Wednesday, November 22, 2017

Thousand Trails the good and the bad.

We joined Thousand Trails (TT) very early on, before our full time adventures, almost as soon as we bought an RV.

There have been several changes to this blog over time. See the very bottom for the latest concerning the "NEW" sales campaign.

The reasons we did so, how we did so and why, and the pros and cons of becoming a TT member are laid out here based upon OUR SPECIFIC EXPERIENCES

Why did we buy in?
When we were starting we were looking at ways to get our camping costs below our self imposed $25 a night ( Back then we thought it might be difficult to do. Some friends in Escapees mentioned TT as a good source for cheap camping so I did some online research and based on their 30 nights a year free then $3 a night after that, plus the large number of TT parks shown country wide I decided we should go for it.

How did we buy it?
The big thing you should be aware of is that TT sells memberships at their campgrounds and thru booths at RV shows. You can just roll up lay down your money and start camping, but doing it this way is the most expensive way of all! The salesmen are like timeshare or used car sales people. Pretty soon you'll have a membership with all the bells and whistles, longer stays, earlier reservations, more parks to stay at -- and an empty wallet.

There are other ways to get in to TT!
You can find “dealers” who resell “Used” memberships online. They will get you any level of membership much cheaper than you can buy it from a TT itself.
You can buy memberships on E-Bay or on Craigslist (Which is what we did).

How can that be? I hear you ask.

Well TT memberships are transferable FOR A FEE. Remember that when you come to buy one. The fee as I write this is $750. Not cheap but it can be worth it.

This means that you can buy somebody else's membership, pay the fee and off you go. BEWARE though that there are annual dues to pay which as I write this are $590 a year and if you buy a membership that is behind in dues you will have to pay the arrears in order to go camp. 

Provided you have the membership number and the permission of the present owner you can call TT and they will tell you if the dues are paid up and how many parks you can stay at (See the 11/28 update below). Also ask if the 30 days free for that year have been used otherwise you'll be paying $3 a night from day one.
Provided everything is good you can do the transfer online and you will receive a membership card in the mail.

What is it going to cost?
Apart from the transfer fee and the annual dues?
It's a free market out there, obviously the “Dealers” will have their mark up so they will be more expensive but they will also have a  variety of membership levels to choose from.

The factor that affects price is the “Level” of membership.
Let me try and explain that, although I'm not an expert on all the levels and extras. Also they change the names of the levels and the benefits of each level to tempt current owners to move up, so what you buy might be different from what they are selling now!

“Camping Pass”
This is a fairly recent thing to tempt the first time buyers. A Camping Pass allows you to use TT parks in ONE ZONE ONLY there are 3 or 4 zones around the country. Obviously if you live in one of the zones and only camp occasionally then that would be a pretty good deal. From my understanding the pass only lasts a year so you either have to buy a new one each year or move up to a better membership level. You can't sell a Camping Pass if you don't like it.

National Membership.
This is the one we have and so I'm most familiar with it.
This to me is the “Basic” level. With this you get access to parks nationwide, you can stay for 2 weeks in one park and then you have to be out of the TT system for a complete week before you can enter another TT park. You can make reservations 90 days in advance and you can have reservations for 2 holiday weekends on the books.

Update 11/28/17
We went and talked to the salesman at the TT park. What we have apparently is a very OLD membership that includes Naco and another set of parks for 51 parks total. If we had a newer membership it would include all the parks in the system, about 70 total.

See bottom of the page for the latest membership levels.

This level and the levels above it are transferable.
What this level lacks is access to ALL the parks in the TT system. I'll explain that latter on.

Elite Memberships
If you pay more you can get more.
This level lets you stay 3 weeks before having a week out. You can make reservations 180 days in advance. You can stay at more TT parks.

Update 11/28/17
There are apparently 3 levels in the Elite system.
They all get you 3 weeks in and no week out in between and 120 day advanced reservations.
The top level gets you 4 weeks in and no week out plus 180 day advanced reservations, 2 holiday weekends at a time reserved plus a bunch of frills like cabin rentals, cruise vouchers, 2 years free membership of Resort Parks International and discounts at Encore Parks.

Elite is going away, welcome new levels such as "Sapphire" 1/8/19

Higher Levels.
I'm not sure how many levels there are and what all the details of in/out are but some of the things I've seen are “Platinum” memberships that eliminate the one week out and the restriction on the number of holiday weekends you can reserve, and lets you camp at even more TT parks.. Obviously these are more expensive again.

