Wednesday, June 11, 2008

So you're thinking of traveling with your small children in tow

The first time I took my kids (then aged 3 and 1) to visit their grandmother in Arizona, I actually shipped an entire case of soy milk to her house a week before we left. Mind you, neither of my kids are actually lactose intolerant. They just preferred soy milk at that age -- a specific brand of soy milk -- and I wasn't taking any chances that anyone would not have their preferred beverage and therefore not get enough hydration and therefore not be on their best behavior and therefore make the entire week a living hell for everyone.

Needless to say, I've loosened up just a bit in the past few years.

I don't pre-ship soy milk any more. I don't even bother to buy fun surprises to pack in the kids' backpacks so that they'll be entertained on the airplane. (Here, kid, have a barf bag. Make it into a puppet or something. We'll be there in about an hour.) But I do continue to very carefully plan ahead to make sure that our trips will be successful, and this planning has paid off in the form of quite a few fabulous trips in the past few years. So for those of you about to embark on your own adventures with children, as well as for the armchair travelers out there living vicariously right now, I humbly offer the single most important thing that I have learned about planning vacations for our young family:

Where you stay is far more important than where you go.

When traveling with small children, a hotel room is not just a place where you lay your head. It's also the place you escape to when your kids are just too wound up or worn down to do any more sightseeing. It's the place you'll need to entertain said children when they awaken at bizarre hours because of the time change and the place you'll need to keep yourselves entertained after you tuck your little travelers into bed at a decent hour. Staying too far away from the action is a mistake when you're dragging kids back and forth to the city center, but staying in the "best hotel" in the heart of it all can be just as fatal if that hotel is too attached to its breakable accessories and starched white tablecloths. Grunge is bad. Glam is equally bad. And a concierge and wait staff who don't much care for children are the kiss of death.

This may sound ridiculous to non-parents, but I suspect that anyone with young children will understand and appreciate my wisdom here when I confess that I have booked entire holidays in locations I hadn't even previously considered visiting simply because I stumbled across great family-friendly acommodations there. Slight overkill? Perhaps. But the world is a big place and there are wonderful things to explore and discover in nearly any locale. There aren't always good places for families to stay. You do the math.

So where are these great acommodations? They're out there, I promise! We've personally found short-term holiday apartments to be preferable to regular hotels in many European cities, but we've also had luck with aparthotels, suite hotels and hotels which offer "family room" setups on occasion. The key to finding the best properties is inevitably word of mouth. If you have friends who travel, they can be a great resource, but I often find Internet reviews to be an equally reliable source.

I've recently been doing a bit of writing for Travel Savvy Mom, a new site designed to be a resource for family-friendly acommodations worldwide. My obviously biased opinion is that this is a great place to start when looking for acommodations; the property reviews are not only very funny, they're also honest and real and exceedingly helpful. The site is still in its infancy, though, so if you're not looking to stay in a treehouse in Oregon or a children's castle in Tokyo, you may temporarily have to look further for a good recommendation.

TripAdvisor is the best of the major hotel review sites in this instance; several of them let you specifically filter family-friendly properties when searching their list of reviews, but TripAdvisor seems to get it right the most frequently. Kid-specific travel sites like Travel For Kids, Take The Family and Baby Goes 2 will often turn up some good suggestions. Occasionally, I'll hit the jackpot simply typing something like "family friendly hotel London" into a search engine. And then I cross-reference. One positive review could be a fluke. A couple of different ones on different sites are a good sign.

No matter how good the reviews elsewhere, however, I always go directly to the property's website for a quick look around before I make a booking. You can learn a lot about a place simply from the tone of its marketing materials. I don't need 6 pages of description about the ways that they cater to children or a big furry mascot who will make our stay "non-stop fun for the little ones." But if soft violin music accompanies a montage of couples-only photographs and seven different "romance package" offerings, I get a bit suspicious about how welcome my children will actually be upon our arrival. At a minimum, I want to see the word "families" appear a few times in the web copy. If they don't want us enough to market to us, we probably don't want them either.

"Your children have been so well behaved that it's been a pleasure to have them," a B&B owner once told us when we checked out of her lovely property in the English countryside. We had selected the place in large part because it was advertised as family-friendly, so her next sentence threw us a bit. "If all kids were like yours, we'd actually want to have them stay here." We pretended not to notice this odd slip, thanked her politely and ushered the kids quickly out of the house before someone screamed or touched something or otherwise blew our well-behaved cover. And then in the car on the way out, I carefully drew a black line through the words "family friendly" in our library-borrowed guidebook. If you recently checked that book out of London's Swiss Cottage library, you're welcome.


Anonymous Kid Friendly Vacations said...

AMEN! to everything you said about finding kid friendly lodging with room to move around.

One of our favorite hotels to use for a stay is Embassy Suites - we will go out of our way to look for one.

2:48 PM  
Anonymous jamie said...


Is it any wonder I wanted to scoop you up for Travel Savvy Mom?

Thanks so much for the link. Where are you off to next?

8:25 PM  
Blogger Suburban Hippie said...

I doubt anyone would say that about my little travelling menagerie, but truer words than this post were never spoken. It's all about family friendly. I don't take my kids where kids aren't wanted, because then nobody has a good time -- not the kids, not their Dad and I because of constantly having to shush them, and certainly not the proprietors.

1:26 AM  
Blogger E said...

You should do some family freindly travel writing. You have got it all right.
And chocolarte milkmshakes or gellato mid day fixes almost anything that's wrong with anyone ever is my experience....

3:55 PM  
Blogger Iota said...

You defaced a library book? And you haven't been deported yet?

3:18 PM  

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