Vacation Rentals with Kids in BC, WA and OR

Imagine creating a gourmet spread in your temporary house: warm Seattle-baked bread, locally-crafted cheese, and tiny strawberries from Seattle’s Pike Place Market. After lunch, your toddler naps in the house’s second bedroom while you catch up on your reading. She wakes and you head to the local playground. There, your family exchanges a hello with newfound friends.

It’s like a little slice of Northwest life.

Or perhaps you’d rather stay on the San Juan Islands, where water laps the shore outside your door. Then again, how about a condo in Portland’s Pearl district? If only to be closer to the  neighborhood pub – which welcomes children, of course.

Vacation rentals are both romantic and practical. You experience life as a temporary local, while children enjoy solid home base. You get to enjoy local food, the kids usually have more room to roam and you may find that a vacation rental price is equivalent to (or less than) a standard hotel room. Vacation rentals are often a great idea for families with kids who don’t “travel well,” as the homelike atmosphere is reassuring.

Yet, not all temporary stays are equal in terms of amenities, location, and layout. Here’s a guide to renting with kids.

Vacation rentals in metro Vancouver, Washington countryside or on the Oregon Coast?

What’s your domicile style? From North Cascades farmhouses to Vancouver’s cosmopolitan condos, vacation rentals exist in every Northwest and BC locale. Choosing your location first (city, country, or suburb) will determine rental options.

In the countryside and on the Washington, Oregon and BC coasts, vacation rental houses welcome large families, or those with young, very active children. It’s easy to explore a wide radius from your “home base” (a la Slow Travel) from a rural home, via car. Look for access to arterial roads and plentiful parking.

Rental condos and houses are available throughout in Northwest and BC neighborhoods. All cities in the Pacific Northwest and BC offer multiple family-friendly areas: Try a vacation rental in Kitsilano (Vancouver), Phinney Ridge (Seattle), Oak Bay (Victoria) or Hawthorne (Portland).

In-city living means you won’t need a car – or at least not as often. Buses, bikes, and strollers will take you to museums or restaurants.

When narrowing your location to a specific home or condo, look for nearby physicians, hospitals, grocery stores, farmer’s markets, and other important services. Most vacation-rental owners present a notebook upon your arrival, with emergency contacts and local services.

Google search tips for vacation rentals

Ask friends for suggestions and pore through vacation rental reviews to find prescreened gems. Search a vacation rental-by-owner website or do a Google search.

My favorite Google term: +city  +”children welcome” or “Kid friendly” +vacation rental type (apartment, house, condo) or +vacation rental.

For example, if searching for a vacation rental in Seattle, type into the Google search bar:

+Seattle “children welcome” +”vacation rental”

or

+Vancouver “kid friendly” +”vacation apartment”

If you’d rather browse a rental website, most listings specify whether children are welcome, or only children over a certain age. A quick way to tell if families are a benefit or a burden? If the rental listing says the vacation home accommodates two, they’re probably thinking of honeymooners, not the Hansen family. The rental owners probably won’t be happy with even a parent/child duo.

Rental requirements

Take note of the vacation home’s rental measurements. Personal space becomes more important as children age. But “enough” can be as simple as a small nook for favorite toys or clothes. Multiple bathrooms are nice for teens, who need more time and room to prepare for the day.

When renting a condo, ask about bedrooms – are they separated by a full wall or a partial wall? Does the couch fold into a double-size bed?

Small infants or toddlers can sleep in a port-a-cot or in bed with mom and dad. We rarely rented an apartment with more than one bed until our daughter was two.

And whatever your children’s ages, inquire about noise levels inside the apartment or house (for longer naps). Are the walls thin? Can you hear neighbors or street noise? Is construction going on across the street?

Take a very close look at those rental photos. Do decorative vases (however ugly) decorate the antique shelves? Ask yourself, “If my child accidentally broke items in this home, would it affect her college savings?”

Look for solid, high railings on balconies, particularly the second floor and up. If the ground-floor sliding door opens onto an outdoor area, ask whether there’s a fence.

Ask about safety issues, such as a scalding hot water heater. You can also bring or buy simple childproofing fixes (door handle covers, duct tape for electrical sockets).

