How To Plan A National Park Vacation At The Last Minute

National park vacations continue to be popular with families from all across the United States, and many people plan their national park vacations well in advance of their travel date. That doesn't mean, however, that a national park vacation is out of the question for families who haven't made plans yet. In fact, increasing numbers of Americans are putting off vacation planning until very close to their travel date.

By following a few simple suggestions, parents can still enjoy an affordable and memorable vacation in one the country's most spectacular settings, even with as little as 24 hours' notice.

"The trend for Americans to make room reservations close to their travel dates combined with the significant drop in the number of international travelers to the U.S. means that there are rooms at national park lodges this summer," said Judi Lages, vice president of sales and marketing for Xanterra Parks & Resorts, the largest park and resort management company in the U.S. "That's good news for last-minute vacationers. With a little bit of persistence and flexibility, these travelers can often successfully find accommodations at the national park of their choice."

The National Park Service expects visitation to national parks to drop by 1.4 percent in 2003 after a 2.1 percent drop in 2002, so there should be plenty of rooms available at national parks this summer, said Lages.

Lages offers these tips for planning a national park vacation.

1. Be informed. Visit Xanterra's web site at www.xanterra.com for general information on the parks as well as lodging descriptions, rates and availability. Rooms can be booked online too. Another good source of information on national parks is the National Park Service website at www.nps.gov.

2. Be a bargain-hunter. National Park vacations are a great value, and prices at lodges, restaurants and gift shops inside the parks are often lower than prices at facilities outside the parks. Visitors can find great bargains on popular items such as Black Hills Gold at the Mount Rushmore National Memorial gift shop and Native American jewelry at the award-winning Hopi House gift shop at the South Rim of Grand Canyon National Park. Travelers can learn about rates and specials by visiting www.xanterra.com and following links to specific parks and resorts.

3. Be flexible. Because some people make their plans far in advance, they often have to change or cancel existing reservations. Be as flexible as possible with travel dates and choice of lodging and you stand a better chance of getting a room on short notice. Check the website frequently to see if rooms have become available.

4. Be timely. International tour operators reserve blocks of rooms up to two years in advance in anticipation of selling these rooms as part of tour packages to the United States. If all the rooms are not sold, operators must release them for resale 30 days out.

5. Book activities and make dinner reservations by calling the reservations office. Dinner reservations at the El Tovar Dining Room at Grand Canyon's South Rim can be made six months in advance. Dining rooms do fill, so if you want a meal in one of the lodges, plan ahead. Popular activities like the Old West Cookout at Yellowstone's Roosevelt Lodge fill up fast too.

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