With the exception of boondocking in your rig somewhere for free (which means no electric/water/sewer), Thousand Trails is easily the cheapest way to go camping in your RV. There are a lot of membership and partnership programs out there, and they’re all decent ways to save money, but nothing compares to Thousand Trails. We have been traveling full-time in our Grand Design Reflection 312BHTS for 18 months and have used both a Thousand Trails Zone Pass and an Elite Membership, and both have saved us a ton of money. We honestly don’t know how anyone full-times without Thousand Trails! Keep reading to find out how we got to camp for 4 months at Disney World for only $560!
We have traveled more than 18,000 miles around this country in our RV and set up camp in 138 different locations in the last 18 months. Some were free nights in a Walmart parking lot, others were resorts costing more than $80/night. We really try to find parks below $30/night though, and our Thousand Trails (referred to as “TT” from here on out) membership makes that very easy – when we’re in the right parts of the country. To be totally honest, the lack of campgrounds in large chunks of the country is really the only negative thing we can say about TT. Before we talk about the individual campgrounds though, lets go through what TT actually is.
What Is Thousand Trails?
In a nutshell, TT is a membership program that you can purchase in a couple different ways that gives you access to a network of campgrounds for $0/night. Obviously it’s not actually $0/night if you factor in the cost of the membership and do some math, but we’ll get into that in more detail below. You can try out TT for pretty cheap with a Camping Pass, or you can jump right in and get one of three different levels of “Enhanced” memberships. They both give you access to a large number of campgrounds, but there are a number of things to consider when choosing a membership. Let’s go through them from cheapest to most expensive and discuss what’s included in each.
Note: If you already know you’re interested in one of the Enhanced Memberships, make sure to read through the details on the Camping Pass where we cover things like reservation limits, park hopping, and booking windows. Those will be expanded on when we talk about Enhanced Memberships, but their definitions are in the Camping Pass section.
The Camping Pass and Thousand Trails Basics
The most basic way to join TT and check out some campgrounds for really cheap is with a Camping Pass. When you purchase a Camping Pass, you’ll choose a zone (see below) — each zone has access to between 13-23 campgrounds. You can add other zones for pretty cheap too, so if you know you’ll be traveling around a bit you can unlock another one (or more) for pretty cheap. Here’s the current map from TT’s website:
The five zones are shown as different shades of green. The dark brown locations are the campgrounds that are unlocked with your Camping Pass in the zone you choose. The tan and blue locations are unlocked if you add the Trails Collection (at an additional cost) to your Camping Pass. We highly recommend the Trails Collection for the Midwest, Northeast, and Southeast zones. What about that huge gathering of blue dots in Arizona though? All of those campgrounds are “Age Qualified”, meaning you need to be 55+ to use those campgrounds. We can’t use those, but if that’s you and you’re going to be in Arizona, that’s 19 campgrounds you can use!
Our one gripe with TT is that huge gap in the middle and northern areas of the country. We’re currently in Colorado and have had to pay for campgrounds on our way across from Virginia over the last 5 weeks. We have been spoiled by our TT membership and really don’t like paying nightly fees again!
The base rate for a Camping Pass as of August 2020 is $599 for one Zone for a year. Additional zones can be added to your Camping Pass for only $59. The Trails Collection add-on that unlocks the tan and blue locations (across the entire country, not just in your zone) is currently $299 on top of the cost of the Camping Pass. There are almost always promotions running that bring the Camping Pass base price down to $499 or lower. You’ll always get the best rate for your Camping Pass if you reach out to our TT representatives Warren and Sharon Lewis by email or by calling 804-366-0798. Tell them Five2Go sent you for the best price!
Camping Pass Limits
Here’s some critical information that’s a bit difficult to find on the TT site until after you’ve purchased a Camping Pass. You can’t stay for an unlimited number of nights in TT campgrounds. You can stay 1 to 14 nights in a single campground and then you have to move on. If you stay for more than 4 nights, you have to stay outside of the TT network for 7 nights before you can go back to any TT campground. If you only stay for 1-4 nights, you can go straight to another TT campground without that 7-night blackout. We actually used the 4-night limit to our advantage a lot – more on this later.
