Tips for Choosing the Best Hotel for Family Travel
Family travel is on the rise. Mom, Dad, the kids and even Nana and Papa, aunts, uncles and cousins plan week-long or weekend jaunts to urban and beach destinations or getaways for family reunions or sporting events. Last year, American Express Spending and Saving Tracker data revealed that vacation planning is at a high, with 70 percent of Americans expecting to travel for leisure in 2016. So, you are likely part of that trend, and there’s good news in that. Why?
Hotels have been working hard to meet the growing needs of the family togetherness trend. No longer just a place to sleep, hotels are competing with one another to offer everything from baby-sitting services to special kid-friendly suites. Parents are no longer just asking, “How much can we afford?” Now they want to know, “What amenities come with that room rate?”
Narrowing the Field
What defines your family’s “hotel happiness”? Luckily for us family travelers, more elaborate accommodations (better quality bedding and linens, for instance) at many different price points are provided as enticements. So, it’s a matter of what you want to spend and what your family’s personal preferences include.
According to Budget Bellhop, an online resource for helping identify discount hotels, five-star hotels have ramped up their offerings, pushing budget properties to do the same. They’ve all been raising the bar within the quality, value, service, amenities and special features classifications. In many cases, regardless of the level of luxury, no longer is it the norm to jam the family into a relatively generic room with two modest queen beds and, if you’re lucky, have a vending machine on your floor.
Nowadays, more spacious and residence-like accommodations are de rigeur. Also, you’ll find family-friendly amenities are becoming standard— swimming pools, accredited babysitting, on-site restaurants with kid menus and, in some cases, tricked out kids’ clubs with video rooms and libraries, play zones and child-focused adventure tours.
Hotel chains take this all into consideration when building, enhancing and pricing their brands. So, looking at hotel chains and their offerings (such as space, bedding, free WiFi access, complimentary breakfasts, gyms, etc.) along with various pricing levels is a helpful way to uncover what will match your individual requirements.
For me, a digestible way to compare offerings is to break down hotel chains in to price/offer level categories:
- upscale; and
- luxury level
Then, analyze what comes along with the price that fits your needs and pocketbook. You can’t always control your experience, but you can control your spending and monitor your expectations.
As an experienced travel writer, I’ll share a handful of my personal preferences by category and a brief description of what each hotel chain offers.
Best Bang For Your Buck: Economy /Budget Level
There are a few hip budget chains. My personal favorite is Aloft, owned by Starwood Suites. A typical Aloft property is found in urban settings and has a contemporary flair with an open lobby, featuring a pool table with a lounge and a small take-out eatery. Splash pools are fun for the kids. The rooms are small but swanky with built-in desks and platform beds. Suites are available for a slightly higher price.
Holiday Inn Express (IHG)
One of the fastest growing segments of the Intercontinental Hotel Group (IHG), Holiday Inn Express offers rooms and suites. Buffet style breakfasts are complimentary (with Chobani Greek yogurt—- always a hit with my kids) and free Internet access. Children under 19 stay for free. Many properties have been renovated and upgraded the past few years with more comfortable bedding and higher quality linens and towels. Children 12 and younger eat free at any of their restaurants when eating with their folks. Some locations even have ”KidSuites”, which include bunk beds. Some of the pools have waterslides.
Residence Inn (Marriott)
Many parents appreciate amenities often found in extended stay hotels, which used to mainly cater to business travelers. Residence Inn is attractive because it offers one- or two-bedroom suites (which can easily sleep up to 6), that come will full kitchens, offer free breakfast with make-your-own waffle stations and most locations have a pool and an outdoor area with a basketball court and firepit for evening relaxation. As a Marriott property, Residence Inns serve up their Tots Travel Too program, which offers complementary travel cribs and bedding upon request.
Hyatt Place (Hyatt)
A heavy favorite of mine is Hyatt Place—-designed with a modern flair and with many conveniences. The spacious guest rooms have high ceilings and a floor-to-ceiling divider, creating the feel of two rooms. One side has a sectional sofa with a pullout feature. Aside from the mini-fridge for stocking up on food, their lovely free breakfasts with fresh fruit are top-notch. There’s always an inviting sitting area in the lobby and round-the-clock “freshly prepared” snack and wine bar. Hyatt Place can be found practically all over the world with over 215 locations in the US alone. Last year, the chain was awarded top customer satisfaction levels by J.D. Power, a highly regarded research firm that has conducted and analyzed extensive hotel guest “contentedness” surveys for 19 years.
Homewood Suites (Hilton)
Homewood Suites is often voted “Best Value Hotel Chain” for leisure (and business) travelers. With over 300 locations throughout the country, it is Hilton’s extended stay brand. Also a recipient of the J.D. Power highest satisfaction level award (in the upper extended stay category), this chain has become a personal favorite when I want to keep most costs in check but feel like I want a “home away from home.” The lobbies are cozy (often including a fireplace and sitting area) and the breakfasts are outstanding, with homemade scones and fresh oatmeal. Furthermore, the suites have a full kitchen and a sitting area with pullout sofa. The bedroom is completely separate from the common living space. If you reserve a suite with two queens, you can comfortably sleep five people (including 3 teenagers. Trust me, I’ve done it).
