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The Campsite Reservations Nightmare

Voice of San Diego’s Scott Lewis masters the campsite-booking dilemma with a little help—and a little guilt


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Reserve California home page

It is 7:50 a.m., February 1. Ten minutes until campsite reservations open. Our family’s annual vacation is on the line. I’m so nervous that I can hear my heart beat in my ears.

We always book three nights. A campsite, a fire, on the cliff overlooking the ocean. I surf seven times a day. The kids fall asleep soon after the sun goes down and I eat all the rest of their s’more chocolate. We’re so close to civilization we can order pizza. But the floor is dirt. The waves roar all night. The squirrels tear into our trash. It’s our favorite place. This year, we want four nights.

I have improved my booking game on the reservation system every year. I’m ready. Coffee. Too much coffee. I have to go to the bathroom; everything is amped the way it gets when you have to go to the bathroom. But I’m not going anywhere. No time passes quicker than the 10 minutes between 7:50 and 8 a.m. on February 1. I watch the seconds tick. When 8 a.m. comes, I will have to click, quickly.

I ask Alexa the exact time.

The previous two years, I missed my first, second, and third choices. In a state of sheer panic, I got my fourth. Not perfect, but still on the shore.

I log on. But oh my god. My god. The website is different. It’s now reservecalifornia.com. It looks nicer. It used to be that the website opened all dates for the month of August on February 1. You had to poke around the calendar blindly to see which campsites you could reserve right at 8 a.m. Now there’s a nice layout showing availability more clearly. But the picture isn’t pretty. Now you book exactly six months before your arrival date.

So, if you want to arrive at the campground on August 12, you can’t book it until February 12 at 8 a.m. You can book multiple nights. That means someone who arrives August 9 can book five nights to August 14. And that means when I log on again, on February 12, none of the spots I want are open. You can’t book August 12 until February 12 but on February 12, none of the spots are open.

I have entered a nightmare. A campsite will show it’s open for August 14 but suddenly, even before February 14, it’s taken. Either someone is hacking the system or people are extending their bookings. Each day, the sites are booked before I even get a shot at them.

One was open, but my fingers were too slow. I’m a competent person. I know the internet well. Why can’t I figure this out? Maybe I’ve failed as a father.

I Google around. There. An ad for something called First Choice Reservations. “Stop losing at 8 a.m. Our computers complete your reservation for you, in 1/100th of a second, so you and your family get the site you want.” Just like Wall Street, flash computer trading has taken over the campsite reservation system. It’s gross. California state beaches and parks provide everyone access to a vacation on the coast. Of course, it has favored the privileged—the ones with fast computers and good bladders.

But now it has another layer, another premium. It does violence to my sense of fairness, and I face a choice. Will I hold fast to my principles and continue trying my luck with the state’s official system? Or will I give in, enlist a third party to cut the line and further the reservation one-upmanship race?

I have a brief vision of watching other families cozying around their campfire for the night, while my kids complain about having to schlep all our day trip supplies back to the car.

My bladder can only take so much. I send First Choice my request.

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