Last week I wrote an article titled “Reserved but empty campsites: The campground’s side of the story.” If you haven’t read it yet, click that link and read it before continuing here.
My husband and I are camp hosts and we talked to our park supervisors about why campsites remain empty despite being booked. Well, apparently it’s a hot topic because that article has been viewed nearly 1.5 million times and has more than 1,600 comments. Hot topic, indeed!
I believe almost every camper this year has either experienced difficulty getting campsites or is at least aware that there is a problem, particularly with empty but reserved sites. It is particularly irksome when prime campsites are reserved but night after night the sites remain empty.
We asked for suggestions and solutions and, boy, did we get them! They ranged from punitive for the no-shows, forever banning them from ever camping there again, or all the way to getting creative and installing bar code readers at a campground entrance to detect occupied sites or no-shows.
Set a time limit, then make it available
The vast majority of comments involved making sure that the empty (but reserved) site is made available. People differed on a time limit for showing up and occupying the site. It ranged from 6 p.m. to 9 p.m. on the day reserved to the next morning. Still, others suggested a 24-hour window or the next day check out/in time. If no show after that time period, they’d lose the site, even if it was a multi-day booking.
One reader, Rebecca, commented, “If someone is a no show for a reservation it should be made available for booking again. There are some (people) that in good faith will call a campground if they run into car trouble, etc., and are forced to arrive a day or two late. But if there is no call and someone is a no-show, the site should be made available. As an avid camper, I always am looking for last-minute openings. Especially when summer booking fills up so fast.”
Reserved but empty campsites—Release unused sites
Mark commented that he is a USFS camp host and releases campsites if not occupied the first night. That is the policy at every USFS campground. Parks could be clear in the cancellation policy that no-shows will be released. These could go back to the reservation system or become first-come, first-served sites.
Life happens and people forget. One suggestion is to have the campground send out an automated confirmation email with the date, site, and address of the park before the cancellation period begins, and include a link to cancel. This would hopefully open up more sites. Then send another automated text or email reminder forcing people to click Y (Yes, I am coming) or N (Nope, can’t make it), similar to the ones medical offices are now using. A “No” answer sends them to the cancel button. If there is no confirmation, the site is gone.
Several parks we have been to lately no longer do office check-ins and it is difficult for the limited staff to know who is in the park. If someone is a no-show, what can trigger the release of a campsite? How will staff even know about a no-show in some of the massive campgrounds? Several people suggested automating the check-in process. They could scan a bar code on the way in and, if not checked in by a certain time, the site is released.
Stub Hub, sublet or trade or buy them out!
Here’s an interesting idea… Campgrounds could post a reservation that is canceled and if picked up, the original camper gets a refund. Have a waiting list and a camper could take over the reservation. They could post canceled sites online, too.
Weekend two-night minimum
A campground should find a way to book one of the nights if both nights are not needed. If booked, refund the one who was forced to book two nights.
Have more first-come, first-served sites, or even change all the sites in the campground to first-come, first-served. Many, many folks want to go back to that method. Ya snooze, ya lose.
Canada is serious about no-shows
Aud L. shared Ontario, Canada’s, policy with us and confirmed that it works. They are serious about no-shows. “We recently spent a month in Ontario, where provincial parks are serious about no-shows. Everybody is required to check in at the main gate. If you show up after the gatehouse closes, they print a list of late arrivals, you initial when you do arrive, and still must check in person the next day.
“No-shows forfeit the entire booking. It cuts down considerably on folks who book at the earliest window (like a Wed.-Sun.) but only intend to use the weekend. They also charge rebooking if they booked earlier days but are canceling partials (again to counter the Wed.-Sun. when they only plan to use the weekend).
“If you truly run into trouble, you can cancel via phone and not forfeit. For example, the Trans Canada Hwy 17 was closed for hours due to a multi-car accident, with no other route open. They allowed us to cancel the first night (no refund) without the forfeit. I noticed when I got to the park that they take those last-minute cancellations and offer first-come, first-served for folks just needing one night. Win-win.”
