A Travel Expert’s Tips For Hotel-ing With Kids

For many years I’ve been a travel editor at national magazines, which has involved, among other things, skipping across the grid testing all the best (and not so best) hotels, resorts, spas, and excursions. Then I had babies—twins!—and my travel roll changed a bit. They’re not babies anymore, but all parents know the Very Special Circus Experience that can be staying in a hotel with kids. Here are 10 of the most useful tips I’ve learned for staying in a hotel as a family — and keeping everyone happy.

1) Call Ahead.

I mean duh—right? As a travel expert I’ve offered that piece of advice a thousand times, yet even once I became a mom, I had to get used to it. Giving the hotel a heads up is a must if you want any special gear like cribs or bedside rails. Request whatever non-gear extras you want, too (hello, extra towels and lined trash bins). Trust when I say you’ve never realized how tiny hotel trash baskets can be until you’ve checked in with twin diaper-wearers.

BTW some hotel groups like The Peninsula have partnerships with baby companies to provide everything from high-end cribs to changing tables and gates. But even lower-end chains like Marriott’s Residence Inns have gear programs that include biggies like beds and small details like bibs.

2) The Next Best Thing to ‘A Room of One’s Own’…

Of course it’s amazing if you can get swing some kind of suite separation (a physical barrier between you and the kids is a game-changer), but that’s often way pricey. Second best is a balcony to serve as a refuge spot where the grownups can talk, sip some wine, or simply read. My little travel ritual is to buy some local cheese, olives, almonds, tuna, and bread (along with bananas, Cheerios and cheddar bunnies for the kids). Order a bottle of bubbly and pair it with your hors d’oeuvres platter while the kids nap. Honestly, you’ll feel like you’re actually on vacation, at least for the length of nap time.

If you’re lucky enough to have points, see if your hotel has a club-level suite. Club levels are mini-hotels within hotels that have dedicated staff and dining. And that dining is included in the price of your room. I repeat: food and drink are on offer in a lounge for your access all day, every day. We checked into a club-level room in Madrid when our twins were 15 months old and we had every meal there from check-in until check-out. Plus my husband was able to host a work colleague for a meeting in the chic space.

3) Pack electrical tape.

It can pinch hit as an electrical outlet cover (painters tape or packing tape will also do the trick). You can also use the tape to yoke cords. I move table lamps into the closets and have been known to move the bedside phone, too.

4) Tell the hotel you’re breastfeeding, even if you’re not.

They’ll bring you an empty fridge (and swap out the mini-bar). Now you’ve got a place for the kids’ milk and snacks. And your wine.

5) Be a freegan.

I’m not a ‘yes’ person generally, but when I’m traveling, I have a rule: accept everything that’s offered (and legal, natch), like bottles of water, wine, and snacks. I may not want/need that cheese sandwich in the moment but chances are, later on it’ll be welcome. Scope out manager happy hours (Hampton Hotels famously host them.) And always accept any toy, box of crayons, coloring book, or even art book offered to you. You never know when it’ll save the day.

6) Order breakfast and load up.

Many hotels offer deals on room-and-breakfast packages. I order scrambled eggs with cheese for the kids along with toast and whatever else comes with it (sautéed greens, potatoes) and stretch it into two to three meals for them. Upscale places have excellent bread baskets that I raid and awesome smoothie options, which means that breakfast may actually feed my family all day long, making the package actually very cost-effective.

7) Host in-room picnics.

I turn everything into an adventure — and that includes meals. I host indoor lunchtime picnics for two reasons: 1) Cost-saving/ sanity saving—have you ever been to a restaurant with twin toddlers? 2) If your kids nap, this smooths the transition to naptime, since the kids are already close to their bed(s). Picnic set-up is simple. I lay a towel on the floor and put out the breakfast leftovers plus some of the aforementioned snacks that we’ve picked up along the way. Depending on the hotel we’re in, Sometimes I scope out the common areas that aren’t in use — libraries, cocktail lounges, even conference rooms — and set up in there. (The key is to ask forgiveness after the fact, not permission beforehand, but you didn’t hear that from me.)

8) Hit the gym, the workout is optional.

Three words: Free bottles of water. OK, technically that’s four words. But seriously, most hotel gyms stock water bottles which you can pilfer with reckless abandon. I also let my kids run around in there to get some energy out. That’s a win for everyone.

9 ) Remember those small but impactful items from home.

There are a few key things don’t take up a lot of space in your bag, but make a huge difference: plastic cups, sippy or otherwise, are clutch for shampoo rinsing (and water-drinking). Doggie bags for soiled diapers is key when you’re without a closed trash. And disinfectant spray/wipes let you wipe down that remote and phone before getting too up-close-and-personal.

10) Go with the flow.

For the first year, I was married to the twins’ daily schedule; naps, meals, bedtime were all executed on time (for the most part). But when  you’re on the road, it’s near impossible to keep things so regimented. Touring hours, time changes, and cultural norms (two-hour Mediterranean daytime meals, I’m looking at you) disrupt the schedule — and that’s OK! So go with it. We do a combo of in-room siestas and napping on the go—it’s amazing what a stroll down a boardwalk can do—and often push bedtimes as much as we can. Another thing I’ve come to forego while traveling is screen time limits. One time in Newport, Rhode Island, we all snuggled in our respective beds and watched the Incredibles. And yes, I had a glass of wine while the kids nodded off. Bliss.

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Jenna Mahoney is a Brooklyn-based magazine editor and writer specializing in travel, weddings, beauty and healthy lifestyles. She's been on staff at Bridal Guide and Fitness magazines and her work has appeared in Shape, Self, Allure, Redbook and New York Magazine, among other places. She's the author of Small Apartment Hacks.