The only thing I hate more than needing campground reservations is making them. It's an exercise in frustration that seems to be getting worse every year.
We prefer to travel at a leisurely pace that allows for spontaneity. We avoid any commitments more than a few days or a week into the future. Unless you are a super-organized traveler who enjoys having a schedule, you probably feel the same. But there are times when there's no option other than reserving months in advance. Or is there?
Three Creative Solutions
#1 - Arrive without a reservation
Each of the following scenarios has worked for us in popular campgrounds in peak season - at least for one night. Once in, you may be in a better position to address subsequent nights. (A little schmoozing with the campground's office staff doesn't hurt.) You need to be prepared to move on or keep switching campsites daily if necessary but, with a little luck, you might be able to stay in a popular park in prime season for a week or more, once you're in.
First-come, first-served sites
Many popular campgrounds actually keep a small number of first-come, first-served sites and they don't necessarily advertise this anywhere. We've managed to get a site this way in peak season at a couple of county-run campgrounds on Southern California's coast, and also at Algonquin Provincial Park in Ontario. The trick is to arrive early in the day and don't expect it to be a prime site.
Several state parks along the southern California coast offer what they call "Enroute parking" - basically a parking lot and not much more. We've seen similar in other parks and again, it's usually not advertised. You may need to be in a self-contained RV, have limited access to amenities, and possibly pay the same rate as a campsite. But it gives travelers an option when they just need to stop for the night.
The larger the campground, the more chance they'll have at least one or two no-shows. Some campgrounds have a policy that a campsite is forfeited if not occupied by a certain time, so you may be able to snag that site. You'll need to arrive late in the day (but just before the office closes) to luck into this situation.
Last-minute cancellations or early check-outs
These can happen any time of day and you just have to be in the right place at the right time. The best day of the week is a little easier to predict - usually, a Friday (when weekend stays are scheduled to start) or any day when it's raining or bad weather is forecasted.
The type of campground also plays a role. A privately-owned campground with a significant number of campsites but where reservations and cancellations are all handled on-site by phone is a great bet. If they use an online reservation system, a campsite may be rebooked again before the staff are even aware it was canceled. Cancellations are the best scenario if you want a campsite for several days without the need to constantly move to another.
Share a site
Possibly the most sought-after campsites in North America are in Yosemite Valley, where getting a reservation is nearly impossible any time of year. But we've successfully camped there using this tactic more than once. We've been on both the giving and receiving end of it.
Yosemite Valley doles out canceled sites through a daily lottery. At a certain time of day, interested parties gather at the office, hoping to win the draw to use a canceled slot. We did not win the lottery but a young couple we made friends with while waiting in line did. We had picked the right people to chat with; they were happy to oblige when we offered to pay the camping fee in exchange for sharing the site. We registered both campers so the park had no objection.
Here we are with the couple who generously shared their lottery-won Yosemite Vally campsite with us.
We're certainly not the only ones with this idea.
That same year, this couple approached us to ask if we would share.
Later, in one of Yosemite's high-country campgrounds where all sites are first-come, first-served, we had secured our campsite early in the day. A few hours later, the campground was full and a couple approached us to ask if we would mind sharing. They were happy to follow the rule we had just made up - that the person who is asking to join, pays the camping fee. So we camped for free and made new friends at the same time. Bonus!
Of course, for this to work, ideally both parties should be in a small RV or a tent. Some campgrounds also limit the number of people on a site so single or couple travelers will have better luck. And, if approached, don't be afraid to say no – it's your prerogative. We once did – to a carload of 6 teenyboppers with rap music already blaring.
#2 - Book smaller, privately-owned campgrounds
There are thousands of family-run small campgrounds in America, many with an atmosphere and charm hard to find in larger chain operations or more commercially-driven businesses. Without national advertising campaigns, they're more likely to have sites available after others are booked solid. But without the help of a website like Expedia, finding, comparing, and booking a site at these campgrounds has not been an easy task.
Remember the days before Expedia, Travelocity, and VRBO existed? If you needed a flight, a hotel, a car rental, or any combination of the above you went to a travel agent. Even if you're prepared to do the legwork on your own, be prepared to spend a whole day searching, reading reviews, comparing prices, and phoning to check availability.
RoverPass was created to solve this problem with easy-to-use free software for campgrounds to use, along with online travel agents to help RVers who subscribe to their service. There is a fee but, just like with Expedia, booking through RoverPass often allows for a slightly better campsite rate than the regularly advertised price. Campgrounds benefit from the free reservation service so they don't mind giving a discount to visitors who use it.
Travelers pay a small fee to use RoverPass but, if you're a frequent traveler, you can tailor your cost to be quite affordable. Cost is $7.50 for an individual booking, $30 for a month of unlimited use, or $50.00 for a whole year of unlimited use. You can search and see the details of 20,000 campgrounds in their database before you subscribe, 6,000 of which you can reserve through the site. (Roverpass forwards your request and it requires confirmation before it's finalized.) At the moment, they only have listings in the USA. We hope to see them expand into Canada soon.
#3 - Be first to know about cancellations
How can you be first in line when there's a cancellation? You could keep the campground's online reservation page open, continually refreshing the page, and be ready to pounce as soon as you see an opening. Sounds like work. But now there's an app that will do this for you!
Campnab constantly scans sold-out parks for cancellations. It then notifies you of openings in the parks you're interested in, via text message. Based in Canada, and still expanding, you can currently use the Campnab app to request cancellation notifications for national park campgrounds in the USA and Canada, and provincial parks in British Columbia and Ontario.
You'll still need to reserve directly with the campground but you'll have the advantage of knowing about a cancellation the moment it happens (without sitting at the computer yourself). But short of building a bunch of new campgrounds, we think this is the best solution yet for the campsite supply and demand problem. We LOVE it.
I hope I've given you a few new ideas. If you have others, please comment to tell us about them.