Wednesday, September 22, 2021
Wednesday, September 22, 2021

Are “phantom” campers stealing your campsite?

By Mike Gast
Last spring, I wrote an article about how little strings of computer code called “bots” were beating you to the punch when you’re trying to reserve an RV site at popular camping destinations. Well, there’s another culprit out there stealing your next camping opportunity, and this time it’s your fellow campers.

Reservation websites like Recreation.gov, the official booking site for many public facilities, are facing an increase in “phantom” reservations. Driven by the massive increase in campers this summer and the accompanying increase in competition for sites, some campers have apparently taken to securing reservations at several popular locations for the same day and then only using one. The others are left empty for the night.

Phantom reservations are most prevalent at public campgrounds that charge far less per night than most private parks. Greedy campers are grabbing up as many sites as they can on a given day, then waiting until the day of their trip to decide which one to use without canceling the rest.

Campground hosts and park concessionaires are held hostage by the practice. They can’t re-rent the sites since there is a fully paid reservation for that day on the books that they must honor. After all, the fee has been paid and will be forfeited if nobody shows.

That doesn’t help the desperate camper who arrives at a park late at night and sees several empty sites – all unavailable to them – and wonders, “What’s going on?”

Campers making phantom reservations seem more than willing to take the monetary loss of a few $16-a-night reservations and fees in exchange for the luxury of having a menu of campground choices available to them when it’s time to get the RV rolling.

Janelle Smith handles public information for Recreation.gov, a government service for federal agencies and local land managers use to assist in handling visitation. Smith said Recreation.gov just provides the technology for government agencies and concessionaires who run the campgrounds, and has nothing to do with setting registration fee rates or policies. “All of that is managed locally through the agencies,” she said.

The phantom booking problem might be being exacerbated by the fact that some – but not all – Recreation.gov campgrounds operate on a 6-month booking window for sites. For some accommodations, the window can be extended out a full year, Smith said.

Here’s what it currently says on Recreation.gov’s website regarding its rules for reservation no-shows:

No-Shows

  • Overnight and Day-Use Facilities: A no-show customer is one who does not arrive at a campground and does not cancel the reservation by check-out time on the day after the scheduled arrival date (or for day-use facilities, by check-in time the day of arrival). Staff will hold a campsite until check-out time on the day following the arrival date and will hold group day-use facilities until check-in time on the arrival date.
  • Fees: No-shows are assessed $20.00 service fee and forfeit the first night’s recreation fee for a campsite or forfeit the entire day-use fee for a day-use facility.

Reservation websites like Recreation.gov are particularly vulnerable since they often charge far less per site than private campgrounds. A quick check of a non-electric RV site at the Rio Grande Village Campground at Big Bend National Park in Texas showed it was going for about $16 a night. Even with the $20 no-show service fee, a $36 total cost isn’t beyond the reach of unscrupulous campers who want to keep their camping options open. Smith also noted that the fees charged for reservations can vary slightly depending on if the reservation was made online or through a call center, and also depends on the type of site (a regular campsite vs. a back country site, for instance).

Recreation.gov charges a $10 fee for any reservation changes or cancellations made more than a day prior to arrival. If you try to cancel within a day of arrival or on the day of arrival, you will be charged the $10 change fee as well as forfeit the first night’s camping fees and any other service fees. So, by just not showing up and not canceling, campers are only losing roughly an additional $10 or so, and they keep their options open until the very last minute.

Private campgrounds with significantly higher site fees typically have strict cancellation policies that set a time window (usually 24 to 48 hours) for cancellations in order for campers to avoid being charged either a one-night forfeiture of fees, or sometimes the fees for the entire stay. Those policies can get expensive in a hurry for the reservation “phantoms,” and it’s likely those policies are working to keep the number of phantom reservations down at private campgrounds.