Peter A. suggests that the government gets out of the campground business altogether.
Double the price
Bob had an interesting suggestion: “Double the price of the campsite fee when booking and offer half of the fee back after actually showing up to camp. For example: A $50 per night site would be $100 to book online and after they show up, camp and check out, they would get refunded $50. There would be fewer reservations and no-shows.
“If they don’t show up, the campsite just got paid for two nights! Also, it would bode well on last-minute cancellations too! Only offer half refund days 3-9, but full refunds 10 or more. That way if they cancel in that time frame, you could still guarantee the site gets its normal $50 per night but opens the site for others to book and generates more money for the campsite.
“Basically, it forces the no-shows to pay up or lose money and still allows others to book. Really a win-win for everyone except the no-show people. They either pay double the rate to no show (day 1-2) or only get half back (days 3-9), yet it still offers people to book over those cancellations.”
Comments about the percentage amount of campsite refunds were all over—from 10%, 50%, 75%, 100%, minus the reservation fee. If reserved, but empty, the no-shows get nothing! Most commenters said if the canceled site gets rebooked, the original purchaser should get something back, usually a full refund minus the reservation fee. Have a cancellation policy that if canceling within 48 hours of the reservation and the site gets booked, the canceling camper gets a refund or portion of it. A few folks (very few) were okay with no refund and glad that the park system can use the money for the upkeep of the campground.
Encourage cancellations, not no-shows
If campers can’t get a full monetary refund when canceling, many people suggested a voucher or credit. Perhaps early registration, or a discount on a later registration. But too many cancellations and no more credits.
Tom wrote, “I realize that it would be close to impossible, but wouldn’t it be great if there was a standard, industry-wide cancellation policy? That way campers and parks would all know exactly what to expect from a cancellation.”
Pay in full
Several suggested a steep deposit or paying in full upfront to deter reserved but empty campsites. That may work best for higher-priced private parks than state, national and regional parks that have a fairly low nightly rate. People tend to just not show up and don’t mind losing their money.
Large reservation fee
It was also suggested that if the reservation fee was higher, the park could better afford to reduce its cancellation period.
No refund policy. Period.
Another commenter wrote, “Use license plates, and if they no-show three times then they are out. No-show site goes back in circulation and if they show up later, then too bad.”
From InsideOutdoor.com: Crowded Campgrounds Create Boom in Dispersed Camping
There are plenty of campgrounds that do this well and have zero empty sites. The two campgrounds inside Zion and many of the ACE campgrounds come to mind. They allow cancellations and changes up to the last minute, including canceling only the first night if you are delayed en route, and they allow people to make reservations the day of and to change reservations the day of. This means if you’re already parked in a space and you want to extend there rather than having to change spots, you may luck out if the person arriving on your checkout day is delayed. This happens to me surprisingly often. Then the space I was going to move into becomes available for someone else. In the end, there is less churn in the spaces and everything is full. There are enough people with flexible schedules that by maximizing allowed cancellations — with a modest change fee — you can keep campgrounds full.
Most of the suggestions will push a lot of us out of camping due to costs involved. Changes to IT systems will drive up costs. Full payment up front — particularly a year worth of camping in advance — is not in some budgets.
We could wait for the Covid-induced rise in camping to abate: campers getting tired of the newness, getting a real view of servicing when their warranties run out, etc. Seniors likely won’t have the time to wait them out.
Bottom line, it seems, is that camping will become a hobby for the wealthier/greedier campers who can afford to lose money, pay in advance, or pay more. Many of these campers will be ghosts (remain inside their big rig 99% of the time).
Seems this is the exact opposite how camping began: an affordable pastime for families to enjoy nature.
