Travel With Kids: Top 10 Hotel Tips
Before we had kids, my husband and I confidently agreed our motto would be "have kids, will travel." When our son was born, we hit the open road and flew the friendly skies with confidence. When our daughter was born, we carried on—and carried a lot more to accommodate our two tiny tykes. Then we had triplets and our travel moxie was put to the test. Could we really still travel with five kids under the age of five? Sure we could and indeed we did. Whether your family is big or small, here is some advice to ensure that your next check-in doesn't leave you wanting to check out!
1. SAFETY FIRST
Remember that many hotels are built for business travelers, not baby travelers so, if you're bringing a little one along, consider bringing some of the baby-proofing "comforts" of home with you. Little things like outlet covers won't take up much space in your bag and will give you peace of mind as your crawler explores his new surroundings. For bigger kids, remind them that home rules apply for hotels too—don't open the door to strangers; don't leave the door open or unlocked; and as a reminder to you, don't leave the kids "home alone." As tempting as it may be to let the monitor be the babysitter, in the event of an emergency, it may be hard to return to your room and you never know when housekeeping (or anyone else) could come a'knockin'. When it comes to "kids clubs," remember your ABCs: Ask about Allergies, Background checks and "Checkpoint Charlie"—you should know what the visitation policy is for parents; the ratio of caretakers to children and who's watching the door, pool, etc., to ensure that your little one won't wander off for some sight-seeing of his own.
2. ASK AND YOU SHALL RECEIVE
From high-end resorts like the Montage to the more affordable Residence Inn by Marriott, many goodies are there for the taking as long as you're not afraid to ask. Eager to please even the smallest of travelers, many hotels offer stuffed animals, coloring books, crayons, rubber ducks for tub time, and more. Some also have game rooms or libraries stocked with board games, video games, puzzles and books you can borrow during your stay. Forgot to pack pool toys? Ask for those too. If the hotel doesn't offer them as a giveaway or for complimentary use at the pool, there's a good chance someone else has left them behind and you can reap the rewards. If you're traveling with a baby on board, the Westin even offers Diaper Genies, bottle warmers, and booster seats. But remember, you don't get what you don't ask for!
3. BE SPECIFIC WHEN MAKING YOUR RESERVATION
If you need a crib, ask for it before you arrive, not when you're checking in. If you need a mini-fridge to keep the morning milk cold, confirm it ahead of time. You should also ask about the maximum occupancy of the room you reserved; most hotels have a limit and it's best to know what it is ahead of time—especially if, like me, you hope to squeeze your entire brood into one room. While you're at it, consider requesting a room with a kid-friendly layout—an alcove, walk-in closet, or even a large bathroom can accommodate a crib or Pack & Play so you don't find yourself reading or eating in the dark after putting the little ones to bed.
4. JOIN LOYALTY PROGRAMS
From Hyatt to Starwood, there are numerous perks programs just waiting for you to join. Membership is free, points are earned over time, discounts are often available, and, as they say, membership has its rewards. According to a Hilton Worldwide spokesperson, "With Hilton Honors, the more often members stay, the higher the status they'll achieve and the more perks they'll have access to whether traveling for business or leisure—including but not limited to space-available upgrades to a preferred room or suite; the option to choose from a host of MyWay benefits like one in-room movie per stay to entertain the kids, or a selection of free beverages, sweet treats, and salty snacks. We even offer late or express checkout to make packing up the family simpler." Sign up is quick and easy and with apps like CardStar or AwardWallet to help track your membership numbers, status and passwords, there's no reason not to just do it!
5. ALL YOU CAN EAT
Well, it may not be all you can eat and frankly, it would be a shame not to get out of the hotel to enjoy the local fare, but you can and should take advantage of any freebies that are offered. Breakfast is included at most family-friendly hotels, including Country Inn & Suites, Embassy Suites, Holiday Inn Express, and Spring Hill Suites. The Doubletree is famous for warm chocolate-chip cookies at check-in and a spokesperson confirmed that if you ask nicely, they will even give you two. Many hotels let kids eat free (something they regret when they see our clan of five approaching!) and some even include weeknight dinners in your daily rate. We lucked out on a recent trip to Washington, D.C., when it was Taco Night at the Residence Inn; free tacos make for happy travelers, both tall and small! The Holiday Inn lets up to four kids 12 and under eat free at their on-site restaurants with a paying adult and if you book the Experiences by Marriott package, breakfast, lunch and dinner is included; in their words "we'll take care of feeding them and you can worry about what you want to eat." Be sure to read the fine print though; "kids eat free" has its limitations and poolside dining and room service typically top the list.
