A man with short dark brown hair, wearing a white t-shirt, khaki pants and running shoes is sitting in the open doorway of an olive green tent with a woman peeking out of the tent over his shoulder pointing at a silver laptop in his lap. The tent is outdoors next to a body of water and surrounded by greenery.

Are Reservation Bots Booking Ontario Parks Campsites Adding to the Booking Challenge?

If you enjoy camping at the provincial parks here in Ontario, Canada, then you have likely heard that booking a campsite in 2021 is like winning the lottery. Today, we’re going to take a look at the challenges faced by Ontario campers and the big question that has been causing controversy among the camping community: Are reservation bots booking Ontario Parks campsites?

There is no challenging the fact that 2020/2021 has come with some unique challenges as we all navigate life during a pandemic. Many people are currently juggling working from home and helping their children with online schooling.

For those in a higher risk category, or with family members in a higher risk category, the added stress of worrying about the health and well-being of loved ones can feel overwhelming.

With travel restrictions preventing us from travelling to foreign destinations, many people are trading all-inclusive tropical getaways and luxury cruises for local campgrounds and ‘staycations’ at nearby hotels.

For those who have been camping their whole lives, it should be relatively easy to make their vacation plans. No?

Unfortunately, many are realizing that this couldn’t be further from the truth… Booking a campsite is harder than ever as many hopeful campers log onto the online reservation system day after day, awaiting the 7 AM booking window and their chance to hopefully be ‘one of the lucky ones’.

It raises the question, why is it so incredibly hard to book a campsite at the Ontario Provincial Parks?

Today, I’m going to take a look at some of the biggest challenges faced by Ontario Campers including the increase in demand, the booking system itself, and, of course, the idea that reservation bots are being used to book Ontario Parks websites for a profit.

So, let’s get started…

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Increased Demand for Campsites

The summer may still be a few months away, but for those looking to camp, you must first get through booking season. What’s booking season? Here in Ontario, our provincial parks open for reservations 5 months to the date of your planned vacation.

For this reason, January through March are a busy time!

Ontario Parks has gone on record saying that the number of reservations made in just the first 2 months of 2021 was more than double the number of reservations made in the early weeks of 2020.

This, obviously, has had an impact on the booking process as there are more people than ever trying to book the same campsites, especially at the more popular parks!

It’s the camping equivalent of the 2020 toilet paper crisis. There simply aren’t enough campsites at these parks to accommodate everyone that is interested in booking. Even the ‘less desirable’ sites that often sit vacant are being snapped up in the blink of an eye.

Theoretically, there are more sites up for reservation after the removal of the availability of ‘non-reservable’ campsites. However, there simply aren’t enough sites to go around.

Add to this the frustration of those who would normally rely on vacant sites and non-reservable sites to accommodate the fact that they may not know their vacation dates 5 months in advance, and you can see why many are voicing their concerns online as of late.

A man with short brown hair, sunglasses, a blue/orange plaid shirt and khaki shorts is sitting outside in a folding chair in front of a bright yellow tent with a body of water in the distance behind him. On his lap is a silver laptop that he's holding with one hand, looking at and smiling.

The Booking System

Although I am including this as a separate point, it does tie into the previous point significantly. What do I mean?

Ontario Parks released a new reservation system just in time for the 2020 camping season.

This system was said to offer new features, better functionality, and an improved mobile experience. It was an improvement in many ways but fell short in many others. Overall, it left much of the Ontario camping community with mixed reviews.

One major flaw with this new system is that it wasn’t built to handle a larger than normal traffic load. This became apparent with the increased demand during the lockdown.

Often the website freezes up throughout the booking process during peak hours.

On March 1st, the website saw the highest volume ever on a single day, according to Ontario Parks. With more than 34,000 users logging in between the hours of 6:30 AM and 7:30 AM, the site simply couldn’t handle it.

As a result, the site crashed that morning, preventing many campers from even trying to book a campsite.

While there was no way for Ontario Parks to predict that this jump in traffic would come when rolling out the new system, it’s clear that there should be some consideration put into updating the system to support the current traffic requirements.

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Reservation Bots, Scalpers and Mass Booking

Finally, there are the frustrations surrounding reservations that are being made in the system each and every day. Why frustrations? There are many that are finding loopholes and ways to abuse the current system.

A common frustration voiced in camping groups on Facebook is the number of campers who will book up a large block of time with the intentions of cancelling most of it and keeping just the end of their booking.

This allows them to cheat the ‘5 month’ rule, as you can book 5 months to your arrival date and up to 23 days in total.

So, for example, if someone were looking to book the weekend of July 2-5 (long weekend), they would book starting mid-June for the max of 23 days, with this weekend falling at the end of the booking. Then, when the window for changes/cancellations opens, they cancel the start of their reservation keeping just the weekend that they wanted.

It may seem like a smart way to ‘game the system’ at first glance, however, in booking this way many sites are getting tied up, preventing people from booking that want to use that time.

Additionally, those that are trying to book their vacations while remaining respectful of other campers are losing out on the sites that they want due to an ‘unfair advantage’.

What about the rumours about reservation bots booking Ontario Park campsites? Is there truth to the speculations?

Just a few weeks ago, an ad from Kijiji circulated Facebook revealing a company that admitted to using reservation bots to make reservations at some of the more popular campgrounds including Killbear, Killarney, Algonquin, and Sandbanks.  

The ad stated, “We use state of the art automation technology for site booking and registration.”

A screenshot from Kijiji titled 'SOLD OUT - Camping reservations at Ontario Parks, Killbear'.

While it appeared that this particular ad was selling the campsites to those interested while taking little or no profit, other ads have been seen that paint a very different picture.

Tour companies and scalpers are booking a number of sites at the more popular sites, only to sell them at a significantly increased rate.

Personally, I’ve seen an add offering a campsite for a single weekend at a price of $600!

What Can You Do?

As an avid camper and outdoor traveller, it makes me angry to see greed creeping in on an activity that many of us have come to enjoy and love.

You have two choices at this point. You can either allow this to bring you down and ruin your potential vacation plans, or you can choose to focus on what you can do to get out and enjoy this beautiful province.

Some suggestions include:

While the solutions offered above aren’t ideal (it would be better not to have to deal with the booking challenges, to begin with) they do offer us an opportunity to make the most of the given situation.

Remember, one big reason that the demand for campsites is the travel restrictions currently in place due to the pandemic. This means that we can expect to see a decrease in people booking campsites when international travel is a possibility once again.

A man with short dark brown hair, wearing a white t-shirt, khaki pants and running shoes is sitting in the open doorway of an olive green tent with a woman peeking out of the tent over his shoulder pointing at a silver laptop in his lap. The tent is outdoors next to a body of water and surrounded by greenery. Text asks: are reservation bots booking Ontario Parks campsites?

Have you ever seen evidence of reservation bots booking Ontario Parks campsites? Feel free to share your booking experiences as well as any tips and tricks in the comments below!

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