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It's Not So Easy This Year to Get Yourself Lodging

By Elissa Leibowitz Poma
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, May 25, 2008

Over the past few years, visitors to U.S. national parks have been able to land last-minute lodging with relative ease. This summer? Not so simple.

Taking advantage of the weak dollar, international travelers have been descending upon the most popular parks in greater numbers than usual, according to park lodging officials. And by most accounts, Americans are opting for close-to-home getaways instead of heading overseas. That means more competition for the rooms at the park you want to visit.

So what if you want to visit a national park this summer but haven't made reservations? These tips could help get you into the wild.

· Book now. Many park lodges sell out months in advance, but you may get lucky. Check with the parks (links available at http://www.nps.gov) to see how far out you can book, then reserve when the rooms are up for grabs. Or . . .

· . . . Take advantage of last-minute cancellations. Tour operators book rooms far in advance; if a tour doesn't fill, they release spare rooms 30 days before it starts. Keep in mind, though, that this tactic will be tougher to use this summer. Tours are especially popular, and fewer rooms are being released, says Kevin Dillman, director of central reservations for Xanterra, which handles lodging at a handful of national parks. Still, monitor park Web sites for such last-minute spots.

· Stay at lodges farther from the park's main attractions. At the Grand Canyon, for example, many visitors want rooms at the historic, 78-room El Tovar Hotel on the South Rim, whereas the 278-room, motel-style Maswik Lodge a quarter-mile away often has better availability, Dillman says.

· Just show up. It's a bold move, but travelers can sometimes nab a bed courtesy of a last-minute cancellation or a no-show. Rooms are generally released around 4 or 6 p.m. This is a greater gamble at a big-name park like Yosemite, which saw 3.5 million visitors in 2007, than at Texas's Big Bend, which had 365,000 tourists.

· Visit during the summer's shoulder seasons. Early June and September have fewer visitors, thus lodging is easier to come by.

· Pitch a tent. For around $20 a night, you can have your own slab of land. Some campsites accept reservations, while many others are first-come, first-served. Go to the campsite early on the day you want to stay over to reserve your spot and have cash in hand; most don't accept plastic. Check the park's Web site or the National Park Reservation Service (800-365-2267, http://www.recreation.gov), which books spots at dozens of parks.

· Look for interesting options. Just because you're visiting a national park doesn't mean you have to stay in a cabin, hotel or lodge. What about a tepee on a cattle ranch? The Grand Canyon West Ranch (800-359-8727, http://www.grandcanyonranch.com), along the western rim in Meadview, Ariz., has those for $109 a night, including meals. B&Bs, such as the Windwhisper B&B (435-648-2162, http://www.windwhisperbb.com; from $89) in Glendale, Utah, midway between Zion and Bryce Canyon national parks, are also popular. Check area tourism bureaus for ideas.

· Be persistent. Rooms become available and quickly re-book. Dillman says that most online reservation systems operate in real time, so as soon as a room is canceled, it should show up on the lodge's Web site. Check often.

· Consider alternate parks. If you absolutely can't get a room near Yellowstone, consider Sequoia National Park. Shenandoah could be an alternate to Great Smoky Mountains.

* * *

If you can't get a room when and where you want it for this summer season, there's always next year. Here are few pointers for planning purposes.

· Avoid weekends. Rooms, cabins and campsites -- both in and outside the parks -- fill quicker during weekends.

· Check the calendar. As soon as you have your 2009 vacation date and destination in mind, check whether there are any major events around the time of your visit. For instance, Aug. 3-9 may be a bad time for a family holiday at Mount Rushmore in South Dakota, when thousands of motorcyclists will gather nearby for the 69th annual Sturgis Rally.

· Make a reservation, even if your plans aren't definite. This is important at remote and popular parks. You can always cancel your room, with proper notice, if you don't go.

For more information, contact the National Park Service (202-208-6843, http://www.nps.gov) or the National Park Foundation (202-354-6460, http://www.nationalparks.org).

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