Camping Memberships: Which one is best for you?

by thenewstates

With so many choices, how do you choose? We’ll try to help.

You’ve finally selected the dream RV, Congratulations! Maybe your dealership gave you some free camping (to sweeten the deal) to get you started! No? That’s OK. The offers and “recommendations” will start piling in from all directions of various people to give your hard earned money. The good news is we have already done some of the legwork for you by compiling a list of top memberships, and some helpful tips. Buckle up, because this article is long and contains a ton of info. You’re welcome!

Before we jump into the list of some of the top memberships by category, how about some basics and thoughts on how to best use a camping membership?



 

Why do you need memberships??

The truth is, you don’t need camping memberships. Here’s the part where I wait for an assassin from the powerful Membership Lobbyist Coalition to emerge from behind a tree. WAIT, don’t shoot! Then why did I write this article? There are benefits and negatives to memberships. If you prefer and camp at State Parks, National Parks, BLM, etc you DON’T need to buy camping memberships (OK, I’m not counting admission passes like the America the Beautiful Pass for US National Parks because this article is about camping fees, but they can definitely help save you money on entrance fees, too).

So, why would you want a membership?

For many people, camping memberships can help in several ways:

  • Lower cost per night camping fees (in many cases to Zero!)
  • Easier budgeting for monthly campsite costs
  • Easier planning and booking of camping sites
  • Predictable quality and amenities of the campgrounds
  • Consistent customer service and rules when things can (and will) go wrong

In evaluating memberships for ourselves, we generally start with “Do we have the ability to use this membership RIGHT NOW” for camping and then move onto goals. I cannot stress this enough, but I believe it is important to only buy memberships as you need them. Most programs allow nearly instant joining online or over the phone, and recently I asked an agent during a call to check availability BEFORE I joined. Save your dollars for fun or important RV supplies!

Goals, Dreams, Ambitions

So, about those goals. As you consider programs, at least ask yourself these questions (and yes, this is how we help choose memberships ourselves):

  • Do you want or need the other benefits that may be included in the membership?
    • In addition to camping benefits, programs like Good Sam come with discounts on merchandise at Camping World. Escapees also offers a number of support services like Mail Delivery, etc. If you see additional value, make sure to consider that in your decision making. 
  • How much do you care about being close to the action in a city or near a destination?
    • Thousand Trails locations tend to not be IN the city, instead close-by in rural areas. Passport America covers so many campgrounds (including in cities), but there is a limit to the number of discounted nights.
  • How many nights in a row do you like/need to stay in the same spot?
    • Night maximums vary widely, from 21 days to 1 day on memberships. Do you prefer to stay in one place for weeks at a time or frequently hop around?
  • What cost per night are you targeting for budget?
    • How does free sound? Great, I know, but it is extremely hard to find consistently free camping in all areas of the country. Plan a number in your head for budgeting to average over the month. With several of the memberships below it is truly free per night, but you probably won’t be able to stay there EVERY night.
  • What amenities do you ideally want at every campground?
    • How important is that hot tub? Do you always need a fenced in dog park? What about power? Are you OK with dry camping and being self-contained?
  • How often do you plan to be near an associated campground?
    • This goes back to only buy memberships if you can use them RIGHT NOW (see how I keep putting that in caps and bold??). If possible, look at the map of campground locations, call and get some availability, and read reviews before you purchase.

There is no ONE perfect membership. We tend to bounce between a few to achieve our goals. Let’s roll right on in to some ‘splaining of the different types.

Types of Memberships

Memberships generally fall into a few categories, based on your needs and goals. If you are looking to maximize the number of nights without paying daily camping fees, look to the “Free with membership” and “Free with a local purchase” category. However, for number of locations, the “Save Big Bucks with our card” can be convenient for a few nights at a discounted price. For each category, I’ve included some example memberships to help paint a picture of what you get for exchanging money for plastic cards. We have a mix, and would guess most people would, too.

FREE (with membership) Camping

Keys to the Kingdom! With these types of memberships, you unlock access to exclusive locations for lucky people like you! With prices ranging from $30 (!) to $7,000 (!) there is marketing somewhere saying all are welcome!

Back to reality.

Boondockers Welcome is the low price and frugal side of membership camping. For only $30/year, you get access to an extensive network of hosts like you and me who are offering a place for you to stay up to 5 nights for FREE. These can be everything from a driveway at their house, to an empty field, and services offered vary as well. If it is important for you to have 30 or 50 amp power, make sure to read the listings carefully, and check out the reviews of the hosts before booking. This is a great opportunity to stay and meet fellow RVers all across the US, but you need to do your homework!

Thousand Trails is an interesting option for the variety of plans and choices.

  • Looking for regional camping in just one part of the country? For $575 a year (or $475 with our special LINK), you can select one “zone” which generally include 15-20 campgrounds and camp up to 14 nights at a time with no daily site fee (depending on the specific campground there are some fees for 50amp instead of included 30amp, internet, etc if you absolutely need those services). You must stay out of the system for 7 days between bookings.
  • Traveling outside the zone? Again, ONLY WHEN YOU NEED IT, pay just $50/year and add another zone of the country. As you can see, this is already great value compared to even one stay at another campground.
  • We added the Trails Collection ($199/year, again only when you need it) to our gift membership (Dealer included a one zone membership as part of the negotiation when we bought our Navion 24D) which added 100 campgrounds nationwide (not just in our zone) where we could also stay 14 nights without daily fees for campsites. We picked it up when we stayed up near Acadia National Park in Maine, and it more than paid for itself with just the first stay over the cost for camping in the National Park.
  • Thousand Trails also offers more premium tiers that include up to 21 nights of camping at a time, no restriction to book different campgrounds back to back, reciprocal memberships for heavily discounted camping, and more. Depending on the tier and reciprocal options, there can be a one time fee of up to $6,100 and then annual dues of up to $600. For us, we will likely stay with the 14-day one zone and Trails Collection based on where we travel. Adding another zone is only $50

FREE (with a local purchase) Camping

This type of membership is based on free camping to help promote businesses across the US and Canada. In exchange for one free night of camping where you can push your slides out and relax (great for passing through when you’re looking for something more than a Cracker Barrel or Walmart to park for the night), the expectation is to buy something from the business hosting you for the night! These typically are dry camping sites, but most are gravel/paved and generally level.

