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The Great American Eclipse is coming: How to catch the best views

People have been planning for years to catch the Aug. 21 total solar eclipse, which will exclusively cross the U.S., but there's still time to plan.
/ Source: TODAY

According to some, finding a place to stay in cities with the best view of next month’s solar eclipse has cast a huge shadow on travel plans. They make it sound like finding a hotel room in such a city is tougher than getting tickets to a sold-out rock concert or Broadway show.

Andrea Mensink says don’t believe them. Rooms are available but, like all good promoters, she says you have to act fast.

The spokeswoman for Experience Columbia SC, the nonprofit visitors bureau for the South Carolina city that will be in the direct line of the eclipse, said, “We want to get across to anyone in the U.S. that we still have hotel availability in the metro area.”

Across the country, people are trying to determine where to get the best seat for the eclipse taking place Aug. 21, the first complete solar eclipse that will be visible from the contiguous United States since 1979.

This also will be the first eclipse to exclusively cross the nation, from the Pacific to the Atlantic coasts, since June 8, 1918. It’s why this celestial event has been dubbed “The Great American Eclipse.”

The eclipse will be visible all over the country in varying degrees, but a total eclipse can be seen starting along a patch of Oregon beach, stretching 60-70 miles wide. That so-called path of totality then travels in an arc diagonally across the country, trailing off from a South Carolina beach.

Solar Eclipse 2017: Path of totality / TODAY

Anyone inside that path will get to see the moon appear to completely cover the sun — weather permitting — for about two minutes before the two orbs go their separate ways.

“The real eclipse aficionados, they already got a hotel or campground spot right in the center of that dark zone years ago,” said Andrew Fraknoi, astronomy chairman at California’s Foothhill College, who has been helping train educators to prepare the public for watching the eclipse for the past several years.

The next solar eclipse to cross the United States will be on April 8, 2024, but the path of totality will only cut through from Texas to Maine. The country won't get its next coast-to-coast eclipse until Aug. 12, 2045.

“This is the great thing about astronomical alignments in our solar system. We understand the solar system well enough that we can predict this kind of event decades, even centuries, in advance,” Fraknoi said.

But that means hotels and campsites located within or just outside the center of the arc’s path have been sold out for months, particularly in rural areas. Tourist groups from Japan, Germany and other nations competed along with Americans for accommodations long ago.

In Oregon, where the state opens reservations for its regular tent and recreational vehicle camp sites about nine months in advance, all 2,500 spots for Aug. 21 filled up within an hour one early morning last November. The state responded to the demand in April by opening up an additional 1,000 spots, most of them “dry camp sites” that lack usual facilities and services and are located on parking lots or in fields.

Those sites filled up within two minutes.

Chris Havel, a spokesman for the Oregon Parks and Recreation Department, said the state is used to preparing for big events, such as its annual Civil War re-enactment, but those events are contained to one site.

“This is not just one park, it’s 30 parks, all across the state, all having the world’s largest event at the same time. That's never happened before in the state park system,” he said.

Kids looking through special glasses to view a solar eclipse.
Next month's eclipse will be the first complete solar eclipse to cross exclusively across the United States in nearly a century. Getty Images

The state parks department is working closely with the Oregon Office of Emergency Management for the influx of visitors throughout the state, making sure enough portable toilets and hand-washing stations are available. They also want to ensure that emergency responders will be able to navigate congested roads.

For people hoping to travel to the smaller cities where hotel rooms are sold out, tourism experts recommend that people literally widen their perspective. For instance, in Jefferson City, Missouri, which falls in the center of the eclipse path, all hotels are booked, according to Travelocity and other travel-based websites. But plenty of rooms are still available just two hours away in St. Louis and many of its suburbs, most of which will have nearly the same or just as great a perspective.

Other travelers are turning to Airbnb, where more than 31,000 people have booked for the night of Aug. 20 at listings along the eclipse path, a 55 percent increase in bookings over the previous month, the company said. And people continue to offer up their homes: The site currently has more than 21,000 active listings along the eclipse path. About 35 percent of hosts offering up spaces on Aug. 20 are first-time listers.

"Big holidays such as New Year's Eve can cause spikes in Airbnb activity around the nation and world, but what is special about the eclipse is that we are seeing simultaneous spikes in many cities across the U.S. that don't traditionally benefit from tourism," said a company spokeswoman.

For those staying close to home on Aug. 21, they can still get a good view of the solar eclipse, just to a lesser degree depending on how far they live from the path of totality.

There will be plenty of ways to participate locally in the excitement. Most planetariums and science museums are hosting eclipse-related activities and viewings. Many libraries across the country also are participating by giving away eclipse glasses with special filtered lenses that allow people to safely view the sun. (Scientists and doctors warn that severe eye damage can occur without such special precautions.)

Partial Solar Eclipse Over Spain
A girl used special filtered glasses to look into the sky during a partial solar eclipse on March 20, 2015 in Madrid, Spain. Getty Images

For those who still hope to venture closer to the action, make plans now and keep an open mind.

In Columbia, South Carolina, downtown hotels are booked, but a search within a 15-minute drive will yield numerous options.

And a little homework on the eclipse path will show plenty of excellent viewing spots in other nearby cities, such as Anderson, Greenville and Charleston, said Kim Jamieson, public relations manager for Discover South Carolina.

"There are some great options," she said. "You just have to think creatively."

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