When you're a kid, every hotel stay seems like an adventure. Everything from the key card to the mini-fridge is new and exciting -- fertile ground for a curious mind and a wild imagination. In today's competitive lodging market, hotels are working hard to book these kids and their families by offering a wide variety of discounts and services targeted specifically at children.
This kid-centered, "family-friendly" philosophy was born during the 1950s, the golden age of the American road trip. In those days, it was hard to tell a seedy hotel from a nice one without first inspecting a room, and there was often an extra charge for each child who stayed there. After a particularly miserable cross-country excursion, a young Kemmons Wilson envisioned a chain of predictably clean and safe hotels where kids could stay free and enjoy a swimming pool at every location. Wilson's idea became Holiday Inn, an establishment that changed the way hotels did business and Americans took vacations.
Today, special kids' rates and swimming pools are common features of "family-friendly" lodging. So, some hotels are beginning to provide more elaborate amenities, like babysitting and even field trips, to make themselves more appealing to families. Such hotels have the potential to keep your kids happy and occupied so you can spend less time battling boredom and more time enjoying your vacation together. The following tips will provide some guidance about where to look for and what to expect from "family-friendly" hotels.
Check Online and in Guide Books
There's a wealth of information out there for parents planning family-friendly vacations. The Internet is a great place to start; there are several sites designed specifically for such travel. For example, TravelingMom.com, designed by Connecticut wife and mother Kim Orlando, provides a forum for mothers across the country to share advice and ideas for family trips. Other Web sites allow you to search for kid-friendly accommodations by location, like BabyFriendlyBoltholes.co.uk, which focuses on the United Kingdom and other European destinations, and CiaoBambino.com, which provides information for a number of countries across the globe.
If you have a greater affinity for the written word, there are several guidebooks dedicated to family travel, many for specific locations. Frommer's, the prominent travel guide publisher, sells a series of family-focused books for places like Las Vegas, San Francisco and the national parks. With resources like these, you should have no problem locating places to stay that both you and your kids will enjoy.
Pick a Kid-friendly Locale
When choosing a family-friendly hotel, sometimes it's less about "what" and more about "where." A resort could offer parents every incentive to bring their children along, but if it's in the middle of a business park or nondescript suburb, then they may not have a particularly good experience.
Look for hotels that are close to things kids love to visit, like amusement parks, children's museums, water parks or the beach. If you aren't traveling to a major resort destination, try to find a hotel close to a city park or shopping mall, where kids can run around or hang out. Are the kids still bored? Some chains, like Loews Hotels and Resorts, offer a "family concierge" that can inform you of some of the family attractions in the area.
A room with a view is also a bonus. The excitement of a downtown cityscape or the beauty of a mountain lake can provide hours of entertainment for kids whose view from their own bedroom window is blocked by a wooden privacy fence.
See About the Dining Options
It's always difficult to find a restaurant that the whole family can agree upon, especially in an unfamiliar location. Some hotels try to make this task a little easier by offering dining options with special menus and discounts that appeal to both the kids' taste buds and the parents' pocketbooks.
Holiday Inn, the original family-friendly hotel, has added "kids eat free" to their "kids stay free" motto, offering free meals for up to four kids aged 12 and under at any of their onsite restaurants. But many lodging establishments offer kids' menus. For example, Hyatt Hotels and Resorts' children's fare includes the old standbys: Pop-Tarts, grilled cheese, chicken nuggets and ice cream with sprinkles. For families with more sophisticated tastes, there are programs like the Peninsula New York's "Fifth Avenue Fairy Princess" package, in which little girls accompany their mothers for lunch at the exclusive Manhattan restaurant, La Grenouille. Children who participate in this and other hotel programs receive a Tiffany & Co. silver spoon engraved with their initials as a souvenir.
What's the room configuration?
At home, parents and kids usually have separate bedrooms and bathrooms, and a whole house in which to work and play. In a hotel, however, all this activity is confined to a much smaller space. In a standard hotel room, with just two beds, this can be a hassle; luckily, many hotels offer a discounted price for adjoining rooms.
And some parents reserve a suite. For example, Embassy's two-room suites have a private bedroom for the adults and a separate living and dining area with a pullout couch for the kids. If you're planning to stay in one place for several days, you might consider reserving a suite at Residence Inn, which touts its accommodations as 50 percent larger than standard hotel rooms. Here you can stay in suites with up to two bedrooms and bathrooms, a living room and a full kitchen. With this kind of space, you'll be able to enjoy family togetherness without sacrificing privacy.
Are there discounts for kids?
Discounts for kids are common; many hotels have followed Holiday Inn's lead with a "kids stay and eat free" policy. But what else can you get at a discounted rate?
