be found on Ebay, Craigslist, Facebook Marketplace or through a brokerage service.
Be aware, used memberships come with limitations and some could be significant enough to not make it worth it. Also, unlike a new membership, you can’t resell a used one when you are done RVing to recoup some of your investment – a benefit some people figure into their “we’ll just RV for a year” budget.
To illustrate, I just searched FB Marketplace within 200 miles of where I am returning one result for a used membership. The listing only included 15 parks in a region low on our list that also has a lot of 55+ age restricted parks. It wouldn’t work for us at all, but it might work perfect for someone else who would get what they needed for a cheaper price.
How does TT really make financial sense?
It makes sense, if you use it …. a lot. The more you use it, the more it makes sense.
It’s a math problem. The price per night is what you pay divided by how many nights you stay.
· The cost of the membership
· An annual fee (if you bought a membership that has a high upfront cost and a lower per year fee)
· Extra costs (I’ll get to those below)
· Fuel between campgrounds and to nearby attractions (which can sometimes be far)
· Your membership may require you to leave the system periodically. Ours allows two weeks in, one week out
· Lack of availability (example, Florida in winter is busy - you might not get all your reservations)
· You travel or are employed where there are no TT parks, or want to try Harvest Hosts or Boondockers Welcome
· Unforeseen future Shelter-In-Place. During Covid-19 shutdowns, TT campgrounds allowed longer stays for some, but locked others out
· You visit a State or National Park, camping either “in” the park or boondocking just outside
· You discover how awesome boondocking can be
· An opportunity or circumstance arises (international travel, RV repairs, lag period between RV ownership, etc)
· Tornados or Hurricanes result in unplanned evacuation
Memberships range in price and features that may or may not appeal to you. With the exception of the “camping pass” membership, the structure of these memberships is where TT resembles a timeshare. For the Elite and Odyssey memberships, the first year you pay multiple thousands of dollars upfront (which can be financed). The following years, your contract requires annual dues which are much smaller.
The biggest benefit to the fulltime RVer with these memberships is the ability to go from park to park without having to leave the system. You can also stay at a park up to 21 or 28 days (depending on your membership). This means, after your initial payment, you could live in TT parks year long for just the cost of the annual dues. That’s huge for some people.
But it’s not free no matter what anyone is saying. Simple math with simple (fictitious) numbers would be - if you stay in TT every single night of the year (365), and paid $7,000 for that year, your nightly cost would be about $19.18. Better than our $30 mental figure, but not free.
If the next year your (fictitious) dues are $500, and you stay every day, then that year’s nightly cost drops down to $1.37 a night. Average those two (fictitious) years together ($7,500 / 730) and your average nightly cost is $10.27. If living in an RV is strictly about saving money and you are ok relocating every few weeks, you can live pretty cheap!
The Cheapest Plan
The plan we liked the best for our camping style was also the cheapest plan, the “camping pass”. The US is split into regions and we have 1 region of the US available to us. Additional regions (zones) can be added for a very reasonable fee. We like it because it forces us to be out of the system at least 1/3rd of the time wherein we can see other things. We can stay up to 2 weeks in a row, but then have to be “out” for a week.
The “camping pass” has a clause that you can go from park to park indefinitely, without a break (out of the system), if you only stay 4 nights or less consecutively per park. That means, if you only stay put for a few days, going back and forth between parks, you could live your whole year in the TT system and not pay anything more than you did for the camping pass. But you will pay in fuel driving that much.
Extra costs: The other parks
TT is owned by parent company, Equity Lifestyle Properties which also owns other campgrounds with more permanent clientele goals compared to a typical campground. For an extra fee, TT members can have up to 2 week access to the sites at these campgrounds that are allocated for people traveling through.
These parks have their own rules which vary park to park in spite of being owned by the same parent company.
There are upwards of 100 parks in this addon which adds a lot more options to the Thousand Trails system. Anyone with this addon can stay in these parks for up to 2 weeks (like the camping pass).
The best thing about RPI is that their parks fill a void in the middle states that TT and Trails Collection don’t cover. Unlike TT and Trails Collection, there are parks in the coveted mountain states Utah, Wyoming, Colorado, Montana, and Idaho. The brochure map also shows parks in Western Canada, one in Quebec, and one in Mexico at the top of the Gulf of California near Yuma, Arizona.
Addon Extra Costs – Per Night
With RPI, you pay $20 per night at each park you stay at. Having not been to these parks I don’t know their quality. They might be the type of parks that are over $50 a night, wherein getting them for the TT addon negotiated price of $20 is awesome. Just remember though, every night in RPI lowers the economics of the whole system to a more expensive average nightly rate.
In the Trails Collection, 18 parks out of 100 parks have a nightly fee of $20/night (as of this writing). I have stayed at Trails Collection parks, but not the ones you have to pay extra for. They seem to be in more prime locations …. think the Florida Keys where the usual going rate at a resort can be over $100 a night.
Kid Tax! How Campgrounds Discriminate Against Families
Within the RV world, there is a dirty practice often colloquially referred to as the “kid tax”, where campgrounds charge extra per person above an arbitrary limit that they set (which is often just two people). It's often called the "kid tax" because the people it impacts most is families traveling with kids. The more kids you have, the more it financially stings. Couples not travling with kids are never impacted by this, so their blogs or vlogs never bring it up. But someone needs to - and that's me.