Harvest Hosts is one membership with this model, and includes wineries, breweries, farms, museums, and now even golf courses.

  • The program includes hundreds of sites and we have had a a lot of fun meeting people and camping with them. One site was a farm, and we got to go around with the family to tend the chickens and feed the goats!
  • Remember, it is good for just one night UNLESS the business invites you to stay. According to the rules of HH, you should never ask to extend.
  • Some even provide power or water, but ideally you should be self contained.
  • Right now its $49/year (or $44/year with our special LINK), but the price will increase to $79/year in 2019. This may be the one time I recommend a membership if you have any thoughts on a trip given the increase coming in just a few days. 

‘Save Big Bucks with our card!’ Camping

This is the most common type of membership, and camping benefits sometimes are included with other larger programs (like Good Sam or Escapees). Generally speaking, in exchange for an annual fee, the membership will grant you a certain percentage off affiliated campground nightly fees (weekly and monthly are typically excluded from discount) for a number of nights as determined by each campground. To control discounting their entire campground (sometimes at up to 50% off) and leave a majority for full price customers, most will only offer a certain percentage of sites available to a particular program. Do not be surprised to call a campground and first hear that there are available sites and then change to “sold out” when you indicate a discount membership. 

There are seriously too many discount memberships that fall into this category. The keys are percent of discount, size of the network, and locations that make sense for your travel plans.

Passport America is the oldest 50% discount camping program in the US and Canada. With over 1,800 campgrounds, there is likely to be an affiliate near or along your route. Remember that this is an affiliate program, and the campgrounds can be a complete mixed bag on quality and amenities. We’ve stayed at several nice ones, but always check out reviews first and call to confirm availability. At $44/year (enter our membership number 
GS-735011 at this LINK to get an additional three free months), this easily pays for itself in the first stay.

Membership Specific Articles and links

The list below will continue to grow (I rhymed!) as we collect information and can write about specific memberships. Please do not consider this ever to be an exhaustive list. While researching this article, I discovered at least 20 (!) different memberships and discount plans available for campgrounds and sites. 

Each membership will have a LINK to program (some are affiliate and helps to support us writing the material you are reading RIGHT NOW), and where available an article we have written specific to the membership. The names in Italic we have personally had as memberships, but please choose programs that make sense for you WHEN YOU PURCHASE THEM. See how I put that in bold? It’s important. Don’t just run out and sign up and start the clock at the same time for a bunch of memberships. It’s not only inefficient from a time perspective (most are 12 months), but also financially.

TL:DR Buy memberships right before you need them, AFTER you’ve researched and checked availability of a specific camping site if possible.

Free with Membership

  • Thousand Trails (LINK) $575/year for base membership. How to Save $100 off a one zone camping pass: Click the link, enter your email address at the bottom of the page, and click next. On the next page choose ONE regional zone (wisely, though it’s only $50 to add another at a later time) and maybe the awesome Trails Collection upgrade which we use often. We were fortunate and negotiated a 1 year gift membership from our dealership, so consider that the next time you purchase an RV!
  • Boondockers Welcome (LINKGet one extra month FREE: email or find us on social media and we can both get an extra month free when you join! We just need your email address to input into Boondockers Welcome before you signup. Meet fellow RVers and stay for free as their guests! Stays are limited to 5 days at a time, and power/water/sewer/pets/generator usage vary between hosts. 

Save Big Bucks with our Card! Camping

  • Passport America (LINK) – How to Get 3 FREE EXTRA MONTHS on your membership: Click “Join,” select “Referred by a Passport America Member” and enter our membership number: GS-735011
  • Resort Parks International (RPI) (LINK) – RPI can only be joined through a member campground or brokers, and the campgrounds are supposed to be open to “members only.” Depending on your other memberships, RPI can be included (like Thousand Trails premium tier memberships).
  • Enjoy America (LINK) – (EA) Though not often advertised this way, an RPI membership is NOT required to join their “up to 50% off” club. See question #3 HERE if anyone challenges that you need RPI to get EA.
  • Happy Campers Club (LINK) Another “up to 50% off” club, with the benefit of discounts for long term rentals as well. For $39.99/year they also include several e-books for RVers.
  • Kampgrounds Of America – KOA (LINK) $30/year The “Value Kard Rewards” program offers unlimited 10% off daily camping at KOA campgrounds, discounts coupons, and FREE** camping on select weekends at participating KOA locations. See link for details.
  • WIT-RVA (LINK) Own a Winnebago RV? Member of the official owners association, WIT? There’s an exclusive program just for you. We’ve used it a couple times, several campgrounds are pretty unique to RVA.
  • Escapees/Xscapers (LINK) $39.95/year in the US, $49.95/year Canada and Mexico. Much, much more than a Camping membership, but Escapees has an extensive network of campgrounds and their own properties. Definitely worth the time to check them out.

FREE (with a local purchase) Camping

  • Harvest Hosts (LINK) – $49/year through 12/31/18. Link will get you 10% off the published rate ($44/year), but hurry before pricing increases in 2019 to $79/year! Remember to use the code at the top of the page HERE.

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