6. PLAN YOUR MEALS
If freebies aren't included or Taco Night just isn't your thing, you may be tempted to order room service. And you should, just once. The thrill of it for the kids (and ease of it for you!) is worth the expense, but for most of us, it's a one-hit wonder. To ensure you don't blow your sightseeing budget on breakfast, lunch, and dinner, consider choosing a hotel with an en suite kitchen, like Residence Inn or Homewood Suites. It's easy to pack a few basics like cereal, peanut butter, jelly, crackers, and mac & cheese or, better yet, pick them up en route to the hotel or in the lobby "pantry"; the Hilton Garden Inn has a "Pavilion Pantry retail market offering a selection of microwaveable packaged, refrigerated and frozen food items and an assortment of beverages, snacks and sundries." Since you'll want to eat out a few nights, be sure to research family-friendly local joints before stomachs start to growl—or put the concierge to work and let her take care of the details.
7. PACK WISELY
While we'd all like to take a break from laundry, it pays to pack light and do a load on the road—especially when you consider the high cost of checking bags and limited real estate in rental cars. Find out what your laundry options are before you go. Does your hotel offer laundry service? Is it worth paying a premium for? If not, ask about a laundry room (many of the suite hotels, including the Hilton Garden Inn and Home2Suites, have them) or proximity to a local laundromat or wash & fold service so that you'll be prepared when Junior wets his pants or your princess tosses her cookies. A word of caution though, courtesy of Jamie Pearson, the well-traveled blogger behind Travel Savvy Mom, "If you decide to bring a Ziploc bag of laundry detergent with you, label it with a Sharpie and put it in your checked baggage. On the whole, TSA agents tend to take a dim view of baggies full of white powder."
8. BE AWARE OF HIDDEN COSTS
Nothing mars a memory more quickly than sticker shock at checkout. Ask in advance about fees for parking, exceeding double occupancy, rollaway beds, cribs, and any other surprises that might come up. Also note that "all-inclusive" resorts may not be; while meals are typically included, many resort activities like water sports, kid camps, and those cute umbrella drinks that are oh-so-tempting may come with a hefty price tag. Last but not least, keep the kids out of the mini-fridge and away from the snack bar. While it was fun to watch Chevy Chase charge it to the Underwood's in Fletch, it's not nearly as amusing when the victim is you and the hoodlums are your own!
9. JOIN AAA
Annual membership fees for the Automobile Association of America range from $58 for a basic membership to $129 for the premiere package. All members receive "great deals at major chains such as Best Western, Clarion, Doubletree Hotels, Embassy Suites, Hampton, Hilton, Hyatt, Marriott, Quality or Sleep Inn, and more." Other perks? Travel guides, entertainment discounts and, of course, the rapid-response roadside assistance they are known for. If you'll need a car seat at your destination, joining AAA automatically enrolls you in the Hertz Gold Plus program, which will give you one car seat for free when you rent from Hertz.
10. DON'T SKIP "DATE NIGHT"!
Let's be honest, it's hard to keep the flame alive when you and your partner are sharing the room with your offspring, but that doesn't mean it has to fizzle out completely. If you're heading to a warm weather destination, request a room with a terrace or patio and order room service after the kids are tucked in; dining al fresco is like going on a date without leaving your room. If you'd prefer to stay inside, dim the lights as the little ones snooze and tuck in for a movie or perhaps even a bubble bath—sans rubber duckie. Sometimes romance is as simple as a tub you didn't have to clean... Now that's a vacation!
