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So What is Thousand Trails and is it Working for Us?

If you've been following the blog, you're probably heard me refer to Thousand Trails Resorts a few times. I believe I've promised this post at least once to explain what they are and how they work. Welcome to that post.

Earlier in the trip, we had an estimate done to fit the camper with solar power and a lithium battery bank in order to camp off the grid some and ideally reduce our monthly camping expenses. After sizing the system, the quote came in MUCH higher than we expected. That got us considering other ways to save money in the nearer term while we look at other options for installing solar. For those interested, we still plan to install solar, but I'll likely be doing it myself in stages over time.

One way we'd herd of to save on campground fees was to join Thousand Trails, so we looked into it. Essentially Thousand Trails is a company that owns and manages 80+ RV parks around the country. You can stay there night-to-night as you would any other park and pay by the night, or you can pay for different membership levels that get you free access to their parks. If you were to just go to their website, all you'd see for sale is the "Zone Pass". This gets you up to two weeks at a time in any of the parks in one 'zone' or region of the country. You can leave the parks for a week and come back for another two weeks at any time. Zone Passes are inexpensive, around $500 a year, and if you are camping for at least a few weeks in the same area, they can be a great savings.

Their logo

Once you buy a Zone Pass, though, they'll immediately start trying to up-sell you on other membership options. These options can get you nationwide access, three or more weeks at a time in any park, eliminate the week out of the system between stays, reciprocity (or much reduced rates) on Encore or RPI RV Parks and other perks. I'd describe all of the options here, but there are a ton and they have changed over time. The top-end lifetime memberships, the 'elite' memberships, are transferable, but can only be transferred once. This means that there is a secondary market for these memberships. You can find them listed on Craigslist and Ebay, and you can save significantly over the list prices. Transfers carry a one-time mandatory fee of $750 in addition to the cost of the membership.

In some ways the whole thing is kind of weird. We never went through the whole sales pitch, but from what I gather it's very time-share like and can be high-pressure. This turned us off initially. Each Elite membership we found for sale had different benefits and options, there didn't seem to be a whole lot of consistency. Apparently this is due to the salesperson who sold the original membership having some leeway in the perks thrown in in order to get the original owner of the membership to sign on the dotted line. For a person shopping the secondary market, though, this means that you have to be careful that you're comparing apples-to-apples when comparing deals.

So what do the fancy 'elite' memberships get you? Here's what we bought (your deal may vary):

- Three weeks at a time in any park

- No 'out of system' requirement. We can go from one park, right to another.

- Access to all 80+ parks nationwide

- RPI and Encore memberships that will generally bring rates at their 200+ parks down to $10/night

- We can book reservations 120-days out (most new memberships are 90, this is a big bonus)

- We can extend a stay from three weeks to four twice a year for free

- We get discounts on their cabins and other amenities

- We can book one major holiday at a time.

What did this set us back? New Elite memberships are in the $8,000-$10,000 range plus yearly dues of around $700-800 and their benefits are't quite as good as what we bought. We decided to buy second hand to save a bunch up-front knowing we couldn't then re-sell the membership again if we wanted to. We also went through a broker so as to avoid some of the Craigslist/Ebay sketchiness. We used and were very happy with them. The prices were reasonable, they did most of the paperwork and took a lot of the guesswork out of everything. We knew, for sure, what we were buying. They also bundle the transfer fee into their published prices which is nice as that could have been a nasty surprise. We wound up spending $3800 and our annual dues will be about $500.

At that rate, we figure it will have paid for itself after about 3-4 months of use. We've already used it for four weeks and we have reservations for six more. Beyond our 120-day reservation window, we have summer plans that involve many more weeks in Thousand Trails parks and that doesn't even count the Encore/RPI membership which we're just getting set up now. We'll be in the black by the end of summer and everything after that is basically free. If we stay on the road for a few years, the savings could be huge. It also affords us the ability to travel more and stay at nicer parks if we want or if we need to save money for some reason we can hole up in TT parks for a few months. It's a form of insurance should we fall on hard times.

Pio Pico (South Side) from one of the hills.

Pio Pico (South Side) from one of the hills.

Going into this we were very nervous. It's a lot of money to put down on access to parks we'd never seen before. Everything we read said the parks were 'pretty good'. Not 5-star resorts and not total trash, either. Our experience so far has borne that out. We've stayed at two of their parks, so far: Soledad Canyon in Acton, CA (NE of Los Angeles) and Pio Pico in Jamul, CA east of San Diego. Both of them were large, fairly well kept, with lots of things to do for kids, and most importantly, lots of kids! It turns out that lots of full-time families use Thousand Trails as a way to save money, so it seems there are always kids around at Thousand Trails resorts where that has not always been the case elsewhere. This is a real bonus as finding friends for Crayton to play with is a great for him and for us!

Crayton and Pam in the kids activity center at Soledad Canyon

Crayton and Pam in the kids activity center at Soledad Canyon

Crayton and friends in the kids activity center at Pio Pico

Crayton and friends in the kids activity center at Pio Pico

The parks aren't perfect. For instance, when you make a reservation it's not for a specific site and many of the resorts have mixed hookups. So for instance at Pio Pico we were in a spot without sewer hookups until one became available and we then had to move. Also, while many of the core amenities have been in good shape (pool, buildings, bathrooms), many of the others are a bit run down (playground, horseshoe pits, felt on pool tables, etc). They've been a solid 3-4 star, out of five, so far. Talking to other families who have been members for a while. The resorts we've been to are fairly typical. There are worse and there are better. But they've been more than we expected so we're happy, and saving money!

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