Update 11/28/17
I now believe these higher levels are the Elite levels.

TT Parks your membership gives you access to.
Our “National” membership includes a book of their campgrounds and access to the Thousand Trails website ( where we can make reservations. 

We have looked in the book and found TT parks which didn't show up on the website! The first couple of times this happened we got very annoyed and called the customer service people to express our feelings. They then explained that not all membership levels can access all the parks. (That's how they get you to buy the higher more expensive memberships). If we wanted they would sell us an upgrade to Elite level, but otherwise we were stuck with what showed up on the website. How does the website know your level? Easy you have to log in using your membership number to make reservations!

In addition to the original TT parks the parent corporation over the years bought out rival camping organizations. Higher levels give you access to those too. You may see an ad saying “Access to Naca Parks” or something similar. This is the clue that you will have more choices.

Update 11/28/17
Apparently only old memberships have these other parks listed because now they are all just TT parks. It's the number of parks you have access to that's important not the names of the old parks. Look for access to 60 or more parks. Ask TT when you check up on the membership before purchase.

On top of this there is a group of TT related parks called “Encore” parks. These are supposed to be higher end parks in more desirabe locations that are open to the public and to TT members. BEWARE though that these are not included in the “Free” nights in your membership. 

You do get a discount using your TT card but we have found we get a better discount using Passport America ( They also tend to hide a “Resort Fee” in your bill where they charge you $4 a night for the “Resort Facilities” like a pool and a hot tub. In one crummy Encore park in Yuma the pool was 8 feet square and the Hot Tub had been broken for a long time.

The new "Sapphire" level ill get you free access to all the encore parks for a price!!

Our buying experience.
When I started looking for a membership I searched on the local Craigslist in San Diego and the surrounding areas. There are several TT parks within 150 miles of there so TT is pretty common there. Obviously the more parks there are near you the better chance you will have of finding a membership for sale locally.

I found several for sale ranging from $1000 to over $3000. I wasn't aware of all the extra levels and what they meant and didn't want to jump in with both feet in case we didn't like it. After a week or so of looking I saw one pop up for $500 in LA. I immediately called the number and made an appointment to see the lady selling it.

Her story was pretty typical. She and her husband bought an RV they thought they'd use all the time, they visited an RV show and were offered a weekends free camping at a TT park if they sat thru a sales pitch. They liked that park and bought in. They never used the RV after the first couple of times and were stuck paying annual dues to TT so they heard they could sell their membership and get rid of the dues. 

We agreed to buy it pending confirmation of the dues being paid up to date. She gave me the membership number and permission to talk with TT direct and we did the deal. Better yet the 30 days free camping hadn't been used for that year so we immediately started camping and exploring the local TT parks.

Of course “Free” isn't really “FREE” at all. Our purchase price was very low, in fact we've never seen another one for sale for $500, although we have met people who were given an unwanted membership free by friends or relatives. The $750 dollar transfer fee is a one time thing but the $525 annul dues are ongoing and subject to increase at TT's pleasure, EXCEPT that one of the sales ploys for getting you to upgrade your membership is they may freeze your dues at your current cost.

So say that you buy a membership and use it for 10 years, camping the free 30 days per year. What does it cost a night in reality?
Purchase Price --- $500
Transfer Fee ------$750
10 years dues ----$5250
Divided by 300 nights
Average cost------$21/night

If we sell the membership at the end of all that for what we paid for it the cost comes down to $20 a night.

Camping more than 30 nights a year costs $3 a night so the more you camp the cheaper it gets.

So unless you like a particular resort TT isn't that much of a bargain. In fact if you buy in at the park's very much higher prices, it's more expensive. 

We have no difficulty keeping our average camping costs below $25 a night even without using TT.

Actually that calculation just shocked me! I was thinking TT was averaging about $15 a night.

Pro's and Cons.
The ability to make reservations up to 90 days in advance in a variety of parks around the country.
The ability to change those reservations online at any time WITHOUT PENALTIES.
Video tours of the parks as part of the reservation system.
Excellent facilities such as pools, rec halls, indoor and outdoor games, kids activities.
There is no restriction on age or condition of RV's entering
Private membership parks with gates and ranger patrols.
Great facilities for families with kids.

