RV Camping Club Memberships – Are They Worth It?
As I went through my past year of travels I started thinking about camping clubs. Campground fees are a major expense item for many new RVers and lots of folks worry about how to reduce them. Our camping costs generally run around $10-$15/night (year average) thanks to a mix of boondocking, volunteering and public parks, and because of the way we like to camp (mostly on public land) we don’t really participate in many clubs. But perhaps they might make sense for you?
It’s a question that comes up often for newbie RVers. There’s so many camping clubs out there, and they all make a compelling argument for you to join up. “Get 50% off your camping!” “One year of camping for one low price!”. In the face of this deluge of marketing ploys, the tendency for many newbies is to join every camping club so that they don’t miss out on anything.
I can’t deny we initially made the same mistake. In our first year on the road we joined lots of clubs and by the end of that year we’d used almost none of them. This lesson led to item #3 on my popular post “10 Things I Wish I’d Known Before Fulltime RVing” and the very simple statement that “clubs are only useful IF you make use of them“. We took the lesson to heart, cancelled all our memberships and have stuck to the very wise path of “only buy it when you need it” ever since.
So, for today’s post I wanted to elaborate on the camping club thing and review a few of the most popular clubs out there. Here we go…
3 Tips Before You Buy
Research The Membership In Detail -> It always make sense to research what you’re really getting before you buy. For example, there’s no point buying a camping club membership if you don’t like the parks or none of them are on your travel route. Plus you should never enter into a long (non-refundable) contract until you’re sure it’s something you’ll use. Understand exactly what you’re getting into, for how long and what the cancellation terms (if any) are before you make the purchase.
Buy It Only When You Need It (and not before) -> Most memberships can be bought and paid for online almost instantaneously anytime you wish. As an example we bought our Passport America Pass in the RV (online) while driving to the RV park where we were planning to use it. The membership process was supposed to take a day, but we got our pass number mere hours after we applied. Cutting it a tad close, but hey it worked out.
Cancel It When You Don’t Use It Anymore -> Unless you find yourself using your membership regularly don’t make the mistake of buying a membership and then auto-renewing every year. You can always buy another membership later, so buy it once and set it up to remind you the next time it’s due. Then if you haven’t used it as you imagined you would, cut it loose.
With the 3 tips above in mind, here’s a quick run-down of some of the most popular RV camping clubs out there:
Passport America 50% Camping Club
In my opinion this is the absolute best 50% discount camping club out there. It’s inexpensive, it has a nice quantity of membership parks (1,850 parks), the online map search tool is easy to use and you can typically make up the cost of membership within a few days of use.
But it’s also worth paying attention to the details before you join.
Many of the parks that participate are a bit off-the-beaten track, and most parks only offer the 50% discount on certain days or within certain seasons. The limitations for each park are listed on the PA website, and you can sometimes negotiate an extension of the discount rate (outside the “official” limits) but it’s important to understand that the pass does not get you an across-the-board 50% off deal.
As an example the park we’re currently staying at (Mission Bay RV Resort in San Diego) only offers 50% off for 4 days (Mon through Thurs) and you can only apply that discount 2 times in a calendar year (no exceptions here). That said Mission Bay is an expensive park (sites cost $50/night full price) so if you DO come here with PA, you’ll make up the cost of membership within 2 easy days!
Happy Camper 50% Camping Club
This club seems to have copied the Passport America (PA) model exactly. They offer the same 50% discount deal (again, certain exclusions apply) at ~1,200 parks for a slightly lower yearly cost than PA. However they don’t have a mapping tool (their online directory is horrible to use) and, perhaps even more worrying, no-one seems to talk about them (on RV forums or anywhere else?). Personally I’m not convinced and see no reason to buy into this when PA has such a solid reputation and is so much easier to use.
Escapees/Xscapers RV Club
Escapees is certainly much more than a camping club. This is a social and community club, with the added benefit that you get access to SKP parks (at a discount) as well as the opportunity to join with like-minded groups of people (BOF groups) and connect with the pre-retirement crowd (Xscapers was launched for that very purpose last year). There are lots of other things that happen thro’ SKP too, such as boot camp programs, mail & domicile service, CARE, RV advocacy, rallies, groups that arrange trips to Mexico and the Albuquerque Balloon Fiesta etc.
