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.
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.
We have stayed in 4 TT parks and visited another. All of these were in CA, AZ, and OR.
The TT system is very disjointed. They don’t have a single consolidated website. They have:
- Thousand Trails: http://www.thousandtrails.com
- Zone Camping Pass: http://www.zonecampingpass.com
- ReadyCampGo: http://readycampgo.com
- RV on the Go: http://www.rvonthego.com
Their many programs and websites creates a horribly confusing experience as a user.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
The parks are just “meh”. It looks as if they are barely hanging on and doing only the most minimal of maintenance.
- 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.
A TT owner who tracked his usage 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.
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.
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”.
Additional Content from Matt in June 2020
Some of the critiques above (particularly about the multiple websites) have been somewhat addressed by Thousand Trails to make them more user friendly. There is now only one website needed for most of the system. We are writing a new series of posts reviewing Thousand Trails - go check out that series!
Or just go right to those posts: