It's harder than ever to secure a prime spot.
Scott Lewis and his family have camped at San Elijo State Beach Campground, just north of San Diego, for five summers.
There are campsites right on the ocean with views of crashing waves and sunsets, and there are beach activities and surfing just steps away. Lewis takes advantage of the surfing while his two kids enjoy the beach.
“It's like a beach hotel, but the floor is dirt,” Lewis told Travel + Leisure. The campground is right next to the quaint village of Cardiff by the Sea, which has restaurants and shopping.
But securing this idyllic vacation spot takes some work. Campsites — especially the best ones right next to the shore — book up almost instantly.
The campground is part of the California State Parks Department, which for years used a website called reserveamerica.com to handle its reservations (it's the same website used by most other states in the country). Campsites would open up for bookings at 8:00 a.m. on the first of the month six months in advance.
“It’s a mad scramble," Lewis said. "You’re clicking campsites and picking days and then it shows it’s not available, so you hit another one and another until you get something,” he said. “Usually I’d get my fourth selection. I would do it right at 8:00 a.m., but someone must have a faster internet connection, or fingers, or something.”
“It was really an exhilarating and exhausting experience,” he added.
But this year, something was different. On February 1, Lewis logged on hoping to reserve a campsite for mid-August, but found that the system had changed. Now, he would have to book exactly six months in advance to the date — February 12, for example, for an August 12 reservation.
So he waited, and on the night of February 11, checked the website and saw three campsites available that he could book. But when he went back at 7:00 a.m. the next morning to get ready to reserve a site, they were all gone.
“How is that possible, that's absurd,” Lewis said.
What he found was that the California State Parks Department had switched to a new website reservation system on August 1, 2017. Instead of using reserveamerica.com, it was now using reservecalifornia.com.
Lewis wasn’t the only one having problems with the new website. When the television station KSBY covered the change, the story’s comments were flooded with people reporting similar experiences.
“Absolutely terrible! [Once] you have a reservation, you can modify it every week for $7.99...FOREVER,” one user wrote. “Clearly, someone is taking advantage of their 'awesome' new system. It's been going on since day one.”
“Thank goodness! I thought it was just me,” wrote another. “I thought the other system was bad but this has it beat. So frustrating and NOT serving the people of California at all.”
A spokesman for the state parks department declined an interview about the new website, but agreed to answer questions by e-mail.
The state made the switch “to support field operations and enhance the experience of visitors with a modern platform,” the spokesperson, Jorge Moreno, told T+L.
“California has the largest state park system in the nation with 280 park units,” he said. “Transitioning to a new reservation system allows us to provide more user-friendly web services and greater accessibility to more visitors for the highly sought-after camping and lodging locations."
"Interactive maps with more detailed views of campsites and self-service online options represent some of the additional features of the new system, which allow for better trip planning and access to outdoor public spaces.”
The state picked the vendor Conduent Solutions, Inc., to create the website after a competitive bidding process.
Moreno confirmed that once someone has made a reservation, he can extend it “up to the maximum stay limit of that park from their original reservation.”
The maximum length of stay is different for every park. For San Elijo, where Lewis camps, it’s seven days. That means someone could make a reservation for three days and then later extend it, taking away availability before others have a chance to book.
“We have received feedback from the public on some of the challenges of this process,” Moreno added. “The department is evaluating the issue.”
When asked to comment on the problems users reported, Moreno said:
“At times, the public demand exceeds the inventory of available campsites. This is especially true with popular parks such as the cottages at Crystal Cove State Beach, Steep Ravine cabins at Mount Tamalpais State Park, [the] RV campground at Seacliff State Beach, and campgrounds at Doheny State Beach.”
Moreno said last month, the state saw almost 70,000 reservations made for the upcoming summer season.
“No matter what reservation system is used, that level of interest means that at times our visitors won’t be able to book their preferred dates,” he said.
The reservation system has become so competitive that outside companies are taking advantage. A company called First Choice Reservations offers to book a site for you, for an additional fee.
“Stop losing at 8 a.m.,” its website advertises. “Our computers complete your reservation for you in 1/100th of a second, so you and your family get the site you want.”
Moreno acknowledged these outside companies are another issue. He said there are problems with the new website and that the state is working on it.
“California State Parks apologizes for the frustrations some of our visitors are encountering using ReserveCalifornia, including the misuse of the system by businesses using technology to make reservations outside the system,” he said.
“As nature lovers ourselves, we sympathize with our fellow outdoor enthusiasts and want to assure them that we are working on solutions and will implement them as soon as possible. Providing a user-friendly reservation system and equal access to all of our visitors is one of our top priorities.”
“As with any new large system, course corrections must be made,” he added. “Feedback from the public helps us as we continue to develop and improve the system.”
Moreno said anyone who is having an issue with the website can call the Customer Call Center toll-free at 1-800-444-7275, or submit their feedback online under the Contact Us link at the bottom of the ReserveCalifornia.com website.
As for Lewis and his family, they lucked out. After failing to secure a campsite for several days, Lewis kept trying and finally booked one, though not one of his first choices.
But another frequent camper, Chris Robbins, hasn’t been as lucky. Robbins has also been camping at San Elijo since 2000. So far this year, he has not been able to secure a spot.
“The previous system wasn’t great,” he said. “You really had to be on your game to get a premium beachside site. But it could be done.”
He has had far more problems with the new site.
“Once or twice, we were in the process of reserving a site, and the system logged me out,” he said. “[Another] time, my wife got a site at San Elijo and — in the process of paying for the reservation — the system instead reserved us at San Clemente.”
Robbins is close to giving up on San Elijo, and may just take his family to camp at San Clemente instead.