Extra-Special Amenities—Upscale Level
Embassy Suites (Hilton)
From the beginning, when traveling with my smaller children, I found Embassy Suites to be of great value. Embassy Suites Hotels is the nation’s largest brand of upscale, all-suite hotels. Given the fact that each suite is literally two rooms with a door in between—-allowing for two separate dwelling spaces—-there’s plenty of room to sleep the brood. Each room has its own TV and there’s also a small kitchen to allow for bringing in food to keep costs in check. And, their elaborate breakfast buffet would fill us up so much that we could keep lunch costs at bay during our afternoon treks. The open atrium concept also is inviting to kids, who enjoy the waterfalls, streams, koi and sometimes even birds in the lobby area. You can bet on a pool on site, too.
This “stylish and bold” boutique hotel collection, the largest of all in the US, consistently aims to please families. All locations offer “KimptonKids,” a program with safety features in mind (e.g. a childproofing kit for the room), gifts/toys and nearby family attraction recommendations. Complimentary wine is offered each night for the parents while the kids get to enjoy milk and juice. With over 65 locations, most are home to a unique restaurant on property. For instance, The Brice in Savannah, Georgia, has a beautiful courtyard and pool plus free bike access and is situated close to the riverfront trail and parks. Each location offers something completely different so keep in mind that the architecture, room design and décor will vary.
Omni Hotels & Resorts
With 45 locations throughout the US, Omni is a standout for its family focus. While visiting hotels and resorts in Texas, Boston and Mount Washington, for instance, families can reserve the hotel’s “Kid’s Fantasy Suites,” featuring kids’ bedding, bean bag chairs, art supplies and more. The parents stay in a connecting room, allowing for separation yet togetherness. Check out the website to see specific location and particular customized suite themes. For instance, the Omni Park House in Boston, MA comes equipped with colonial-style costumes so the kids can play “pretend” before embarking on the Freedom Trail.
Going For the Gusto—Luxury Level
In June of 2015, Fortune magazine ran a story about how luxury brands are adding more perks for kids. And, Albert Herrera, senior vice president of Global Product Partnerships for the luxury travel network Virtuoso, says, “deep-pocketed parents are bringing their offspring on the road with them more than ever before, and posh properties are putting oomph in keeping this picky clientele entertained.”
This brand aims to offer “experiences of exceptional quality” and consistently provides some of the best service in the industry. One-third of all Four Seasons properties, of which there are 97 worldwide with a handful more to open this year, have a complimentary program called “Kids for All Seasons” for children between 5 and 12 years-old. In Chicago, one of my favorite US cities, The Four Seasons offers pizza- making classes, while the Scottsdale property holds ice-cream socials. Many hotels also have designated space for teens to hang out and play video games and watch movies. In every case, the hotels are first-class from soup to nuts, with outstanding rooms, décor, restaurants, spas and pools.
Loews Hotels & Resorts
A strictly American brand, each of Loews properties is unique and has a local feel and flair. The hotels offer amenities for families such as welcome gifts tailored to the destination and child-friendly menus in the highly rated in-house restaurants. Some locations even have teens-only food bars. You might want to check out their “Sprouts Dream Vacation Package” for more details and pricing. New York City’s hotel is situated on Park Avenue, right near Central Park and within walking distance of fine shopping and dining. The rooms are really spacious and, for those who are willing to spend the money, the space you get is divine, with white marble bathrooms and, on higher floors, a nice view.
This world-renowned luxury resort is hard to beat for all of the obvious reasons. It sets the gold standard with regard to location, décor, service, fine linens, outstanding restaurants—-to name a few. And, contrary to what you might think, it’s super kid-friendly. In fact, the Ritz Kids program is flourishing and is offered at every location. It all started a decade ago when Ritz-Carlton partnered with Jean Michel Cousteau’s Ocean Futures Society. Together, they created an ocean exploration themed program and, due to its success, the program rolled out across the brand. Each Ritz Kids Club is based on one of four themes depending on the hotel’s location, including water, land, environmental responsibility and culture. Children are immersed in the diverse environment of each property, from urban treks to nature excursions, which all hinge on one or more of the four themes. Amelia Island, Florida’s Ritz, is a true gem, situated in a dramatically peaceful spot; whereas, the property in Dallas is in the heart of the city. Regardless of the spot, the service will always be impeccable and if you find it isn’t, the staff will correct and make up for whatever seemed off.
Securing Your Space
As you know, choosing the right hotel is often the most important part of travel planning. Sometimes, you might want an inexpensive place and other times, you might want to splurge. I have found that the best pricing is secured when you call the hotel directly rather than booking online. It may seem counterintuitive but it’s risky to book through sites such as Hotels.com or Booking.com because making changes are hard, if not impossible, and you often can’t get your money back.
