One of the important aspects of planning for our RV lifestyle was putting together our budget. As we live, travel and work full-time from our RV, campgrounds fees had the potential to be one of our biggest monthly expenditures. We wanted to create as much certainty as possible around the financials so we could feel confident about pulling this whole thing off without blowing the budget! So before we even bought our RV and hit the road, we researched the various types of camping memberships available – Escapees to Passport America, RPI and Thousand Trails – to name a few. We liked the Thousand Trails (TT) model best as a starting point, as we felt their “Zone Park Pass” offered excellent value for money and was a great way for us to get started and try out their campground network, for a minimal investment.
Now, if you watched our “6 months on the road: Our 4 Biggest Changes” video update you would be aware that we ended up switching over to an Elite membership five months into our 12 month Zone Pass membership. If you are traveling extensively, this may also be a good option for you, but there is a whole smorgasbord of Thousand Trails membership options available and making sense of them all can get kind of complicated and confusing. That’s why we decided to share what we’ve learned about both the Thousand Trails Zone Park Pass and the TT Membership Upgrades (such as Elite, Platinum, Platinum Plus, Alliance) in two separate articles (as outlined below) that each focus on a certain membership type.
If you aren’t yet a Thousand Trails member and are exploring whether or not it’s right for you, then we’d recommend you start here and learn about the the benefits and limitations of the TT Zone Park Pass first.
If you already have a TT Zone Pass and/or plan to travel more extensively, I’d recommend you jump right over and read our other post: Thousand Trails Membership Upgrade: Elite, Platinum and more
Before we dive in, please keep in mind that we are by no means “experts” in this area, nor are we affiliated with Thousand Trails in any way. We’re just a regular couple who have invested a lot of time and energy in researching our options before spending our hard-earned cash and become TT members! It is our hope that by sharing what we’ve learned along the way, you will find it easier to determine the best kind of membership to suit your needs and get the best deal in the process.
Ready to learn more? Let’s go!
What is Thousand Trails?
If you haven’t already discovered this by scouring their website, Thousand Trails (TT) is a national campground membership network of over 80 private RV resorts and campgrounds (also called preserves) in 22 US states and B.C., Canada. Most (not all) sites offer electrical, water and sewer hookups, BBQ pits and picnic tables. TT offers sites for all types of RVs, tent campers, rental accommodations such as cabins, cottages, travel trailers, yurts and even covered wagons! Facilities vary by location but typically include a clubhouse, tennis/pickleball courts, pool, hot tub, laundry, restrooms/showers, library, RV storage, store, nature/hiking trails, playground, game room, horseshoe pits and so on. Some locations have mini golf, fishing and organized activities. TT campgrounds are gated, providing security with a ranger station at the entrance (some manned 24 hours) with gate codes for member access.
TT has been operating as a member organization since 1969 and currently has over 100,000 member families. The way we see it, TT is kind of like a “campground timeshare” but with less cost and commitment.
What is a Zone Park Pass?
The Zone Park Pass (also known as the Zone Pass) is an annual camping pass that gives you access to campgrounds in one, two or more “zones” around the country. The Zone Pass provides flexible, any-time access at TT campgrounds within the zones you select at the time of purchase. Thousand Trails has divided the country up into 5 zones: Southwest, Southeast, Northwest, Northeast and Midwest with each zone having between 13 and 23 campgrounds. You simply pay an annual fee to access the TT preserves – the number and locations available to you will depend on the “zone/s” you purchased as part of your membership.
The Zone Park Pass is kind of the “gateway drug” to Thousand Trails. It’s cheap, quick and easy to get started and, as a full-time RVer, once you start enjoying the benefits and appreciating the value you’re getting, you just may get hooked and want more! (That’s when you read our other blog post about upgrade options).
What does a Zone Pass cost?
Strangely enough, there are a few different answers to this question – it all depends on who you speak to and what questions you ask!
At the time we purchased our Zone Pass in May 2014, they were running a “buy one zone, get one free” deal for $545, so we scored both the Northwest and Southwest Zones for that price. The sales rep we spoke to was keen to seal the deal, so she offered us a bonus – adding on Tahoe Valley RV Resort, an Encore property in South Lake Tahoe – this gave us access to a total of 37 campgrounds. She also advised that we could “swap” one of our zones during the year – for example, we could swap out the Northwest (or Southwest) Zone for say the Midwest Zone, effectively giving us access to 3 zones within a twelve month period, all for $545.
According to Thousand Trails website at the time of writing this article, a “One Zone Pass” still cost $545 for one year with no ongoing commitment. You can pay for one year and either renew it the following year or not. The TT website is no longer promoting the “buy one zone, get one free” promotion that we scored, so we called them this week to ask if we could still get that deal.
