National park lodging is frequently in short supply, especially during busy summer seasons when most of us choose to travel. As discussed earlier this month on the Traveler, the shortage results primarily from an increasing number of travelers chasing a limited number of guest rooms that have remained essentially unchanged for decades.
Although it can be quite difficult to get into a room at Old Faithful Inn, Many Glacier Hotel, Yosemite Lodge, and El Tovar during high season, there are ways to improve your chances of bagging a reservation at a national park lodge.
The most obvious strategy is to begin the reservation process early. The earlier you attempt to book, the more likely an opening will be available. It isn’t unusual for many rooms at popular lodges to be taken a year ahead.
Glacier Park, Inc., concessionaire for all but one of the lodges in Montana’s Glacier National Park, opened 2013 reservations on Valentine’s Day 2012. Alicia Thompson, the company’s director of marketing and business relations, recommends booking 12 to 16 months in advance in order to guarantee the lodge and dates you desire, especially if you are set on staying at Many Glacier Hotel.
When considering an early booking, keep in mind that cancellation penalties vary among lodge operators. Some concessionaires charge only a small fee or none at all to change or cancel a reservation unless it occurs very near the scheduled arrival.
For example, Xanterra Parks & Resorts, concessionaire for the nine Yellowstone lodges, as well as some in Grand Canyon National Park, Crater Lake National Park, Death Valley National Park, and Zion National Park, requires only a 48-hour notice for a full deposit refund.
Likewise, Kentucky’s Mammoth Cave Hotel, operated by Forever Resorts, requires only a two-day notice for a full refund. At Glacier Bay Lodge in Alaska, concessionaire ARAMARK requires advance payment at the time of booking and subjects travelers to a 100 percent penalty for cancellations inside 14 days of scheduled arrival. That's understandable, in that it takes a good deal of effort to reach the lodge and there's no real drive-up business.
Rock Harbor Lodge in Isle Royale National Park, also managed by Forever Resorts, offers a refund of 90 percent of the required deposit (one night’s lodging) for cancellations at least five days prior to the scheduled arrival.
Understanding a concessionaire’s cancellation policy can prove important even when you are unwilling or unable to book many months in advance. For example, if a concessionaire requires a 30-day cancellation for a full refund (often less a service fee), a good option is to call or check the concessionaire’s web site 30 days prior to your desired arrival in hopes of snagging a cancelled room.
Another obvious tactic is to avoid travel during major holidays such as Memorial Day, July 4, and Labor Day. Lodges and campgrounds are typically busting at the seams during these periods when everyone seems to want to travel in order to get in an extra day or two of vacation that includes a paid holiday. On the other hand, choosing to travel immediately following major holidays can be a real help in bagging a room according to Bruce Brossman, director of reservations and sales for Grand Canyon South Rim.
Choosing the off-season is nearly always helpful in getting into a national park lodge. Even popular historic lodges such as El Tovar at the Grand Canyon and The Ahwahnee in Yosemite are likely to have available rooms during the winter season. Mr. Brossman indicated that late-August to early September is a particulaly good time to book a room at Grand Canyon’s South Rim.
Another way to increase your odds of successfully booking a room is to remain flexible with regard to travel dates. This doesn’t mean avoiding the summer and traveling only in the fall, winter, or spring. It does suggest some flexibility within a particular month. It is more effective to plan a trip around dates during which rooms are available than to limit yourself to a two-week window during when you must locate a room. An additional advantage to planning well in advance is that you are more likely to be able to schedule your vacation when rooms are available.
Flexibility applies not only to the dates of a trip, but also the particular lodge in which you are willing to stay. Large parks such as Yellowstone, Olympic, Glacier, and the Grand Canyon have multiple lodges that fill at different times. While rooms may be unavailable at Old Faithful Inn, you may have luck locating a room at one of the park’s other eight lodges, two of which are in the Old Faithful area. Likewise, if the South Rim’s El Tovar and Bright Angel Lodge are fully booked, try for a room at either Yavapai or Maswik, two large complexes that tend to fill last. At Glacier National Park, try for a room at Swiftcurrent Motor Inn if nearby Many Glacier Hotel is full.
Rick Hoeninghausen, director of marketing and sales for Yellowstone National Park Lodges since 1998, suggests travelers first nail down a reservation, even if it involves stays at more than a single lodge. After guaranteeing a place to stay, attempt to alter the reservation more to your liking as the arrival date approaches and tour companies and other travelers cancel reservations. All nine Yellowstone lodges operate on the same reservation system so book a room in Canyon, the park’s largest lodging facility, and check each morning during your stay to see if a room has opened up at Old Faithful Inn, Mammoth Hotel, or Roosevelt.
We have made reservation changes on several occasions when we were unable to get our first lodging choice during the initial reservation process. If a room with a private bathroom at Yosemite’s Wawona is unavailable, accept a room without a private bath (these generally go last even though they are much less expensive) and continue checking back to see if a room with a bath has opened up.
Perhaps most important, don’t give up. Park lodges, even those in high demand, continually open up as reservations are cancelled. Be online at the right time and a room is yours. One summer we were on the road for nearly a month before being able to book a room at Yosemite Lodge. We accomplished this while staying at Wuksachi Lodge in Sequoia three days before we wanted to visit Yosemite Valley.
Beware of reservation services that charge a fee, often nonrefundable. Official lodge concessionaires operate their own reservation services and don’t charge an extra fee for making a reservation. Most concessionaires make their room inventory viewable on their web site, so going through a third party is unlikely to help in obtaining a room.
One last note for those of you considering a visit to Glacier National Park: We mentioned in the March 17 article that work on Many Glacier Hotel would continue through the summer of 2012, thus making nearly half the hotel’s rooms unavailable for travelers. We have been informed by alert reader Alicia Thompson of Glacier Park, Inc. that work on the hotel commenced in 2010, not 2011, and would be completed by the beginning of the 2012 season. Things are looking up.