Is it up to the campgrounds and reservation sites to fix the problem? Sure. But motivation is low, since the sites are paid for regardless if anybody shows up. They’d likely love to charge their cancellation fees, keep that first night’s fee for the no-show and still be able to re-sell the site. But, that’s often not the way it works out.

The real losers are those RVers without reservations who show up and see a plethora of empty sites waiting for the phantoms who will never show.

Recreation.gov’s Smith does offer a bit of advice for RVers searching for sites … don’t follow the crowds.

“I’d suggest that campers get a feel for the great lesser-known places that can still offer them a similar outdoor experience,” she said. “There are great places out there that I know still have sites available, even on a weekend. They just aren’t inside those super-popular places like Yosemite National Park.”

So, RVtravel.com readers, have you run into any “phantoms” on your campground trips yet?

##RVT1013b

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Nigel
24 days ago

There are tons of vacant sites at Maumee Bay State Park in Toledo, Ohio. It’s a shame to see this every time we go there (often once/month or every 6-8) weeks. Strange, because the sign at the entrance always says they are fully booked, but you’d never know it when walking or riding up and down the various loops after check-in time. It’s a shame. It’s such a beautiful park that should be enjoyed by everyone who wants to camp there.

Linda Hanney
30 days ago

I’ll admit I haven’t read through the entire 149 comments so maybe this has already been mentioned. There is a camp spot available on the Saturday night I want but I can’t book it because it’s a weekend and a two-night reservation is required. But, there are no other spots available on Friday night. When I called the campsite reservation number, it was verified that in order to get that Saturday night spot, I would have to book Sunday night & be a no show. I wonder if campground greed is part of the problem.

George R Gunderson
1 month ago

If campgrounds would charge ex: $100 deposit for a reservation with the price of campsite deducted upon arrival. With no refund to “no shows”. This would discourage phantom reservations.

Eeica
1 month ago

I think this article over looks how the cancelation and change fees effect the situation. My husband and I had a one night reservation at a local state campground. Two days prior we both came down with a fever. Due diligence meant it was best for EVERYONE that we cancel. We had paid $26 for the one night reservation, but were now less than 3 days prior to reservation, so the fee to change the reservation was $22 in addition to the $26 already paid OR a $20 fee to cancel in addition to the $26 we already paid. We felt bad that nobody would be allowed to use the site that we no longer could, but I wasn’t paying a $20+ fee because we got sick. It seems solely like a money making grab by the state park system which only causes more shortages in availability. What is the reason for punishing people who would cancel or reschedule? Other than opening that site for someone else, how does a change or cancellation negativity affect the campground?

Josh
1 month ago
Reply to  Eeica

If you’ve ever arrived at a campground that is full to see that there are tons of empty sites, you wouldn’t complain about higher cancellation fees. We’ve seen this a lot. There should probably be some type of escalating cancellation fee. Maybe just the loss of fee for 1 night plus a small fee. Cancelling after noon on the day of would be a higher more painful fee to encourage people to cancel when they know rather than waiting. Then finally a no show fee that’s extremely high. Hit people with a $100 fee that just book and no show and it’ll stop.

Cathy Stover
1 month ago

Yes, i talked to a state park in South Carolina yesterday and you can book 11 months ahead of time. 60 days out, you can cancel and have no penalties. If youre preparing to go fulltime, you have to pay where you are now and pay next years fees at the same time to have a place to go next year. That’s hard to do for some. Especially knowing where you’re going to be next year, 11 months away. That’s why they reserve more than 1, then cancel later.

Cry
1 month ago

This is stupid and the main reason why online booking for Federal campsites should be banned. 1st come 1st serve. Should be the way . All I see now days is people complaining . How about this stop glamping to begin. Camping is to disconnect from society and reconnect with nature. Not bring your t.v. satellite and popcorn maker with you. Crying ridiculousness

Peggy Bradley
1 month ago
Reply to  Cry

Wow! Tell us how you really feel!

George R Gunderson
1 month ago
Reply to  Cry

Sooo true!! If you make a reservation and can’t make it, you have to cancel 24hrs prior to date or no refund !!

