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Reserving at a National Park? Know Your Source

Some Web sites seem to represent the park service or its concessionaires but actually link to companies that charge hefty fees.

July 07, 2002|JANE ENGLE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The Internet site for "National Park Reservations" I logged onto last week looked official. It had pictures of park scenery and lodges and listed a toll-free number that offered this recorded message: "Thank you for calling National Park Reservations. Your call may be monitored for quality assurance. Please remain on the line, and a reservation specialist will be with you momentarily."

But this is not the Web site or phone of the National Park Service or any of its concessionaires. Instead it's a Montana-based business that charges customers 10% of the room cost to make a reservation at national park lodges--a service that major lodges at the most popular parks provide for free (or nearly free, if you count phone charges).

There are many similar Web sites, often linked to one another, with official-sounding addresses like www.parkreservations.com, www.americanparks.net and www .yellowstoneres.com. Some charge reservation fees; others don't. Some don't even book lodges within the parks, only in nearby communities.

All share a common trait: They can be mistaken for the Internet sites of the park service or its concessionaires.

"We're constantly being confused with other Web sites ... that make people think they are talking to us," says Judi Lages, Denver-based vice president of sales and marketing for Xanterra Parks & Resorts (formerly Amfac), an official concessionaire that contracts with the park service to run lodges at seven national parks, including the Grand Canyon and Yellowstone.

Linda Stolling, reservations manager for Yosemite Concession Services, which runs lodging at Yosemite National Park, reports similar confusion among customers.

Operators of such Web sites say they aren't trying to deceive people and that they are providing a service, worth the fee, for frustrated customers who don't know which concessionaire to call for reservations or can't get through the parks' clogged phone lines.

They have a point about the frustration.

Booking a room can be daunting. About 70 companies, each with its own phones and Internet sites, contract with the National Park Service to run lodges at various parks. A few big ones, such as Xanterra and Philadelphia-based Aramark Parks & Resorts, run lodges at several parks. Many more operate at only one or two parks, according to the National Park Hospitality Assn., a Washington, D.C., trade group for concessionaires.

The easiest way to find the official lodge concessionaires is to visit the National Park Service's Web site, www.nps.gov. Click on "Visit Your Parks," choose a park from the drop-down menu, hit "Go" and click on the "Lodging" button on the park's page (if it's not grayed out). You'll find phones and often a link to online reservations. Phone wait times for the most popular parks can be lengthy, the concessionaires concede.

You also can call the park service's information line at (202) 208-4747 from 6 a.m. to noon Pacific time Mondays to Fridays. I got through after about five minutes on a recent Wednesday. Another option is to call the park directly.

Here are some of the differences I found recently in checking out some of those "similar but different" Internet sites:

* The National Park Reservations company mentioned above used several Internet addresses. Neither the home pages of the two sites I looked at nor the recorded message on the company's toll-free phone stated that it is--or is not--an official park service operation. By clicking on small-type buttons on the Web sites I learned the company "acts only as a reservation service," and when asked, a phone reservations agent told me "we're an outside agency."

The recorded message said there's a "10% nonrefundable reservation fee"; on the Web sites, I had to click on small-type buttons or scroll to the end of the reservations form to learn that.

By contrast, Xanterra and other official concessionaires at 15 of the most popular national parks I contacted generally don't charge a fee for lodge reservations, although many charge cancellation fees or keep the first night's room deposit if a customer cancels before the arrival date. One exception is the Grand Teton Climbers' Ranch at Grand Teton National Park in Wyoming, which charges a $20 reservation fee. (The National Park Service doesn't have a rule that governs reservation fees, officials said.)

Steve Brashear, vice president of National Park Reservations, said his nearly 2-year-old company, based in Red Lodge, Mont., operates as a travel agency. Asked whether site visitors might confuse his company with the park service, he said, "Not in our case.... We're always upfront." Xanterra pays the company sales commissions for booking certain lodges in certain seasons, just as it does other private travel agencies, Lages said.

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