From nightly discounts to RV lot ownership, motorhomers have a variety of possibilities for saving money on overnight camping fees.
By Lynn Laymon and Linda Lee Walden, F245876
During our first year as full-time RVers, we paid an average of $17 per night in camping fees. That was seven years ago. Today those same parks would cost a bit more. Yet, nearly every year since then, our camping costs have decreased. During our second year, we averaged $11 per night; by the fourth year, we paid $8; and last year, our overall cost was well below $10 per night.
What did we do differently? Well, aside from staying a little longer in each campground, we learned how to work the system. The “system” we refer to is a variety of campground programs that save you camping fees, if you purchase one that is compatible with your travel style.
The four most popular types of potentially money-saving campground programs are discount networks; membership campground systems; campground associations/affiliates; and deeded resorts. It is not uncommon for a single campground to participate in more than one of these programs. Categories often do overlap.
What are the differences between these programs, and what do they offer?
A discount network gives you the right to stay in an array of RV parks across North America at a discounted nightly rate. Membership is open to the public, usually in exchange for annual dues that are less expensive than other programs.
The number of campgrounds available to members of a discount network varies. New campgrounds are continually being added; others drop out from time to time. Discount networks do not own the campgrounds; they negotiate agreements that allow discount club members to use these privately owned campgrounds at a more economical rate than that paid by non-members. Campgrounds in the discount network may or may not accept reservations; quite often, your stay will be on a space-available basis; and the length of stay may be restricted. Passport America (800-681-6810) and United RV Campers Club (800-521-6978) are examples of discount networks.
A membership campground system is a group of campgrounds that are owned and managed by a single company. Only members of the campground system, or an affiliated association, can stay at these RV parks. For a one-time charge, members buy into the system and most are required to pay annual dues to maintain their membership. Dues often entitle the member to a specific number of free nights, after which they pay a nominal per-night charge. Length-of-stay restrictions generally apply.
A membership campground system’s buy-in fee can run into thousands of dollars, and the contracts often require the member to commit to paying the annual dues for a minimum number of years, or even for life. Because of this commitment, campground system memberships are often advertised for resale at a deep discount, sometimes for the cost of the transfer fee. When a member decides to quit the system after just a couple of years, it is advantageous for him or her to dispose of the membership simply to get out from under the annual dues commitment “” and, perhaps, recoup some of the buy-in fee.
Resale memberships can be a bargain, if you are familiar with the system and know exactly what membership plan you are buying. Campground systems have sold a variety of plans over the years, each with slightly different terms, benefits, and restrictions. Know exactly what you are getting before purchasing any such membership.
Membership campground systems include Thousand Trails (800-205-0606), which encompasses NACO and Leisure Time Resorts, and Western Horizon Resorts (800-378-3709).
Campground associations fall somewhere in between discount networks and membership campground systems when it comes to cost. In exchange for a buy-in membership fee and annual dues, an association member is permitted to stay in an association-affiliated park at a predetermined, discounted nightly rate.
Campground associations differ from membership campground systems in that the association does not own the individual parks. It has entered into an agreement that permits association members to stay there at a set rate. Length-of-stay restrictions generally apply, and admittance and reservations are on a space-available basis. Campground associations provide more choices, in more areas of the country, than membership campground systems.
To enroll in most campground associations, campers first must join a “home park.” The cost of home park membership varies. Home parks are individually owned campgrounds that, in addition to selling memberships in their own park, offer memberships in one or more campground associations or discount networks. The cost and benefits offered by home parks vary widely, as do the restrictions placed on members. Home park members pay an initial buy-in membership fee and annual dues. These campgrounds quite often are affiliated with one or more campground associations. When staying at their “home” park, association members are subject to the benefits and restrictions of that particular RV park, not the association.
Coast To Coast (800-368-5721), Adventure Outdoor Resorts (800-934-3443), Resorts of Distinction (800-720-7633) and Resort Parks International (800-635-8698) operate today as campground associations.
Although they are more permanent and costly than the other options, deeded lot resorts are another choice for RVers interested in avoiding full-fare camping night after night. Quite often upscale in nature, amenities, and price, deeded lot resorts attract RVers for whom pride of ownership is important. As a representative of Casa Del Lago resort in Naples, Florida, put it, “Owning a lot in an upscale resort allows owners to personalize their landscaping and coach house to create a permanent winter habitat.”
These types of resorts often offer lots to the public for daily and seasonal rental, but they are not inexpensive.
In addition to Casa Del Lago (800-573-5424), other deeded lot campgrounds in Florida include Lake Ashton Golf Club (866-322-5522); Emerald Pointe RV Resort (800-315-1556); Mt. Olive Shores (813-645-1569); Mt. Olive Shores North (888-667-6676); and Riverbend Motorcoach Resort (866-787-4837). Elsewhere, deeded lot facilities include Crown Villa RV Park in Oregon (866-500-5300); Desert Shores Motor Coach Resort (760-775-9808) and The Vineyards (800-630-0611) in California; and Outdoor Resorts of America (800-541-2582), which has 12 locations throughout the United States.
Although examples of specific facilities have been included for each category of campground program discussed in this article, they are by no means a complete list. Additional companies may advertise in Family Motor Coaching and/or be listed in the “Business Directory,” found in the January and June issues of FMC and online at www.fmca.com.
Consider your lifestyle
The biggest mistake an RVer can make is to go out and indiscriminately purchase a campground program without first calculating the benefit-to-cost ratios. Various types of memberships are better suited for different travel patterns. Doing the numbers not only involves analyzing the financial consequences of the various alternatives, but also identifying your likes and dislikes in RV parks, your travel plans, and other aspects of RVing that might impact your buying decision.
