Are “bots” stealing your campsite? Answer: Yes!

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By Mike Gast
If you’ve tried to book a camping reservation online at popular locations in the past five years, you’ve likely been stymied by a camping bot. [Editor: A bot is a software application that runs automated tasks over the internet. Typically, bots perform tasks that are simple and repetitive, much faster than a person could. —Wikipedia]

Bots are ingenious little bits of computer code that allow a user’s computer to flood a reservation site with campsite requests. It all happens fast – a typical reservation bot can complete a purchase in .02 of a second. Good luck typing fast enough to keep up with that.

You’ve likely used a bot yourself. Bots are used on travel sites like Kayak or Expedia. They scour the internet, looking for the best prices on hotels, airfare and rental cars. When you are researching your next trip on those sites, you are the beneficiary of a bot.

Where did camping bots come from?

Camping bots started about a decade ago as handy little time savers for programmers in the know in California’s Silicon Valley. An innovative code writer added a little string of code to a program. This would alert him when a campsite at a popular location was available. The bot saved him the trouble of continuously refreshing his screen or revisiting the website. He didn’t have to wait for an opening like the rest of us.

It didn’t take long for a more nefarious bunch of techno-geeks to see an opportunity for profit. They began writing bot code that they would then “rent” to any buyer, allowing anyone to access available campsites at lightning speed. For example, take a look at these links and you’ll see no less than three links to the code you’d need to set up your own bot for the very limited supply of campsites in Yosemite National Park.

Most folks don’t have the technical skills to set up a camping bot even with the supplied code. That’s why you’re likely always on the losing end of the race for reservations. If you want to compete with the geeks, there are outfits like Campnab, a company based in British Columbia, that – for as little as $10 – will alert you via text message when a campsite becomes available at your preferred location.

Some bots can even complete the reservation for you. Just give it the date parameters and your credit card info (if you’re really comfortable with that), and it will do the rest.

Cole Reinhardt, Senior Director of Digital Marketing for KOA, said KOA’s reservation system has yet to detect much bot activity, but said it would be “crazy” to think it hasn’t happened.

Are bots legal?

The short answer is yes. Some bots are innocuous bits of code that do nothing more than continuously scan a camping website. They’re  looking for available reservations that might be returned to the inventory after a cancellation. Once it sees the available site, the bot alerts the user’s computer or cell phone that it found a site. The user can then complete the reservation in the traditional way. In those cases, bots are nothing more than handy alarm clock alerts.

Legal? Yes. Fair? Probably not.

It gets much worse when a more advanced bot program is designed to “scrape” a reservation website. Then, the legalities become increasingly gray. Scraping involves a bot that will continuously scan a website for available campsites. It will either complete a reservation on all that is available or – even worse – simply put a hold on reservations if the website allows it. The owner of the bot then has an inventory that he/she can resell at a profit.

The State of California is one of the few government entities trying to curtail those using resell bots. When California State Parks find a campsite reseller, they try to shut them down.

Sites like Reserve America, which handles reservations for a huge inventory of public and private campsites, hasn’t said much about the steps it takes to curtail the use of bots. In fact, the company’s responses on its Frequently Asked Questions page seem to ignore the fact that bots are being used.

“When campsites/cabins/cottages are in high demand, hundreds of users rush to hold sites and dates the second they go on sale,” Reserve America’s Q&A states. “The Reservation System is able to handle multiple requests per second, resulting in things changing very quickly, and often many of the popular sites are gone very quickly.”

Thanks to camping bots, campsites are gone within a second of opening

Yeah. We noticed. It’s the reason why campsites at popular locales like Yosemite, the Grand Canyon, or state parks along Highway 101 can be completely filled less than a second after they open for business online (usually while you’re still adding cream to your coffee).

To be fair, Reserve America’s website does list a dizzying number of reservation policies, procedures, and “terms of use” likely geared to cut back on bot use. How effective those measures are is unknown, at least to campers.

Canadians are also feeling the wrath of the bots. Recently, new services popped up online offering to transfer existing camping reservations for a steep markup. These services were suspected of using bots to sweep up the allowed maximum of 23 nights in a row at popular provincial camping locations. They then resold the 23 nights by transferring a smaller number of nights to individuals willing to pay up to 40% more than the original cost. If for some reason the extra nights couldn’t be sold, the bot owner simply canceled the nights at no cost. You don’t necessarily need a bot to get in on this scheme, but it helps.

Can anything be done?