Traveling with teens? Teens want the autonomy to explore, shop, and run errands. Will your Seattle vacation rental’s location allow that to happen? Is it fairly safe?

Kid-friendly vacation rental amenities

Some families don’t need vacation rental-provided entertainment, preferring to bring their own books or games from home. Other families pack light and appreciate a well-stocked library of books, magazines and/or board games.

While not a necessity, television is certainly one way to settle into a destination (and give mom and dad a break). We like to ensure that there’s a DVD player in our rental, and either bring movies from home or pick up rentals from a nearby city.

Check out on-site recreational facilities if renting in the countryside. And many condo-style vacation rentals offer pools, hoops or small play structures.

If renting with younger children, onsite equipment will make a stay easier. Owners often make cribs, high chairs, toys and strollers available (make sure they’re up to date — not 1970s baby-jail cribs). Some owners don’t have items onsite, but can acquire them from friends/relatives – it’s always worth asking if your vacation rental will have the equipment most helpful to you.

If you’re bringing baby gear with you, ask about storage areas. Can you park a stroller in the entryway?

Vacation rental paperwork and payment

Here’s the part where things can get worrisome.

Find out what’s included in your rental price. Electricity? Water? Maid service? Final cleaning? When comparing the total cost to staying in a hotel, make sure your expense will be offset by eating in your rental (and if you’re planning on eating out during your stay, then you might rethink the rental).

Next, you may find that the rental owner will bargain with you if you’re willing to be flexible, as well. Do you get a price break if you agree to stay a certain number of days? A mid-week break? Can you agree to clean the house to Mary Poppins standards, in exchange for skipping the cleaning fee?

Most vacation rentals will require a deposit when you book your stay. Depending on how near you are to the final check-in, you may have to pay most or all of your fees upfront. Find out whether you can pay by credit card — but remember those exchange fees (charged by your card issuer) if you plan to pay for a cross-border rental.

Appliance appeal

A washing machine in your vacation rental spares rigging your bathroom as a laundromat. No washer or dryer? Inquire about nearby laundering facilities, or bring your Woolite and laundry accoutrements.

Ask about heating in winter, and air-conditioning in summer. Is heat included in the cost? Air-conditioning isn’t considered a necessity in most Northwest and BC homes, so you may not find it in a Vancouver vacation rental.

Take a look at photos or ask questions. Can you boil a big pot of pasta on that burner? Will your family of five fit around the table? Is the fridge full-sized or a miniature version?Microwaves provide a handy self-serve option for older children and teens.

In-home dining is a key benefit to a rental, so ensure that the food prep and dining space meets your needs. In one vacation rental, we only found dishes and silverware for two, although the ad said it was furnished for four. After the owner’s dash to the store, we had plates for everyone.

Checklist for family-friendly vacation rentals

_ Size of vacation rental (measurement of total size)?

_ Number of beds and bedrooms?

_ Are there any safety issues a parent should be aware of? Railings, hot water, heaters, gas ovens?

_ Are there adequate bathrooms with showers or bathtubs?

_  Is the furniture sturdy?

_ What’s the size of vacation rental?

_  Is it noisy outside? How much noise can my kids make without disturbing others?

_ TV with DVD player or cable?

_ Books, magazines, or board games?

_ Recreational facilities on-site: large yard, pool, swingset, tennis?

_ Baby/toddler equipment: Crib, high chair, stroller, toys? Storage for items from home?

_ Washing/drying facilities on-site or nearby?

_ Adequate food storage, cooking, and dining space for your family size?

_ Is there a playground/park/play space nearby?

_ Where is the nearest pedestrian/shopping zone?

_ How close is the nearest physician or hospital?

_ How close is the nearest 24-hour pharmacy and grocery store?

_ Is the neighborhood safe? Can older kids and teens go out alone?

Tips and Hints: Finding a family-friendly hotel

Kid friendly hotels – whether in Portland (Oregon) or Portland (Maine) — are blessedly similar. Sure, the landscape changes, but a great hotel offers both respite and recreation to vacationing families.

