Do hotels lie about being “family friendly”?

Somewhere between a booster stool at the check-in desk and a DJ spouting profanities at the kids’ pool lies the definition of a “family-friendly” resort. No one seems to agree. Maybe it’s time we did.

Let’s start with that step stool, which I saw at the Fairmont Jasper Park Lodge’s check-in desk a few months ago. Fairmont is known for catering to its littlest visitors, but I’d never seen a booster before. It allows youngsters to come eye-to-eye with a check-in clerk while Mom and Dad register.

The step-ups were also in the lobby bathrooms. When I told one of the hotel employees that my kids, who were traveling with me, thought the furniture was “really cool,” she shrugged as if to say, “Doesn’t every resort do it like this?”

Not really. Janis Turk, a writer and mother of two from Seguin, Texas, remembers checking into a “family-friendly” beach resort recently. The experience left her and several other parents traumatized.

“There was a DJ near the kids’ slide at the hotel’s family pool, and he was playing hip-hop songs with racial slurs and dropping the F-bomb,” she recalls. She called the hotel manager. To his credit, he cut the DJ loose.

Not a week seems to go by without a hotel announcing a new family travel special or trying to rebrand itself as family-friendly. There’s a good reason: Family travelers are a sought-after demographic because they spend like pirates and represent the next generation of customer.

How valuable are they? It’s difficult to say because no one seems to agree on an exact definition of a family traveler. Eileen Ogintz, a syndicated columnist who publishes the website Taking the Kids, says it’s the leading segment of the leisure travel market, “bringing in billions in revenue” to hotels. The travel services marketing firm MMGY Global suggests family travelers have a lot of disposable income and that the most affluent — those making more than $250,000 a year — are also likeliest to take a family vacation this year.

Yet, some of the efforts to attract kids and their big-spending parents are a little pathetic.

“I have seen kids’ clubs that were Formica-furnished guestrooms with early interrogation lighting and a collection of used coloring books,” says Kyle McCarthy, who edits the Family Travel Forum, a website for family travelers. “And worse.”

Too often, families are lured with amenities such as a “kids’ club” that falls short. Amie O’Shaughnessy, who publishes the family travel website Ciao Bambino, says some kids’ programs amount to nothing more than “glorified babysitting” for young kids and video games for older ones.

How do you know if your hotel is the real deal? Not by looking at its “for kids” webpage, which shows staged photos of children tumbling down the resort’s waterslide or playing near the beach. Instead, a hotel’s family-friendliness is written into policies that aren’t always disclosed.

For example, does the property offer a second-room discount for large families? If you stay in the same room, will a hotel charge more for the extra bed? “I’ve never been to a major U.S.-flagged chain property that offers anything more creative than two double-occupancy rooms for a large family,” says Powell Berger, an editor from Hawaii who frequently travels with her family.

Perhaps it’s time to end the gimmicks. We may never agree on the definition of “family travel” — we can’t even agree on a definition of a family — but let’s start by calling out the fake family hotels. A summer “family” sale and a kids-eat-free program do not necessarily qualify.

When I asked my own kids, ages 6, 8 and 11, what they liked in a hotel, I was surprised by their answers. Although they appreciated the comprehensive kids’ programs, such as the one they recently experienced at Disney’s Aulani Resort on Oahu, everything took a back seat to the way they were treated by the hotel.

The key is when the hotel treats all its guests — not just those old enough to qualify for a credit card — as if they’re important.

Do hotels lie about being "family friendly"?

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Christopher Elliott

Christopher Elliott is an author, journalist and consumer advocate. You can read more about him on his personal website or contact him at Got a question or comment? You can post it on the new forum.