We just came back from a week (M-F) at a Tennessee State Park. I felt lucky to get one of the last two sites in the reservation system but when we checked in the place (only 50 sites) was maybe 50% full. I discussed it with a ranger on the second day and he smiled and said that some folks book 4 consecutive weekends nearly a year in advance and then cancel the unneeded weekends when they know their work schedule. In TN the fee lost is only 5.00 per reservation and you can cancel with 2 days notice. The ranger said that they were often allowing sites to be unused and not rebooking, due the fact that to give it to a new camper they have to call the existing reservation to ensure they are not delayed. It is all backwards and just encourages gaming the system, but our parks operate on limited staff and camp hosts and they just can’t keep up with the no shows and in fact the park gets less use and needs less cleaning when it is only half full, but fully booked.
First come first served doesn’t always work either. Case in point – unable to get a reservation for the July 4th weekend, we figured we could get one of 120 first come first served sites if we went up a week ahead. We were duped! In two campsites alone, there were people that left a tent, a cooler, or even just a couple of chairs to save the site. The next day the same items were there, but no campers. According to the FCFS rules as stated on the Forest Service website, campers must occupy the site the first night and if not, then they forfeit it in 24 hours. They weren’t forfeited. Luckily, we got a nice dispersed camping site but having access to an outhouse and picnic table would’ve been nice.
First come first served…no reservations. Inconvenient, but that ends the cheating and empty sites.
It’s an interesting discussion but I’m not sure how many of the suggestions could be implemented under current circumstances. Most campgrounds (if not all) are understaffed and over worked now. Adding the need to refund half the fee, refund if site rented after cancellation, etc. all require the personnel to track and issue those refunds. Or new software that can be developed to accommodate the system. As much as I hate the idea, increasing prices to market and requiring payment in full at the time of the reservation with a strict sliding scale cancellation policy is probably the best answer. Several states seem to have everything but the market pricing already in place. If you want to pay market rates, not cancel and not show – then bless you. Spend your money and help improve our parks.
Yeah, except then this will just keep people form booking campsites. If camping is as expensive as a hotel and you have to pay full price up front with no refunds if you should cancel you are just reducing the people that are going to be camping.
Our family just experienced a major pain to our two week camping trip due to vehicle problems. We lost our entire 2 nights at a campground with no refund and had to book something last minute close to where we broke down. We had the courtesy to call the campground and notify them that we weren’t going to make it because of our situation and we’re only able to leave a message and they didn’t even have the courtesy to call us back. We were arriving on a Thursday which meant our site would have probably been easily made available for a weekend stay which who knows if they did and basically were able to make double profit from our site. I obviously don’t know that for sure but that is the other side of it. Except we did pay full price for that site and we’re out a lot more money because of our breakdown. Sometimes sites are empty because of circumstances out of a camper’s control. Making prices higher and no refunds just makes those risks higher and more costly.
I’d be fine with getting a refund if the site was rebooked and not getting a refund if it isn’t. I’d really like to know how many no shows are because people are just being disrespectful jerks and how many are just out of people’s control. If you’ve paid full price for a site and then circumstances prevent you from going, and there is no refund, then there is even less of an incentive to call and cancel. If I’m not getting a refund and the campground fills the spot then I lose out and it’s their gain. I know that’s not always the case but it’s just the fact of the matter. Now if I only paid a deposit and got no refund that seems like a better compromise.
I understand the money issues for parks and a number of people have posted good ideas to deal with that. The issue I don’t see included is that many of these campsites are on public land, which belongs to all of us, and people should be considerate. If you can’t, or won’t, use the reserved site, cancel. If you are too selfish to share the site that you can’t, or won’t, use…. there should be consequences for repeat or consistent offenders.
Cell service does not exist everywhere, how are people suppose to call and cancel, perhaps because of vehicle problems?
I like the suggestion by “Bob” above and “Billinois” below. Seems to me the positive approach or incentive approach is more doable than the punitive. Reward is better than penalty to change behavior. (Ever train an animal?). Bob’s suggestion is a positive approach with a penalty clause for bad behavior or an incentive for good behavior. Easier to manage and encourages rather than discourages disregard for fellow campers.