Here are questions we ask before we go, we or read over hotel websites to find the answers. Any of these points are equally valid if you’re looking for family friendly New York City hotels or kid friendly Las Vegas accommodations. And of course, you’ll want to take into account customer reviews or guidebook recommendations (I recommend dozens of kid-friendly Vancouver, Victoria, Seattle and Portland hotels in my book Northwest Kid Trips).

However, it’s rare to find a hotel that offer every amenity – you’ll probably weight some kid-friendly hotel features over others, and some won’t matter you a bit.

Questions to ask before you book your family-friendly hotel:

Do kids stay free? If we need a rollaway, is that free? Do kids eat for free?

Most (if not all) family-friendly hotels offer free stays for children under age 18, even if extra bedding (rollaway bed) is required. Kids may be offered free breakfast, lunch or dinner.

Does your hotel offer a free breakfast for families? What time is breakfast served?

A free breakfast for the whole family is a total score, in my book. Even if it is blah hotel food, fresh from Sysco, dished up assembly-line style. You can’t mess up cereal, fruit and eggs, at least not to an inedible extent. However, breakfast has to be served when a child’s internal alarm clock wakes the whole family . A 9 a.m. cereal call is not going to work for most children; they’ll wait too long and the whining will begin.

Is there a pool? Is it indoor or outdoor? If outdoor, what’s the temperature? Are there hours that are off-limits to families?

In the summer, an outdoor pool is lovely in the Pacific Northwest or British Columbia. But during any other time of the year, get staff to specify whether the pool is indoor or outdoor. An outdoor, unheated pool is a disappointment on a rainy spring day. A pool that kicks kids out by 8 p.m. is nothing but frustrating (10 p.m. seems reasonable, though).

Does your hotel offer any children’s services or perks?

Some Seattle, Portland and Vancouver hotels offer kid-friendly options like toy-stuffed backpacks, treasure hunts, holiday parties, stuffed animals, free passes to area attractions, borrowable board games, fish-babysitting opportunities and complimentary kid-bathrobe use. But you may not know unless you ask. Even if booking agents tell you about the amenities at booking time, you may have to remind front-desk staff at check-in. They’re busy and may forget.

Are there rooms on the ground floor that open onto a lawn or beach? Is there a fence or other kid-containment device? If the room opens onto a balcony, is it safe for toddlers or preschoolers?

Access to an outdoor area is lovely – as long as it’s safe. Older children, in particular, do well with wide-open spaces right outside the back door.

Is there a DVD player in the room? Do you offer kid movies for rent or free?

Some hotels are now offering DVD players and free rentals for families, or a coupon for one free on-demand family movie. I love this trend.

Is Wi-Fi free in the room?

I love it so I can work after the kids pass out (I’m often writing about our trips). But my kids love Wi-Fi because I can always set them up with a streaming movie or TV show if I need to take a quick shower. On our last long trip (taken during the school year), my daughter wrote blog posts on the educational aspects of the vacation — and then posted those items for her teacher’s review.

Where is the nearest playground or play area?

Hopefully, it’s around the corner or within a few blocks of your hotel.

Where is the nearest shopping or eating center?

I am not a fan of suburban stays – I don’t like being forced to eat lunch or dinner on-property, particularly because most hotel food is so overpriced and undertasty. I also generally dislike driving once at my destination, so I prefer to stay near a downtown location, where you can visit parks, pick up inexpensive food and toys, ride public transport and go for walks to people-watch.

Do you offer baby cribs, playpens or child-proofing kits?

You won’t need to bring your own massive furniture from home or rent it, if the hotel offers on-site baby-care items. In some older properties, you may want to make sure that the crib or pack ‘n’ play is up to current safety standards.

Does the room come with a fridge or microwave?

Many hotels offer minibars, but those rarely keep our noshes cold enough, and there’s all that moving around of tempting expensive liquor bottles. I prefer a fridge; sometimes you can pay a little extra to get a mini-fridge delivered to your room ($10-$15/night), if they’re not an automatic amenity. And a microwave is nice, if your children want warmed-up food.

Do you offer a clothes washer and dryer in the room? On site?

