How to Choose a Kid Friendly Hotel

Ever arrive at a hotel and start to unpack the car, and you just know the bellman is groaning? When I was a kid, we didn’t have a lot of money, and would stay in places with kitchens for the majority of our trip, moving to a business-class hotel for the day or two my dad had his meetings.

On one of the trips, at the bottom of the trunk, was my mom’s pressure cooker. She had it in some other things she didn’t want taken into the fancy hotel, but the bellman was fast, and he got it on the top of the cart. All the way through the hotel, we all cringed. No one said anything, but you could tell they were all having thoughts about our family suitability for their property.

She never brought it again (victory for us kids who loved to eat out).

It’s surprising that decades later, with more families traveling in business-class hotels and luxury resorts, you still get that feeling. Out comes the cooler, a couple of car seats, a crying baby, and you are ready to hide in the room. Hopefully no one makes a fuss in the restaurant. Or wants to use the pool. Even in moderately-priced hotels, you get the looks. Or a subtle eye roll when you ask for a rollaway. Or inquire about self-parking.

For a one-night stay, you can probably read the internet reviews and glance at the hotel site and get close to what you expect. But if you’re going to spend more than three nights, it’s worth a deeper investigation. Finding a true gem takes a little work.

On a recent stay at The Cheshire (St. Louis), our family was talking about why some hotels can have all the right amenities, but not achieve comfort for their family guests. We decided it starts with the check-in process. At The Cheshire, it was more than the exchanging of plastic card for keys. We got the hours for the free breakfast with tips on avoiding a line and details on exactly what to expect on the menu. We were invited to use the “lobby” any time (it’s more like a giant living room) and given a kid’s bag with a few activities and coupons. WiFi was included in the price of the room (always something that makes us happy!) and parking was free. Nothing to be negative about, and the clerk was genuinely friendly and chatty. That set the tone for our whole stay. Every staff member we talked to was helpful and friendly. Service was great. The entire property felt welcoming and comfortable. Breakfast was much like eating in your own dining room, not a giant cafeteria. Every family we talked to remarked on how friendly the hotel was, and what a great time their kids were having.

But it started with the front desk check-in. We had driven over eight hours and were tired and sore. It was late. Instead of an eye roll, we got an offer to bring our luggage to the room so we could go put ourselves to bed. It’s hard to define a genuine offer of help from the customary “Can someone help you with your luggage?” but we all instantly understand the emotion. In talking about exactly how to find a truly kid friendly hotel every time, we decided to use the front desk staff. Since you can’t show up and interview them in person, taking a couple of minutes to phone the proposed property will work almost as well.

Give the Kids a Voice

Most kids might be too shy to ask their questions on the phone, but at your family meeting about your vacation, ask each one of the family what’s most important about the hotel. Chances are the pool will rate high on the list. But, when we travel with the cousins, who gets to sleep in what bed is also a top priority. So, ask the kids what they absolutely can’t live without, and then call and ask that front desk interview subject whether the mac and cheese is edible. Or if they have a park nearby.

Avoiding surprises makes for a happier experience. If you know that your kids will all refuse to eat the fancy egg dish served at the free breakfast, you’ll plan to eat elsewhere. Not have a simultaneous meltdown when everyone arrives in their swimming suits for a quick breakfast that is pronounced, “gross!”.

What’s In a Room?

All hotel rooms are not created equal, but because of the internet, you no longer have to get a key and go look at a room before deciding if you’ll stay at a hotel. Reviews, pictures and hours of research await your mouse. But, calling the hotel and asking some questions (while time consuming) is often very valuable. Reviews don’t give the full picture, and statistics and information about the hotel don’t tell you what they don’t have. Questions about the room can include:

  • Does the room fit a portable crib, and if so, can we still walk around the bed(s)?
  • Do we need to reserve a rollaway?
  • Do your windows open for fresh air?
  • Do you have a bathtub in some of your rooms?
  • Can I reserve a particular room that fits all my needs?

All Families are Not Equal

As our kids grow up, what we want in a room changes, and what we need from the hotel changes. Some families have mobility issues, dietary restrictions, grandparents along for the ride or allergies to feathers. Can the hotel accommodate these? Again, how your questions are treated on the phone will give you a pretty accurate picture of how much the hotel cares about families staying at the property. Some of the questions we thought of include:

  • How long do most families stay at your hotel?
  • What do they visit/do while they stay at your hotel?
  • Do you have a shuttle that takes families to places in the immediate vicinity?
  • What restaurants do you recommend in the area that serve grilled cheese (fill in your necessary foods)?
  • How much time do families spend in your pool? How deep is it? How hot/cold is it? Do you have shade/indoors? Is there food/beverage service at the pool?
  • Do you have a guest laundry?
  • Do you have a play area at the hotel for kids?
  • How far is it to an emergency room?
  • Is breakfast included? What are the hours, and what did you serve for breakfast today?
  • Can you accommodate our mobility issue, allergy, etc.? How?
  • What would you feed your kids for breakfast/lunch/dinner if you were staying at the hotel?
  • Do you have good ice cream? (this from our youngest)

No one is seriously going to ask all these questions, but picking any two or three should give you a good idea of what to expect. Calling two or three alternatives will probably yield one stand out property that you can call back with a couple additional questions. Online reviews are sketchy sources of information and usually skew towards the negative. Helpful, but not the full picture.

How do you pick a family-friendly hotel for your vacations?