In preparation for a July family reunion, Dr. Ah Yin Eng, a physician in Pembroke, Ontario, booked five rooms last August for six nights at a lodge in Yellowstone National Park, using Reservations-Services.com, which takes reservations for lodging within many national parks.
Eng said he was prepared for the nearly $4,000 bill for the rooms. But what came next was pure clicker shock. In the confirmation e-mail message from Reservations-Services, the site listed an additional nonrefundable service fee of 12 percent, or $486, that had been charged to Eng's credit card.
"At first I thought it was a deposit, but when I saw they'd already charged me 12 percent I called and asked them why," Eng said. "They told me to get lost."
The charge, it turned out, was a fee levied by a handful of reservation companies with no formal relationship with national park lodges, but which, like any travel agent, can still take reservations on a lodge's behalf. Representatives of national park lodging companies argue that these reservation sites prey on consumers who don't realize they can book rooms on the Web sites of national park hotels free of charge.
Executives of the reservation companies, though, say there is nothing deceptive about their businesses. Clint Wilkes, who runs Reservations-Services.com, said that Eng had overlooked the statements about the site's reservations fee on its home page and on its terms page. (Eng said that the disclosure had not been there in August.)
"It's always been there," Wilkes said of the fee disclosure. "I've never hidden our fees. What I'm doing is absolutely 100 percent ethical, moral, the whole works." (As to Eng's complaint about being told to "get lost," Wilkes said that he did not recall using those words and that he was "completely polite.")
The issue is partly a function of Internet marketing and partly a function of the peculiarities of an online industry that has sprung up to serve national park visitors. Wilkes and other reservation takers have aggressively bid to have their advertisements displayed whenever anyone searches for "Yosemite lodgings," for instance, on Google, Yahoo and other sites.
National park lodging concessionaires, like Xanterra Parks and Resorts, which operates lodges in Yellowstone, Grand Canyon and other parks, say they cannot afford to outbid these companies for top advertising spots. As a result, consumers frequently go to the reservation sites without knowing they can book directly with Xanterra and other concessionaires free.
The online reservation takers can withstand the advertising bidding wars partly because enough consumers have been willing to pay them 10 or 12 percent booking fees in exchange for help in booking rooms, even though it is usually travel suppliers, not consumers, who pay such commissions to travel agents.
Judi Lages, vice president of sales and marketing for Xanterra, said her company had heard "frequent complaints" from customers like Eng and others who have reported mistakes in the bookings made by the reservation sites, and getting misleading information. Most involve Yellowstone, the most popular national park, where Xanterra manages 2,200 guest rooms at various lodgings.
"We can't really preclude anybody from operating these Web sites," Lages said. "We just encourage people to read the fine print carefully and deal with operators that are concessionaires within national parks. And we do not charge for reservations."
Xanterra has, however, managed to have its inventory pulled from at least one reservation service, NationalParkReservations, according to NationalPark-Reservations' chief executive, Jim Allen. Al Nash, a spokesman for the National Park Service, said Xanterra had, in federal court, "successfully defended their right" to shut out independent reservation services -- litigation that Lages of Xanterra declined to comment on.
Nash and other representatives of the National Park Service said they were aware of the consumer complaints. But they, too, can do little to address the issue. The park service's Web site, www.nps.gov, includes a section for each park in the system, and where lodging is available inside a park, the site provides links to the concessionaire's Web sites. (To find the lodging link, look for the "plan your visit" link on each park's home page.)
The reservation companies say they provide valuable services that the national park concessionaires do not. Allen, of NationalParkReservations, said that his company would find lodging outside the park for visitors who may not find rooms inside it or who want amenities like Internet access and pools.
"We'll also help schedule activities for people," Allen said. "If they're staying at one lodge and have to get to a river at 7 a.m. one morning for a rafting excursion, they might not realize it can be a two- or three-hour drive across the park to get to that location."
Tony Senecal, who works as Donald Trump's butler, said he used NationalParkReservations last year to book rooms in Yellowstone (before the Web site stopped making such reservations). "It was fabulous," Senecal said. "They set me up with the finest rooms, suggested where to eat."
Senecal said he was "an Internet newbie" when he made the reservation, and he did not object to the reservation fee. "It certainly beat doing it on my own," he said.