Trying to plan his summer vacation in the dead of winter, Otto Laszlo of Simi Valley floods the Internet with reservation requests in January as soon as online bookings at California campsites for July become available.
Laszlo has been camping at prime beachfront sites such as Leo Carrillo State Park north of Santa Monica since he first came to the United States as a student more than 30 years ago. But thanks to a system that accepts phone and Internet reservations, getting a spot for the busy summer months is a crapshoot.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday June 22, 2005 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 0 inches; 25 words Type of Material: Correction
Camping reservations -- An article in Tuesday's Outdoors section identified the reservation service ReserveAmerica as a subsidiary of Ticketron. It is a subsidiary of TicketMaster.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Tuesday June 28, 2005 Home Edition Outdoors Part F Page 3 Features Desk 0 inches; 26 words Type of Material: Correction
Camping reservations -- An article in last week's Outdoors section identified the reservation service ReserveAmerica as a subsidiary of Ticketron. It is a subsidiary of TicketMaster.
"The first of the month, a million people call in," said Laszlo, 58, a businessman born in Hungary. "If you are in the right place and the gods are willing, you get a campsite. If you try to book on the Internet, it's virtually impossible."
Such are the vagaries of the reservation system, whether the prize is a site along the California coast at a state beach or one at a choice national park such as Yosemite or Joshua Tree.
The lines are overloaded; agencies and private-sector copycats create confusion, and software glitches are commonplace. The online reservation systems are also maddeningly devoid of human beings who might actually help campers navigate a confusing jumble of handling fees, seasonal restrictions and first-come, first-served availability.
But there is no turning back. The federal government announced Friday that it had awarded a contract to ReserveAmerica for operation of a single online and telephone reservation system covering all federal recreation land -- more than 57,000 campsites, cabins, parks, historic homes and caves.
The consolidated system, replacing separate networks currently serving the U.S. Forest Service (www.reserveamerica.com) and the National Park Service (reservations.nps.gov), will be accessible on the Internet at www.recreation.gov by December, officials say.
ReserveAmerica was initially awarded the contract in August before a competitor's protest forced the contract to be rebid. The firm, a subsidiary of Ticketron, already operated the Forest Service system and 14 state systems, including California, New York, Florida and Texas.
John McDonald, ReserveAmerica's spokesman, said the online reservation crush experienced in California by campers such as Laszlo was really no different from the past, only now people don't have to drive two or three hours to find out their favorite campsite is full.
Recent improvements in software and a single national network, he said, should make it easier for consumers to search campsite availability, find nearby alternatives through web links and make reservations.
In California, ReserveAmerica broke a "one-day reservation record" on New Year's Day 2004 taking 13,589 July reservations at state campsites, 60% of which were made online, the firm reported in a news release.
In anticipation of the onslaught, ReserveAmerica added capacity in an attempt to handle as many calls as possible and appears to have broken its own record by close to 1,000 reservations, said Roy Stearns, California State Parks' deputy director for communications.
"On that day, you need a 50-lane freeway," Stearns said. "And they handled it. We got a handful of complaints, and they weren't about the reservation system. They were about the lack of sites for people who want them."
The state could easily use 5,000 more campsites, although the odds of the system expanding are long, given a deferred maintenance backlog now in excess of $900 million.
"You look around at the California population, it's young, it's healthy, it's outdoors, and they want an outback experience," Stearns said. "It's tough to keep up with the demand. For the summertime, it's safe to say, the vast majority of weekends are gone, especially the coastal and south coastal campgrounds."
Stearns said his agency has been pleased with ReserveAmerica's performance. "They have been very responsive to any and all complaints, and they have worked hard to make changes to the system," he said.
His advice to people such as Laszlo who are frustrated by the rush of online reservations and the lack of human interaction: "It behooves people to practice. Look around at what you can find, and how you find it, before the day you have to make that reservation."
Peter Mason, a Sierra Club member from Los Angeles and veteran camper, recalled his most recent experience waiting in the online cue.
"It was frustrating, because you never got a large view of what was going on," he said. "They never gave you a large map and said, 'All this stuff is gone, don't even try for that.' It was kind of like poking in the dark."
Vernon Loeb can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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Staking a claim
California state park's website, www.parks.ca.gov, lists 29 campgrounds that are available first-come, first-served:
Auburn State Recreation Area
Austin Creek State Recreation Area
Humboldt Lagoons State Park
Fort Ross State Historic Park
Manchester State Park
Navarro River Redwoods State Park
Sinkyone Wilderness State Park
Tolowa Dunes State Park
Westport-Union Landing State Beach
Ahjumawi Lava Springs State Park
Plumas-Eureka State Park
Indian Grinding Rock State Historic Park
Carnegie State Vehicular Recreation Area
Castle Rock State Park
Forest of Nisene Marks State Park
Mount Tamalpais State Park
Central Coast and Central Valley
Andrew Molera State Park
Emma Wood State Beach (North and South)
Gaviota State Park
Hollister Hills State Vehicular Recreation Area
George J. Hatfield State Recreation Area
Hungry Valley State Vehicular Recreation Area
Saddleback Butte State Park
Topanga State Park
Ocotillo Wells State Vehicular Recreation Area
Picacho State Recreation Area
Providence Mountains State Recreation Area
Red Rock Canyon State Park
Source: California State Parks