Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Should You Buy a Private Campground Membership?

When Denny and I hit the road as full time RVers, the only camping organizations we had joined were FMCA (Family Motorcoach of America), Good Sam, Escapees and Passport America. We used FMCA as our mail forwarding service (remember, when we started off as fulltimers we had a 1994 Bounder motorhome) and for the first year I planned our route almost exclusively using the half-price Passport America campgrounds. Way back then in 1998 most of the campgrounds that were a part of Passport America allowed week long to month long to unlimited stays, simply to try to pull in business.

In December of 1999, we purchased our first fifth wheel and included in that sale was a "free" membership to the Thousand Trails organization, with a home park in Unadilla, Georgia. Since we had just bought the fifth wheel trailer and had to purchase a new truck to pull it, we just didn't want to spend the $500 extra dollars for the first year's membership dues. Big mistake. At that time (pre-Internet access) I was under the impression that Thousand Trails parks were mostly nature preserves that had only water and electric hook ups and we like having full hook ups to be able to use our washer and dryer. After all, that is why we have a washer and dryer. So we passed on that offer.

This worked for us for several years, until we finally decided to try wintering in Arizona and there we picked up a "free" four day stay coupon at a local Camping World display. And thus, we ended up buying into the Colorado River Adventures organization, which had seven campgrounds in its pool of locations plus an affiliation with the Coast to Coast campground organization. So now for $X for the initial buy-in and $x for the annual membership we had "free" camping plus access to a large number of private campgrounds for $8 a night through Coast to Coast. And for the next year once we left Arizona I used Coast to Coast parks almost exclusively in our travels.

The following winter we had gone on a day trip to Los Algodones while staying at the CRA park in Yuma, Arizona and before we crossed the bridge over the Rio Grande a gentleman standing at the side of the road handed us a coupon for a week's stay at yet another private membership club; Western Horizons resorts. Hey, we'll give it a try--nothing says we have to buy in, right? *sigh* Listening to the sales pitch, we could actually see the benefit; for about the same cost as our seven campground CRA membership, we could purchase a Western Horizons membership which gave us access to their twenty-seven campgrounds, plus the chance to join Resorts of Distinction (ROD), Sunbelt and Adventure Outdoor Resorts (AOR). Camping at the Western Horizon and ROD parks would be free, the Sunbelt and AOR parks would have a nightly fee of $8. Western Horizon/ROD parks extended up the western coast all the way to Washington which would allow us to explore that area, all of which was new to us. Okay, we bit the bullet once again and signed up. In the year 2005, Denny and I traveled from Arizona to Washington between January and June and only paid for a campground a couple of times as we came up through Idaho. The private member campgrounds were working out quite well.

Enter our friends Don and Vicki who became full timers and were given a free TT membership at the time of their purchase of a toy hauler. When the two of them came to Ohio from Georgia to visit friends and family they stayed at the Wilmington, Ohio TT preserve and invited us over to visit. That's when Denny and I realized that Thousand Trails campgrounds came with full hook up sites (there are a few that are water/electric only) and started looking into that organization because TT had fifty-two campgrounds on its roster, as well as affiliations with ROD and Resort Parks International (RPI). It just keeps going, right?

Long story short, we ended up with the TT membership, purchased though eBay and then upgraded through TT. To wade through all the letters, we at one time had Good Sam, PA, Escapees, Happy Camper (another half price/discounted campground organization), CRA, C2C, WH, ROD, AOR, Sunbelt, TT, RPI, OW (Outdoor World) and Enjoy America. Whew. We've since dropped Happy Camper (which we had gotten free because I did blog posts about them), Sunbelt and RPI/Enjoy America. A few years ago Western Horizon offered a "lifetime" membership payoff which we took advantage of and now we have no annual membership dues on that. Years ago Passport America did the same and we paid for that, which paid for itself in three campground stays.

Having these memberships has allowed us to stretch our camping budget quit a bit, especially in the years when diesel fuel goes up to ridiculous numbers. In the off season we can stay two to three weeks at a campground and during peak season we can stay two weeks at a time. At most of the affiliate parks you are allowed to stay only one week in peak season. You have to research and ask questions for each organization because the types of memberships sold varies within each organization and there are as many different types of membership as there are campgrounds within the system. TT is especially notorious for this. However, the Thousand Trails organization has come up with a new offer called Zone Camping where you don't have to "buy in" with a membership, you simply pay an annual dues/fee to obtain 30 days free use of a number of campgrounds within a zone (they divide the US into four zones) and then any additional days you camp you pay $3 a day.

And of course, next month that may all change. Campground memberships can be a bit of a gamble these days. While our Colorado River Adventures membership has stayed the same at seven campgrounds, Western Horizons has sold fourteen of its original twenty-seven parks and has most of the rest of them up for sale. What they are doing is selling the campgrounds and then "renting" spots from the new owners for use by its members. Since Denny and I haven't been in Arizona for a couple of winters I'm not quite sure how this is going to work out for us so we'll see this year and the next. The Thousand Trails organization has maintained the number of parks it owns/manages so far. And of course there are other private membership organizations out there that might work for you, depending on where you want to travel. Ocean Properties seems to be very stable and has purchased some of the Western Horizon parks for its system. Your main consideration will simply be, investigate carefully, ask a lot of questions to make sure you understand just what you are purchasing and what your particular membership allows you to do, camping-wise. Check out membership resale organizations or look in the back of any of the RV/camping magazines for memberships that are for sale, or go online on eBay to see what's being offered. After several years of owning three private campground memberships Denny and I figure we are ahead of the game. When we first purchased our CRA membership in 2003, each time we stayed at a CRA park we credited ourselves with a $20 a day fee (figuring that's what we would pay at a public campground) so at the end of our first year we felt we had cut the cost of the original membership price way down. And we continued that for a couple of years until we realized campground prices had jumped so we adjusted our daily credit to $30 a day. At that rate it doesn't take long to figure that our memberships have not only paid for themselves, even including yearly dues, but that we are now well ahead of what we paid. And after having paid daily campground rates of $45 to $47 (with Good Sam discounts but no weekly rates) in Maine this past summer, the advantage of "free" membership park usage sounds even better.

Of course, there are always city, county and state campgrounds, Core of Engineer parks, Elks clubs, fairgrounds, boondocking on US land or in the parking lot of your favorite big box store to camp less expensively or free if you boondock. For Denny and I, private membership works.

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