Membership RV parks
RV parks & discount camping clubs: are they worth it?
by Alice Zyetz
Second only to "How do you get your mail?" is the question "Where do you park at night?" The answers are as varied as there are RVers. They range from staying in public campgrounds to free and inexpensive parking on government land and in truck stops and from stopping for the night at "Camp Wal-Mart" to staying at posh private campgrounds in resort areas for a two-week vacation. In addition are the KOAs and myriad private campgrounds sprinkled throughout the country for which you can get 10 to 15 percent discounts from camping organizations like Good Sam, Escapees, AAA, and others.
Since there are so many options available, why join a membership campground? For some part-time RVers, this represents a resort with many amenities to use as a less expensive ongoing vacation spot, with the added advantage that there is usually a reciprocal agreement allowing one to stay at similar resorts elsewhere in the country and be part of the "family." For those who are part-time or full-time, the membership campgrounds are a home away from home or the home itself, albeit you can't stay there full-time. Usually, members are limited to two weeks in and one week out in the peak rental periods. During the off-peak period, members can stay for three weeks, but they still have to leave for at least one week before returning. However, for additional money, you can rent for months at a time.
Membership parks (also called resorts or preserves) began as exclusive chains of campgrounds. More expensive to join, they offered clubhouses, pools, activities, hiking trails, basketball and tennis courts, gated access, and advance reservations. As time has gone on, the distinctions have blurred somewhat. Some chains went out of business or were bought by other chains. Prices have been reduced, and some access has been open to the general public for large group camping. In addition, original memberships get resold, ownership of the individual campgrounds is somewhat volatile, and the selection of campgrounds that are available to members tends to change throughout the term of the membership period.
One of the largest chains, (with more than 80 preserves) is the combination of Thousand Trails, NACO, and Leisure Time Resorts. Read the fine print. There is an initial buy-in (typically $3000+) based on the number of parks you have access to plus annual dues. You then have a number of "free nights" per year, but must pay a small amount per night after you exceed that number. Rental units are also available.
They recently added another type of membership. You can purchase an annual pass for one or more of five zones so you have access to all the resorts in that area for a yearly fee. See the website for more information.
Western Horizon Resorts, with 18 locations in 9 states and Mexico, is a traditional membership campground, although the company also owns and manages three reciprocal resort companies discussed below. WHR member Nancy Kieffer reports that although the parks are "free" to members, most now charge $1 to $2 per day as an "electricity surcharge," and she characterizes the parks she has visited this year as being "bare bones, with dismal recreational and parking site amenities." On the plus side, Nancy reports that there is no restriction on the number of "free" nights (except as subject to the two weeks in and one week out rule). Unlike Thousand Trails, WHR does not charge annual dues after the initial buy-in, and the company also offers discounted memberships in several of its other reciprocal RV resort networks.
Cal-AM Resorts is an example of the new breed of membership RV campgrounds with high-end recreational amenities, on-site libraries, and extensive event planning services for guests. Currently there are seven Cal-Am Resorts in the Phoenix, Arizona area with more planned throughout the West.
RECIPROCAL RV RESORT COMPANIES
You must belong to a membership park that will then offer, for an additional amount (usually less than $100 a year), the opportunity to join one of these organizations. For approximately $6 to $8 per night, members can stay in one of a network of membership parks throughout the country. Read the fine print. Available spaces, number of nights, and distance from your home park may be limited. Rentals are available at some resorts. The most popular of these companies are:
- Adventure Outdoor Resorts (AOR) & Adventure Camping Network (ACN) (162 resorts and 378 RV parks. Affiliated with Sunbelt USA and owned by Western Horizon Resorts.
- Coast to Coast (Hundreds of?resorts)
- Resort Parks International (RPI) (650+ RV & hotel resorts)
For a minimal annual amount (approx. $45), you pay 50% of the nightly charge at a large number of private parks throughout North America. The advantage is that the new RVer is only risking a one-year minimal investment if this option doesn't suit. Again, read the fine print. Some parks have limitations on weekends, holidays, or during high seasons. There are two of these clubs: Passport America, with more than 1400 participating campgrounds in the U.S., Canada, and Mexico and Happy Camper Club provides a 50% discount at?1200 campgrounds.
A number of companies resell memberships for the membership parks at reduced prices. Individuals also advertise their own re-sales. This can be a good deal, but check with the particular membership campground to see if they will honor the resale and whether there is an additional processing fee. Two of the many companies involved are:
THINGS TO THINK ABOUT
To decide what membership is right for you, consider what camping experiences you are looking for and then do a great deal of exploring to find the right one.
- Are you an occasional RVer, part-timer, or full-timer? How much usage will you get from the membership you buy? Without joining any group, overnight camping costs run from $15 up, with special weekly or monthly rates if you stay longer. Figure out what the average cost would be to you.
- Where do you plan to travel? Do you prefer large urban areas and more popular resort areas? Check the location of the private campgrounds. Are they located where you will want to be?
- What time of year do you plan to travel? Are you willing to plan ahead? Many membership campgrounds are busy during weekends and holiday periods. Public campgrounds for discount coupons may not apply during popular seasons, weekends, and special holidays. Be sure to check.
- Do you prefer a more natural setting or are you comfortable with pavement and RVs parked close together?
- Check contracts! How do you cancel? Can dues be raised? What happens if the park is sold?
As full-timers for almost ten years, my husband and I enjoyed our membership in Thousand Trails when we wanted to take a break from boondocking. We would look forward to our two-week stints as our luxury: plenty of water, electricity, and trashcans. We never took a site with sewer hookups because they were too close to other rigs and didn't have enough of a natural view for us. Instead, we emptied our tanks when we came in and dumped again when we left. As part of my research for this column, I asked other full-timers what membership campground companies they are currently using. Those who responded enjoy Passport America.
Here are two more excellent websites that will direct you to many others. Just like everything else, do your research on the 'Net first, and be sure to talk to other RVers. Benefit from their experience, but always figure each person's bias into the equation!
- Do a "Google" search for campground membership and discount camping clubs.
- RV NetLinx: Another comprehensive list of RV memberships and an excellent summary with more links.
This column was first published at RoadTripAmerica.com May 2004. Updated June 2013.