Vacations to national parks should be special, memorable, bonding, active, relaxing, affordable and more. Because many parks are located in remote areas and accommodations inside them are sometimes limited, planning these vacations is not the same as that spontaneous trip to a resort or amusement park.
Concessioner Xanterra Parks & Resorts, operator of lodges, restaurants, activities and gift stores in several national parks, offers the following tips for planning and booking vacations.
1. For the best lodging choices, make your reservations in advance. After emphasizing increased capacity from the mid-1950s through the mid-1960s, parks have seen the number of overnight accommodations available to the public remain stable. The result is that travelers have learned to reserve their rooms and cabins early. In Grand Canyon National Park, Xanterra begins accepting reservations the first of the month for that month the following year. In Yellowstone, the company accepts reservations in May for the following summer.
2. But don’t assume everything is sold out. Because some vacationers make their plans far in advance, they often have to change or cancel existing reservations. Be as flexible as possible with travel dates and choice of lodging and you stand a better chance of getting a room.
3. Be persistent. Rooms open up – and are often very quickly re-booked – every day. The quickest way to check availability is by going to the web site and following the link for reservations. Bookmark the web site and check it frequently to see if rooms have become available.
4. Be web-savvy. The quickest way to secure national park lodge rooms is to book them online. Lodges managed by concessioner Xanterra Parks & Resorts are easy to book, and room availability is listed in real time. Websites are www.grandcanyonlodges.com, www.yellowstonenationalparklodges.com, www.zionlodge.com, www.craterlakelodges.com and www.furnacecreekresort.com (Death Valley).
5. Choose your “dream” lodge, but resolve to be flexible. In Yellowstone, Crater Lake and Grand Canyon National Parks, the first lodges to sell out are typically the historic ones such as Crater Lake Lodge, Old Faithful Inn and El Tovar. There are already some summer 2013 dates that are sold out in these locations. If rooms aren’t available at your first choice, look for other lodge choices or even different dates. Even if guests cannot find rooms at their first-choice lodges, they can always experience those lodges by dining and relaxing there. And remember that rooms do sometimes open up later due to cancellations by other guests, so it is possible to switch lodges later.
6. Book activities and make dinner reservations. Dining rooms do fill, so if you want a meal in one of the lodges, plan ahead. Popular activities like the Old West Cookout at Yellowstone’s Roosevelt Lodge fill up fast too. Phone numbers can be easily found on all Xanterra web sites.
7. Travel during the first two weeks of June, the last two weeks 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.
8. For the best room choices, it helps to know a little about booking patterns. At Grand Canyon and Yellowstone lodges, for example, there is often more availability in May and October. And sometimes at the Grand Canyon there are also soft spots during the first two weeks of June, last 10 days of August and first two weeks of September. There is also typically more availability mid-week versus weekends.
9. Watch out for third-party reservations web sites that charge a non-refundable fee to make reservations at in-park lodges. Xanterra’s reservations services are free. These third-party sites also can be misleading in other ways. The best way to avoid paying extra fees is to book directly with Xanterra.
10. Look for packages. Yellowstone has introduced a series of value-focused Summer Adventure Packages combining lodging, some meals and variety of activities such as guided hikes and scenic boat cruises of Yellowstone Lake. Grand Canyon Railway in Williams, Ariz. offers a variety of packages including the Canyon Discovery Plus, with lodging in Williams as well as at the Grand Canyon South Rim, coach class train travel to and from the Canyon and some meals.