Sometimes as I’m trying to locate camping or lodging reservations it feels opaque and tricky to find prices and options. What is your process for determining where to stay and when to book?
Our first step to planning our trips is to decide which hikes we’d like to do. This gives us a rough framework for the places we’ll need to be and allows me to begin establishing a timeline for the trip. Typically, for our big summer road trips this happens 2 years ahead of time. I already know which parks we want to get to in the summer of 2022!
At about the 1.5 years ahead of time mark I’ll start putting together a more detailed itinerary that includes plans for each day, cities we could potentially stay in to make that happen, and the distances and drive time between them. Although I take the lead in making these plans, it is a collaborative process. I’m not sure if the girls are excited or annoyed by the stream of “would you rather option 1 or option 2” questions and emails I shower them with in this phase. Once this detailed plan seems pretty fleshed out I’ll sit them down and go through it with them day-by-day to make sure I’ve gotten in everything everyone wants to do. Generally I target having this ready by the April 14 months before the trip.
Most National Parks lodges begin taking reservations 12-13 months ahead of time and it’s vital to be ready to book the moment they open. Popular destinations like Yosemite are sold out within minutes for their peak season. With dates set for the following summer we head out on our current trip ready to book our next year’s adventure. I begin booking other hotels in August, or about 10 months ahead of time. I have a rule about only booking cancellable reservations that I only break in extreme circumstances. I’ll also periodically recheck the reservations I do make throughout the next 10 months to see if any prices drop. Typically, the opposite happens and I watch them rise, making me happy I booked when I did. Occasionally there will be a drop though, and I’ll easily cancel my original reservations and create a new one.
Insisting on booking refundable reservations means that every reservation I make is done directly through the hotel’s website. Expedia, Orbitz, and all the other aggregators just aren’t worth the hassle to me. Google Maps is a great tool for getting a feel of what lodging is available in an area. Type in the name of a city and then click the “nearby” button and choose “hotels”. If you input your travel dates (or some random date if your trip is too far in the future 😏) you’ll even be able to see the price of each option. We try to stay brand loyal to IHG hotels when everything else is comparable, so if they have a reasonable option in town we’ll take it. If Google Maps isn’t enough information for me I’ll also use Tripadvisor. Give them the name of a city and they’ll rank all the hotels for you. I don’t put a lot of stock in these ratings, but I do believe a picture is worth a lot. I’ll open up prospective options in new tabs and browse the photos submitted by readers to get a feel for each place.
Camping reservations are generally available 6 months ahead of time which means December and January are busy for booking those. There seems to be less uniformity for camping though. I have seem some campgrounds that open for reservations a year ahead (Yosemite) and others that are walk-in only (Great Basin). At about 14 months ahead of time I do the research to see when campgrounds we will stay in open and I’ll add a note to our calendar.
Backcountry reservations tend to open about three months ahead of time, but range from 0-6 months. Be sure to check on the policies of the parks you want to travel in and add those dates to your calendar too. These can be super competitive to snag. I’m already nervous about grabbing our Rocky Mountain NP reservations on March 1st.
Planning is key. I’d recommend knowing exactly which days you’ll want to be in which spot at minimum 13 months ahead of time. Make reservations in parks as soon as they open, and in hotels as soon as possible. Book refundable rates and check in periodically to see if they’ve fallen.