2017 UPDATE: This year, the cost of a Zone Pass increased to $565 and additional Zones are now available to add on for just $49 per zone. There is also a new Trails Collection add-on option available which gives you access to 110 Encore Properties nationally for just $199 per year. See our blog post to learn more about the Trails Collection.
The first sales rep I spoke to advised they have a new “two-zone” promotion and shared that if you want two zones (or more) the cost per zone goes down from $545 to $425 per zone, but there’s a catch – it requires a four (4) year commitment! So now, if you’re considering two zones at $425/zone over 4 years it ends up being a total commitment of $1,700! You can pay this monthly over the 4 years, which works out to be $35.41 per month and after the 4 years, you can cancel your contract by providing advance notice in writing. Now, if you’re a vacation camper who sticks to one or two areas, this may work for you. But if you’re planning to full-time and explore all of the states like us, this is unlikely to be the best option for you! We explain why further down.
Knowing how ‘negotiable’ Thousand Trails can be when it comes to selling you a new membership option, the next day we decided to use their “live chat” feature to connect with another TT sales rep. This one quoted me $545 for one zone but was quick to offer a $100 discount if we paid in full that day, thus bringing the cost of one zone down to $445. Not bad. We then mentioned we knew other members who had purchased the “two zones for the price of one” deal for $545 last year and asked if that offer was still available. The “live chat” sales rep confirmed that if we committed today and paid upfront in full, they would honor last year’s deal of two zones for $545. Sweet! Sometimes it just pays to ask. 🙂
When you are ready to buy your zone pass, don’t just simply pay the first price TT quotes you! They can usually do better and you may be able to get the same deal down the track, even if you don’t buy it same day. Of course, we can’t guarantee it and they certainly won’t tell you that – they are trying to sell you a membership after all! If necessary, hang up the phone and call back to speak with a different sales rep and see if you get offered the same deal or manage to find something different.
Although they may not appear on the TT website, there are all kinds of promotional offers available behind the scenes, although you may need to ask some leading questions, such as:
- If I commit and pay in full today, can I get two zones for the price of one?
- Are there any bonus Encore properties available that you can add onto my membership?
- Do I have the ability to swap out one of my zones for another within the year?
- What are my options if I want to pay by the month?
- What other promotional offers, options and bonuses are available?
- What’s the best you can do if I pay for one year up-front today?
You may or may not be able to score a deal like we did, but even if you manage to buy the One Zone Pass upfront for $465, you’ll still find it a very affordable and easy way to travel and camp.
You may also notice a National Zone Camping Pass advertised on the TT website, offering access to all 5 zones for $2,995. We don’t recommend the National Park Pass as (in our opinion) it’s overpriced and does not deliver nearly as many benefits as an upgrade which you can get for much less. Save your money, keep reading this article (and then this one) before you even think about pulling your credit card out of your wallet!
What do you get with a Zone Pass?
Here’s a snapshot of the Zone Pass terms and conditions, as outlined in our 2014 contract. These may be subject to change if Thousand Trails decides to amend the Zone Pass terms, but this gives you a good general overview:
- Access to all of the campgrounds in the zone(s) you select
- Unlimited day use and unlimited overnight camping in your own RV or tent
- Camp free for 30 nights each year
- Stay additional nights for just $3 per night (includes electric, water, sewer)
- Stay at one preserve for up to 14 consecutive nights, then stay out of the TT system for 7 nights before you stay again at any preserve
- Stay up to 4 nights at any preserve and move immediately to another, without any time out of the system
- Ability to make reservations up to 60 days in advance (online or by phone)
- Ability to book rental units, cottages, trailers and yurts within the campgrounds
- Access to low cost RV storage areas at many preserves
- 20% discount when staying at Encore properties
- Ability to add the new Trails Collection add-on with 110 Encore parks for just for $199 a year
While the 4 year, $35.41 per month option may initially seem appealing, you need to remember that you are entering into a 4 year contract that you cannot cancel without paying out the balance in full. If you have any doubts at all about committing for that length of time, or if you are a full-timer who wants to keep your options open to upgrading your membership (as we did) at any time within the next 4 years, you will be better off just buying the One Zone Pass, paying for it upfront in full, and only being committed to a one year contract. The more you read and learn in this article (and the next) the more you will understand why.
What’s the average nightly campground fee with a TT Zone Pass?
