Throughout our first year of road life, we joined various membership organizations to see what communities and deals were available to us on the road. Below is a rundown of some of the main membership groups offered out there, most of which we tested out at some point.
AAA is one of the most widely used motor clubs in America, and something we had been a member of long before we ever bought a camper. Here, not doing our homework caught-up with us. We had our AAA roadside assistance membership for our truck, but we learned during a breakdown, that the tow did not cover the camper. We had to do an immediate upgrade to their “Plus RV” program to get our camper included in the tow. The “Plus RV” membership was an additional fee of about $23 per year added to our annual fee for the truck. This upgrade has been a crucial investment for us, as we have been towed 3 times in our 2 ½ years on the road. Also, having AAA often gets you 10% off the nightly rate at most campgrounds/ RV parks as well as discounts at some local attractions and entertainment. The insurance policy of having access to roadside assistance made this a no-brainer for us, and having the additional resources and 10% off discounts with one of the largest networks in North America makes AAA a fixed annual expenditure in our budget.
Good Sam and AAA have some overlap. Like AAA, GoodSam also offers motor club memberships with roadside assistance. Since we already had a long-standing history with AAA, we kept them for our roadside assistance policy, but joined Good Sam’s general camping club for the annual rate of $27 per year. Like AAA, Good Sam’s membership club gets you 10% off the nightly rate at numerous campgrounds and RV parks. Even if a park does not advertise the discount on their website, we always ask if they accept Good Sam (or AAA). While there is a lot of overlap amongst the campgrounds that accept both Good Sam and AAA for the same discount, we have found that there is a slightly larger network giving the campground discount only to Good Sam, making it worth the small annual fee for us.
With the promise of 50% savings, Passport America is attractive in theory and the prospect of such large savings is very enticing. In reality, we have found that it is not always easy to use Passport America. For an annual membership fee of roughly $44-49 per year, you have access to a network of participating campgrounds, most of which are supposed to offer 50% off their nightly rates for members (though not all of them do). There is a lot of inconsistency here. Each park gets to decide how it wants to participate, with some only offering the discounted rate for a single night, others blacking-out weekends, holidays, or “peak seasons”. Other participating parks have additional stipulations, like no campers over 10 years old, and/ or an age restriction on the guests limiting it to 55+, etc…. There are also far fewer parks participating in the Passport America network, so it can be difficult to find a park on your route, which may mean you are going out of your way just to stay at one for the discount.
One other observation we have gathered over our time with Passport America parks, is that they are often older and more rundown- leading us to believe the “half-off rate” is more in-line with what they should actually be charging for a night anyway. The point with this network is to read all the fine print for each park you are interested in, and you won’t even have access to that fine print until after you have paid your membership fees. If you are full-timing it on the road, the probability that you will be able to stay at a Passport America park for at least a handful of nights is high enough that this may be worth testing out for a year. If you are a weekend camper, I would pass on this membership unless you already know for a fact that there is a campground you have in mind that will work for you.
We have stayed at Thousand Trails campgrounds, but not as a member. This is one of the more expensive campground memberships out there, and just wasn’t worth the investment to us as we would have felt obligated to try to stay at Thousand Trails parks, even when it didn’t make sense, just to justify the annual membership. The website advertises a network of 190 campgrounds, with no nightly fees for annual members starting at $585 per year. Beyond that, we don’t know too much about the nitty-gritty of the details. Does this $585 get you 365 paid nights of stay per year? If yes, then the price seems very reasonable. With only 190 parks throughout the country, our guess is more likely that members are making reservations a year in advance for busy weekends and holidays and that you likely won’t be able to get every night you want at your preferred location. Our road lifestyle had us constantly on the move and altering our routes. Thousand Trails felt like it was more the timeshare equivalent for campgrounds, and more geared at families who planned out their vacations far in advance. It just didn’t make sense for us and it was too much of an investment to purely “test out”. We did pay the street price and stayed at a couple of the parks, and from our limited experience, the whole feel of the parks felt more family oriented. The parks were large and always full of people, with lots of playgrounds and kid-oriented group activities. Great options for families with kiddos to entertain, but a little too loud, busy, and congested for our speed.
