Just How Accurate Are National Park Concessionaires' On-Line Reservation Sites?

Landing a room at the Old Faithful Inn in Yellowstone can be tricky, especially if you put your faith into the concessionaire's on-line reservations site. David and Kay Scott photo.

It's that time of year when you should be planning your national park getaways for the year, particularly if you need to reserve a room or a campsite. But just how accurate are those on-line reservation sites?

I ask because the other day I went to Xanterra Parks & Resort's website for Yellowstone National Park. It was only the third week of January, and I figured finding a room at the Old Faithful Inn wouldn't be too terribly hard. I should have known better, as last year when I looked on January 29 there was nothing in the Old Faithful complex and I had to settle for a room at Grant Village (more on that later), which is a great location if you're paddling Yellowstone Lake, but the ambience simply can't compare to Old Faithful.

So I was somewhat hopeful when I logged onto Xanterra's page and went to book two rooms at the inn. Well, it took the site about 5 seconds to inform me there was not a room to be had at the inn in August. Or, for that matter, June, July and all but one day in September.

Thinking this might not be right, I called the reservations desk. The clerk quickly found me two rooms with queen beds, but the community bathroom was down the hall. I asked if there was anything else. She checked, and came up with two accessible rooms, with queen beds and full baths. Now, we didn't need accessible rooms, and told her I didn't want to take a room from someone who might really need it. She told me that if someone did need an accessible room for those dates, they would place me in "an equal room type." That left us both wondering if a number of rooms is held out of the reservations pool for just this situation.

Anyway, the point I'm driving home is that on-line sites aren't 100 percent accurate. Another point well worth remembering is that, should you not find a room in your desired location, you should check back every few weeks. Last year, when I called the reservations desk back to make dinner reservations for our stay in Yellowstone, I casually asked if, by chance, there were any rooms available in the Old Faithful Inn. Amazingly, there were, and we were able to relocate from Grant Village to Old Faithful.

What experiences have you had, travelers, with national park lodging websites?

Comments

Your experience is pretty typical for any travel type of reservations. Its not that the sites are inaccurate, its part of the booking optimization process.

I had a similar experience recently while trying to reserve a room at the Chisos Mountains Lodge within Big Bend National Park. The online calendar showed rooms available, and yet when I tried to book for the last week of April, I was told there wasn't anything available. I finally called to speak to a real person and she told me that there was one day during my proposed stay when there was no room available. It would have been nice if I could just have been shown which day was unavailable online, rather than being told there was nothing at all available for me during my entire stay. So, I've managed a workaround, spending one night in Marathon before heading into the park for the remainder of my stay. It also does help to check back periodically online; I did that for yucks and giggles and found a Casa Grande room available (which is what I originally wanted, but had settled for a different unit during my first reservation). I then called their reservations desk to verify the available room and they switched me to the new room.

From my experience, every concessionaire is different, but one thing is always true: People often change their minds at the last minute and rooms DO become available. These past three years, as a lecturer in Zion National Park, my room has been at the lodge. Generally, a couple of rooms have opened up early in the day, and occasionally a room or two is still available until 4 or 5 pm. The best thing to do is call the lodge itself. Believe me, the lodge wants them filled. All they need is your credit card number. They're wonderful folks, by the way, as I have found in all of the lodges. If you are also flexible with your dates (another hint: the last two weeks of August are often volatile for reservations, as families discover they forgot to get the kids ready for school), you will find something that fits your needs. I rarely take what the computer says for an answer; the online system is best used as a guide. Indeed, I cannot list the many times I have slipped into Old Faithful Inn, El Tovar, Crater Lake Lodge, Glacier Park Lodge, etc., by calling within a few days of my arrival and remaining flexible. That said, now you folks will probably be getting my room!

I'm happy to read this on National Parks Traveler and have had the very same experiences with Xanterra's website vs. phone line over the years.

I can only add that, especially for Old Faithful Inn, you should book a year or more in advance of your visit. However, I’ve sometimes reserved elsewhere and then had good luck calling a day or two before I needed a room and learning that a cancellation has created an opening. With Xanterra you can usually cancel just the day before and not lose your money.