One question we get all the time when people find out we travel full-time is how we afford it. Our monthly budget in an RV is about 1/3 of what it cost us to live in our S&B’s. One of the ways we save money is using our Thousand Trails Elite Membership.

Thousand Trails is a network of RV parks around the country. They are primarily found around the edges of the country, Washington, Oregon, California, Texas, Florida and up the East Coast. If you want to stay anywhere in the middle of the country you are pretty much out of luck. (Though there are “preserves” in Vegas and Northern Arizona and a few others sprinkled around.) With an Elite membership you also have access to many of the Encore parks at a discounted nightly rate. (visit ThousandTrails.com and readysetcamp.com for park locations.)

The way the Elite Membership works is you pay a one time fee of $4,000 – $5,000, and an annual maintenance fee of aprox $560. (They offer financing for the membership fee.) As an elite member you can stay in any of the TT Preserves (their parks) for up to 21 days at a time, (there are seasonal restrictions that may limit you to 14 days) and then go immediately to another park. If you want to return to a park you need to have spent 7 days either at another TT park or staying somewhere else “out of park.”

There are additional perks to your TT Elite membership, such as a Gold RPI membership paid for your first year and some kind of travel/condo timeshare program I haven’t figured out yet. You get a week in their cabins for free for the first 5 years, as well as free national memberships to give to family and friends.

Is Thousand Trails worth it? Consider this, we have been on the road for 6 months, and have stayed in both Thousand Trails and private parks. When staying at a private park, monthly rates will give you the best bang for your buck. An affordable monthly rate is $350 a month plus electric, on the other extreme, our stay in Yuma, Arizona (during the height of Snowbird season)  cost us just over $1,100 for the month.  (monthly rent, kid fees and electric)

So financially, it will take about 10 months of staying in TT areas to pay for our Elite Membership and then one month a year after that. In our 6 months on the road we have spent 4 months in Thousand Trails parks, and I am looking forward to getting back into the TT Preserve areas.

Now the bad… you get what you pay for. If you are looking for a fancy, level, paved resort, with beautiful amenities and perfectly manicured lawns, TT is NOT for you. Personally I think of it a bit like being on vacation. I LOVED our trip to Hawaii last year when we stayed at the beautiful Marriott resort. The rooms where huge, with washer and dryers, granite counter tops, plush beds, 4 pools, 7 hot tubs, cabana boys, 5 star restaurants, and a private beach. I couldn’t turn around without being asked by an employee if there was anything I needed.  It was wonderful, but for me it’s not reality. That trip was a once in a lifetime (hopefully maybe a bit more than that) experience. It’s not how we live or travel. In my opinion, Thousand Trails is a step above boondocking. The preserves have full hookups with 30 amp service, they are not paved, the bathrooms are a bit rustic, but they do have flushing toilets and showers (complete with a friendly spider) there is usually a pool, sometimes a hot tub, affordable laundry facilities, and if you really want it and are willing to pay, 50 amp service is available for $5 a night.

Thousand Trail Parks are usually not located in major metropolitian areas. Arizona Verde Valley is 90 miles north of Pheonix,  but only 15 minutes from a Walmart and a REALLY good Thai place. The Vegas Preserve is only 15 minutes from the strip. For me being out in the middle of nowhere is a bonus. The places I want to see and the things I want to do with my kids are not the things that you do in a city. Considering the financial aspect and that we like to be away from the lights of the city, and with 3 teenagers daily showers needing to be the norm, Thousand Trails fits the bill for me and my family.