Dennyg73
1 month ago

This is an easily fixed problem … Just charge $100 per day for no-shows by a certain time after check-in, unless a phone call is made. I’ll bet this will curb the problem a little.

George R Gunderson
1 month ago
Reply to  Dennyg73

BINGO!!

James W
23 days ago
Reply to  Dennyg73

Uh-huh. And what happens in case of a family emergency? Let’s say your child or grandchild is involved in a motor vehicle crash far away and you are driving to the hospital. Will you have the foresight to make that call, either on the road or in the Emergency Department?Would you be willing to pay the extra money you would lose if you didn’t ‘make a phone call?’ Solutions to challenging problems are never “easily fixed.”

Leonard Garcia
1 month ago

Absolutely have run into the problem. And instead of enjoying our last RV trip, I spent the whole time complaining about this, due to each day having to find a spot that’s not reserved. And it’s not the first time. I am so beyond sick of this crap of people booking camping sites completely out, and no showing, only to leave those who wish to travel freely out in the cold! Policies need to change! Sure. Have some reservation spots. But have some that are first come first serve. So many campgrounds have gone to 100% reservation only, you have to plan your entire daily trip and book out each campsite ahead of time. What happened to just freely RVing and going where you wish, WHEN you wish. Leave some spots for these folks. Our last trip, wanted primitive camping, area rained out, had to return to campsites, only to find completely booked, but only only 10% full! Start charging these “ghost campers” $500 no show fees!! Let the REAL campers have their camping back. That’s your fix!

Andy Tubbs
1 month ago

Also a method to use by campground managers includes specified arrival times for reserved sites. Say your reservation starts at 1pm your first night, user must also be on site by, say 4pm etc. And not just with a bucket, chair, etc, but with your RV or tent erected. After that hour of must be on site, your reservation is forwarded to a first come first served site. In other words, show up or give up your paid reservation. Others can still enjoy a night out. Selfish or well funded folks should not get to infringe on others.

Susan J Lundquist
1 month ago
Reply to  Andy Tubbs

Can’t tell you how many times we have come in later than 4pm, ummm maybe 80% of the time. If there are extra good sights to see, we may tarry along our route, but usually it’s bad roads, construction delays, etc and an overambitious travel schedule.

Josh
1 month ago
Reply to  Andy Tubbs

You can’t do this. Most people will arrive after 5pm.

yaya Helligan
1 month ago

We are currently at a COE called Damsite in central Missouri. All campsites show sold out all week long and we have been here for 6 days…just about every other site has been empty for those 6 days, including the weekend! So we are experiencing this first hand!

Leonard Garcia
1 month ago
Reply to  yaya Helligan

I go through this every camping trip here in New Mexico. Whole campground shows fully booked, but only a few campsites in use..

Marion
1 month ago

Sometimes the site is empty for a good reason. We had a blown tire on the freeway. It took 4 hours for BCAA to get a truck to come and change it!! If it had been on the safe side of the van we would have done it ourselves. That meant we wouldn’t get to the site until after the gates were locked. I phoned the managing company and they radioed the staff to keep the site until the next day. A promised but long delayed (COVID) camping trip with our young grandson ended up being only a one night stay. By the way we also found out that our tires, bought new, were a lot older than we thought. I guess they had been in stock for some time. We bought them before we were aware of this problem.

Luke
1 month ago

It sure seems there is a very easy fix for this problem. Do not allow multiple bookings for campsites for the same dates which are made under the same name, email address or credit card. I would think that recreation.gov would easily be able to track this type of problem and minimize it from occurring. If recreation.gov actually knows it is happening, the problem has been identified via algorithm and their software should certainly be able to be modified to stop it.

Uncle Swags
1 month ago
Reply to  Luke

My thoughts exactly. If they can develop technology to track your whereabouts online and offline, then some tech guy should be hard at work writing the code to prevent this. But as the article notes, that’s like asking a government employee to do more work for the same money.

