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).
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.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org .