Camping-wise the biggest draw is access to inexpensive camping at SKP parks & co-ops (monthly rates at the 19 parks are often as low as $300/mo) and 15-50% discount at “1000 participating parks”. Plus, if you join the “Days End” directory (separate $15 fee), you’ll get access to a long list of boondocking locations cross-country.
The negatives? Finding what discount you can get where is a bear. There’s a online map of the “1000 participating parks”, but to actually figure out what discount you can get, you have to look up each park in a written book either in print on on-line page-by-page (I really wish this was easier). The “Days End” directory is equally frustrating. There’s an online map planning tool and over 800 pages of boondocking locations, but you have to scroll thro’ a written list to figure out the exact details of each spot. Still, it’s a gem of a resource if you’re willing to dig in.
Thousand Trails Camping Pass
You can save a ton of money on camping costs with Thousand Trails, but you can also waste a ton too. A lot of people get seduced by the $$ on this one, and at first glance it looks amazing. For only $545 you get “year round” access to all the campgrounds within a given “zone” (there are 5 total zones in the USA), plus they often have an offer (as they do right now) for an extra zone for free. The membership gives you 30-days of free camping, whereafter you only pay $3/night. For camping costs that cannot be beat anywhere!
But the details really matter here!
With the standard zone pass you can only stay max 14-days at a time, then you have to go out of the system for 7 days (alternatively you can move every 4 days, but that’s tough to keep up year-round). Also the Thousand Trails campgrounds are only in certain areas (there are NONE in the middle of the country, for example), and many of the campgrounds are rather run-down (it’s a common complaint amongst users). Cancellation of the membership can only be done in writing & if you enter into a multi-year contract you can’t get out of it without paying the thing in full.
So, how do you decide if this is worth it?
Well, most of the parks allow folks to come in and use them without a membership so my advise is to try out a few of the parks to see if you like them and whether they make sense for you (location-wise). If (and only if) you see yourself using the parks on a regular basis then I suggest looking at the 2nd hand market for Thousand Trails memberships. There is a HUGE resale market on these memberships (online, on RV forums and in RV magazines) so you can typically get a very good deal on upgraded memberships (such as Elite/VIP/Platinum etc.) that give you access to more zones and/or allow you to stay full-time with no days out of the system. Read terms carefully and make sure you know what you’re getting into before you buy.
So, I totally admit I have an ambiguous relationship with these guys. They’ve been around forever and have a snazyy website that offers all kinds of tempting RV-related stuff such as Camping World discounts, warranties, mail service, trip planning service etc. But they also tend to be rather spammy. Once you join you’re deluged with mail (both paper and otherwise) and their camping discount is really not that attractive -> they only offer 10% discount.
Their main advantage (over other camping clubs) is that they offer the discount across more parks (~2,100 participating locations) most of which do NOT participate in other clubs (such as PA). So, when you can’t get a discount with anyone else, you can typically get it with Good Sam’s. Still, it’s not hugely attractive and unless you spend a lot of time in private parks, you won’t get much use out of it.
Kampgrounds Of America (KOA)
Kampgrounds of America (KOA) manages ~500 campgrounds across the USA/Canada and market themselves as a family-friendly vacation spot. The campgrounds typically offer decent amenities (cabins, pool, pull-through sites etc.) and tend to be very consistent (quality-wise), but they also tend to be pricey (at least $35/night or more). IF and only IF you like the KOA model you might want to consider a KOA membership. For $27/year you’ll get a 10% discount and the opportunity to earn rewards points that can be used for discounts and/or free stays in the future. In 6 years on the road we’ve only stayed at a KOA once (in our very first year) and it was OK, but I have to admit we haven’t been back since.
This popular membership gives you the chance to stay a night at a winery, farm or agri-tourism site for FREE. The draw is that you get to dry-camp in snazzy spots and you make up the costs of membership within a few days of use. The downsides? Many of the host locations are not in the most popular areas (for example there are ZERO harvest host locations in the popular wine region of Napa/Sonoma), and you are only supposed to stay a single night. Plus it’s often assumed you’ll visit the facility and spend some money there. We used the membership during our cross-country travels and enjoyed it, although we invariably ended up spending more money at these locations than we would have in a regular campground LOL. Still, we enjoyed the off-the-beaten-track locations and got to visit several interesting farms/vineyards and support local products.