Cathy Stover
1 month ago
Reply to  Uncle Swags

Dont rely on an underpaid government worker. Hire a tech company to program it.

TJS
1 month ago
Reply to  Cathy Stover

The federal government contracts with Booz Allen to run recreation.gov. They are a tech company that operates a horribly inefficient website.

Jim Prideaux
1 month ago
Reply to  Luke

That wouldn’t work for me. I make reservations for other family members who are also camping and generally every site goes on my cc.

Pat Belletto
1 month ago

I just experienced this “no-show” when camping in New Mexico. I couldn’t understand all the empty sites around me especially because when trying to reserve a site the recreation.gov showed the campground full. The camp host told me the same as your article. What really bothered me is that there were no longer any ‘first come, first served’ sites. Any way to camp at the state park was by online reservation only. The campground where I stayed had no internet access.

Randy R
1 month ago

Computer programing can help. Recreation.gov needs to operate similarly to Southwest and state the fact “that booking more than one site with overlapping dates will cause the deletion of previous reservations and charging a $100 “relisting” fee and all charges for the first day to go to lister and the rest refunded*. That should help the park owners.
This can be easily done by A. Storing Payment id number, beginning and ending dates of reservation. B. Storing Payment id billing address, beginning and ending dates of reservation. C. Auto-Canceling previous reservations that fall within the current reservation date. I would love to know if Southwest would share with the public the logic flow.
There is more than the first three-point I listed. But comparing the reservation cc number and reservation dates to created save file will catch multiple “dippers” probably 75%. More savvy users would use different CC. That is where the second step using the billing address and date would work.

Vanessa Simmons
1 month ago

If I try to book flights over the same days with Southwest it warns me that my previous flight will be cancelled. This should be the policy with these sites. If you try to book more than once for a night the previous one will be cancelled. Of course they could use multiple log ins or names but if the computer sees a pattern it could block those users. Computers can do a lot if programmed correctly.

Cathy Stover
1 month ago

👍

Justin
1 month ago

$75 reservations fee and you get it back when you get there. Would stop all that nonsense. Of corse keep keep the the orignal campsite fee.

Brian Anderson
1 month ago
Reply to  Justin

+1

Andrea
1 month ago

We just returned from a USFS campground in Colorado that we have used for more than 25 years.More popular over the years, we used to be able to reserve a site even a month before a trip, now I’m online 6 months in advance. Even last year, no-shows were of a number easily accounted for by vehicle trouble, emergencies, etc. I’ve called the # provided a couple of times when we had trouble on the road. We canceled a fair share over the years, usually due to illness, or other changes of plans, as soon as possible
We had a discussion with the seasoned camp hosts when we arrived.It was their first year at this campground, they had worked at others in the region. They have had a big problem this year with no-shows. Puts them in a difficult place, they can release the site after checkout after the first night, but some have shown up after that. They seem to be trying to figure out causes, and solutions.

Roger Marble
1 month ago

Not sure if I understand the issue. If someone is willing to pay for the privilege of reserving and paying for a campground spot to ensure it is available if they want to use it, how is that “theft”. The option of reserving multiple sites is available to everyone. I doubt that anyone is reserving multiple sites simply to screw other campers. Given that people who do not show up still paid for the space. How about people that make a reservation who then have a mechanical problem or other reason for not being able to use the spot they reserved? One thing that seems true is that unlike reserving a motel room, most of the time a reservation for a campground, once made, can not be canceled and the fee will not be refunded. If there were more complaints about the non-refund policy, I would be happier if we could get a refund if we canceled at least 6 hours before check-in time.

Benjamin K Gantt
1 month ago
Reply to  Roger Marble

Roger there is alot of other people that would like to go camping…

Chipper146
1 month ago
Reply to  Roger Marble

Roger, you’re being naïve. There are more campers than sites available. If someone takes multiple concurrent reservations with the ability to use only one of them then they are blocking out other campers and the sites remain open but unavailable. How is that not “stealing” from other campers. Perhaps you haven’t had that happen to you (yet), but when it does then maybe you’ll understand.