If you’re prepared to move every 4 days and stay only within the TT network, you could theoretically camp 365 days a year with Thousand Trails for $545. This averages out at around $4.25 per night, after factoring in the $3/night after your first 30 nights of free camping. While not impossible, that’s a pretty frenetic pace for anyone to keep up for an entire year, not to mention geographically limiting, as Thousand Trails doesn’t have campgrounds in every areas you’d most likely want to visit.
So let’s look at the other option. If you camped 14 nights at a TT park, then stayed out of the system for 7 nights, 14 nights in, 7 nights out and so on for an entire year, you could theoretically camp within the TT network for about 243 nights a year, which averages out at $4.87 per night. You will also need to factor in the costs for camping out of the TT network. Let’s say you spend 16 weeks a year out of the TT system at $200 per week ($28.57 per night) and this adds up to around $3,200 a year. That means your overall annual camping fees would amount to just under $4,400, or $367 per month.
When you consider that most campgrounds with hookups range between $30-65 per night, it’s easy to see why Thousand Trails represents such good value, especially for full-timers like us! With electrical, water and sewer included, it’s pretty hard to beat.
What are our thoughts on the TT campgrounds?
While the purpose of this article isn’t to provide reviews of individual campgrounds, we can share a little about our experience, having stayed at dozens of their parks so far. It’s important to be aware that the size, location, sites, amenities and standard of each campground can vary quite widely. Here, we share a handful of examples to give you an idea of our likes and dislikes of some of the preserves we’ve visited.
We’ve stayed at some parks that are very well maintained with excellent facilities, such as Palm Springs and Seaside and others that are very run down like Soledad Canyon in Acton, CA where a lot of the electrical sites are broken. We’ve experienced wonderful views and a lovely environment at Rancho Oso in Santa Barbara, CA and Ponderosa in Lotus, CA and we’ve been bored senseless at Lake Minden, CA (108 degree summer temps!) as we don’t really like fishing and they don’t have a pool. We’ve been nestled among lush, leafy green trees in Florence, OR and stuck in a dry dustbowl at Morgan Hill, CA (we know, it’s neither TT’s nor California’s fault there’s been a three year drought). We’ve had trouble getting our packages delivered to Pacific City, OR yet had mail and Amazon packages personally delivered to our door by the friendly rangers at both Cloverdale and Oakzanita Springs, CA. We’ve had insufficient cell signal/internet for us to work from Whaler’s Rest, OR and Rancho Oso, CA and enjoyed super fast, reliable connectivity at Chehalis and Mt Vernon, WA (among others). Navigating our 36 foot motorhome was a breeze in Birch Bay, WA and Palm Springs, CA and more of a challenge (though do-able) in Oakzanita Springs and Cloverdale, CA. Whaler’s Rest and Pacific City in Oregon were ideally located across the road from the beach while Soledad Canyon in Acton, CA was almost an hour’s drive by car away from the beaches, Santa Monica, Hollywood and other L.A. action. The campground in Long Beach, WA was a little cramped with one electrical pod for every 4 rigs to share, but the people there were super friendly and we had one of our best days ever biking the trail right behind the campground. We’ve heard other members complain about the TT campgrounds they don’t like, when some of those very campgrounds end up ranking among our favorites!
The short answer is, it really all comes down to what you like and what is most important to you in a campground. We don’t live in a perfect world and Thousand Trails campground certainly aren’t perfect either. Yes, we agree the company could spend more money upgrading some of their campgrounds, internal roads, sites, electrical posts and facilities, and we do see upgrades taking place here and there. It all comes down to the dollars they have available. Personally, we’d be OK with an increase in our annual dues to support more park upgrades, as we are full-timers who use the TT system fairly heavily, but I’m sure not every one of their 100,000+ member families would agree or welcome a price hike!
In our opinion, it’s difficult to compare Thousand Trails campgrounds with many others that charge $35+ per night, as you’re simply not paying anywhere near that kind of money to enjoy the TT member benefits year round.
We definitely appreciate nice places and campgrounds and we often stay at nicer parks outside of the TT system. If you have a preference for staying in upmarket campgrounds on a more regular basis, then Thousand Trails may not be for you. If however, you don’t mind campgrounds that are occasionally a little more ‘rustic’ then you’ll probably be just as happy with TT as we are. It all comes down to your expectations and attitude. We tend to be the kind of people who focus on the good and positive things in life, so we tend to appreciate each campground and experience for what it is. We also like to stay at as many TT preserves as we can and form our own opinions. The parks we enjoy most we return to, the ones we enjoy least we don’t, it’s as simple as that. You will find there are plenty to choose from and in the end, it’s up to you – we all have different preferences.
