Krystal Kirkendoll has one beach vacation she looks forward to every year — spending a few days at a quaint Crystal Cove cottage tucked between Newport Beach and Laguna Beach — a nice relief from the hot Kentucky summer.

Like many others, shed typically scramble to score a spot when a month of reservations opened six months in advance. And while it took determination and fast fingers, for the past decade shes always been able to get a cottage for her California getaway.

Until recently.

Californias reservation system, ReserveCalifornia, underwent an overhaul in August — a change that was meant to make reservations easier, but has prompted an increase in campers complaining its actually harder to nab a spot.

  • Early morning risers sit atop the sand berm adjacent to the campground at Doheny State Beach in Dana Point. (Photo by Mark Rightmire, Orange County Register/SCNG)

  • Crystal Cove State Park cottages are a hot commodity, and some people may be paying extra to ensure their spot. SCNG/FILE PHOTO

  • The cottages at Crystal Cove State Beach are hard to nab, and even harder since a new reservation system launched, some say. SCNG/FILE PHOTO

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  • Krystal Kirkendoll, of Kentucky, takes a selfie at Crystal Cove State Park during a past vacation. She said its harder to get a spot because some people are rigging the system. Photo: Kirkendoll

  • Krystal Kirkendoll on a past vacation at Crystal Cove State Park. Photo courtesy of Kirkendoll

  • Krystal Kirkendoll, of Kentuky, said some people are rigging the new reservation system, making it harder for people to get a spot at their favorite campsite. Photo coutesy of Kirkendoll

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“Ill admit, it was hard,” Kirkendoll said of the previous system. “But if you were on time, it was fair.”

Now, instead of an entire month opening up on the first of each month six months in advance, its a rolling system for each date. For example, a spot for June 20 would have to be reserved on Jan. 20. If you want a reservation for Christmas Day, youll have to jump on June 25 for a chance to get it.

Unfair or business venture?

Kirkendoll recently stumbled on a third-party website that caters to campers who are willing to pay an extra fee for a better chance at getting a spot. Its a business she thinks is giving an unfair advantage to people willing to pay a price and goes against Californias goal of keeping campsites affordable and accessible to the public.

When she called the website — First Choice Reservations — she was told the fee was $39 for a cottage that cost $31 a night. The site also uses “reservecalifornia” as part of its URL, making it misleading, she said.

“Why would I pay more than what the room costs?” she asked. “Its not fair.”

Jonathan Dean, head of First Choice Reservations, said the company launched a year ago providing a software solution for people who want to ensure reservation dates on Reserve America. When Reserve California launched last year, he started providing service for those campsites as well.

The First Choice Reservations website touts computers that “are faster than everyone else, so you win the site you want.”

“From our perspective – we provided a software solution, just like a lot of software companies out there,” Dean said. “We provide software in a form of a service to pay for or use, to get something they want or raise the chances to get something they want. I would say we definitely raise the probability of our customers being successful.”

He said users have had about an 80 percent success rate, and that the website had about 200 customers in the past year.

Dean also said hes heard of tactics such as people rolling their reservations and selling to their friends once they cancel their original reservation date on Reserve California.

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“Theres a lot of different games being played,” he said. “Theres a very high level of frustration with the website in general.”

One thing he wanted to be clear about: First Choice Reservations doesnt resell inventory or resell sites.

“Its not as if were getting there first, get a site and at noon we are flipping them or scalping them,” he said.

He said hes also heard of glitches such as people getting locked out of the states reservation system at the credit card stage, thus losing the campsite, which goes back into the pool for others to nab. Challenges such as that have helped to create a marketplace for people willing to pay extra.

“I think theres a need,” Dean said. “I think people should have the freedom to pay for a software service if they choose too.”

Logging complaints

California State Parks officials are aware of concerns.

“We continue to receive input and feedback from our visitors on the new reservation system. While some visitors are having no issues making reservations, others are,” Jorge Moreno, information officer for California State Parks, wrote in an e-mail.

Moreno said “third party” activity is being monitored.

“As nature lovers ourselves, we sympathize with our fellow outdoor enthusiasts and want to assure them that we continue to review the reservation system for process improvement and will continue to implement improvements as they are identified,” he wrote.

State Parks is looking into limiting the number of modifications an individual can make and updating terms and conditions that define acceptable and unacceptable uses of the reservation system, Moreno wrote.

“As the department makes these changes, we are cautious to ensure the visitor experience, both online and at the park units, is accessible and positive,” he wrote. “Californias state park system is loved by many within and outside the state of California. At times, the public demand exceeds the inventory of available campsites.”

Crystal Cove is among the hardest of the sites to reserve, with only 24 spaces available at any given time and booked year-round, Moreno noted. Others such as Steep Ravine cabins at Mount Tamalpais State Park, the RV campground at Seacliff State Beach and all southern coastal campgrounds are also high-demand areas that are difficult to secure.

Dean said Crystal Cove is the most popular request by customers, followed by San Elijo in San Diego, Doheny State Beach in Dana Point and Leo Carrillo north of Malibu.

Alix Hobbs, president and CEO of the Crystal Cove Conservancy, said there has been an increase in complaints about the new reservation system and every complaint gets sent to State Parks officials.

“We have been working directly with the director of State Parks and director of concessions to fix and identify the problems the public has let us know about,” she said. “Its good the public has been communicating with us so State Parks has information about what is going on.”

When the reservation system first switched over, there were a few complaints each week, and now as the busier summer months approach theyve had double the complaints, she said.

“The increasing complaints were coming as people were making their summer plans,” she said. “Now they are much more frequent than they have been.”

She said she is “very concerned” about a website charging a fee to secure spots for people.

“Our intent is to have these cottages available to everyone,” Hobbs said. “And we want to make sure the cottages are accessible and remain affordable — and thats what were concerned about.”

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