Some suite-style hotels do offer clothes washing facilities. You don’t have to pack as many clothing choices, and you won’t worry (as much) when your toddler paints his pants with ketchup.

Playmobil vacation on a hotel bed

Playmobil vacation on a hotel bed

Can we get a larger hotel room, such as a corner room?

This can be more important than a room with a view, at least for vacationing families. Rooms size and layouts – particularly in older properties – can vary tremendously, and you’ll want a room with ample floor area for playing, rather than a supersized, spa-style bathroom. On the other hand, if you’re staying in a city and plan to be out and about for most of the day, the room’s size may not matter so much.

Does the hotel room have a bathtub?

With smaller hotel room footprints, you may find only a shower in the bathroom. My kids are flexible and can go with any type of set-up (or we just don’t wash them for a day or two, oh horrors). But if your children insist on a bathtub (and you don’t want your kids to smell like mine), then you should insist on a tub as well.

Where is the parking located? Is it on-site? Is the parking garage down the block? Do you offer valet parking only?

Babies and toddlers usually require more gear: carseats, strollers, blankets, diapers, wipes, food, diaper bags…the list feels endless. You will forget something in the car. Or you will forget something in the hotel room. If you can’t easily access your vehicle – without going through a valet or three elevator systems – you will curse every forgotten item. You and your partner may play a super-fun game of “I think it’s your turn.”

It is not really a fun game. I’m lying. You should find a hotel with in-building or on-site parking.

One more note: Leave a decent tip for housekeeping, whenever they come to your room. Kids make messes and it’s nice to provide a little extra to those who work hard to clean up after you.

What would you add to this list of family-friendly hotel features?

How to Score a Four-Star Priceline Deal

I love using Priceline to go on our frequent trips. Using Priceline, I think I’ve stayed in almost every four-star hotel in Vancouver, BC and Portland, Oregon. But I rarely pay over $80 per night for these rooms, while other hotel visitors are spending over $175! I’ve stayed in Vancouver for $65 per night (winter), Portland for $50 (winter) and  Seattle for $75 (summer!).

This approach works best for staying in four-star hotels (and sometimes three) downtown, and in big cities: Seattle, Vancouver BC and Portland. For Whistler, use Suite Secrets (no rebid, but good deals). It is difficult – if not impossible – to use Priceline in Victoria, BC. There just aren’t enough hotels participating. I wouldn’t waste any time on that mission, and instead seek out a good deal on a family-friendly hotel.

Before you start:

Check rates and availability on Expedia and Travelocity (one or the other) for three-star and four-star hotels. What’s sold out? What’s available? Is the whole weekend sold out everywhere (you don’t have a chance – pick another weekend!). You can also visit the site BiddingForTravel.com, a message board where you can research average prices people are winning in your destination.

For the below, I suggest opening a new browser window and following along, step-by-step, long before you’re actually planning to book.

How to use Priceline in Seattle, Vancouver BC and Portland:

