Almost as soon as we started looking into this fulltime lifestyle, we heard about the Thousand Trails membership. We debated on whether or not it was worth the initial investment and quickly decided to jump in.
As with any membership, there are various tiers, each with their own set of rules or limitations. I would be lying if I said we were not still learning the ropes of the membership, but we have definitely taken advantage of what it has to offer and whole-heartedly feel like we have gotten our money’s worth.
By the time we hit our 6-month mark of fulltime RV living, we will have stayed almost 100 nights in Thousand Trails campgrounds. With our fees and the couple of addons we have purchased, this works out to less than $9/night (compared to a typical night in a campground with full hookups that start around $40/night and have ranged up to $800/week). And we are only half-way through our 1-year membership.
The benefits of being a Thousand Trails member are largely financial. We do our best to keep costs low, and this membership 100% helps us with that while being able to have full hookups at every campground (well, except for once). We initially purchased the base membership and have added one region and a package that adds more affiliated campgrounds and resorts. By early spring, we will be adding an additional region and may get up to all 4 by the end of our first year, depending on where the road takes us. Even with making these few amendments, the only way we could stay somewhere for cheaper would be to boondock.
One of the other benefits, which we really have not capitalized on due to COVID, is the fact that lots of other fulltime families also have Thousand Trails memberships. We have primarily kept to ourselves, but I know this is a huge benefit to many families, especially those with older kids or those who are much more social than we are. Most of the campgrounds have pools and other community areas and activities, and while we are not comfortable attending these right now, it is definitely something that other members take advantage of.
We have also really enjoyed that many of the campgrounds have on-site lakes where Will can fish, either of us can paddleboard, or that offer a great place to walk with Bird and Daisy. At the campground we stayed at in the Adirondacks, we went on daily walks around the lake and thoroughly enjoyed getting to explore the entire campground and watch the sunset. In Virginia, we had the lake to ourselves to paddleboard, and Will brought home dinner one night (with enough to freeze for another meal).
As with anything, there are also downsides.
One of the main things we have encountered is that many of the campgrounds are rundown and maintained only to the minimum requirement. Many of the campgrounds are first-come-first-served, so when you arrive, you drive around to select a spot. In several places, we have seen a high percentage of sites blocked off due to faulty electricity or other issues. We have encountered electric issues in one place, and though they were promptly addressed by having us hook into the electricity at the neighboring site, it does not appear that things actually get fixed regularly. At another campground, we found out on arrival that only a percentage of sites actually had full-hookups (all sites were equipped with electricity and water, but the majority did not have sewer). “Tank management” is a primary concern when we have partial or no hookups, so arriving at a campground only to learn we will not have full-hookups (or that there is a lottery system to move to a spot with full-hookups), kind of threw us for a loop and added a layer of stress to our stay (and neither of us does well with unexpected stress). This encounter was less about campground maintenance and more about communication and overall campground management and how the situation was handled.
Another downside is the location of the campgrounds. Many are kind of in the middle of nowhere and can take upwards of 30 minutes to get to a grocery store or civilization in general. There are also no campgrounds in much of the West (except on the coast) or Midwest. This will be a limitation for us as we make our way into those regions in 2021. We have been lucky that there are so many locations on the east coast that we have been able to utilize.
Location also plays a part in the reliability of cell service (which for us doubles as internet service and my ability to work). We have driven around campgrounds and selected a spot solely due to the cell signal, and we have also ended up purchasing a few days’ worth of WiFi access from one campground. Now that we know this can be a recurrent issue, we try to do our research before we book our stays and make accommodations if necessary.
The final downside that has impacted our use of the membership is the various hoops that we have to jump through to book our stays at campgrounds. This is more of a learning curve than an actual downside, though we have had to alter plans when we learn about different rules within our membership. The online platform has frequent issues and connecting with anyone via phone can take some time, dedication, and patience. Our membership also has limits on the number of nights we are permitted to stay in one campground (14 nights), how many nights we can stay before having to “be out of the system” (must stay out 7 nights if we stay in any campground more than 4 nights), and limitations on hopping from campground to campground (we can go park to park if we stay 4 nights or less in each place).
For short bursts of time, we really enjoy moving every 4 nights, as this gives us time to explore an area before getting bored. However, this also means moving at a decent pace and not taking much time to slow down. For example, for 3 weeks in December, we stayed 4 nights in each of 5 different Thousand Trails campgrounds as we made our way from Tennessee to Florida. This is the longest stretch we have done of 4-night stays, and we were a little spent by the time we settled down for a little longer stay over the holidays. However, it was also really nice to break up the travel days into short 3-hour drives (so there is certainly a give and take). As with any membership, we could certainly upgrade or add-on packages to increase the number of nights we can stay or lessen (or eliminate) our required time out of the system. But right now, we make what we have work and see it as an opportunity to explore state parks and other campgrounds, rather than a limitation.
Even with the hoops and other perceived downsides, we have seen so much benefit from our membership and feel like we get exactly what we need (which truthfully is not much) at each place we have visited so far. As a family living fulltime in our camper, this membership has an incredible financial benefit that cannot be overlooked.
Currently, we have no idea where our travels may take us in the following year and for how long we may end up living this lifestyle, so we may eventually upgrade our membership or find that it really does not work for us (if we find ourselves focusing on an area with no affiliated campgrounds). But right now, it works great for us, and we would recommend that other families who camp a lot or those who are considering going fulltime look into how it may facilitate their travels.