Travel Tips

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?

Lora Shinn writes about family travel, Pacific NW travel, grown-up travel...and travel in general. Her travel-related articles and essays have appeared in Family Fun, Parenting, AFAR, National Geographic Traveler, AAA magazines and Redbook, among others.


  • jessiev

    what fantastic tips!! i love these. for our daughter, i also ask about local attractions (for kids, art museums, etc.) and how close they are located.

  • Carolina

    Great list, here’s one to think about. If I reserved doubles or 2 queens will I actually get that type of room? You have to read the fine print, often hotels overbook or if you check in later they’re all gone. Of course they try to give you a “free” rollaway or a king with a fold-out bed, or if you’re very lucky (like we were recently) they give you corner adjoining king suites facing the side of the building with construction.

  • Lora

    Very good point, Carolina. We’ve encountered this once or twice too, so now we always check in incredibly early (like by 1 p.m. at the latest; usually around 10 or 11 a.m.). Sometimes we get there so early that a room isn’t ready, but by checking in and putting dibs on the room, we haven’t had problems getting it. We also check in early because we typically use Priceline, which seems to guarantee the most threadbare room unless you arrive early.

    So yes, I would add the question, “How early do I have to arrive to ensure my room choice? I really want two queen beds / a one-bedroom with fold-out couch / room with space for a rollaway / whatever.”

  • Lora

    I agree, Jessie. And one more thing that I would add: Residents of the Pacific NW and BC tend to quantify distance in terms of time. Not always, but often. So, if you ask someone how far away the Sea-Tac airport is, or how far from Victoria to the Sidney ferry, we’ll answer, oh, about 20 minutes or 45 minutes in traffic. The mountains, hills and jam-packed road conditions often require thinking in minutes and hours instead of miles or kilometers.

    So you might ask how long it takes to reach The Children’s Museum by foot or how many hours it takes to reach Mt. Hood. Of course, speed is a variable. Take the answer and add about 10% more time, if you’re traveling with kids.

  • Kristina

    I would ask to be placed in a quieter area of the hotel or in a room with no one on the other side, if possible. We just returned from Disneyland, stayed at the Disneyland Hotel, and had a family with 2 teenagers next door who had the tv on loudly until midnight every night. They also spoke loudly to be heard over the tv.

    My kids fall asleep early (although not as early as at home) but they get up at the crack of dawn. It makes for cranky kids and adults. I couldn’t fall asleep until I borrowed ear plugs from my Mom, who was in another room a few doors down.

    I guess you have to realize that an older hotel will not have as much sound proofing either– which can work both ways, the other rooms can hear you too.

  • Lora

    Good point, Kristina. Although I tend to bang on the wall and tell rude, drunk or noisy people to quiet down if they annoy me. If they keep it up past 10 p.m., I call the front desk. Yeah, I am THAT PERSON. But I’m also a huge rule-enforcer when it comes to my kids. If we’re on a floor above someone, they’re not allowed to jump on the floor. They’re not allowed to run down hotel hallways. They need to be in bed by 9 p.m. (reading, whatever, something quiet). It’s just common courtesy. We used to live in apartments, so I know kids can get used to these rules.

    Next time you stay in a hotel with overly noisy neighbors, e-mail me and I will call them for you. Ha. I have no shame when it comes to sleep.

    The one thing you can’t change is road and street noise. Rowdy sidewalk drunks annoy me, particularly if the windows aren’t thick or soundproofed. A room right next to an elevator (which brings drunk people home — late and loud) or an ice machine can be less than optimal. I frequently ask for a room away from street noise.

    Maybe the question should be: “Do you supply free earplugs for hotel visitors?”

  • Jean

    I hate hotel personnel who are mean to kids and it is so nice that I came across your blog. I definitely learn something today. I enjoyed reading your article thank you for sharing such information.