This membership allows you to stay for FREE at private residences across the country. You’re staying with people who are opening up their private property for you so size/location varies a lot. Some places you park in their driveway, other places give you a spot on their land. Most spots are dry-camping (no hookups), stay limits vary by residence and you should be ready for a little social interaction with your hosts (that’s all part of the draw, after all). If you’re an introverted-type that prefers to camp in isolated places this clearly isn’t for you, but if you like meeting other RVers and don’t mind staying on someone’s property, you’ll make up the cost of the membership within the first stay.
America The Beautiful/Senior Pass
We’re too young to qualify for the Federal Lands Senior Pass (62 and over only), but if we did we’d be all over it like a swarm of bees on honey. For the price of just $80 (one-time fee) you get a lifetime of free entry to National Parks, PLUS you get 50% off camping costs at most Federal Land Campgrounds (e.g. National Parks, National Forests, BLM and COE). A great deal IMO! If you’re “of age” to qualify for this one, you’d be silly not to get it.
LTVA Seasonal Camping Pass (Winter Boondocking CA/AZ)
This is not your “typical” camping club membership, but it can be a very inexpensive way to camp for the winter season in CA & AZ. It’s basically a combo of BLM offices that have joined forces to create what they call Long Term Visitor Areas. These are large areas of open desert where you can boondock (= camp out in the boonies, no hookups, no specific sites) for the entire winter season for one low price ($180, Sept 15-April 15).
Since BLM camping is typically free why would you even consider this???
Well, the main reason is that you don’t have to worry about stay limits. Typically stay limits on BLM land are 14-days, but with the LTVA pass you can stay in the same place for the entire season if you want to. Also, many of the LTVA areas offer access to either garbage, water or dump (or all three). Lastly, for folks who’ve never boondocked before the LTVA’s are a nice, easy semi-managed way to try it out.
Note/ There is also a “summer” version of this (Mar-Nov) that covers 4 BLM campgounds in the Eastern Sierra Nevada mountains, but it’s rather more expensive at $300 for the season and doesn’t cover nearly as much land as the winter LTVA pass.
State Park Passes
State Parks are great places to camp (we looooove them!), but they ain’t always cheap. There are ways to save, but not all passes are worth the price and in many places the savings are not all that attractive. Still a few of these do make sense, and in a select few states you can get much, much more than you might expect.
Entry Fee Passes
Certain states such as CO, TX, SD require you to pay a daily entry fee in addition to any camping fees. So for example in CO, you typically pay $20-$30/night for camping, but you’ll ALSO need to pay a $7/day entry fee. If you camp in that state regularly those extra $$ rack-up quickly! The answer is to buy an annual entry fee pass. Costs vary by state, but the principle is the same everywhere -> you get unlimited free entry into all the state parks within that state. In CO it costs $70 for a year pass so if you camp more than 10 days/year you make up the cost of the pass.
There is only really ONE state that I know of which offers a “true” camping pass and that’s New Mexico. For only $225 you get FREE dry-camping at ANY New Mexico State Park for an entire YEAR! You need to respect the stay limits (typically 14-days at each park) and you’ll pay an extra $4/day for hookups, but as far as camping costs are concerned this simply cannot be beat! You’ll make up the cost of the pass in 3 easy weeks.
Another very-little-known and little-used camping pass is the Washington State “Discover Pass” ($35). This pass doesn’t really save you anything in the State Parks (camping-wise), but it does get you FREE camping at primitive sites in many Washington Department of Fish & Wildlife (WDFW) AND Department of Natural Resources (DNR) spots across the state. Not all rig-sizes can go everywhere and stay limits are typically 21-days (within a 30-day period), but it’s a great deal if you use it. Read more about this from other bloggers HERE.
- 5 Ways to Camp for Under $500/year
- Free Overnight RV Parking = Finding “Freebies”
- 10 Things I Wish I’d Known Before Fulltime RVing…
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