A few parks are pretty run down
There is no restriction on age or condition of RV's entering.
Some parks are VERY busy
Some parks may have limited Full Hookup sites.
You can't reserve particular sites, it's first come first served until the park fills up.
You have to leave after 2 weeks
They aren't in the central area of the country.
Some TT parks have become Encore parks taking them out of the “Free” stays.
The annual dues keep going up.
If you don't like kids running around you are in the wrong place.

I'm writing this sitting in Pio Pico outside San Diego. We've been using TT for 3 years 2 ½ of which have been as Fulltimers. Here are some impressions of TT parks we've stayed at or driven by because we didn't want to use them.

TT Parks we have stayed at

Pio Pico.
This is a very large park close to San Diego and very busy. Being in the desert it gets very dusty and hot in the summer (It's Thanksgiving here in 2 days and the weather forecast is predicting 95 degrees!).

Pio Pico is divided into 2 sections by Otay Lakes Road. One side has all the facilities and full hookups. It fills up very fast in peak periods and you get to experience the other side which has partial hookups only and few facilities. If you want to use the pool etc you have to cross a fairly busy road.
Very little of the park has cell phone reception or TV reception. Experienced campers know where the best areas are and grab them first.

There is a well established system for moving from the "bad" side to the good side. Called the “Cross Over List” this system allows you to put your name on a waiting list for sites that free up the next day, each name is written down in order of arrival. At 8am they post which sites will be available and you can go and look at them before the actual drawing time of 9am. 

At 9am the ranger at the front gate gets the list and calls out the name of the person on the top of that list. That person can choose which site they would like , or if none are to their liking they can “Defer” their name to the top of the next days list. The ranger reads the next name and they choose, until all the sites are gone or all the names have been read, after which anyone arriving after the draw can just pull in to an empty space. Each “Winner” is given a special sign to put on their new space so nobody else can pull in while they are moving their rig.

Of course if the park isn't full you can just pull in, but that doesn't happen too often at weekends here.

At first this seems awkward and unfair, but in reality with this park being as busy as it is, it works. Once you get the hang of it, using the list and the ability to defer you can usually get what you want before it's time to use the dump station on the bad side.

Pio Pico is pretty old and worn. They get, and stay, incredibly busy because everyone wants to visit San Diego and the commercial parks and County Parks are expensive and full.

Some of the “Inhabitants” of the park are not people I would want for friends and because there is no restriction on age or condition of vehicles some rigs are very rough. Our rig is over 10 years old but we keep it tidy and maintained.

A home made trailer at Pio Pico
Because we've used Pio Pico so much we may have a jaundiced eye, but we do like the adult section with its own adult only pool and a separate family area with a large family pool. There is lot to do and lots of equipment for doing it. There is a large rec hall and even a restaurant at the gate. It's a good facility for families.

Oakzanita Springs.
Another TT park near San Diego, not as big as Pio Pico. We went once and swore never to go back, there wasn't a space available we could get our 36' rig into. The few large ones were taken and the rest were very uneven. There was no cell or TV signal to be found.

This park is about the size of Pio Pico and being near Disney gets very busy especially in the winter when the “Snowbirds” come from the north. Nice facilities and grass everywhere, we liked the park but the desk personnel could use some “People Skills” from our experiences there. The park isn't actually IN Orlando but in Clermont near Kissimmee.

 Peace River
We decided to look at this park before making reservations because our RV club has it's own park nearby. After driving by we decided not to stay as the park is close to a busy road and there didn't appear to be a fence or any screens between the park and that road. We were told that this park is notorious for flooding if there is a big thunderstorm. We didn't stay there so this is hearsay.

Medina Lake
Right on the lake in pretty Texas hill country, lots of facilities, Deep in the woods with overhanging trees in need of trimming back when we were there.

Kenisee Lake
We loved this one, nice spaces and 3 lakes to fish in without a license, I spent several happy hours catching small mouth and large mouth bass.
Labor Day Parade at Kenisse Lake

Chesapeake Bay
We loved this park too, very picturesque, right on the river.

Chesapeake Bay right on the river
Yosemite Lakes
Very handy for Yosemite and as a result very busy. When we stayed there several sites were closed due to sewer issues. The rec hall was nice but the pool tables were out of level and the cushions and cloth were in poor condition. Right on the river if you like to fish.

