Making a lodging reservation at a national park these days is almost child's play. A few clicks on your keyboard and you're booked and your credit card charged. But there are some tips and tricks to keep in mind when making your plans that could save you a bit down the road.
First and foremost, unless you're joining a tour group, make your lodging reservations directly with the concessionaire, whether that's ARAMARK, Delaware North, Forever Resorts, Glacier Park, Inc., Guest Services, Inc., or Xanterra Parks and Resorts (See below for a list of parks they operate in). Third-party reservation services can help you land a room, but they also assess a fee, that's often non-refundable, for that service, something you don't encounter when dealing directly with a lodging concessionaire.
Another suggestion: While the state of the economy is expected to result in greater availability across the National Park System this summer, it's still a good idea to lock in your reservation as soon as you know your travel dates. Plus, with many cancellation policies requiring only 24 hours' notice to receive a full refund, what you book today can always be canceled before you hit the road if need be.
Also, as has been mentioned elsewhere on the Traveler, reserve your booking with a credit card if at all possible, not a check, in case something happens on the concessionaire's side of the reservation.
If you're returning to a park that you've previously visited, you probably know where you want to stay and what to expect. But if you're going into the unknown, you'll want to do your research before booking a room. That's where the beauty of the Internet comes in. Not only can you visit the various concessionaire websites and get their selling points, but you can visit unaffiliated sites for their take on the accommodations.
Over at Historic Hotels & Lodges, you can find straight-forward information, some opinions and observations, and a plethora of photos and even virtual tours, of some national park lodges and their accommodations.
Another good resource for details, but no opinions, on lodgings is The Complete Guide to National Park Lodges. This has been a labor of love for David and Kay Scott, and they've done a great job providing the lay of the lodging landscape.
If you're flexible when it comes to travel, you often can increase your options, as some folks who make plans far in advance often cancel, creating last-minute openings that you can jump on. Tour operators often block out large numbers of rooms with hopes of filling them, and when they don't they release rooms back to the parks, which also creates unexpected vacancies. Since these decisions have to be made 30 days out from the tour groups' scheduled arrival, you might stumble across a vacancy by checking 29 or 30 days before you want to visit a specific park.
Some more hints from the folks at Xanterra: "Regardless of which park you are visiting, consider traveling during the first two weeks of June, the last 10 days of August or the first two weeks of September. Families with schoolchildren are either winding down after the end of school or gearing up for the beginning of school, so those periods – although still considered peak season – are a little slower than the rest of the summer. Additionally, individual parks have unique soft spots. For example, Yellowstone has considerable availability during the entire month of May and late August through the end of the season in mid-October."
Another bonus with some concessionaires is that when you book your lodging reservation you often can also make a dinner reservation. There's nothing that can throw a kink into your vacation like showing up outside the dining room at the Old Faithful Inn without a reservation at 6 p.m. and learning the first opening isn't until 9 p.m.
Many concessionaire websites also let you book activities, which is another time-saving device, one that will give you peace of mind knowing that when you reach the park you'll be able to enjoy the activities you want to enjoy. More and more concessionaires also are offering package deals that combine lodgings with activities. Look for those on websites, as they often can save you some money.
Check concessionaire websites regularly for additional special packages that are added throughout the year. With the state of the economy, if the summer travel season starts slowly, more packages could pop up. Also, sign up for their e-newsletters, as often they'll send out special promotions only to those on their newsletter lists.
And if you're truly a gypsy, sometimes you can just show up in a park lodge and find a room for the night. "Travelers who arrive between noon and 6 p.m. often find last-minute rooms available. Once in a park, the front desk at any lodge can check availability for all rooms within the park," say the folks at Xanterra.
As for those places without park lodges, such as Acadia National Park, Cape Cod National Seashore, Cape Hatteras National Seashore, etc, etc, etc, there are plenty of property management companies more than happy to take your money. You can find these businesses simply by Googling the park's name and "lodging" or 'rentals." Or, some park websites actually provide links to local chambers of commerce, where you can find lodging information.
If you go this route it's always good to start in the winter for the following summer, but again, in this economy, it might not be too late to line up a nice cottage or cabin for this summer. And in light of the economy, it wouldn't hurt to try to negotiate a lower price.
These days you also can book a campsite on the Internet, via this site.
Concessionaires and Their Parks
ARAMARK Parks and Resorts[/url]: Denali NP--McKinley Chalet Resort, Grande Denali Lodge, McKinley Village Lodge, Denali Bluffs Hotel; Shenandoah NP--Big Meadows Lodge, Skyland Resort, Lewis Mountain Cabins; Olympic NP--Kalaloch Lodge, Lake Quinault Lodge; Glen Canyon NRA-houseboats; Mesa Verde NP-Far View Lodge; Glacier Bay NP-Glacier Bay Lodge.
Delaware North Companies Parks and Resorts: Yosemite NP--Curry Village, The Ahwahnee Hotel, Yosemite Lodge at the Falls, Wawona Hotel, White Wolf tent cabins, Tuolumne Meadows tent cabins, High Sierra camps, Housekeeping Camp; Sequoia NP--Wuksachi Lodge.
Forever Resorts: Grand Teton NP-Signal Mountain Lodge; Isle Royale NP-Rock Harbor Lodge; Grand Canyon NP-Grand Canyon Lodge, North Rim; Lake Mead NRA-RV Village; Olympic NP-Lake Crescent Lodge; Mammoth Cave NP-Mammoth Cave Hotel; Blue Ridge Parkway-- Bluff Lodge, Rocky Knob Cabins; Padre Island National Seashore--Padre Island Park Co; Big Bend NP--Big Bend Resorts; Badlands NP--Cedar Pass Lodge.
Glacier Park, Inc: Glacier NP -- Lake McDonald Lodge, Many Glacier Hotel, Rising Sun Motor Inn, Swiftcurrent Motor Inn, Village Inn at Apgar, Glacier Park Lodge and Resort.
Guest Services, Inc.: Mount Rainier NP--National Park Inn, Paradise Inn.
Xanterra Parks & Resorts: Yellowstone NP--Mammoth Hotel and Cabins, Canyon Lodge and Cabins, Lake Yellowstone Hotel and Cabins, Lake Lodge Cabins, Roosevelt Lodge Cabins, Old Faithful Inn, Old Faithful Lodge Cabins, Old Faithful Snow Lodge, Grant Village; Bryce Canyon NP--Bryce Canyon Lodge; Zion NP--Zion Lodge; Crater Lake NP--Crater Lake Lodge and Mazama Village Motor Inn; Death Valley NP--Furnace Creek Inn, Furnace Creek Ranch, Stovepipe Wells Village; Grand Canyon NP-South Rim, Maswick Lodge, Thunderbird Lodge, Yavapi Lodge, El Tovar Hotel, Bright Angel Lodge, Trailer Village, Phantom Ranch.