Feb 022009

A while back I wrote a post about discount camping clubs, such as Passport America and Recreation USA. Today, let’s talk about membership campground systems.

The first thing we should do is understand the basic differences between a discount camping club and a membership club. A discount camping club consists of a large number of campgrounds owned by different people and companies, who agree to give RVing members a discount, usually 50% off of their regular rates. Membership in a discount camping club is much less expensive than it is for a membership club, no home park is required, and there is usually no long term membership obligation. You just pay your annual dues and use the participating campgrounds.

A membership campground system on the other hand, is usually a more expensive proposition, and (according to the folks who sell the memberships) comes with benefits and privileges not available to the general public.

If you have ever attended a membership campground sales pitch, you probably know that the people hustling these memberships have hard sell down to a science. I’ve known more than one RVer who has walked out of the room after being pushed too far one time too many.

Years ago, after we attended one such sales presentation at a membership campground in Oregon, the sales rep came to our motorhome at 10:30 p.m. asking if we had made a decision yet, and telling us that if we did not purchase right then, we’d be “blackballed” and would never be allowed to purchase a campground membership from any company in the future. Can you guess where we told them to stick their membership?

When you join a membership campground system, you are assigned a home park, and then you can stay at any other campgrounds in the system for a given period of time. Depending on your particular membership, that may be one to three weeks, and again, depending on your membership, you may be able to go directly to any other campgrounds in the system, or you may have to be out of the system for one or two weeks.

Campground memberships can be very expensive, up to several thousand dollars, and annual dues can be $500 or more a year. The salespeople will assure you that your membership is an “investment,” and that if you ever decide that you no longer want it, it is a valuable asset that you can sell. Yeah, and once you do, I have a bridge to sell you with all of that money burning a hole in your pocket.

Used campground memberships are a dime a dozen, and with just a little research and effort, you can pick up a used membership for pennies on the dollar, or sometimes even free, because the current owner is tired of paying the dues. For example, a few years back we bought a used nationwide Thousand Trails/NACO membership with all the bells and whistles for $100, plus the transfer fee of $750.

You have to be careful when purchasing a used campground membership, because there are dozens of different memberships out there, and most membership systems have offered many different levels of membership, with different benefits, over the years. Do your homework before you buy any new or used membership.

The two biggest membership campground systems are Thousand Trails (TTN) and Western Horizons. Both have campgrounds in several states nationwide. The Thousand Trails website says that between all of their affiliated campgrounds, they offer over 80 camping locations in 22 states and British Columbia. This includes NACO and Leisure Time Resorts (LTR) campgrounds, two smaller memberships that fall under the general Thousand Trails umbrella. (Not all TTN members can use the NACO or LTR campgrounds.) The Western Horizons website says that they have 22 camping resorts nationwide, and one in Mexico.

We belonged to Western Horizons for a short time years ago, and while we found most of their campgrounds to be more than adequate for our needs, their business practices left a lot to be desired, in our opinion. We soon left the system.

As I stated above, we picked up a used Thousand Trails/NACO membership a while back. We have stayed at TTN/NACO campgrounds in Arizona, Pennsylvania, Texas, Ohio, Indiana, and Tennessee. Some of the campgrounds are very nice, and others are outdated and in need of major upgrading.

I always tell new RVers not to obligate themselves to any membership campground system until they have been on the road at least a full year. It will take you that long to get out of vacation mode and begin to define your own traveling style.

When and if you do decide that a campground membership is right for you, research the different systems, and then look for a used membership. We found ours by putting a simple post on the Escapes forum saying that we were looking for a used TTN/NACO membership. I had over 15 different memberships offered to me by the next day.

You can also find used memberships in ads in the back of RV magazines, on campground bulletin boards, and even on eBay. But again, don’t spend a lot of money on a used membership. The seller may believe he really has an “asset” to sell. Wait until you find someone to whom the membership and its annual dues have become a liability and you can get a heck of a deal.

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Nick Russell

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  4 Responses to “Campground Memberships Explained”

  1. We’re the proud owners of one of those toxic campground memberships. We bought it years ago when we were young and foolish and have kept paying the annual dues planning to use it when we retired, especially it’s connections to Coast to Coast.

    Then, about 6 months ago, we got an letter from Coast to Coast telling us that our home campground is no longer a part of their system and that we had a year to find a new campground. The campground is in Branson, Missouri, and much of the property associated with it has been turned into time-shares. It has been sold several times and now is owned by an international firm that specializes in time-shares and has no other campgrounds from what we can see.

    One of my goals for this year is to get us out from under this thing. The money that we save on fees will pay for a couple of months of state park and national forest camping fees, which where we would rather take our little rig anyway.

  2. Nick, you are 100% right about waiting to decide. On the other hand, we joined Thousand Trails when it was selling in the thousands of dollars, while we were still working and living in California. There are lots of TTNs in California, so GREAT! I was immediately transferred to Arizona, where the Verde Valley preserve was just being built, and that’s still the only TTN in Arizona. But, we have never looked at our TTN membership as anything but an advance investment in our own retirement. We have since gone on to Coast to Coast, AOR, RPI, ROD, and Sunrise (that’s not much to brag about here, althrough they have three parks in Arizona). In addition, we have almost all the discount systems too!

    We will have to re-evaluate these soon, as our travel is slowing down, and there are places to go where none of these systems exist. You told the story well and truly, but those used memberships were never available back in our “good old days!”

  3. Time share comes to my mind. That is all I can say. Lots of solar panels can be had for one year’s expenses on one of these.

  4. A year ago my father in law gave me all his papers and booklets for Westen Horizons and told me I could have it as his wife had passed away and he would no longer ever rv. I said thankyou and called WHI to inquire about transferring the membership. I tried 3 times, could never get any information or even a hint of interest on their part. I finally just quit trying. Guess they don’t care about the annual dues! Unbelievable. Talk about poor business practices! Then I saw one of their campgrounds outside St. David, AZ. Trust me, I wouldn’t want to belong! I love belonging to Escapees. Talk about a quality outfit with quality parks! If I ever want to belong to a membership campground I’ll look up a used Thousand Trail membership. I’m not fulltiming it, but lots to do around Willcox, AZ. And the SKP Coop in Benson is as fine an rv park, and reasonable, as anyone is likely to ever find.

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