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