The U.S. Congress passed a law in 2016 called the BOTS Act (Better Online Ticket Sales Act of 2016). The act tried to outlaw the use of bots to game the event ticket industry. Fans of concerts and sporting events were getting locked out by bot-driven resellers. They would scrape up all the tickets for events in milliseconds and put them up for sale at a huge profit on their sites.

It wasn’t until this past January that the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) took its first enforcement action using the BOTS Act. The FTC went after three New York-based ticket brokers with a collective $31 million in fines. They were allegedly using automated ticket-buying software, creating hundreds of fake Ticketmaster accounts. The three defendants ended up negotiating a lower fine and paid a total of $3.7 million.

Federal law doesn’t address camping bot issues

While the federal law is a good effort, it only deals with events seating over 200 people. In other words, it doesn’t address what you’re facing in your search for a campsite.

Those in charge of camping reservation sites are well aware of bots and are trying several things to limit their effectiveness. But it’s a constant game of cat and mouse.

At first, reservation sites tried to manually monitor traffic in order to spot bots. But as soon as traffic spiked during busy seasons, they were overwhelmed. Most include language forbidding bots in the “terms of use” that users must click to use the site. But that likely has had little effect.

Like bot programmers, reservation site webmasters have gotten more sophisticated. Some utilize artificial intelligence to spot and block malicious bots. And if you’ve purchased almost anything online lately, you’ve likely been stopped at a “reCAPCHA” page. Those ask you to prove you’re not a bot by clicking on a grid of photos that includes shots of a few streetlights or cars. But even those steps can’t stop every bot.

“There are entire lines of software that have been developed to protect against bots,” said KOA’s Reinhardt. “We use several tactics, but it takes constant vigilance.”

What can you do?

Unfortunately, bots will likely dominate reservation systems – and you – until tougher state and federal laws can be written.

In the meantime, you have four choices.

  • Fight fire with fire and purchase your own bot notification service from sites such as Campnab.com.
  • Give up on the most popular locations and dates and turn your attention to lesser-known destinations and shoulder season dates.
  • Pester your federal and state elected officials for more regulations to curtail bots.
  • Continue your maddening “click refresh page” sessions on reservation sites, on the slim chance you might break through.

Whatever you decide, the race for sites – and the use of bots – will likely only get worse as more new campers adopt the RV lifestyle. Research is already showing that nearly a quarter of campers in 2020 were new.

So, get up early, grab a mug of strong coffee, and get ready to click like crazy in your race with technology. I’ll be cheering for you (but my money is on the bots).

Mike Gast was the Vice President of Communications for Kampgrounds of America, Inc. for the past 20 years. Now, he’s on to new adventures, helping others tell their stories through his freelance company, ‘Imi Ola Group. You can reach Mike at mike.imiolagroup@gmail.com .

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Ed Fogle
25 days ago

A week of getting up early to capture one of the 1-3 campsites that come available in the Florida Keys each day with no luck. They’re gone in a second or two. They use reservationamerica.com. It uses a single click captcha. Wonder if bots are aceing me out.

Ed Fogle
25 days ago
Reply to  Ed Fogle

One solution might be a lottery system or hybrid of that with first come first served on the reservation sights.

Snayte
25 days ago
  • “Fight fire with fire and purchase your own bot notification service from sites such as Campnab.com.”

Sure contribute to the problem, that will show them.

Stu Beans
25 days ago

i would like to see REAL evidence bots are at work, otherwise, Ill consider this an article meant to send traffic to Campnab. Furthermore, you could have also sent traffic to wandering labs, which offers the same service and a much lower cost.

Jack
26 days ago

When I book through rec.gov I have to prepay for one day so I don’t understand how bots are keeping me from finding a spot. If someone has to prepay then go through the process of a refund I don’t think they would want to prepay for all the camp sites.

Mike Gast
25 days ago
Reply to  Jack

Jack, in the scenario you describe, if another camper hires a bot and provides that bot owner with their credit card and other info, the bot will be able to make their reservation within .02 of a second after the site becomes available. They beat you to the site.

Judy S
26 days ago

Thanks, Mike, for this thorough explanation of an issue that will likely plague RVers for many years to come.

Burns Rafferty
26 days ago

I think the solution is to require full payment at time of booking, and initiate an extremely punitive cancellation policy. While it may sound a bit drastic it would all but eliminate no shows and site block reservations.

