Last summer a magazine editor asked me to write about traveling with kids. He knew I had a baby daughter, and between my travel beat and the peripatetic nature of our family, he thought I’d have great insights to share.
I told him honestly that Zelda was too young for me to have any real authority on the subject, and I interviewed a dozen friends and travel professionals instead. A persistent theme was the difficulty of finding appropriate lodging — there were woeful tales of overpriced suites, adjoining rooms that didn’t adjoin, families that either stayed with relatives or stayed home until the kids grew up — but I took notes with the dispassionate ear of a journalist.
Fast-forward one year, and I finally understand their complaints. Up to now, we’ve happily traveled with Zelda to the homes of friends and family. But this summer — with my husband, Oggi, eight hours away getting professional training — I was tasked with finding lodgings at the halfway point for weekend family visits. It took a month of missed weekend visits for me to realize that finding appropriate lodgings for a family of three is exponentially more difficult, costly and planning-intensive than booking for two.
When they freak out about travel with young kids, parents usually freak out about flying. Flying is the easy part! You’re going from A to B in a set number of hours, and when those hours are up, you’ll be there — period. Airplanes, unlike a great many lodgings, are designed to handle children. And taking a child on an airplane only costs proportionately more — one extra ticket — or less, if the child is young.
With that child in tow, however, your $70 motel room in the middle of nowhere is no longer even a theoretical option. Most youngsters I know have a bedtime somewhere in the early evening, at which point they require a dark, quiet space to sleep in. When it finally dawned on me that my husband and I would have to sit silently in the dark from 7 p.m. on, I cancelled our hotel reservation and started thinking hard.
What I needed — what all parents need, unless they have a babysitter or are willing to keep the kids up late — was a room with a door I could close. Sometimes, but not usually, this is called a suite. More reliably, it’s called a house or apartment.
I called hotel after hotel, inquiring about the nature of their suites, and that’s how I learned that “suite” has no actual definition: it can mean a very large room, a room with extra beds or a pullout couch, a fancy room with a Jacuzzi, a room with a “partial divider” that doesn’t actually exist, or — very occasionally — adjoining bed and sitting rooms.
Upgrading from a basic hotel room to a suite of the last type meant tripling or quadrupling the price at the same midlevel chain, which felt ridiculous. I scrolled repeatedly through AirBnB home listings, but they were even more expensive. Rates for relatively out-of-the-way places in southern New England were well into the three figures per night, with security deposits and cleaning fees that often doubled the outlay. (Side note: I’m stumped trying to figure out why AirBnB properties in the U.S. are generally so much pricier than their counterparts in Europe.)
After decades of globe-trotting, I was amazed to find myself in such a quandary. Here I was, supposedly a travel expert — and I couldn’t figure out how to sleep with two people in tow!
But as I learned from fellow parents, it’s a common conundrum. And here is an opportunity for some Silicon Valley entrepreneur: There is a major need for a travel-booking site that filters by room type (suite, adjoining rooms and so forth). Kayak, Hotels.com, Expedia — they all allow you to search by number of rooms and number of guests, but nothing more.
“You have to call each place individually and ask how the rooms are set up,” my friend Sam confirmed. “It’s really labor-intensive. But it’s the only way to guarantee you’ll get what you want.”
I tried to think creatively. A room with a balcony or adjoining patio meant we could put Zelda to bed, and then relax just outside; a bed-and-breakfast might have common areas just outside the room. But balconies are hard to find, and lots of bed-and-breakfasts don’t accept young children. And it’s summer; even if there were an affordable solution, somebody has already reserved it.
I admitted defeat and resigned myself to a visit-less August … until good friends blessedly stepped in, offering a vacant apartment while they retreat to a country house. As I write this, Zelda is napping in the bedroom and Oggi and I are enjoying a cup of coffee on the balcony.
But I still don’t know what to do next time. I know a lot of readers have years of experience traveling with kids — so I invite you to share tips and stories with me at firstname.lastname@example.org, and I’ll publish the best ideas in a follow-up column.