Escapees / Xscapers
I will be very honest here, I don’t think I have a very clear grasp on what the Escapees/ Xscapers network is or how I was supposed to have used it. We joined for 1 year to try it out, and my understanding is that “Xscapers” became an extension off of “Escapees”, geared for the younger, working-age mobile hobos, like Cay and I. What we paid for with our membership fee is less clear. Unlike a Good Sam club, where you are given a map with a network of participating campgrounds and there is an explicit understanding that your fee gets you access to discounted stays. Cay and I were never really sure how to use our Escapees membership. We gathered that this was really more of a community we were buying access to, and we had the option to attend rallies and convergences, but that type of advance planning never really worked out for us while we were on the road. We also had access to online materials and resources and I believe they even had virtual job postings and camp host openings for members to access. Honestly, we paid for a year’s membership ($39.95) and never really used it, and that is largely on us for not engaging. It wasn’t really ever clear to us what exactly we were paying for. We read at one point that they had discounts at some parks, we just never found any along our travels where this applied. Having a community of like-minded people is nice for support, information, and social outlets, it just wasn’t something we ever got around to using. We didn’t renew our membership, and that was largely due to our lifestyle and needs.
We were late to join KOA and only did so in the past year. The annual membership cost us $30, and with that, you get discounted stays off the nightly rate. Also, you earn points for every stay, which you can use towards further savings and/ or a free stay. We had accumulated so many points that KOA automatically extended our membership for an additional year at no extra fee, something that was news to us when we checked in for one of our campgrounds. KOA has a pretty wide network of campgrounds and the points you earn in addition to your discounted rates makes it a pretty attractive membership for the low fee. KOAs tend to be more “rustic” and a little on the older side, but they often offer more in the ways of activities and amenities than many of the private campgrounds. KOAs more typically offer things like: campfire pits, playgrounds, game rooms, swimming pools, bike rentals, etc…. Also, unlike most campgrounds, KOAs offer a wider range of site types, including: cabins, tent sites, discounted partial hook-ups, full hook-ups, and premium sites. One thing we came to appreciate about KOA was that none of them ever asked our age nor the age of our camper- something that many private campgrounds annoyingly judge. In the first year that we have joined KOA, we have earned enough points for a free $50 stay, had our membership extended a year for free, and saved 10% on all of our nightly stays- making the value for us worth more than the $30 membership fee.
Harvest Hosts is a network of participating farms, vineyards, breweries, golf courses, and museums that allow RVs to dry camp on their property for the night. To access the list of participating hosts, you have to be a member. An annual membership fee runs between $40-44 (note: the price has since increased to $79 per year). Each participating member provides details on the number of available spaces on their property, as well as the size rig accommodated and any other amenity details that may be provided (Wi-Fi, picnic tables, etc…). These are intended as 1 night stay-overs and all rigs must be fully self-contained, as there generally aren’t any hook-ups available. All of the host locations are some type of business, whether it is an alpaca farm, aviation museum, winery, or dairy farm. While you are not charged for your overnight stay, there is an understanding that guests will engage with the business, be it either for a wine tasting or to visit the museum. Depending on the type of business, some stays can end-up being a little more expensive than others. Bottles of wine aren’t cheap, and we love wine! Harvest Hosts isn’t a true boondocking experience, since community members understand that there is an implication that some purchase should accompany your stay. For this reason, Harvest Host is not for those looking for true boondocking experiences, or looking for free stays, but rather, for those who want a different, more private experience, and to try local products / attractions. For more of a true boondocking experience, you may prefer to look into public lands where free stays are allowed, or associations like “Boondockers Welcome”. Cay and I lean on the introverted side when first meeting people, so something like Boondockers Welcome hadn’t appealed to us, as we weren’t sure how much socialization was expected.
We have enjoyed our Harvest Host experiences, but treat them like “date nights” and not as a cost-cutting tactic. The initial two years of membership we paid for ran us between $40-44 per year, which is slightly higher than other annual memberships (KOA, Good Sam). The new rate of $79 honestly feels a bit too expensive, especially given that there is the understanding that you are going to make a purchase with each stay.
In the end, we don’t regret any of the memberships we tested out, as we had the opportunity to use all of them in some way, opening us to new experiences. Based on our needs and lifestyle, there are definitely some that we use more than others, and some that we would not renew, as they just don’t make as much sense for us. The memberships that we would continue are AAA, Good Sam, KOA, and possibly Harvest Hosts at the old $40 annual rate, if we felt confident we would be able to use it. I am happy that we tested out so many, as it gave us a wider net to cast in our explorations and provided us with important information about what resources are truly of value for us. Memberships are so subjective, and change as our needs change. Having a better understanding of your situation and what features are important for you, will help you make the most informed decision about where to invest your budget on the road.