Some Trails Collection parks discriminate this way and charge families more for the same site than they charge their other members. Large families get hit the most frequently because some parks that do this will occasionally include an allowance for an arbitrary amount of children - and charge for any kids above that allowance. For the Trails Collection parks that do this, it’s usually a holdover practice from their pre-Equity days. Depending on how you view it, it could be considered discrimination against family size. It really depends on how you view the transaction - are you paying for the site as a form of quasi 'housing accommodations' (wherein charging one style of 'family' more than another would be descrimination), or do you view it more like admission (like at a theme park) and everyone pays per person.
No false illusions.
Therefore, I'll dispell any false illusions that some large families considering the Trails Collection may have. If you are a large family and think you can buy the Trails Collection addon and have your family be financially treated the same as the retired members' family with no kids, at EVERY Trails Collection park, you are wrong. Some parks treat your reservation as per person, and not per family or even per site. It certainly isn't every park, and some parks might even have that rule on the books and don't enforce it - but be aware that this is a thing.
If you unknowingly book a stay at the wrong Trails Collection park, you will show up and they might try to charge you $5 per kid, per night. Have several kids and times that by 14 nights and your cost savings (that I spoke of above) start to plummet.
Kid Tax Justification Rebuttal
One absurd justification I hear/read for this is, “Well, you use more services so you should pay more”. If that’s the case, then they should meter all the services and charge everyone for what they actually use, and not what they just suppose someone will. Meter the electricity, the water, the sewer usage. We only use more if we actually use more.
If we are out and about most of the day, then we aren’t using more electricity than the retired couple spending the day at home in their 45 foot class A with 3 ACs running 24/7 keeping their small animals cool. A sightseeing family who leave for the day and don’t return till night will use less services than some singles.
What about people who run a CPAP machine at night? What about the water usage for someone taking a shower with really long hair -vs- a bald person. What about people with on-board washer/dryers using more water and sewer?
The “you use more utilities” is an argument that can only fairly be made if everyone is metered (and to be clear, I don’t think everyone should be metered - I have reasons for that too, but I won't go into all that here).
What do I really think?
I think the whole point of the "kid tax" is to prevent piggybacking, to price gouge where they can get away with it, or – dare I say it – to discourage families and hand pick a clientele demographic through strategic “rules” and legally grey-area price setting.
Thousand Trails Should Get This Fixed
I believe their intent is to prohibit multi families or large groups buddying up and just piling a ton of people on one site instead of paying for the amount of sites they should. I agree with that - people shouldn't be trying to rip off a park by booking only one site and bringing all their friends instead of paying for multiple sites. My proposed solution would be, that for a single family with any number of children (or disabled adult dependents), there should be a unilateral exception to this 'extra people' charge - as that would be more in alignment with fair housing laws (again, are we paying for a quasi housing accommodation, or for a theme park).
If they are on my tax return, they should count as my family and I shouldn't get charged more for them. There are certain classes that are protected, and though I'm no lawer, I think family size is one of them when it comes to where someone lives. In a post Covid world, many families are living at campgrounds - so our wallets should not be nickle and dimed if we have an extra toddler in our headcount. I mean seriously, we can't exactly just leave a minor somewhere else and not bring them.
Charging one class of family more than another for the exact same site simply because of its family makeup really feels like discrimination and is very possibly illegal.
The kid tax isn’t the only problem families can encounter with the Trails Collection. I write here about the kid tax because this is about “the money”. I will write in another post more about occupancy restrictions at some Trails Collections parks and them running afoul with Fair Housing laws.
Is There A Solution?
Well, “I just won’t buy TT and take my business elsewhere” you say. Understand, this topic is actually a reason TO buy TT (especially if you are a large family like mine). The dirty practice in the RV world of “kid tax” is wide spread and something you will encounter at RV parks all over the place.
Actual "Thousand Trails" parks don’t participate in this - BUT they are dragged into the discussion because some of the Trails Collection parks do. TT wants to be known as "family friendly", but their Trails Collection addon hurts their family friendly image by making families pay per head.
No big deal, you'll just not go to the "kid tax" parks - right? Be aware, wanting to avoid the few bad apples in the Trails Collection isn’t easy. There is no search filter on the TT website to filter out the parks that price structure this way. I was told, “you just have to call them [the individual parks] and ask them”.
This is a very bothersome response. In Florida alone, there are over 30 parks in the trails collection. But, I did it. I called EVERY SINGLE ONE OF THEM the winter of 2019-2020 (in Florida) and made up an Excel sheet where I ranked them for how “kid friendly” they were. I even compiled my sheet into my own "where I can actually go" map. If that data or map interests you, shoot me an email and I’ll send you all my work.
Take it to SCOTUS?
I think the practice of any RV park at all charging one family type more than another (without a metered services system) should be taken up to the Supreme Court. There I would hope it would be found to be in line with housing discrimination on family size and turned from just a "dirty practice" to "illegal".
But before that, I think Equity Partners – being the parent company – should do the right thing and make a unilateral rule for all their properties to not participate in charging families with any amount of children more money than any other family type.
Finance sum up
If you don’t use TT enough to keep your average cost below your base cost, then it doesn’t make sense financially. If you do use it a lot, then it makes a lot of financial sense. I griped a lot at the end of this post about a small few Trails Collection parks, but if you look at this as a whole and realise that if you play your cards right, you can live and travel the country extremely cheaply with TT. Seriously, we have friends that are saving enormous amounts of money with TT.
Thinking of buying a membership? Is now a good time to buy? There is always inflation and I am further aware that pricing revolves around annually adjusting price indexes and not just some arbitrary number. So, the answer to “should you buy now or wait” is – if you are able to use TT and you plan to use it a lot to save a ton of money, then YES, you should buy it NOW as it might be more expensive in the future.- Matt
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