A Google search for lodging at Glacier National Park in Montana yields a lot of hits, including some that appear to be affiliated with the National Park Service. Nationalparkreservations.com, for example, pops up under Google's sponsored listings. The website offers accommodations at national parks ranging from Acadia to Zion, with everything in between. The same goes for nationalparkservices.org, which features pictures of official-looking national park signs on its website.
However, neither of these companies, nor any of the dozens like them, has any ties to the National Park Service. They are simply companies that, for a 10 to 12 percent nonrefundable fee, will make lodging and activity reservations for visitors to national parks.
The official concessionaires selected by the National Park Service to provide lodging in the parks say the websites are unnecessary middlemen. They say the sites deceive customers into paying extra fees that could be avoided by simply booking directly with the concessionaires themselves. The concessionaires ask: Why pay for something that you can get for free?
''We are flooded every summer with complaints to us and the National Park Service from people that say they've been duped," said Judi Lages, vice president of sales and marketing at Xanterra Parks & Resorts, the National Park Service concessionaire at Yellowstone, the Grand Canyon, and many other parks. ''The consumers all want their money back and we can't give it to them."
Xanterra, which accepts reservations for the properties it manages online and over the phone, says it refuses to do business with middlemen whom it can identify.
Glacier Park Inc., the official concessionaire at Glacier National Park, places a warning on its website about how little the corporate middlemen actually do.
''In order for these companies to make your Glacier National Park reservation, they must contact us to make your reservation," Glacier Park's website says. ''For direct reservations, Glacier Park Inc.'s friendly professionals are waiting to assist with your Glacier National park lodging, transportation, and activity reservations."
Most of the middlemen companies disclose their fees and their lack of ties to the National Park Service, but some do it more prominently than others. Some of the websites also make it sound as if they have access to blocks of rooms or have some special role in booking rooms in the parks.
Reservation Services Co., for example, states that ''the National Park Service depends on privately owned companies to make inside national park lodging reservations." Reservation-services.com charges a nonrefundable 12 percent booking fee.
Yellowstone.net and americanparks.net require customers to click on a bar accepting all terms and conditions just before completing a booking. In the terms and conditions section, both companies disclose their 10 percent fees and that they have no connection with the Park Service.
Nationalparkservices.org makes similar disclosures on its website and also has a disclaimer that callers hear when they first phone in. ''We do everything we can to make sure people know who they're dealing with," said Jim Allen, company president.
Allen, whose company has been barred from making reservations at Xanterra-operated properties, said customers come to him partly because he advertises on a pay-per-click basis with the leading search engines but also because he provides more service than the park concessionaires.
Unlike Xanterra, Allen's company provides a toll-free number for customers to call. He said his company also answers calls promptly, while Xanterra often keeps customers waiting on hold for long periods. He urged me to check it out for myself, which I did. On a recent weekday morning, the wait for a customer service representative at Xanterra was about two minutes.
Allen portrays himself more as a travel agent, helping customers plan an entire trip to a national park rather than simply providing lodging. He said he can arrange tickets for activities and tell customers what's worth going to see.
He said he can also tell travelers about rundown lodges in some of the parks and direct them to accommodations outside the park with amenities like pools, TV sets, and air conditioning that are often not available inside the parks.
''I can plan your national park vacation," he said. ''They can only provide you with lodging."
Lages at Xanterra said the reservation websites are doing nothing more than taking a customer's credit card information and then calling to make a reservation for them. She said most customers aren't even aware they are being charged for the service.
''They don't find out about the extra fee until they get their credit card statement," Lages said. ''There need be no cost if the consumer is aware of what they're doing."
New pay option for Logan parking
Boston's Logan International Airport last week began offering travelers the option of paying their parking bill at a machine inside Terminal B rather than waiting in line at the garage exit. Airport officials say the machines, located at exit doors, accept cash and credit cards. The service will expand to all the terminals by the end of the year.
Bruce Mohl can be reached by e-mail at email@example.com.