There does need to be some sort of allowance for mechanical or accident delays – yours or someone else’s. A cell phone call directly to the campground would alert them to your current situation and plan.
Problem is with the call that not all campgrounds have direct lines and often even if you get the ranger they tell you camp-hosts take care of check-ins and reservations. Often makes it difficult to call when delayed and/or broken down somewhere.
I’m not sure if there is answer to this problem. As long as there are dishonest and uncaring people, it will continue to be a problem. All I know is that, many years ago, the national park I frequented operated on a first come first served basis and finding a campsite was rarely an issue. However, when they started taking reservations it was all but impossible to get a site, and that was many years ago. Since then, seemingly everyone in the nation has purchased an RV.
These are all great ideas! However they are all for naught unless the campground owners/operators perceive that no shows/empty sites are a problem and want to implement changes to their reservation system.
Exactly, Eric! NYS Dept. of Environmental Conservation runs all the campgrounds in the Adirondack park, where we live. Despite being fully booked, half the sites sit empty in our way too short camping season. When you reserve it says you must occupy the site the first night or lose it. Well, clearly, that is not happening. Either there aren’t enough staff to do the daily inventory of sites (they don’t have campground hosts) or the reservation system never puts the vacant sites back on the system. Or, they don’t really care!
Each reservation should be tied to a license plate.
I like the double the fee to reserve and refund half upon arrival.
I like the double the fee. Provided the campers credit card is charged double up front and not just on hold until they show.
Yeah, so then camping is for the rich I guess. I don’t like any of that. Why should the less fortunate pay the penalty for bad people.
I read these newsletters each week. So it’s in the forefront of my mind that crowding is an issue. Even as newly retired folks, I still plan well in advance. That was until now.
Wanted to spend part of the summer in Oregon where my sister lives. They have a perfect spot for us on their property. But getting there had to revolve around their schedule that was very turbulent in May/June.
On May 24th, my sister told me that they would be home in June 3rd. So the next day we left Missouri to head west. As I drove, my wife worked on getting spots for us along the route. I imagined a most unpleasant journey west.
Surprisingly, she was able to easily get us spots along the way by calling campgrounds where we wanted to stop. This included the Memorial Day weekend. We did stay in the state of Wyoming a total of five nights around the holiday.
We’re going to utilize the same tactic for our return trip next week. Maybe we are snaring up sites that the gamers gave up.
On my last trip I noticed more and more campgrounds calling me the day before or the morning of my scheduled check-in to ensure I still plan to arrive and about what time I plan on arriving.
As boondockers we see a similar problem with people setting up tents in spots just to hold it until they arrive. We have seen sites unused for a week but the tent is there. This is especially bad in Crested butte where it is impossible to find an open site for an rv. Empty tents are in many sites. The forest service needs to figure out a way to stop this.
I have heard from some avid tent campers that camping during their summer vacations has become impossible. They are fed up with empty tents not being used just to hold a spot. They have seen cut up empty tents in pieces and arranged the pieces in a smiley face. I guess there are others with the same issue. That’s a bit over the top but it is getting to be impossible out there especially for teachers and students wanting to camp during their vacations.
Well, if people are already paying for a spot but just aren’t using it yet then the campground isn’t out anything. I know my brother has done this for my parents as the campground by them has no reservations and my parents needed a spot for when they arrived for the weekend. The alternative is they they don’t have a spot and no place for their camper. You may see it as a problem for you to get a spot but there is a flip side that you are totally missing.
Michigan State Parks require full payment in advance (including the nonrefundable booking fee) and have a pretty steep fee for cancellation (a $10 fee plus a sliding scale of 10 to 40% depending on how close your cancellation is to arrival date). In addition, if you don’t show up within 24 hours of your reserved date, the reservation is cancelled.
