All the information listed below is current as of Dec. 17. Pricing information below reflects membership to single clubs in the New York City area, California and the Midwest. Prices and gym features are subject to change by location.Name: 24 Hour Fitness
Locations: 420 locations in 14 states
Perks: Free weeklong pass; reduced rate options for family members living at your residence; many locations open 24 hours; weight training and cardio equipment; free personal training programs (prices vary); group exercise classes involving aerobics, kick boxing, dance, cycling, and more (vary by club, most free with membership); supervised children's play area (typically $2 to $4 per child per day for up to two hours of supervision)
Costs: Prices vary, not only based on location, but also club type (24 Hour Fitness offers everything from high-end Ultra Sport locations to moderately-sized Active/Express/Fit Live locations). Membership packages can be monthly (first and last month and fees due upfront) and cover all 24 Hour Fitness clubs, or just a single club, and you can also pay for membership upfront covering 90 days up to three years.
Since you're looking to spend the least amount of money, we looked at the single club monthly packages. In New York City, the price ranged from $44.99 a month for the most basic club in the area to $64.99 a month for the Ultra Sport. Upfront charges are $99.77 and $159.97, respectively. In the St. Louis area (we looked for Chicago prices, but there are no locations there), monthly charges are $29.99, with upfront charges around $76 (slight differences depending on location). In Los Angeles, the most premiere club membership costs $39.99 a month ($89.97 upfront) down to $29.99 per month ($69.97 upfront) for the most basic one club monthly membership.
Name: Bally Total Fitness
Locations: More than 300 nationwide
Perks: Free weeklong pass; friends and family discount memberships; personal training programs (for extra cost); weight training and cardio equipment; group exercise classes involving Pilates, martial arts and more (vary by club, most free with membership)
Costs: Similar to 24 Hour Fitness, membership packages can be monthly and cover all Bally clubs (including optional child care), Bally clubs in your area or one club (first and last month's rate, plus taxes and fees, due upfront), or they can be paid in full up front for 90 days up to three years.
In New York City, membership is $29.99 a month ($88.98 up front). In Chicago, it's $23.99 a month ($52.99 upfront). In Los Angeles, it's $19.99 a month ($68.98 upfront).
Name: LA Fitness
Locations: Locations in 21 states
Perks: Free weeklong pass; reduced rate options for family members living at your residence; some locations open 24 hours; weight and cardio equipment access; free personal training programs (prices vary); group exercise classes involving aerobics, yoga, Pilates, cycling and more (vary by club, free with membership); heated lap pool whirlpool spa and saunas; access to racquetball, tennis and basketball courts for extra cost; babysitting for extra cost
Costs: Unlike 24 Hour Fitness and Bally, LA Fitness' most basic membership requires weekly payment, not monthly. At its Staten Island club, it'll cost you $12.95 a week, with $25.90 due upfront. In Chicago and L.A., it's $9.95 a week and $19.90 upfront.
Name: Planet Fitness
Locations: 390 locations in 40 states
Perks: Tanning beds, massage chairs, fitness equipment, and a strict no grunting allowed policy. (Offenders are shamed to silence by something Planet Fitness calls a "Lunk Alarm.")
Costs: In New York and Chicago, it's $10 a month (plus taxes) and a $29 initiation fee for the most basic package that just provides access to equipment. In San Francisco, (there's no L.A. location where we could do apples to apples) the cost is $10 a month, with $15 due upfront.
Name: Snap Fitness
Locations: 1,100 locations in 44 states
Perks: All locations accessible 24-hours a day; free weeklong pass; weight and cardio equipment access; personal trainer programs for extra cost; free online wellness tool; online nutrition and meal planning site; personal Web page option where you can receive news, track visits to the club and request personal training; free month membership or $35 gift card for every friend referral; competitive month-long motivational programs; instruction and workout plan; online workout training center; refund after 30 days (as long as you do two of the following three: work out three times weekly for 30 minutes, create a Web page on mysnapfitness.com, or sign up for equipment orientation or fitness assessment)
Costs: In Pine Brook, N.J. (the closest location to New York City), it's $39.99 a month with no enrollment fee. In Chicago, the monthly charge is $34.95 a month and enrollment is $49. At a club in the L.A. area, monthly charge is $50 and enrollment is $75.
What We Think: Now bear in mind, Compare and Contrast didn't frequent these gyms itself (too busy eating cookies). But here's what we think.
24 Hour Fitness has the widest variety of clubs, so it's a good choice for someone who wants choice. But we mostly care about a good workout without a lot of cost, and we'd wager many thrifty college kids think the same way. And the most basic package for the most basic club is still pretty expensive. So skip 24 Hour Fitness.
We'd also skip over LA Fitness. We know those low initiation fees are enticing, and the weekly payment system may be attractive. But add up those weeks and you're paying at least $51.80 in New York and $39.80 in Chicago and L.A. each month (or a painful $673.40 and $517.40 for the year, not including the enrollment fees). Those high monthly prices will come back to hurt you at the expense of a convenient weekly deposit and low enrollment fee.
Bally's upfront cost is a bit painful, we know. But if you really plan to work out for a long period of time, it'll actually cost you less than 24, LA and Snap, because the monthly charges aren't so high (fortunately those upfront charges cover the first and last months of membership). If you plan to be with Bally for just a year, the overall cost would be $388.98 in New York, $292.89 in Chicago and $268.88 in L.A. Really, not all that bad, plus you get free access to most group exercise classes.
But if all you care about is lifting weights and doing cardio for as cheaply as possible, the little frills Planet Fitness is best (and our pick for best value). The monthly fare is extremely low, and the initiation fees pretty affordable too. Over the course of a year, working out at a Planet Fitness club in New York and Chicago will just cost you $149, and in San Francisco, just $135. At those prices, you have the best chance of actually keeping your New Year's Resolution this year.
Piet Levy's Compare and Contrast breaks down the prices and perks for products and services college kids want every Monday on WalletPop's Money College page. Send suggestions, including items or services you want Levy to write about, to firstname.lastname@example.org.