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:
- 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?