Jeff Arthur
26 days ago

I suspect this will be quite the hot topic here. 20+ years ago the National Parks we frequented had no reservations. We camped rustic in nearby state and national forests in wait. At about 2:00am I would go to the National park with lawn chair in hand . The office opened at 8:00 am but had a white board posted in the window of the available sites opening that day. You would count the people already there waiting and figure if you’re chances are good to get a site. Now once you’re in & maybe didn’t have a site to your liking at 8:00pm (office closing time) you had first chance to move to a better site. The major downside was the locals had a definite advantage. I somewhat miss those days, most likely because I was younger.

One thing about camping in the shoulder seasons. It’s now every bit as busy as the summer.

I also see some debauchery going on as some sites are never available yet may be occupied or just sit empty for long periods of time.

Sink Jaxon
26 days ago

Enough to make you wanna go back to staying in hotels again! Ugh!🙄

Mike M.
26 days ago
Reply to  Sink Jaxon

We’ve already done that.

Roger Marble
26 days ago

I’m a little confused. I read where many are unhappy about not getting refunds if they cancel a campground reservation, but in this story we are told the “Bots” are making reservations that prevent individuals from making a reservation. Clearly once a BOT makes and pays for a reservation an easy way to stop the practice is to not allow reservations to be transfered to a different individual. So who is actually buying all the reservations the “Bots” are making? If I make a reservation at a campground with a no refund policy, I expect the site to be available to only me for the full term of the reservation. A no 100% Refund policy would seem to be a solution.

Philip Sponable
26 days ago

Bribery has been used effectively for ages… 💲  💰  💲 

Camper
26 days ago

Unfortunately, there is little knowledge and much innuendo on the use of automated software. I’ve worked on browser automation and webscraping programs (Python using Selenium). Getting around Google’s reCaptcha feature is only possible for the short term before Google changes the code to close loopholes. And farming out the solving of Captchas doesn’t work when speed is the issue. Sites that don’t use Captchas are vulnerable (I’m looking at you recreation.gov). But most reservation systems I’ve seen use Captchas.
Suggestions that the problem is with the ability to resell reservations and cancel reservations at a low cost are spot on. Too many people make reservations “just in case” and then cancel at a later date for little cost to themselves.
Trying to lay blame at the feet of bots just ignores the fundamental problems with limited supply and virtually unlimited demand for certain campgrounds. We need to focus on the real issues rather than the bot bogeyman.

MrDisaster
26 days ago
Reply to  Camper

While “bots” are not responsible for all the problems, eliminating them or reducing their effectiveness, will help to a leveling of the playing field. Those who make reservations and later cancel should pay some kind of penalty. The rest of us can better compete with other humans for the reservations. It would be great if the reservations websites would help a bit by increasing security (captcha) and writing and enforcing “anti-bot” rules.

Rusty
26 days ago

I suspected Bots were causing reservation issues a couple years ago. Are Bots fair to use easy answer is no. No in the form of unfairness from the consumer point of view. Ask any campsite owner, state or national park reservation head and the answer may be “not our problem” our camp sites are full and waiting for the next opening.

Ray
26 days ago

Reselling reservations is a parasitic industry for sure. One would think the government could find a way to set additional fees on such activity, like tax the robo call industry 10 cents for every call for example. At least some good might come from it. Alas, hoping for legislation from the best politicians money can buy is wishful thinking.

Mike M.
26 days ago
Reply to  Ray

They use to call it “scalping”. Now it’s legal digital business as usual. How times have changed.

Jeffrey Myers
26 days ago

Seems to me the best way to reduce bot use is to focus on eliminating ability to resell sites. To do this, require camper info at time of reservation and require proof of same at check-in.

Dan
26 days ago
Reply to  Jeffrey Myers

I agree. Require identification within a few minutes of accepting the reservation and then make it specific to the vehicle. If reservations are vehicle specific that might cut down on the no-shows at full campgrounds.

Bob P
26 days ago

Simply do a way with reservations and go back to first come first serve.

WEB
26 days ago
Reply to  Bob P

Now THAT would go over well… 3 mile lineups at the gates… but then it might discourage use!

Roger V
26 days ago
Reply to  WEB

Bingo! Talk about a disaster! It would just shift the horrible mess that is reserveamerica.com to the front gates of state parks.

Gman
26 days ago
Reply to  Bob P

That’s simply not going to ever happen. Too much money being made and less administrative costs for those having it. Besides, with the hyped out RV buying and CG overcrowding, you rally want to go to FCFS system.

Drew
26 days ago
Reply to  Gman

My ideas won’t be considered but I’d suggest the old call centers again. Jobs available to a society emerging from a health crisis. Imagine…a real person interacting with you on the phone! I think we all are responsible for the messes we have but we can clean them up too. Sometimes a grass roots approach is good.