Discount network memberships are good for people who travel frequently. Generally, there is minimal or no buy-in charge; the only fees you’ll pay are the annual dues, which are fairly inexpensive. In addition, these types of networks are expanding rapidly. Discount networks often provide access to hundreds of campgrounds across the United States.
Determining the financial benefit of joining a discount network hinges on how much you travel and how often you’ll stay in a network campground. As with any campground program, the attractiveness of the option fades as you find yourself driving miles out of your way just for a discount on an overnight stay.
Carefully analyze the network directory before buying. One good thing about discount networks is that you need only commit for one year at a time; so, if it doesn’t work out, the most you could lose is the cost of a year’s membership.
Membership campground systems are an attractive alternative if their parks are situated in areas you enjoy visiting frequently. We joined a campground system, which is one reason our annual camping costs have fallen dramatically over the past seven years. We joined a nationwide system with RV parks across North America, purchasing a resale membership directly from the company at a significant discount. Our annual dues are approximately $500, which entitles us to 50 nights free at system campgrounds. Beyond 50 nights, we pay only $2 per night. Our stays are limited to 14 days, but after that, we can move to a different RV park in the system and begin another 14-day stay. Because the system’s campgrounds are widely scattered, with clusters in areas where we like to spend the winter, we have been able to stay at them for as many as 200 nights per year without inhibiting our travel plans.
Another benefit of membership campground systems is that they often have rental units where members’ guests can stay. Or, if you are in the area without your motorhome, you can rent a trailer or cabin by the day, week, month, or season.
The primary downsides of membership campground systems are the initial cost of a membership, the long-term contracts, and the possibility of the system going belly-up.
When considering campground associations, keep in mind that in order to join, you must pay to be a member of a home park that is affiliated with the association. This buys you access to a network of individually owned affiliated campgrounds across the country.
Home parks are attractive to RVers who camp locally or want to return to the same location year after year, such as snowbirds and winter Texans who go south in the fall, stay in one RV resort all winter, and return north in the spring. And if the campground is affiliated with an association, members have the opportunity to join the association and have a place to stay during their semi-annual migrations.
The stay limits at association campgrounds vary, depending on whether you are staying at your home park or at an affiliated park. They also vary from association to association, but seven to 14 days is a common limit.
We also belong to a campground association. By paying the moderate initiation fee and annual dues, we have access to hundreds of association campgrounds at a predetermined discounted rate, on a space-available basis. So, if we’re traveling in parts of the country where our membership campground system does not have properties, we look for an association park.
Is it worth it?
Calculating the cost of joining one or more of these campground programs is not difficult. For discount networks, estimate what you would spend throughout the year if paying normal rates. Next, apply the discounted membership rate to that same number of days, add the annual membership fee, and compare the totals. The remaining factor is availability and location of the network’s RV parks. Review the network’s campground list. If it looks as though you’ll have to go places you don’t want to go just to get a network discount, continue your search.
Evaluating the benefit-to-cost ratio of a membership campground system is a little more involved. Begin by dividing the amount of annual membership dues by the number of days you estimate you will stay at system parks throughout the year. If your estimate on the number of days exceeds that covered by your dues, you will need to add in any additional cost for the extra days “” such as the $2 per day we pay for every day over 50 “” and divide the combined figure by the number of days. This will give you the average cost per night. Then, use the same number of days to calculate what the average nightly cost would be if you stayed at non-membership commercial parks.
We still need to consider the buy-in cost of the membership. We recommend that you spread that cost over the life of the contract “” the time you have committed to keep paying annual dues. If you paid $2,000 for the membership and signed a 10-year contract, add $200 to your annual cost, and again divide by the number of days you estimated you would be staying in system parks. Compare this adjusted average nightly cost with the non-membership average to determine whether a campground system membership is financially advantageous. Of course, there may be more advantages to joining a membership campground system than just cost. Everyone’s needs are different.
Because you must belong to a home park to join a campground association, you need to evaluate the two alternatives together. First, do the numbers for the home park using the same process described for membership campground systems. Then, calculate the average cost of the nights you estimate that you’ll stay in association parks, add the annual dues, and compare that figure to what you would spend for those same nights in non-association commercial parks. Treat the association initiation (buy-in) fee as described for membership campground systems.
Different considerations are involved when calculating the financial viability of purchasing a deeded resort lot. Resale value is one. The initial purchase cost is usually high and sizable monthly maintenance fees are involved, but resort lots generally appreciate, sometimes quite rapidly. If you plan to buy a lot you’ll use only part of the year, consider any income you might receive from renting it out to other RVers.
Motorhome enthusiasts who buy deeded lots often place pride of ownership, a prestigious address, and appreciation potential ahead of how much the lot will save them on a nightly basis. As an added perk, some deeded resorts, such as Outdoor Resorts, have multiple locations. As an owner at one resort, you are eligible to stay at another at a discounted rate.
Looking only at the financial aspects, the numbers on the deeded resort lot option are more attractive when compared to the price of spending every night of the year in comparable upscale resorts, at a cost of $50 or more per night.
Membership campground systems and campground associations have served us well, but not by accident. We carefully evaluated the alternatives and painstakingly compared them to our long-term travel plans. Doing your homework pays off. Know the details and have them in writing before you decide if it makes sense to buy into a campground program.
FMCA Member Campgrounds
Hundreds of campgrounds belong to FMCA on a commercial membership basis; many of them offer discounts to FMCA members. Information about these facilities is provided in the “Business Directory,” published in the January and June issues of FMC magazine and online at www.fmca.com.