The big event is set for Aug. 21, 2017: The first total solar eclipse to go coast to coast in the U.S. in 99 years is now less than 10 months away, and if you haven't booked your hotel or made any solid plans yet, you may have a problem.
Along the totality path (where the sun will be completely blotted out by the moon), which averages about 70 miles (110 kilometers) in width, some hotels have been booked out for months — even years. Other hotels might be available but, depending on where you look, could be very costly. You have a few options, but you will need to act now or else you might end up missing out on one of nature's greatest celestial road shows.
The climatological odds for clear skies on eclipse day are quite good in the western United States. Western Oregon, Idaho, Wyoming and western Nebraska have odds ranging from 65 to 85 percent for a sky ranging from clear to scattered clouds. Of course, this part of the eclipse path is where most people would want to be. And with that potential high demand, a number of hotels, motels, bed and breakfasts, and other types of accommodations are taking full advantage by jacking up their rates for accommodations around eclipse time. [Total Solar Eclipse 2017: When, Where and How to See It (Safely)]
At the American Meteorological Society's 44th Conference on Broadcast Meteorology (held in Austin, Texas, last June), Kelly Beatty, a senior editor at Sky & Telescope magazine, gave a presentation on the 2017 solar eclipse. Beatty told his audience what happened when he was trying to put together an eclipse tour that would take participants to Casper, Wyoming, which is practically on the center line of the eclipse.
"I went to a hotel, one of the better ones," Beatty said. "I worked with the sales manager and told her I would rent the whole hotel — 120 rooms — for two nights. She came back and said, 'It'll cost you $485 per room, per night.' I said, 'I'll take it.' She then withdrew the offer!"
"Maybe she thought she could get more from somewhere else …. Maybe so," he added.
Last summer, I made a reservation at a hotel within the totality path in Ontario, Oregon, and was surprised the very next day to get an email from the general manager containing a PDF attachment titled "Eclipse Agreement," which quoted much higher rates than I had originally planned to pay as well as asked for a 20 percent nonrefundable deposit and a "no-cancellation clause" within six months of Aug. 21, 2017!
Needless to say, I canceled my reservation at that hotel.
Michael Bakich, a senior editor/photo editor for Astronomy magazine, told yet another story:
"My wife's boss and her fiancé are traveling from Milwaukee to St. Joseph, Missouri, for the eclipse," he said. "They booked a room at a hotel on Aug. 21, complete with a confirmation number, for $199 per night. On Friday, Aug. 26, she received a call from the hotel informing her that her reservation had been canceled and that she was free to rebook the room in a week but that the rate would be $399 per night. My initial reaction was something to the fouler side of 'Come on! What's to prevent them from jacking up the price again, and again?'"
But there was a happy ending to the story. Bakich noted that after checking with several lawyers, it was determined that a confirmation acts as a contract, and then provided instructions (in legalese) to his wife's boss. And, lo and behold, the hotel honored its previous commitment.
The smaller the town inside the totality path, the greater the opportunity for hotel price gouging. Casper, Wyoming, has already been cited here as an example. Casper's population is 65,000. There are smaller resort towns that have larger tourist bed bases. Hotels will still be expensive there, but larger groups may be able to find condos at a lower per-person cost. In a resort town, you will almost surely have a multinight minimum.
But there is also good news: If you search long enough, you will find good bargains.
Use internet travel search engines such as Trivago, Expedia and Travelocity. Finding a room just outside the totality path should be easier than finding one inside the totality path. Most people would rather get up early and drive an hour or two than pay $400 to $600 per night with a three-night minimum, for example. In the end, perhaps it's best to choose a larger city either grazed by, or slightly outside, the totality path that should have more hotel rooms, such as Portland, Oregon; Boise, Idaho; Kansas City, Missouri; St. Louis; or Knoxville, Tennessee. It could be more difficult for hotel operators to try to price gouge in places like that.
It may also be easier to find hotels with reasonable rates in places within or close to the totality path east of the Mississippi, where climatological odds for a clear sky on eclipse day are not quite as good as the glowing expectations out west. Nashville, Tennessee, for instance, has a roughly 50 percent chance of clear skies or scattered clouds; Greenville, South Carolina, has a 42 percent chance; and Charleston, South Carolina has just 32 percent odds. All three cities are inside the totality path.
Remember, regardless of what the statistics suggest, every place along the path of totality has a chance of a beautifully clear sky — or overcast conditions. As the late science fiction writer Robert Heinlein noted, "Climate is what you expect; weather is what you get."
You might also be able to get discounts using your AARP or AAA membership.
With less than 10 months to go, keep this in mind: The big hotel chains may be full, but the little ones probably aren't. [Incredible Solar Eclipse View Shot During Alaska Airlines Flight Video]
Camping is an obvious cost-effective alternative. Competition for campsites may be intense inside the eclipse's path but probably much less so even a short distance outside the path. Search around online, and you'll see that hotels and campgrounds along the totality path have been booking up since May.
Another option is to rent an RV or motor home. In this way, you can drive to any part of the totality path, fully self-contained, and bring everything you will need to "camp" for some days ahead of Aug. 21. Then, after eclipse day, hopefully you can stay put for a day or two afterward to survive the traffic mess of everyone trying to get home.
There are, after all, approximately 12 million people who live in the totality zone, but another 225 million are within a one-day drive of the totality path. This may well be the most watched astronomy space-related event in U.S. history since perhaps the first moon landing. Without a doubt, the days surrounding next Aug. 21 are likely to be very busy ones nationwide!
Joe Rao serves as an instructor and guest lecturer at New York's Hayden Planetarium. He writes about astronomy for Natural History magazine, the Farmer's Almanac and other publications, and he is also an on-camera meteorologist for News 12 Westchester, New York. Follow us @Spacedotcom, Facebook and Google+. Original article on Space.com.
- Joe Rao, Space.com Skywatching Columnist