  1. Go to Priceline.com, click on “Hotels,” and then click on “Bid Now.” Enter the city you’re going to (Portland, Seattle, Vancouver BC) and the dates when you will be staying.
  2. The site will now show a page displaying hotels and prices. Look for the tab that says “Best Deal: Name Your Own Price.” Click on that.
  3. The site will now offer a page showing a map and a list of Priceline’s geographic zones for that city. Example: In Portland, Priceline has 11 geographic zones: Beaverton-Hillsboro, Clackamas, Convention Center, Downtown Portland, Gresham-Troutdale, Lake Oswego, North Harbor, Northwest Portland, Portland Airport, South Waterfront District, Vancouver, Washington.
  4. Make a list of those zones on paper. Click the checkbox next to the zone and scroll down a little to the “Step 2: Choose the star level for your hotel”– is the “4-star” option greyed-out? That means there’s no four-star hotel option in “Beaverton-Hillsboro.” Does it have a three-star? Yes. Write down “three star” (or just draw three stars, whatever you want). Now, uncheck the first zone, and click the next zone. Do this for each of the zones Priceline lists for your destination city. Example: Portland, Oregon has four-star hotels ONLY in Downtown Portland. (for now – it may have changed since publication of this article – the only way to make sure is to check for yourself)
  5. De-select all other zones, select just your preferred zone (downtown), and in the hotel star-level section select the “4-Star Deluxe.” Under the name-your-own-price section of the Web page, enter $50 per night, particularly in the off season. In summer, I’d start with $60. If you see a red pop-up bar that says “Based on recent data, your price has almost no chance of being accepted,” then raise it by increments of $5 until it no longer says that.
  6. Enter your name, address, credit card information. Select trip insurance if you like the reassurance. Send Priceline off to check your bid.
  7. If your bid is accepted, yay! You got it right the first time. But if your bid isn’t accepted, Priceline returns a form to you for a second chance. You have to change the geographic zone, the date or the stars. Don’t change those last two items (date or stars)! Instead, you’ll change the geographic zone to one that does NOT have a four-star hotel. No, you won’t actually stay there – because there’s no four-star hotel, and Priceline weights the star level over the zone. Example: Beaverton-Hillboro does not have a four-star hotel. Add it. Increase your bid by $5-7 (for some reason, I find that odd-numbered bids are often accepted first!).
  8. Accepted? Yes? Yay! No? Add another zone that doesn’t have a four-star hotel and increase your bid, again. Example: Lake Oswego does not have a four-star hotel. You will now have downtown Portland, Beaverton-Hillsboro and Lake Oswego selected
  9. Accepted? Yes? Yay! No? Keep repeating step 8, but leave off those zones with four-star hotels.
  10. If you run out of zones to use, wait 24 hours and try again the next day. Or you can ask your partner to replicate this process with a different credit card. You may be bidding too far away (rooms haven’t been released to Priceline yet) or too close to your departure date (sold out). You may need to start at a higher rate (say, $75) and be willing to go up to $150, if it’s a popular summer weekend. Also, if going to Canada, remember that the fluctuating exchange rate can impact your bids. The room you won last summer at $65 may now be closer to $90.

There is an additional strategy involving closing and opening your browser window, but if you’re ready for that, you are not the type of person reading this article – you’re already a Priceline Ninja. You can find information about that elsewhere.

Priceline Caveats:

  1. You are not going to get a swanky room, but probably the lowest-grade of four-star hotel room, which may or may not include a view of the HVAC system. However, if it’s unacceptable (first room smells like smoke), do ask for a new room, just don’t be a jerk about it.
  2. Four-star hotels have very expensive parking ($20-30/night in our region) and you should tip the bellhop, the cleaning staff, the concierge and pretty much all employees that you interact with ($2-$10, depending on job and service), because it’s expected.
  3. Priceline only guarantees a room for TWO people. Yes, you are traveling as a family, I know, I know. But really, it will be OK. The tiny room is mostly a problem in places like New York, San Francisco and Europe. I’ve never had a problem in our area. Sometimes – in VERY rare circumstances — you’ll need to be flexible (i.e. pay for a roll-out bed, sleep in two doubles, sleep in one queen). I recommend calling the hotels as soon as you’ve “won” your room and requesting a room with two queen beds. Get there as early in the day as possible to score your choice of rooms (do not check in after 4 p.m.!). We like to check in before noon.
  4. As I mentioned, this works best with four-star hotels. But if there isn’t any availability, you’ll have to go with a lower-star room — and be far more strategic about neighborhoods. You won’t get as many free rebids in the “3-star” category, but you will often have a better chance on a very busy weekend. I’ve even gone down to two-star hotel, at which point the quality starts getting really sketchy. But when you have to go to Portland for a family Thanksgiving dinner, you gotta go.
  5. The hotels you win will be big chains. No cute, funky boutiques with kitchens, no kid-friendly suites. Oh well. It’s four-star luxe for less!

Happy Priceline bidding! Let me know (below) if you score any deals or if you have any questions.

Packing Checklist for NW and BC Vacations

Our weather is unpredictable but our climate is mild. We dress in layers, and prep for rain and sun. The Cascadia uniform: T-shirt, hoodie, rain-proof jacket, jeans, water-repellent shoes.