Some hotels (like Hyatt Hotels and Resorts) offer a "Family Plan," which allows parents to reserve a second room for their kids at half the cost of a single room. And some hotels sell discount tickets to major theme parks and other pricey diversions in the area. The Jolly Roger Hotel in Anaheim, Calif., for example, provides its guests with discounted tickets to Disneyland, Universal Studios, Sea World and the San Diego Zoo.
Hotels are also great places to look for coupons good at area attractions. Be sure to check out the brochure shelf in the lobby and any tourist literature in your room for ways to shave a few bucks off the price of your family vacation.
Look for Family-friendly Services
Hotels have become considerably more family-friendly over the past several decades, a trend that may be most evident in the kinds of guest services they now provide. If you need some alone time with your spouse, check to see if your hotel has babysitting services, which have become a relatively common amenity at resort hotels. Parents will also enjoy features like the Baby Butler Service at the Marco Island Marriot Beach Resort, which, among other things, provides a daily diaper delivery and a baby gift.
If you're worried about the safety of your hotel room, some hotels, like Holiday Inn family suites, provide free childproofing kits upon request. While these services may be catered toward parents, many hotels offer amenities intended for kids to enjoy. Loews Hotels and Resorts rent toys, games, movies, cribs and strollers at no additional charge. Family spas are also becoming increasingly common, like the Tabacon Grand Spa Thermal Resort in Costa Rica, which offers chocolate body wraps, back massages, and mineral pools for adults and kids alike.
Can your family pet stay at this hotel?
Many travelers consider pets a part of the family, so for those people "family-friendly" also means "pet-friendly." A surprising number of hotels allow pets, but the rules and fees vary wildly. Most hotels limit the number of pets to one per room, though chains like Comfort Inn may allow up to three in a room. Pet fees are similarly varied; at Motel 6, for example, pets stay free, while other hotels may charge upward of $35 a night for each pet.
A good resource for finding pet-friendly hotels, both chain and independently owned, is PetsWelcome.com. Here you'll find a comprehensive list of hotels in the United States that allow pets, searchable by location. The site also details pet policies for each hotel in its database and promises to remove any establishment that provokes a bad report from a user. With these tips in mind, you can ensure that Fido doesn't get left out of the family vacation.
Check into Hotel Activities
If you have trouble keeping your child entertained every minute of your vacation, why not let the hotel take a turn? Some hotels are now offering in-house camps where kids can participate in activities like arts and crafts and book readings. For example, at the Inn of the Anasazi in Santa Fe, N.M., parents and their children can learn how to cook gourmet macaroni and cheese with the hotel's head chef, Oliver Ridgeway. Bamboo-pole fishing, crabbing and lei-making are the standard activities of the "Keiki Club," a kids' camp at the Kahala Hotel and Resort in Hawaii. The hotel also offers story readings given by costumed employees or actual children's book authors.
Camp Hyatt, a program offered by Hyatt Hotels and Resorts, educates kids ages 3 to 12 about the culture, history and environment of their destination. Activities at the camps include Hula dancing in Hawaii, pottery painting in Arizona, and arrowhead hunts in Texas. For those who desire a little less structure, there's always the swimming pool.
Does this hotel have field trips for kids?
With a growing focus on family-friendly hotel experiences, field trips are no longer limited to schools. Many hotels have created their own version of the activity, helping kids experience the community and letting parents get some much-needed alone time.
Some of these excursions are simple, like a breakfast on the beach at the La Jolla Beach and Tennis Club in California, where Kid's Club members never leave resort property. The "Kids Corps of Discovery" at Paws Up resort in Montana offers slightly more venturesome trips. There, kids celebrate "Lewis and Clark Day" with some outdoor exploration and take gold panning and fly-fishing lessons at a nearby creek.
Other field trips are downright extravagant: At the Peninsula New York, a personal shopper will accompany kids to FAO Schwarz where they can browse the latest selection of American Girl dolls. While such scheduled activity may not be suitable for all children, many will enjoy the unique experiences the hotel trips offer.
Red Flags That This Hotel Isn't For Kids
At most hotels, kids are about as common as cars in the parking lot, so it's easy to forget that some accommodations are intended for an adult crowd. While these hotels may not come out and say they discourage young guests, there are some red flags to help you identify such establishments.
If parts of a hotel are off-limits to children, that's a good sign that you and your family should look elsewhere for lodging. Another good indication that a hotel may not be family-friendly is if it has amenities that might be hazardous to children, like open hot tubs or balconies. Size can also be a predictor. Small hotels often want to promote calm and intimate interactions among guests, and they hold a negative attitude toward children.
Less reliable indicators are price and style: Families often stay at cheaper chain hotels to save money, reserving the more expensive establishments for a mature crowd. When you're looking for a family-friendly hotel, perhaps the best question you can ask is "Is the place romantic?" If the answer is "yes," you probably should avoid it.
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