The other important thing to keep in mind about your Camping Pass is your booking window. You can only make reservations in TT campgrounds 60 days ahead of your arrival date. To be 100% honest, we never had an issue with this booking window and frequently found availability when booking only a couple days ahead. If you’re going to be in Florida or the Southwest in the winter, you’ll want to make those reservations as far out as you can though!
And finally, you have a limit of one active “holiday” reservation on your account. Don’t worry too much about this though – the only holidays that count for this restriction are Memorial Day, the Fourth of July, and Labor Day. That’s pretty easy to work around.
How We Used Our Camping Pass
When we first started using TT we bought a Camping Pass with the Southwest, Northwest, and Midwest Zones for a total cost of about $600 in early 2018. Between April and September we stayed at 20 different TT campgrounds from Las Vegas to San Diego, then up to Los Angeles, Oregon, Washington, and all the way over to Chicago and Cleveland. We used a total of 90 nights in TT campgrounds before we decided to upgrade to an Enhanced Membership. With some simple math, that works out to an average of $6.67 a night. Try spending that little with private resorts and campgrounds! Spoiler alert: you can’t.
One way that we maximized our Camping Pass was to use the 4-night limit as motivation to move and explore faster. For the most part we only stayed in TT campgrounds for those four nights so we could immediately go to another TT campground. In a couple areas on our route (from Santa Barbara, CA to Oregon for example) we stayed at a TT campground longer because we knew we would be out for a week before going back to a TT farther up north. We mapped our route out and planned for those gaps to get the most nights out of our Camping Pass as possible. Then in areas like Washington where there are a ton of TT campgrounds, we were able to go from campground to campground and see a lot of the areas we wanted to see.
As we were approaching the East Coast, we knew we would want to stay in some areas for much longer and decided to check out how an Enhanced Membership could help us do that cheaply.
Make sure to go through the Camping Pass sections above to familiarize yourself with reservation limits, park hopping, and booking windows before digging into these memberships.
When you buy one of the three Thousand Trails Enhanced Memberships you’ll get access to a LOT more than with a zone pass, and you’ll also be able to use all of it more effectively. It does come with a much higher cost, but this membership is for a lifetime not just for a year like the Camping Pass. There are also ways to safe money on Enhanced Memberships through sales and special offers. The best way is to reach out to our TT representatives Warren and Sharon Lewis by email or by calling 804-366-0798. They’ll hook you up with some awesome discounts so make sure to tell them Five2Go sent you for the best possible price!
Stay Longer & Plan Further Ahead
NOTE – this article was originally written in 2019. The Thousand Trails membership levels, names, and details have changed a little bit since then. Please visit this updated January 2021 post about new membership levels and prices.
There are three different Enhanced Memberships: Elite Basic, Elite Connections, and Ultimate Odyssey. All three of those will grant you unlimited camping in TT campgrounds all across the country (no more zones!), the ability to go park-to-park regardless of how many nights you spend, and a variety of other benefits. The big differences between the three are with your booking window and length of stay limits.
- Elite Basic: 120 day booking window and 21 days per stay
- Elite Connections: 180 day booking window and 21 days per stay
- Ultimate Odyssey: 180 day booking window and 28 days per stay
Aside from a few extra benefits we’ve never used, like cabin rentals and being able to purchase additional weeks to extend a stay, those are really the primary differences in the three membership levels. None of these memberships include the Trails Collection add-on, but it is available to add on with any of them.
Enhanced Membership Prices
The current Enhanced Membership prices for July 2019 are: Elite Basic, $6,995. Elite Connections, $9,145. Ultimate Odyssey, $13,595. Again, reach out to Warren and Sharon to find out whatever sale price is currently available, which is almost guaranteed to be much lower than those numbers.
We have an Elite Basic Membership plus the Trails Collection and have used it to stay all along the East Coast for way cheaper than other camping options. Because we already had a Camping Pass with several zones our upgrade price was a bit lower than if we had gone from no TT membership straight to an Elite Basic. We also upgraded during a sale and didn’t have to pay tax. All that being said, we paid $5,530 for our Elite Basic in September, 2018. That worked out to about $140/month with financing. That may seem like a lot, but let’s run some numbers.