Save Big During “Learn to Ski & Snowboard Month”
New England. The Rocky Mountains. The Sierra Nevadas. Is this the year you finally learn to ski? January is Learn to Ski and Snowboard Month, and nearly 70 ski areas across the U.S. are offering specials to get beginners up on their skis and down the mountains. Research from the National Ski Areas Association suggests that beginning skiers often take up the sport because it allows them to spend time with friends and family. Does that sound like you? This year, beginner packages at participating ski areas typically include one to four lessons (depending on the location), a lift ticket, and rental gear. Here, we’ve rounded up some of the best beginner deals - all well under $100 - happening this month across the country. ROCKY MOUNTAINS SKI DEALS FROM $49 An array of Ski Utah resorts are offering beginner packages starting at $49, including lift ticket, beginner group lesson, and equipment rental for children and adults, with some blackout dates and restrictions. Participating resorts include Eagle Point (voted Utah’s best beginner ski resort by Liftopia), Deer Valley, Powder Mountain, Snowbasin, Solitude, and Sundance. At Idaho’s Silver Mountain, purchasing a $56 lift ticket (or a $41 youth ticket) nabs you a free beginner group lessons and equipment rental package. SIERRA NEVADA SKI DEALS FROM $49 Diamond Peak, Nevada, offers Learn to Ski & Ride packages for $49 from Monday January 22 through Thursday January 25 for ages seven to adult, including a beginner lift ticket, rental equipment, and a one-hour and 45-minute lesson. (There’s also a two-hour package for kids ages four to six.)Snow Valley, California, celebrating its 80th year, offers a Buy One Get One Free Beginner Lesson for ages 13 and up for $74, including a beginner area lift ticket, two-hour group ski or snowboard lesson, and equipment rental, valid Monday through Friday except holidays. ALASKA SKI DEALS FROM $44 Eaglecrest offers a mid-week Learn to Ski or Ride Package for $44 for ages seven to adult, including a two-hour lesson, lift ticket, and equipment rental. Weekend beginner package are $54. NEW ENGLAND SKI DEALS FROM $39 New Hampshire boasts nine ski resorts (Attitash, Bretton Woods, Cannon, Carnmore, Granite Gorge, King Pine, Pat’s Peak, Ragged Mountain, and Waterville Valley) with deals via Ski New Hampshire’s beginner package, including a lesson lift ticket, and rentals. Ski New Hampshire is also hosting a learn to ski and snowboard weekend January 27 and 28. Ski Vermont has organized a beginner program that includes Bolton Valley, Bromley, Burke, Killington, Mt. Snow, Pico, Okemo, Smuggler’s Notch, Stratton, and Sugarbush, offering $49 packages that include a lesson, lift ticket, and rentals. And Vermont’s Bring a Friend, Ski FREE!! Program is valid through March 25: When a beginner purchases a First Time Ski & Ride package, a friend or family member gets a free lift ticket valid for that same day. MID-ATLANTIC SKI DEALS FROM $25 Guess which state has the most ski areas? Wrong. It’s New York. This winter, the Empire State is hosting Discover NY Ski Day on January 18, with beginner ski packages starting at $25 all around the state. Other special offers are available at New York’s Bellaeyre, Holliday Valley, Hunter, Mt. Peter, Snow Ridge, Swain, and West Mountain.Pennsylvania’s PSAA First Time Program offers a $59 lesson, lift ticket, and rental equipment at participating ski areas, plus Learn to Ski and Snowboard/Bring a Friend special offers at Bear Creek, Blue Mountain, Jack Frost/Big Boulder, Liberty, Roundup, Shawnee, Ski Big Bear, and Whitetail.
Not long ago, cruising was synonymous with partying, romance, or exploring farflung destinations, often post-retirement. These days, there's a completely different way of looking at cruise ships—not just as playgrounds for overgrown children but for, well, your children. But traveling with kids is never as simple as tossing some clothes and a smartphone into a backpack, is it? Here, we share expert advice on everything from how to pack smart, keep the little ones safe, find reliable onboard child care, and which cruise lines are rolling out the red carpet for families. PACK SMART If you're traveling with a baby or toddler, get used to the idea of schlepping your own formula, jars of baby food, and diapers, which are not among the myriad products a typical cruise ship can sell you. And don't squirrel away all those must-haves in your suitcase—on embarkation days you may be separated from your luggage for hours and you'll be able to keep your little one happier if you have a tote bag stocked with food, wipes, change of clothes, etc. The good news is you may be able to leave your baby's portable crib at home—ask your cruise line (early!) if you can reserve one in advance. "To lighten your packing load, consider planning a laundry day at sea," advises David Molyneaux, editor of TheTravelMavens.com. "Most family-friendly ships will have washers and driers in the cabin areas—check the line's website." BOOK A SAFE CABIN Yeah, we all had a collective gasp when a toddler fell off a cruise ship balcony over the holidays in Florida. Of course you should brief all kids, from toddlers to teens, about keeping off railings, but Molyneaux suggests, "Even if it's only for your peace of mind, avoid balconies until your kids are old enough to know better." You can book an interior room for the whole family, or give older older kids an interior room and take an exterior balcony room across the hall for yourselves. Many cruise lines will offer family cabins, which can sleep up to four, and deeply discount the cost of the kids' berths—but Molyneaux notes that sometimes booking two adjoining cabins on a lower deck instead of a suite can save you money and get you more elbow room. (Disney even throws in an extra "half bathroom," with a toilet and sink, in most cabins. The ship