Tips for Booking Your Yellowstone National Park Trip

The U.S. National Park system was described by noted film director Ken Burns as “America’s Best Idea,” and Yellowstone National Park was the first such park established not only in this country, but the world.  My wife and I visited Yellowstone years ago to celebrate the completion of my PhD thesis, and, like many, we’ve been longing to take our children to see its unique collection of geysers.  However, you need to plan ahead to stay at one of the historic Yellowstone National Park Lodges, and you should be aware of misleading online information that could ruin your trip.  Continue reading for some tips for planning your vacation in Yellowstone National Park while I decide when to go with my family.

Old Faithful Inn and Old Faithful Geyser Yellowstone

Old Faithful Inn and Old Faithful Geyser Yellowstone © Xanterra Parks & Resorts, Inc.

From Xanterra Parks & Resorts’ Press Release

National park concessioner Xanterra Parks & Resorts’ Yellowstone operation, Yellowstone National Park Lodges, is the authorized concessioner – the only one – that offers in-park hotels.  The company operates nine hotels with a total of 2,200 rooms, and four campgrounds and an RV park with more than 1,700 campsites.  The lodges and campgrounds are all located within the boundaries of the 2.2 million-acre park.

Two of the biggest pitfalls faced by travelers arranging a Yellowstone vacation are third-party reservations websites that charge a non-refundable fee for booking rooms that can be reserved for free, and hotels in gateway communities that use the word “Yellowstone” in marketing materials and even on the name of the hotel in a way that could mislead travelers into thinking they are staying at an in-park hotel.

“Xanterra is meticulous about presenting information about our operations in a clear and precise way so travelers who visit us from around the world understand exactly what they are booking,” said Rick Hoeninghausen, director of sales and marketing for Yellowstone National Park Lodges.  “We are deeply saddened when we talk with frustrated visitors who believe they were bamboozled into paying an unnecessary fee for a room in a Xanterra-operated hotel or who thought they were staying at an in-park hotel.  Unfortunately, at that point, there’s little we can do to make things right for them.”

Terraces at Mammoth Hot Springs - Yellowstone National Park

Terraces at Mammoth Hot Springs © Xanterra Parks & Resorts, Inc.


Location, Location, Location

Five gateway communities provide access to Yellowstone National Park.  They are Cody and Jackson, Wyoming to the East and South respectively, and Cooke City, Gardiner and West Yellowstone., Montana to the Northeast, North and West, respectively.  All of the gateway communities have many offerings and attractions that are well worth a visit.  In a few instances, however, lodging facilities carry the name of the park and the fact that those lodges are outside park boundaries isn’t always clear.

Yellowstone National Park Elk

Yellowstone National Park Elk © Xanterra Parks & Resorts, Inc.


Staying inside the park allows visitors to have much more intimate experiences such as viewing herds of elk right outside their windows or watching evening eruptions of Old Faithful Geyser without the numbers of day visitors who flock to that region during the peak daytime hours.  “By the time the sun is setting, most of the visitors who are watching the eruptions are those who are staying at one of the three Old Faithful-area lodges,” he said.  “Even if everyone in the 560 rooms there watched the eruption at the same time it could be far fewer people than those watching the mid-day eruption that same day.”

Hoeninghausen said that many of the gateway communities offer worthwhile experiences, including some that complement a Yellowstone visit particularly well.  For example, Cody features the Draper Museum of Natural History, one of five museums in the Buffalo Bill Center of the West.  This museum offers an in-depth look at the Greater Yellowstone ecosystem with numerous family-friendly exhibits.  Cody also offers a nightly rodeo and some of the best fishing in the region.

Avoidable Reservations Fees

Google “Yellowstone Lodging” and you will find multiple listings for lodging and vacation reservations associated with the park.  Some of those listings are for third-party reservations companies that charge a non-refundable fee to book lodging inside and outside the park.  Those fees can be avoided by booking directly with Xanterra at or by calling 1-307-344-7311.  Xanterra never charges a fee to book lodge rooms.

Mammoth Hot Springs Hotel with Yellow Bus

Mammoth Hot Springs Hotel with Yellow Bus © Xanterra Parks & Resorts, Inc.



Follow these tips to avoid these booking pitfalls and book in-park rooms for the 2013 season.

1. Always look at the hotel’s location using an online mapping tool like MapQuest or Google Maps.  It doesn’t hurt to also check driving distances and estimated times between the hotel and the in-park attractions travelers plan to visit.

2. If planning to stay inside the park, always look for the words “authorized concessioner” in the hotel’s information.

3. Beware of services that claim access to rooms “even when the park is sold out.”  Internet reservations services do not hold room blocks.  The Yellowstone National Park Lodges site lists real-time availability of in-park lodge rooms on any given date.

4. Don’t believe claims about occupancy.  Third-party reservations services may try to paint a bleak picture of finding a room inside the park in order to encourage travelers to book outside the park and generate greater a fee for the reservation services.

5. Don’t be fooled by claims that in-park lodging is more expensive than lodging in gateway communities.  Those claims are flat-out wrong.  Xanterra is bound by NPS rules for pricing rooms, restaurant meals and even gifts.  Prices are set based on comparable prices for similar offerings outside the park, so a double room inside the park is going to be similar in price as a similar double room outside the park.

6. Watch out for oversimplified pricing structures.  Reservations providers may offer to book “premium” and “economy” rooms in the park.  With 2,200 rooms in the park, a two-tiered pricing structure is not adequate to explain the park’s many lodging offerings.

7. Don’t believe offers to “waitlist” for lodge rooms.  One site is already offering to place travelers on a “waitlist” for a stay in the historic Old Faithful Inn in 2014, implying that rooms for summer 2013 are already sold out.  Xanterra accepts room reservations one year in advance of travel.

8. Don’t assume everything is sold out.  Because some vacationers 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.

9. Be persistent.  Rooms open up – and are often quickly re-booked – every day.  The way to check for availability is by using the website.

10. Book activities and make dinner reservations.  Dining rooms do fill up most evenings, so if you want a meal at one of the lodges, plan ahead.  Popular park activities such as the Old West Dinner Cookout at Roosevelt Lodge fill up fast too.

11. Consider a shoulder-season visit.  There is often greater availability of rooms in May and October than in July and August.

12. Look for packages.  Yellowstone offers a series of Summer Adventure Packages combining lodging, some meals and a variety of activities such as guided hikes and scenic boat cruises of Yellowstone Lake.

Yellowstone National Park

Yellowstone National Park © Xanterra Parks & Resorts, Inc.


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About Dave Parfitt

Married, father of two girls, and living in the heart of the Finger Lakes. I'm a runner with a PhD in neuroscience and a passion for travel.