The Pacific Northwest dress code is casual and natural. We wear a lot of dark and vibrant colors. White, not so much. In the cities, women don’t typically wear much make up.

We wear jeans to fine restaurants and yoga pants pretty much everywhere else (I’ve shown up to pick up my kids from school in my pajamas, and no one even noticed — or maybe they were just too Seattle-nice to say anything to my face).

If you look in our car trunks, many of us pack an extra pair of hiking boots. Just in case

Typically, our kids wear comfortable cotton clothing that can get dirty and still clean up well. Think Hanna Andersson. But a little girl in a fancy dress (or a boy in a suit jacket) will get lots of compliments.

You can wear what you like, of course.

Clothing (for one week)

  • Five shirts; a mix of long-sleeve and short-sleeve, depending on season.
  • Three–five jeans/pants (winter) and/or shorts/skirts (summer).
  • Lightweight synthetic or wool sweater or a hoodie.
  • Five pairs of socks.
  • Two pairs of shoes (one will get muddy). We’re a people of sensible footwear, the land of Birkenstocks with socks. You can’t do worse.
  • Seven pairs of underwear, because accidents happen.
  • Swimsuit.
  • Sunglasses (Really! Seattleites buy more sunglasses than in any other U.S. city) and sunhat or baseball cap.
  • Warm hat or toque, gloves, and scarf (winter only).
  • Lightweight, waterproof coat and boots. We don’t usually use umbrellas — you can, but give plenty of personal room to other pedestrians.
  • Trail-running shoes for beach or wilderness hikes.

Paperwork

  • If traveling between the U.S. and Canada, bring your passport or enhanced driver’s license.
  • If the kids are traveling with only one parent, a signed document from the non-present parent, stating that it’s OK to take the children over the border. Include contact information for the non-present parent.
  • Health, auto, and travel insurance documents.
  • Airplane and train tickets or your confirmation numbers.
  • Your itinerary.
  • Confirmation for hotels and car rental.
  • Paper maps (available at gas stations) or Google Maps.
  • Membership cards: AAA or other roadside assistance plans
  • Membership card from your local zoo, children’s museum, or science museum, if you can benefit from reciprocity.

Toiletries and health items

  • Toothpaste, toothbrushes, dental floss.
  • Contact lenses or glasses.
  • A first-aid kit with Band-Aids, Tylenol, allergy medicine, gauze, anti-bacterial ointment, tweezers and nail clippers.
  • Prescription medicines.
  • Sunscreen, aloe vera for summer or ski vacations.
  • Stain-removing wipes.
  • Lip balm (it’s windy on the ferry decks — and your kids will want to go on the outside decks).
  • Hairbrush or comb.

For baby & toddler

  • Diapering supplies.
  • Travel changing pad.
  • Receiving blankets or other thin blankets (great for cleaning up messes).
  • Car seat.
  • Stroller. Jogger-style strollers work well on steep downtown Seattle streets and in Vancouver’s Stanley Park, but can be too big to navigate through crowded areas (Pike Place Market, downtown Victoria in summer). City-style umbrella strollers are best if you’re planning to visit during summer.
  • Backpack or baby carrier, particularly if you plan to bring a baby or toddler into Pike Place Market or Granville Market during summer.
  • Baby food, formula, and/or breastfeeding supplies.
  • Sippy cup.
  • Preferred baby food and a spoon, a bag to put them into.
  • Clean-up washcloths or wipes in a baggie.

For older kids

  • Book (plan to pick up a few more while in a NW town from one of our children’s bookstores).
  • Notebook, journal, or activity book with crayons, felt pens, or colored pencils.
  • Favorite toys from home; although you can pack a few basics and plan to visit a local toystore while here.
  • Nightlight and/or small flashlight.
  • Freezer-size bags for wet clothing.
  • Pool toys (inflatables, floaties).

Snacks for the car, plane, train, or ferry

  • Instant oatmeal packets.
  • Dry cereal.
  • Cheese sticks.
  • Peanut butter and jelly sandwiches.
  • Trail mix.
  • Baby carrots or oranges.
  • Water or juice boxes.

What did I forget?