will also have its own rules about how and when kids are allowed to participate in organized activities. Some lines allow elementary school-age kids to sign themselves up for activities and walk the ship's corridors unsupervised—but that kind of choice is really only yours to make. GET A SITTER Although some lines offer so many organized activities for kids during the day that some parents actually complain that they didn't see enough of their kids on their cruise, most couples will value some alone time, especially when the sun goes down. Some cruise lines offer private in-cabin babysitting at a premium—it can run you around $20 per hour. But if your kid wrinkles his nose at the idea of being "left with a sitter," you're in luck: Many cruise lines disguise evening babysitting as "late night parties," allowing parents to drop off their kids for around $10 per hour per child. (On Disney cruises, the party goes till midnight and it's free of charge). BOOK A FAMILY-FRIENDLY CRUISE When it comes to going the extra mile to put smiles on your kids' faces, these cruise lines are tops: Carnival If your kids can imagine summer camp at sea, that's Camp Carnival—complete with counselors to supervise daily activities and meals. The line divides children into three age groups from two- to 12-years old and employs counselors who have education or childcare experience; play spaces resemble nothing less than the playroom of your dreams (carnival.com). Disney No surprises here—Disney knows how to keep kids happy. The line is famous for its roaming characters like Mickey and Minnie, of course, but it also offers Broadway-style musicals, first-run films in 3D, and port-of-call activities tailored for kids like glass-bottom boats and up-close-and-personal dolphin encounters (disneycruise.disney.go.com). Norwegian Splash Academy sets the bar high—to entertain and educate children from six months to 12 years old (divided, of course, into age-appropriate groups, with parents required for the littlest ones). Whether your kid is into low-key arts and crafts projects or adrenaline-charged circus activities (including juggling and tumbling) taught by real circus performers, Norwegian's foray into family fun goes big (ncl.com). Royal Caribbean When you're reaching out to families, it helps to have some trusted names in your Rolodex, and Royal Caribbean has partnered with Crayola, Fisher Price, and DreamWorks to offer a blend of educational and entertainment options to its littlest passengers. From quiet play groups to full-on surf simulators, climbing walls, and the first carousel-at sea, there's something for every taste. Oh, and you may want to warn your little ones that they may bump into Shrek or Kung Fu Panda onboard (royalcaribbean.com).
Fall Festivals in America's Cool Small Towns
NATIONAL APPLE HARVEST FESTIVALBiglerville, PA; October 7 & 8, 14 & 15; $10; appleharvest.com For 50 years, the National Apple Harvest Festival has been celebrating the sweet, crunchy fall favorite with hands-on arts & crafts, demonstrations, music performances, and, of course, great food stands serving up (take a deep breath…) apple butter, apple cookies, apple bread, apple cotton candy, apple fritters, apple pie, apple dumplings, apple turnovers, apple cakes, apple cider, apple guacamole, apple salsa, apple pizza, and apple pie moonshine. If that’s not enough to satisfy you, take an orchard tour, visit the petting zoo, and see antique cars and vintage steam engine displays. And the whole shebang is in beautiful Biglerville, PA, an easy road trip from Philadelphia, Baltimore, or Washington, D.C., and just 10 miles from historic Gettysburg, where we love the Federal Pointe Inn, an Ascend Hotel Collection Member, with rooms under $150/night. SIEGEL’S COTTONWOOD FARM PUMPKIN FESTIVALLockport, IL; September 23 to October 31, $15, ourpumpkinfarm.com An easy road trip from the Chicago area, Lockport, IL, plays host to this incredible celebration of everyone’s favorite Halloween fruit. Wander a 15-acre corn maze if you dare, explore more than 30 attractions, including Duck Races, Zip Lines, a pick-your-own pumpkin field that Charlie Brown’s friend Linus would certainly approve of, a haunted barn, train rides, a “giant mountain slide,” zombie paintball, and, of course, play areas and pony rides for the little ones. Two major attractions each year are the Pumpkin Weigh-Off and the self-explanatory Pumpkin Drop & Smash (which - if you’re wondering “how high?” and “how big a smash?” - involves a crane). Aloft Bolingbrook, a few miles from town offers rooms for well under $150/night. VALLEY OF THE MOON VINTAGE FESTIVALSonoma, CA; September 22 to 24; entertainment on the Plaza is free, with food and beverages for sale; valleyofthemoonvintagefestival.com In California’s wine country, an easy road trip from the San Francisco Bay Area, fall is the time for harvesting the incredible grapes that grow in the renowned vineyards that supply the world with some of its finest wines. And while that may evoke images of pricey bottles, the good news is that the Valley of the Moon Vintage Festival, founded in 1897, throws a party on Sonoma’s historic Plaza that is anything but expensive. Bring a picnic, a blanket, and some cash to try some wine and beer tasting, local foods, and enjoy watching a parade, listening to great music, browsing the work of amazing area artists, and soaking up the atmosphere of a truly cool small town that has retained much of its Spanish Colonial flavor thanks to decades of forward-thinking preservationists, funky boutiques, great restaurants, and, of course, the stylish wine-tasting rooms that line the Plaza. Best Western Sonoma Valley Inn is a bargain at well under $200/night, and if you’re up for a bit of a splurge, the El Dorado Hotel & Kitchen, right on Sonoma’s Plaza, is a beauty any time of year (but they’re already booked solid during the Vintage Festival).
