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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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crusty.old.vet
1 month ago

May I offer two solutions? First, let campgrounds say that at a specific time that day, you are a no-show, and your reserved site will be available first come first served. If you call ahead of that time on the same day, your site is held. For example, say y 6pm,any unfilled site is available for resale, unless you call by 5:30 THAT DAY to hold it (late arrival).

Second, Start a web page for people who, rather being a phantom, can offer their reservation for free. No money, just tell people you have a site available. They contact you for the reservation info, and once its gone, its gone. You’re already out the money, but you do good for someone willing to take your spot.

Just a thought….

Kurt B
2 months ago

This is really easy to fix, no call or no show full day rate. Only allow cancellations prior to the date of arrival.

LMcGinnis
3 months ago

Okay, so tell us what we can help do to get this issue moving toward being fixed. Who do we all contact to put pressure on this so that we do continue to lose our privileges?

Nigel
5 months 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
5 months 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
5 months 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.

Scott Davis
1 month ago

Agree. This would fix the problem.

Eeica
5 months 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
5 months 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.

David
2 months ago
Reply to  Josh

I like this proposal. It really solves the penalty fee issue in a way that provides the necessary “Hit” upon those that routinely try to “Game” or outsmart the system! …

Cathy Stover
5 months 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
5 months 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
5 months ago
Reply to  Cry

Wow! Tell us how you really feel!

George R Gunderson
5 months 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 !!

Tracy Tuten
4 months ago
Reply to  Cry

I don’t agree with not being able to book in advance because someone traveling great distance, on cross country trips needs to be able to plan and book in advance. They can’t travel hundreds of miles and cross their fingers a campsite will be available when they get there. No 1st come 1sf served doesn’t work for most people in the 20th century.

David
2 months ago
Reply to  Cry

Gosh! so cynical. All camping is not “Glamping”. To each, their own reason to get “ out there”. Some need to “plan ahead” while others prefer “ on the fly” !! We all come for our own personal flavor of enjoyment ( or necessity). Change will come; but complaints are necessary (ie, the requisite ) first step before any effectual remedy can be had. Venting on forums and such will give both self-comfort and, maybe, just maybe, get the attention of those who can affect a better method. Consumers need to let their voices be heard. inertia will keep the system unchanged!

Dennyg73
5 months 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
5 months ago
Reply to  Dennyg73

BINGO!!

James W
4 months 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
5 months 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
5 months 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
5 months 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
5 months ago
Reply to  Andy Tubbs

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

yaya Helligan
5 months 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
5 months 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
5 months 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
5 months 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
5 months 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
5 months ago
Reply to  Uncle Swags

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

TJS
5 months 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
5 months 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
5 months 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
5 months 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
5 months 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
5 months ago

👍

Justin
5 months 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
5 months ago
Reply to  Justin

+1

Andrea
5 months 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.