I have read this topic with mostly amazement. I understand people being upset if they cannot get into a preferred campground, but getting so upset because someone did not show for a reservation they paid for is a little over the top. I have had season tickets for a sports team and did not show for all the games, but that seat is still my paid reserved seat. I have also paid for a RV site year round and was not there every night. It was still my site, even if it was empty. Why I was not at the sports event, or campground should not be of anyone’s concern. The site is the person who paid for it, for the days they paid for, period. Being mad because you did not get the reservation and someone else did and for an unknown reason could not make it seems like a waste of a lot of good energy to me. Are you also the person who lays on their horn in a parking lot, because I’m not getting out of my parking space fast enough for you? Don’t worry, I avoid the popular campgrounds.
You are missing the point. Most of these sites are not paid for in advance. A family vacation is not the same as a baseball game.
I agree with your reserved PAID spot, provided it was paid in full JUST LIKE your season tickets. Therefore, it should be no one’s elses business. Again, PAID in full spot. Great for the park. Now to bring peace to the spectators. Perhaps the park could leave a posted sign indicating RESERVED with the dates indicated. Then Everyone’s business would be solved. “Love your brother as yourself.”.
So you are full of yourself and proud of all your money that you can afford season tickets and bragging about it. No, Campgrounds and sports teams are not the same. Sports teams are owned privately by individuals or corporations. They are a profit making enterprise selling a product. Campgrounds, at least the ones I go to, are supported by Federal, State and local governments by the taxes that citizens pay. I camp 90% in state parks, mostly my home state. I bought a used car last year and I paid $1200 in sales tax for buying a used car in my state. I pay income tax in my state. I pay way too much sales tax in addition to real estate tax on 2 properties in this state. Trust me, those beautiful state parks here are not established, maintained, staffed and remodeled solely on the fees that they receive for camping.
So you, with your selfish entitled attitude, expect to pay a paltry fee per night for many, many nights and decide to be able to call that camping spot your own. I can see your point if you are staying entirely in a privately owned campground but if you are staying in state parks, county parks, city parks, BLM land, Army Corp of Engineers sites, NFS sites, your logic is flawed. Collectively for state parks, county parks, city parks, BLM land, Army Corp of Engineers sites, NFS sites, these were set up and are currently maintained by a collective contribution via taxes by a large group of people. Your comment reeks of me, me, me, me. I’m glad you have a shrine that you can worship each day devoted to yourself.
This is a BIG problem. As a full-timer I like to book a site for a week but this summer I have been constantly told that Friday and Saturday are booked full. If the campgrounds have sites sitting empty they need to fix that. Hurt these people in the wallet and this practice will end.
Yeah, and you talk about hurting people on the wallet which means you’ll also be hurting the less fortunate as well. I don’t agree will acceptable friendly fire. Camping shouldn’t be for the rich and we’ll off.
As I sit here reading this there are 3 prime empty camp sites directly in front of me at San Elijo in Cardiff by the sea. Probably one of the most sought after campgrounds in Reserve California. We play by the rules and luckily got 2 nights 2 days prior because of the cancelled lock button. We got lucky, very lucky. It’s infuriating to see these empty sites when so many would be grateful to camp here. There are many other empty sites here too. I think because of their low $7.99 booking fee and camp prices and 24 hour full refund policy people just grab up every site 6 months in advance. They paid for the site so whether they use it or not is probably a moot point, what if it was a hotel room would you be required to occupy it every night? On the plus side (selfishly) for me we now have an unobstructed ocean view, but yeah I agree if people don’t show by 5 p.m. Or call to say they’re running late. RELEASE THE SITE.
In regards to Cheating the reservation system. We have reservations this coming week in Trout Lake, WA. I was told upfront that there is zero refund for cancelation. First time I’ve been told that.
I always mention the AZ state Parks system where you pay entire fee upfront an get a full refund for canceling. However we still see empty sites. I suport releasing the site after 24 hours but the Parks lacking in staff don’t have the time to do this paperwork. I’m not sure why camp hosts can’t do it.