If the total eclipse got you hooked on the cosmos (or even if you’re already a devoted stargazer), there’s lots more where that came from. Across the U.S., major science institutions offer hands-on educational activities and plenty of fun. 1. Griffith ObservatoryLos Angeles Located more than 1,000 feet above sea level on Mount Hollywood in Griffith Park, Los Angeles, one of America’s most beautiful urban parks, Griffith Observatory is always free and hosts a wide range of activities for all ages, including nighttime telescope viewing (the Griffith Observatory’s 12-inch Zeiss telescope has been used by more than 7 million stargazers, making it the most popular telescope on earth), educational exhibits, live shows at the observatory’s planetarium, and pinch-me views of the city. 2. Hayden PlanetariumNew York City Part of the American Museum of Natural History’s Rose Center for Earth and Space and led by world-famous astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson, the Hayden Planetarium is a must-see for anyone visiting the Big Apple. Generations of NYC kids got their introduction to the stars here (including yours truly), and the Hayden has even been commemorated in a pop song, Fountains of Wayne’s “Laser Show.” Frontiers Lectures update audiences on the latest discoveries about our universe, Astronomy Live programs take visitors on a tour of the universe with a special focus on the night sky. 3. National Air and Space MuseumWashington, D.C. One of the jewels in the Smithsonian Institution system of free national museums, the National Air and Space Museum immerses visitors in the history of flight, space exploration, and the science behind those endeavors. Best known for displaying iconic early airplanes and replicas that allow visitors to return to the days of the Wright Brothers and other pioneers and the spacecraft from the 1960s and ‘70s that first orbited earth and took people to the moon, the Air and Space Museum is also home to an IMAX theater and planetarium. 4. Kitt Peak National ObservatorySonoran Desert near Tucson, AZ At the top of a nearly 7,000-foot peak in the Sonoran Desert, the Kitt Peak National Observatory boasts the world’s largest collection of telescopes and one of the clearest skies and most beautiful locations anywhere in the U.S. for viewing the stars. Docent-led tours take daytime visitors to three large research telescopes, live views of the sun, and a variety of indoor and outdoor exhibits. Nighttime visitors are treated to incredible glimpses of our solar system and beyond. 5. Very Large ArraySocorro, NM Sure, stunning visuals like galaxies and nebulas grab a lot of the attention. But if humans ever detect signs of intelligent life attempting to contact us from the depths of space, the Very Large Array may the place where it happens. After all, that’s where Carl Sagan set the dramatic opening of his novel Contact, in which an alien species sends radio signals to our planet that are first picked up by the immense radio telescope facility at “Project Argus,” which, in the 1997 film adaptation was set here outside Socorro, NM. Visitors can take self-guided tours and once-per-month guided tours to learn more about what scientists have learned about the nature of the universe through the study of radio waves. 6. Mauna KeaBig Island, HI Sorry, other awesome astronomy destinations, but at more than 13,000 feet on a mountaintop overlooking the Pacific Ocean on Hawaii’s Big Island, Mauna Kea Observatory’s stargazing tours, telescopes, and visitor center are unparalleled and absolutely free each night of the year starting at 6pm.