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  • JewelEyed

    Depends on how you define “family friendly”. Most places have no issue allowing kids to wreak absolute havoc, while anyone who takes issue with the screaming and messes is told there’s nothing to be done or accused of being a baby hater. I don’t mean babies screaming, I mean kids that are old enough to know better and apparently nobody is bothering to hold them responsible. Any place that makes excuses for that kind of behavior but would not accept that from an adult is definitely not friendly to anyone who doesn’t have children as far as I’m concerned. Honestly, I don’t think there are enough places that are adult friendly. You basically have to go to someplace where kids are not legally allowed to get a break from them in public half the time, which is great if you love going to strip clubs and bars every day of the week, but if not…You can’t even go to a late night rated R movie without being surrounded by parents with crying kids these days.

  • PsyGuy

    Family friendly? What about adult friendly. I would LOVE if a resort said no kids allowed. I dont want to hear someone perfect little angels running around and yelling. The teenagers are worse, they will swipe your iPhone in a blink, and they are all trying to act like their 10 years older then they are. I was recently at a beach resort and a girl who couldn’t be older then 15 was trying to order margaritas at the bar and claiming the 4 drinks were all for her mom. Lets not forget the toddler tantrums and the infants that parents who cant be in their right mind would take a child that young into a formal dining room. There is a place for people to take their poorly behaved demon spawn, it’s called Disney. The rest of us go on vacation to among other things get AWAY from your kids. To enjoy a good food, fine wine, a day at the beach where we can hear the water and the surf, without the same arguments and drama your children (BUT MOM, I HAVE TO TALK TO BRAD EVERY HOUR OR HE’S GOING TO START TALKING TO JESSICA) bring with you. We don’t want to hear it, we don’t want to understand, and we don’t care how hard or how much effort you, blah, blah, blah, we just don’t want to be even the slightest bit inconvenienced by your family, and we have zero tolerance. We don’t want to be part of “your village” and what it takes to teach them to read. I would happily throw your kid off the airplane if it meant one less crying kid, or child kicking my seat, and the same goes for my vacation.

  • Phoenix Justice

    I don’t have kids, but I do remember being one. As a kid, we didn’t stay in hotels on our family vacations. We pulled our fold-down camper wherever we were going. Campgrounds, by almost their very definition, are “family friendly” but the true “kid friendly” (and I think that’s the term you are truly looking for) or “kid centric” camp ground I remember was Jellystone Park in Wisconsin Dells. Besides the pool, video game lounge, mini-golf, bikes for rent and an outdoor movie each night, there were activities all day long.

    To us kids (and their were five of us), it was another world, if not heaven!

    So yes, I think the true term you are looking for is “kid friendly” or “kid centric”, not “family friendly”.

  • EdB

    “Family travelers are a sought-after demographic because they spend like pirates”

    I didn’t realize pirates were known for their spending habits, but more for their plundering and other not so nice activities. Or are they trying to say they don’t spend much and will take everything that isn’t nailed down?

  • Stephen Pickford

    Yes, it is time for more adult-friendly travel experiences, and, again, not meaning the “adult clubs” offered in the Dominican Republic with a different girl each night, but a relaxing, upscale lodging and dining opportunity without children. I am looking to put together a portfolio of interested hoteliers in that regard, and invite any of you out there who are interested in the concept to PM me.

  • Maryannk

    I had the pleasure of going to an adults only resort in the Dominican Republic last year.It was an absolute delight. It was amazing and oh so adult friendly. I’m so glad safe havens like this exist. :)

  • Kasiar001

    Well said. There must be family friendly spaces and kid free spaces, and not at the same location.

  • JewelEyed

    What also kills me is that I don’t think it should necessarily cost an arm and a leg. If you’ve got “upscale” accommodation funds, I imagine you can afford places where you can be away from kids. How about adult friendly that the rest of us can afford?

  • LadyLightTravel

    My cousins love Jellystone Park. The little ones love it, the teenagers love it, and the parents are happy and relaxed because the kids are happy.

  • Phoenix Justice

    Exactly. Maybe because it is a campground and not a hotel/resort, it can be all things to everyone.