According to Cornell University’s School of Hotel Administration (SHA), the number one hotel and hospitality school worldwide, establishing a relationship with the hotel chain itself can bring you the most customer-friendly experience. Personally, I have suffered from skirting this advice and instead booking on the Internet to save money. Many friends of mine share similar stories about getting downgraded or put in a different (lesser) room than requested because they got “bumped” for an inexplicable reason and had no recourse. (Always read ALL of the fine print if booking online.)
At any rate, check each chain’s specific website for pricing for the particular location you want, which can vary dramatically from city to city. And, always consider special promotions. It’s a “no brainer” to sign up for hotel rewards programs which can provide discounts, upgrades, and earn you free nights.
Lastly, consider getting a AAA membership (baseline cost is $55) which offers discounts at many different chains. Remember, you must always ask for the discount or you won’t get it.
Finding Your Own Hotel Happiness
The choices are overwhelming! According the American Hotel & Lodging Association, aside of 2015, there were over 53,00 properties to choose from with almost 5 million guest rooms throughout the country.
Aside from word-of-mouth recommendations, what sources can be trusted to help you sift through the wide assortment? Although it is tempting to hop on the Internet and read a bunch of reviews on Trip Advisor, don’t do it. Industry experts agree that, oftentimes, these write-ups are not reliable. There’s even evidence that people are paid to write positive reviews. But, more importantly, why should any of us trust the input of a stranger who may have a completely separate set of expectations and demands than our own?
Of course, no one can argue that defining quality and value and how you measure it can be highly subjective. This is why recommendations from friends or a trusted travel agent can be your most helpful companion. Another way to “take the guess work out of the mix” is to find and familiarize yourself with a ratings resource you trust.
Resources to Learn More
Travel and Leisure 2015 World’s Best Awards: America’s Best Hotels For Families—Top Ten List
We all have the right to daydream and plan to “pull out all of the stops” from time to time. For a full-fledged, super satisfying, over the top family vacation, consider one of these top ten—-all of which are on the “best of the best “ list in Travel and Leisure’s 2015 customer-based annual survey.*
- Inn at Palmetto Bluff, a Montage Resort, Bluffton, South Carolina
- Aulano, a Disney Resort & Spa, Ko Olina, Hawaii
- Sandpearl Resort, Clearwater Beach, Florida
- Grand Wailea, a Waldorf Astoria Resort, Maui, Hawaii
- Mohonk Mountain House, New Paltz, New York
- Four Seasons Resort, Maui at Wailea, Maui, Hawaii
- Hilton Waikoloa Village, Big Island, Hawaii
- The Cloister, Sea Island , Georgia
- Kauai Marriott Resort, Kaua’i, Hawaii
- Disney’s Grand California Hotel, Anaheim, California
*See www.travelandleisure.com for a full review plus detailed information about each of the 25 winning properties
What Exactly Do Those Star (Diamond) Rankings Mean, Anyway?
When you visit a specific hotel website, read a review or check out resources such as AAA, Expedia, Forbes, Virtuoso, Conde Nast Traveler, or Fodor’s, for instance, there’s really no universally uniform set of standards/measurements to rank/rate a hotel’s quality, value, amenities, and overall potential for providing the best customer satisfaction. A four-star review by one entity might be a three-star by another and a five-star by yet another. Most U.S. websites and organizations that rate hotels provide an explanation of their rating system so that consumers can decode the ratings. Regardless, for now, know that hotels are generally ranked on a scale from one to five stars and that U.S. ratings can differ dramatically from international ratings.
However, in general, hotels that carry a certain rating base it on the following:*
- 5-Star Rating: Luxurious hotels, offering the highest degree of personal service. Elegance and style abound, the rooms are equipped with quality linens, VCR, CD stereo, jacuzzi tubs, and in-room video. There are multiple restaurants on site with extensive gourmet menus, and room-service is also available 24-7. A fitness center, valet parking, and concierge service round out the experience.
- 4-Star Rating: Formal, large hotels, with top-notch service. There will usually be other hotels of the same caliber clustered nearby, as well as shopping, dining, and entertainment. Above-average service, beautifully furnished rooms, restaurants, room service, valet parking, a fitness center, and a concierge are some amenities to expect.
- 3-Star Rating: Usually located near a major expressway, business center, and/or shopping area, these hotels offer nice, spacious rooms and decorative lobbies. On-site restaurants may be average in size but will offer breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Valet and room service, a small fitness center, and a pool are often available.
- 2-Star Rating: These hotels are generally part of a chain that offers consistent quality and limited amenities. They are small or medium in size and rooms will have a phone and TV. While you will not have the convenience of room service, there should be a small restaurant on site.
- 1-Star Rating: Expect a small hotel managed and operated by the owner. The atmosphere will be more personal and the accommodations basic. Restaurants should be within walking distance, as well as nearby public transportation and entertainment that is reasonable in price.
*All descriptions extracted directly from https://superpages.com/em/what-is-the-star-rating-for-hotels/