Our Daily Bleg: Help Honest Michiganders Get Their Camping Fix
A reader named Gregory Riffe wants the Freakonomics blog readership to help solve a dilemma:
I live in Michigan and like many other Michiganders, I like to go camping in the state parks in the summer. This is such a popular pastime that weekend campsite reservations are in high demand, which has led to people gaming the system to get weekend campsite reservations at the expense of overall utilization of the campgrounds. I was wondering if you could suggest a system whereby the awarding of campsite reservations in Michigan state parks could be more equitably distributed and increase the total utilization of the campgrounds.
The state’s Department of Natural Resources (DNR) has provided a nice online reservation system that allows people to make reservations for campsites up to six months in advance of your arrival date. So for instance, if one wants to camp on the Friday and Saturday of July 16-17, one can make a reservation on January 16 for the two days. The maximum number of days a campsite can be reserved is 15.
Experienced users will game the system by booking 10-15 days at a time to get a weekend, then canceling all the days but the weekend they want. For example: I want to camp on Thursday through Saturday, July 15-17. The earliest I can book just the weekend is January 15 (6 months in advance of the arrival date). However, on January 3, I can book 15 days (July 3-17). I can then cancel the days leading up to July 15 and keep the three weekend days. Anyone who wants to book just the weekend will find very few openings because they will already be taken by people making long reservations and canceling the portions they never intend to use.
This prevents anyone else from reserving a campsite that will ultimately be empty until the gamer decides to cancel the portion that they have no intention of using. It also penalizes everyone who has not learned to game the system by denying them any chance at weekend reservations. The DNR has instituted a penalty for canceling reservations, but the penalty for canceling is just $18 and the cost of a day’s camping is about $25. This is in comparison to private campgrounds that typically charge between $30 and $50 per night.
I thought you might have some suggestions on how to improve it.
This calls to mind a variety of dilemmas we’ve written about previously, from the Israeli daycare center fines to the old rent-dividing debate. What is fair? What is equitable? What is doable?
Please help Gregory and the Michigan DNR find a viable solution. Should they raise the cancellation fee? Eliminate partial cancellations? Give strategic cancelers the poorest campsite available — or, better, frighten them to death in the middle of the night? It would be especially good to hear from readers who have experience setting up their own reservations systems.