South Jetty
Florence Oregon, right next to the Oregon Dunes National Rec Area. This is a very old park and not easy to get into with a big rig. Tight roads and very tight spaces you may not be able to open your slides. Mainly water and electric only and very few 50 amp sites. Doesn't look like any maintenance has been done in years. wery uneven sites, dark and gloomy deep in the trees, our site never seemed to get any light.

Pacific City
Pacific City Oregon. We were going to stay here after South Jetty but after our experience there we decided to look online for reviews. RV had just terrible reviews of the place citing mold, mildew, algae in the pool and bathrooms out of order. we cancelled our reservation and went elsewhere.

We wanted to stay here but it's not one of the parks our membership lets us use.

Encore Parks we have stayed at,

Araby Acres. We arrived in July and it was shut down for the summer as are most parks in Yuma. There was an honor system where you dropped an envelope in a box. Looked like a nice park with wide sites and some shade.

Cactus Gardens
A small and busy place when we visited in the winter, we used Passport America to get a better rate that we would have got with TT. We wouldn't stay there again.

Foothills Village
Describes itself as a “Resort”. They charge you $4 a day for  "resort fees". Dusty very tight spaces in a park right next to I8 with all the traffic noise. The “Rec Hall” is tiny and the pool was about 8' square! The hot tub apparently hadn't worked in months. Even using Passport America this was a rip off.
After staying here we have avoided Encore Parks ever since.

Mount Hood Village
Close to Mount Hood in Welches Oregon. We decided to stay here because of it's location and the difficulty in finding a spot elsewhere. We thought it expensive at $50+ a night even with a TT discount of 20% for partial hookups. The $4 a night "Resort Fee" was another kick in the teeth when we discovered the rec hall was closed all week for a private function. 

A reasonable park with free cable TV because there is no OTA signal and the trees are so close that you can't get a satellite signal either. Those same trees meant some tight maneuvering to get into the sites and constant darkness. Very gloomy and cold. What struck us was how poorly maintained the roads and sites were in the "Passing Trade" section (We were in H63 after refusing H64 simply because it was impossible to back the 48' rig into the space). 

By contrast we walked thru the "Annual Sites" that cost $600 a month but you have to take a 1 year contract. These spaces were airy and light, landscaped, full hookup. Asphalt roads, spacious. You could tell where the maintenance money went.

Obviously we have stayed at only a few of the many TT and Encore parks and we feel that we've had reasonable value for money as  typically we stay for more than the 30 “Free” days. Having redone the math on what it really costs we may consider using our membership more and selling our membership next time the annual dues go up.

We got a phone call from TT just before Christmas 2018 to tell us of "Exciting news that will of great benefit to us". After New Year we got another call to set up a "One on One" introduction to the "New" TT with the ability for us to give direct input on the changes.

We set up for the webcast and phone conference and here is what we got out of it!

Zone Passes are going away next year.


New membership levels such as Sapphire, Platinum, Gold and Silver are being introduced.

Family members will be able to use TT parks up to 4 times a year.

TT are going to spend multi millions of dollars upgrading parks and adding new sites to existing parks. THIS WILL ALL BE PAID FOR BY UPPING THE COSTS OF ANNUAL SITES IN PARKS.

This all sounded good, but to be honest we've heard it all before! The upgrades may take 8 to 10 years to do. Oh Yes??

Of course this was a sales pitch.

If we upgraded to Sapphire we would get access to ALL the TT parks, in addition we could get free stays at Encore Parks too. We would get 3 weeks in and no week out instead of 2 weeks and a week out. we would get 145 day advance reservations instead of 90. We would get discounts on cabin rental. family could get discounts on them too, We could get cruise discounts etc, etc. They would freeze the annual dues at current levels.

Our read of this is it's the same package they tried to sell us 2 years ago as the top Elite membership.

Cost? $6320.

To us it's nuts, to spend that much for a couple of extra weeks in parks and access to another 75 parks. We don't expect to be RV'ing full time in 10 years when the "upgrades" get done.

As for them not selling any more memberships (Except those that they get back from defaults), that sounds too good to be true. They make more money selling memberships not managing parks.

We've heard the "We're going to spend millions on upgrades" before. Pio Pico was going to be heaven on earth "In a year or two". Nothing at all has ever been done there.

we politely declined their offer.

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