Finally, one of the things we do enjoy and appreciate greatly about being Thousand Trails members is the sense of community it offers. Now that we’ve been traveling for 7+ months, we are starting to see some of the same people at different campgrounds and have been forming many new friendships on the road. You may have heard us talk about the sense of community and new friends we’ve made through Thousand Trails in our “6 months on the road video.” Being full-timer RVers, we place a high value on the social aspect and the ability to create a new community on the road is important to us. It’s hard to find that in public campgrounds unless you’re a member of some other kind of RV club with social groups (such as Escapees).
If you are looking for a cost effective way to camp year-round, in our opinion you can’t go wrong starting out with a basic TT Zone Pass – it’s so affordable for what you get, especially if you full-time like us, and you’re not tied down by a long term contract. But again, read our other post about TT membership upgrades before making a final decision. Who knows, depending on your situation, it may be better for you to start with an upgrade right away?
To become more familiar with the TT preserves, we suggest you visit the Explore Campgrounds section of the TT website, check out a few RV park reviews and discoveer for yourself what other members have to say about their experience at each of the parks. You can also watch the excellent TT campground videos made by Gone with the Wynns.
In summary, here’s our “Cliff Notes” version of what we see as the pros and cons of Thousand Trails and the Zone Pass:
- Affordable – it’s a great, low cost way to try out Thousand Trails out and see if you like them
- Low commitment – pay for your contract upfront and simply renew annual fee yearly
- Variety of locations – choose from 13-23 campgrounds per zone within the network
- Amenities – clubhouse, pool, spa, sporting facilities, laundry and more
- Community – meet and befriend other members as you travel and camp together
- Some (not all) campgrounds are in great locations (eg. near the beach, sand dunes, state parks)
- Good choice for the part time vacation camper
- Some parks are not as well maintained and/or have inferior electrical posts (some are quite rustic, a few may even be rundown, though this can change over time as they conduct property upgrades)
- RV sites in some parks can be close together like a parking lot, or difficult to access with big rigs
- If you commit to a 4 year payment plan, it may prevent you from upgrading to another membership in that timeframe
- Some (not all) campgrounds can be in more remote areas and a bit of a drive from area attractions
- Campground WIFI tends to be slow or unreliable so having your own WIFI setup is recommended if you depend on it (see our post ‘How Technology Keeps us Mobile’)
- Some areas can have poor or no cell coverage (maybe 10-15% in our experience on the West Coast)
- There are no TT campgrounds in UT, ID, MT, CO, NM, SD, ND, NE, WY, KS, OK, LA, AR, MO, IA, MN
- The TT Zone Pass is not available to residents of MN, MS and SD
After all of your research, if you’ve decided a Zone Park Pass is right for you, let’s recap on how you can get the best bang for your buck!
Useful Links and Contacts
Here’s some more information you may find useful:
Thousand Trails – explore campground amenities, see photos, watch videos
RV Park Reviews – search for specific states and campgrounds and read up on what other members think of TT campgrounds
Thousand Trails Zone Pass Membership Sales: If you think a zone pass might be a good fit for you, be sure to read this article on How to get the best deal on a zone pass
Well, that’s about all we’ve got to share with you about the Thousand Trails Zone Pass! We hope you learned something new and feel well informed to make the best choice for you.
If you are an extensive traveler and want to learn more about the Thousand Trails Membership Upgrade Options (eg. Elite, Platinum, Alliance) and why we chose to go that route, please click here. It will educate you about the benefits, differences and the process – you may even going direct to a membership upgrade option is a better fit for your needs than a Zone Pass. And we’re confident that by reading this article before you buy, it can save you a HUGE amount of time and money. We’ll do our best to keep this article up to date as things change over time. If you happen to learn of any changes that Thousand Trails makes to their plans, rules or inclusions, please drop us a line and let us know.
Was this article helpful to you? Awesome! Here’s how you can thank us!
1. “Like” this post and share it with your social networks, friends, family – anyone that may find it useful
2. If you decide to buy a Thousand Trails Zone Pass, reach out to our contacts in this article about How to get the best deal on a zone pass. You certainly don’t have to do this, but if you are feeling all warm and fuzzy about the time, effort and money we’ve saved you and you want to say “good onya”, you can give TT our details as your referring member: Marc & Julie Bennett #298683360. Thousand Trails will apparently send us a gift card as a little ‘thank you’ which will buy us dinner! And for that, we will thank YOU! Yay! We love win/wins 🙂
3. We always love to hear from you – please us what you thought of this article in the comments section below. If you scored a great deal on your TT Zone Pass, let us know by sharing the details with us here! It will also help others who read this article and related comments.