Roger Marble
1 month ago
Reply to  Chipper146

But aren’t those “thieves” paying for the campsites when they make a reservation?

Gunnar
1 month ago
Reply to  Roger Marble

Yes they are! Some people like to argue for the sake of arguing.

Gunnar
1 month ago
Reply to  Chipper146

As long as they are paid for that is NOT stealing in way…..shape….or form.

Jim Prideaux
1 month ago
Reply to  Gunnar

Yes they are stealing. They took away my opportunity to use the site.

Gunnar
1 month ago
Reply to  Roger Marble

I agree 100%. The people complaining could get online 6 months out, and book sites too. (And pay for them at that time)
I just fail to see where this is “robbery” in any sense of the word. I mean…. They are willing to “forfeit “ the money they already paid…. So how is it robbery? Maybe “un-sportsman’ish” but NOT robbery.
But, I know where your coming from. I’ve pulled up to RV Parks, and noticed a handful of sites empty, only to be told they were already paid for by a “no show”. Did I get mad? No …..What I did was I ensured 6 months out my butt was parked at my desk making reservations for the following year!…. Problem solved.

Leonard Garcia
1 month ago
Reply to  Roger Marble

The problem is not theft. The problem is there are more people than campsites out there. And I seriously doubt a select few are booking multiple campsites. The problem I feel, is there are a great multitude of people who are making “plans” to go camping, and booking camping sites. As the article stated, they are booking the sites, because, ehh, what’s $10 or $15 bucks to reserve a spot. Well, the issue is this great multitude of people booking, are not actually going camping, leaving those who are actually trying to camp, without anywhere to camp. And as stated in the article, not much movement to fix this because, well, these “ghost campers ” lost their small reservation fees to the agency, but have left the campground 90% empty, and actual campers scrambling for somewhere to camp, when there is an empty campground in front of them, but is completely booked!

Cheryl Kimble
1 month ago
Reply to  Roger Marble

Roger, there is a set refund policy in the COE parks. to cancel a reservation, you pay a $10 cancellation fee and the rest of your money is refunded. The park I work in has had more and more no shows every week. the reservations are for one night up to 14 night stays. It amazes me that people do not request the refund if they are not coming so someone else can have that campsite. We are not allowed to cancel any reservation unless the customer requests it. They can also contact Res.gov to get their refund and there are allowable circumstances where they can get a full refund.

Geoffrey Oltmans
1 month ago
Reply to  Roger Marble

The issue is that while perfectly legal, it is a selfish douchebag move.

Erica
1 month ago
Reply to  Roger Marble

Totally agree about cancelation and rescheduling fees. I see it nothing more than a money grab. We reserved one night at a state park, got sick 2 days prior. I wasn’t paying $22 fee to reschedule or a $20 fee to cancel a $26 reservation. That’s rediculous. So the site was wasted and that’s a shame. What problem would it really cause if they allowed free cancellations or changes?

Lee Ensminger
30 days ago
Reply to  Erica

What problem would it really cause if they allowed free cancellations or changes?

Erica, you can’t be serious!

Carol
1 month ago

What about the parks using a confirmation system, where the camper gets an email or text message to confirm the reservation, similar to Dr offices, but with the built in cancellation if not confirmed by check-in time? Wondering if that could be feasible.

Brian Anderson
1 month ago
Reply to  Carol

Good idea. I also like the extra fee for non-cancellation.

Jeryl Desrochers
1 month ago

A month ago we decided to go home a day early due to bad weather. I tried multiple times online ( it looked like they took the option to cancel off the page on the day of arrival) and sat on hold with Reserve America for over 45 minutes trying to cancel the site before I gave up. They need to make sure we have a way to get through to cancel. I do get frustrated with those empty sites but also when trying to do the right thing.

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