Thousand Trails Orlando = Disney World Camping for Less Than $5 a Night
When looking at the value you’re receiving from a membership like this, you need to look at what your cost per night is going to be as you use the membership. As I said way back at the beginning, we like to find campgrounds for less than $30/night, which is about $900/month. After upgrading our TT membership to an Elite Basic, we have only paid $840 for more than 6 months of camping from October 2018 to April 2019. We stayed in TT campgrounds for 184 days between Maine and Florida, including 4 months in Orlando, for an average of $4.57/night. If you’ve ever stayed at a campground near Disney World, you know that they are not cheap. In fact, the cheapest park you’re going to find within 10 miles of Disney World in January will run you $60/night, with many being much more than that.
If Orlando for $4.57/night isn’t impressive enough, let’s look at this in a slightly different way. We are currently unable to use our TT membership because of where we are in the country. That’s annoying for sure, but when we look at the bigger picture it doesn’t bother us that much. If we never stay in another TT campground again and only ever used our Elite Basic membership (which cost us $5,530) for those 184 days on the East Coast, it means we actually paid $30.05/night. That’s still WAY less than the $60/night we would have paid for other campgrounds around Orlando.
Let’s go one step farther and then we’ll be done with all the math, I promise. Because we got a discounted membership with the upgrade from our Camping Pass, let’s just add it all together and see how much we’ve paid overall. The initial Camping Pass was $600, the upgrade to Elite Basic + Trails was $5,530, for a total of $6,130. We have stayed in TT campgrounds for a total of 274 nights since joining in early 2018. That works out to $22.37/night, which is well under our $30/night target price that we mentioned back at the start of this post. And that’s only if we never use TT again. Every night we use it in the future will just bring that average down even more.
Thousand Trails Campground Amenities, Quality, and Location
Almost all of the TT campgrounds we’ve stayed in have been just as nice, if not nicer, than other options in those areas. Let’s put it this way – we’ve had to cancel several private campground reservations upon arrival because they were in awful condition or in a terrible part of town and we didn’t feel safe. We have never canceled a TT reservation because of the condition of the campground or the surrounding area.
Some TT campgrounds are definitely more like resorts and have been updated more recently than others, but in general they’re all quite nice. We have only been without a sewer hookup at a small number of them, but that is definitely an exception and not the rule. Most of the ones we’ve visited have had pools, mini golf, clubhouses, and other amenities. All of this information can easily be found on the TT website.
As for TT locations, you can definitely find campgrounds closer to big cities and tourist destinations like Los Angeles, Seattle, Washington DC, etc., but the nightly rates just can’t compete. Similar to prices around Orlando in January, you’ll pay a premium for campgrounds close to popular cities like that. The savings with your TT membership will more than make up for the cost of fuel to drive in and see the sights.
Thousand Trails Is a Must Have for Every RVer
You just can’t camp for cheaper than you can with a Thousand Trails membership. If you’re going to be RVing full-time like we are and you’re going to be in the areas where TT campgrounds are located for even part of the year, an Enhanced Membership is really a no-brainer. Even if you’re only using your RV a few weeks and weekends a year, a Camping Pass could be a great deal too. At that $500 almost-all-the-time sale price, using it for only two weeks works out to be about $36/night. That’s a heck of a deal.
There’s one last thing I wanted to cover really quickly – the Thousand Trails online booking system is awesome. Once you have your account it is extremely easy to make, modify, and cancel reservations. The best part is that there are no cancellation fees or restrictions like with most other campgrounds. If your plans change (and ours do often), just log in and update everything. And for the few times we’ve had to call TT to make a change or ask a question over the phone, they’ve been very friendly and helpful.
Getting the Best Price on Your Thousand Trails Membership
We love our Thousand Trails membership and know that you’ll love yours too, whatever level you end up buying. Reach out to our Thousand Trails representatives Warren and Sharon Lewis by email or by calling 804-366-0798 to learn more. They’ll hook you up with the best available price at the time, just tell them Five2Go sent you!