Seeing the country out the window of an RV has a reputation for being a frugal way to travel.
It’s true that road tripping in a motorhome or travel trailer can be less expensive than a traditional, hotel-and-restaurant vacation — if you play your cards right.
While cooking your own meals and not having to shell out for a bed each night can help you save money on the road, there are other, significant costs associated with RVing. Some of them, like keeping fuel in that gas-guzzling beast, are hard to get around.
But you have some wiggle room in other areas, like campground accommodation fees — which range from totally free parking on public land to upwards of $150 per night at ritzy, resort-style campground in destination cities.
Plus, there are a whole range of discount RV clubs that purport to help you minimize your travel budget with exclusive deals — for a small annual fee, of course. Here’s a guide to some of the most popular options including their prices, perks, and our take on whether or not they’re worth it.
Are Discount RV Clubs Worth the Money?
Discount camping clubs are organizations for RV campers that offer exclusive deals and insider access to certain resources — for a price. Generally, you pay an annual membership fee and enjoy the member benefits without paying anything more for them throughout the year.
Deals may include discounts on campsites, the ability to use certain routing software or attend exclusive member events. Joining is usually simple and can be done online in a few minutes.
But which of those RV clubs are worth their membership fees? Let’s dive in.
Perhaps the best-known RV club (and one of the oldest, dating back to the 1960s), Good Sam offers members a variety of discounts and camping tools, including access to trip planning software and free shipping from partners like Camping World and Gander Outdoors. It’s also one of the most common discounts to see available at campgrounds — though the actual discount is usually only 10%.
- Cost: $29 per year, with lower per-year prices and extra perks available for 2- or 3-year commitments.
- Perks: 10% discount at select campgrounds and retailers; 15% discount on propane at Camping World SuperCenters, 5% discount at participating Pilot Flying J gas stations; free shipping at major outdoor vendors; itinerary-planning software; free dump service.
- Verdict: Although the Good Sam discount is applicable in a lot of ways and at a lot of locations, the discount itself is pretty paltry (with the exception of the propane deal). That said, the yearly cost is nominal, so it could pay for itself if you’re a frequent camper or full-timer.
While many discount camping clubs offer a wide range of small discounts, Passport America’s deal is more straightforward: for its annual fee, you get 50% off your campground accommodation fees at almost 1,600 participating campgrounds across the country, including locations in Mexico and Canada. Considering that $75-per-night campsites are not unheard of, it’s easy for this discount club to pay for itself in a single weekend trip.
That said, you are limited to participating campgrounds — and even at eligible sites, the discount may not be applicable if you’re scoring a deal through the campground itself, like reduced rates for staying for a week or longer.
- Cost: $44 per year, with lower per-year prices available for longer commitments.
- Perks: Half-off campsites are the main star of this show, though members also receive a printed directory to eligible campgrounds and a free subscription to RV America Magazine.
- Verdict: This discount club is low-cost enough to be worthwhile, but its limitations mean you might want to double-check its campsite directory before you sign up. Full timers, keep in mind that the half-off rate doesn’t apply to weekly or monthly sites.
Considering the price of most discount RV clubs, one trip to the Thousand Trails website could give you a case of sticker shock. Memberships start at almost $600 per year.
But for that cost, you get absolutely free stays at participating campgrounds in your area — and we’re talking about the kinds of campgrounds with swimming pools, laundry rooms, the works.
There are over 80 participating Thousand Trails RV parks nationwide. To join, you choose a Camping Pass for one or more “zones,” regions of the country like the Northwest, Midwest and Southeast. You can then stay at participating locations in your zone for up to 14 nights free of charge, though there are sometimes extra fees for onsite facilities and restrictions for certain high-usage dates at specific campgrounds. Once you stay at a participating campground, you must wait seven days before using your membership again.
- Cost: Starts at $585 per year for one zone, with each additional zone costing about $50 extra. There’s also a “Trails Collection,” which gets you access to an additional 100+ resorts across the country for $214, though some of these sites still cost $20 per night.
- Perks: Free camping! You also get lower-cost RV storage options at participating locations, seasonal deals and access to the Thousand Trails online reservation system.
- Verdict: I mean, free camping is hard to argue with — though the “zone” system makes this deal better for those who tend to stay close to home. Adding additional zones can get pricey quickly, and if you’re a full-timer, the seven-day waiting period keeps this from being a total lifehack.
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Escapees bills itself as a “total support network for all RVers,” which means its discounts are just the beginning. The real value of this club is all about the peripherals, including exclusive community events, educational boot camps, entertaining rallies and services aimed toward full-timers like mail forwarding and a job exchange.
- Cost: $39.95 per year
- Perks: So many! Along with discounts at partner retailers and campgrounds, Escapees members get access to a community network that offers all kinds of support, especially for those who make their home on the road full time. Exclusive gatherings and its internal special interest groups are also a great way to meet other folks who live on wheels, which can keep the lifestyle from getting lonely.
- Verdict: This club is really less about discounts and more about joining a camping community. For weekenders and vacationers, it might not be worthwhile. But for full-timers and serious campers, it’s a must.
Like wine? Like free campsites?
Yeah, sounds like a win-win to us, too!
Harvest Hosts is simple: You pay the annual fee, and you gain access to their database of over 700 vineyards, breweries, farms and other locations that will offer free overnight stays to RVers traveling in self-contained units (read: RVs that have their own toilet facilities).
Although you won’t have hookups to water or electricity, you will have some of the most beautiful views you’ve ever seen, and usually you’ll get to taste the local produce. (And by taste, yes, in many cases, we mean sip.) Just keep in mind that these are private locations, and you’re generally only allowed to stay for one night, or possibly two with express invitation.
The Harvest Hosts Code of Conduct also recommends you make a purchase from the producer as a thank you for the use of their space, and although it’s nice to have a nice bottle of wine for dinner, it may put you back an extra $30 or so.
- Cost: $79 per year
- Perks: Free (ish) overnight stays at gorgeous rural properties with luscious views and delicious wines/beers/goodies.
- Verdict: This one is less about saving money by any means necessary and more about the experience. If watching the sunset over a vineyard from the private comfort of your rig or chatting with the vintner over dinner sounds like a dream to you, this is an accessible way to make it happen.
In the end, the worthiness of any RV club comes down to how often you’ll use it and enjoy its benefits. And do keep in mind that many of these programs offer referral bonuses, which means you could actually earn your membership fee back if you’ve got friends you can convert.
Jamie Cattanach’s work has been featured at Fodor’s, Yahoo, SELF, The Huffington Post, The Motley Fool and other outlets. Learn more at www.jamiecattanach.com.
This was originally published on The Penny Hoarder, which helps millions of readers worldwide earn and save money by sharing unique job opportunities, personal stories, freebies and more. The Inc. 5000 ranked The Penny Hoarder as the fastest-growing private media company in the U.S. in 2017.