Choosing a hotel is the most important part of vacation planning. To pin down places you can count on for a pleasant stay no matter what city you're in, Parents evaluated the family-friendliness of more than 70 hotel chains with locations in at least ten states. Based on current room rates, we divided them into three categories -- budget (you'll typically find a room for $99 to $149 or less per night in most locations), mid-priced ($150 to $249 per night), and expensive (anything higher).
Then with guidance from travel experts, we dug up info on room layout (separate parent and kid sleeping areas were a key consideration), amenities like a mini fridge and a microwave; family conveniences besides the standard crib; safety issues such as childproofing; recreation like pools and playgrounds, children's programs, and babysitting services; and value-added perks such as free breakfast. Once the results were tallied, we highlighted five selections from each of the lower-priced categories. So next time you need a place to stay, look to this list for the inn-side scoop.
1. Embassy Suites
You've got to love the layout. It's the only chain in our survey where all the accommodations are two-room suites with a door that separates the master bedroom (your digs) from the living area with a pull-out couch (the kids' space). "When you put the kids to bed, you can simply shut the door and relax in your own space," says John Lee, vice president of brand marketing.
A fridge, a microwave, and two TVs are standard in all Embassy Suites rooms, and nearly every location has a swimming pool. Icing on the cake: free, made-to-order breakfast and evening reception with snacks and drinks (wine for you, juice or milk for the kids) at all locations. Some properties also offer a package with Build-A-Bear; kids receive an exclusive explorer outfit for a stuffed animal they bring.
Can't-Miss Location: Just two blocks from Navy Pier, the newly renovated Embassy Suites in downtown Chicago serves up free Shirley Temples to kids every evening from 5 to 7 in an atrium that has more than 5,000 plants.
2. SpringHill Suites by Marriott
Babies get the royal treatment here. As part of the chain's free Tots Travel Too program, little ones receive a tub toy and sleep in a play yard with a hygienic cover made exclusively for Marriott hotels. If you need childproofing supplies or diaper cream, you just have to ask the front desk. And when you're enjoying the free breakfast daily, you can grab a disposable bib created by DwellStudio.
All rooms -- which have undergone a stylish makeover in most locations -- have a microwave and a fridge. A partial wall separates the bedroom from a living area with a pull-out couch (the play yard fits in this space too). "The bathroom design is well-suited for families," says Laurie Goldstein, senior manager of public relations for Marriott International. "It has a sliding door that separates the sink from the shower so family members can get ready at the same time." All locations have a pool; some offer a separate one for young kids.
Can't-Miss Location A Shamu-themed pool and splash area at the SpringHill Suites Orlando at SeaWorld woos young families. Plus, you can hop on a free shuttle to the nearby theme park.
3. Hyatt House
It's like home away from home. With full kitchens, outdoor grills, and loaner high chairs, one- or two-bedroom suites at Hyatt House (which used to be called Summerfield Suites) are perfect for families who want to avoid the cost and hassle of eating every meal out. "Most properties even offer a free grocery-shopping service," says Kristine Rose, vice president of brands. "You order in advance, and your fridge is stocked when you arrive." No worries about doing the dishes; housekeeping will wash them. In most locations, suites have a door separating the master bedroom from the living room (with sleeper sofa). All locations have a pool and, at most, shuttles will give you a free ride to any family attractions within a 5- to 10-mile radius.
Can't-Miss Location Just a mile from the Legoland theme park, the Hyatt House in Carlsbad, California, hosts free weeknight socials with appetizers.
4. Residence Inn by Marriott
Move over, business travelers. Families are finding the full kitchen, laundry room, and free breakfast buffet here too good to pass up. "We're noticing that parents appreciate the amenities of an extended-stay hotel, even if they're with us for a night or two," says Goldstein. Book a one- or two-bedroom suite because, unlike the studio type, they boast a master bedroom with a door that closes off from a living area with a sofa bed. Most locations have a pool and a fitness area with a basketball court.
Can't-Miss Location The new Residence Inn San Diego Downtown/Gaslamp Quarter is close to the city's famous zoo and ballpark. When you're done for the day, take a dip in the heated rooftop pool.
5. Holiday Inn
Over the last few years, all the Holiday Inns have received a mod makeover -- with higher-end bedding and towels, upgraded bath products, and better food selections. But this nearly six-decades-old chain-wide policy is still in place: Children 12 and under eat for free at any on-site restaurant when you're having a meal too. Plus, some locations offer KidSuites -- a separate area with bunk beds and a playspace. All locations sport a pool, and a handful wow kids with waterslides.
Can't-Miss Location The Holiday Inn Gwinnett Center, near Atlanta, is the first property to test the chain's new Social Hub, a family-friendly lobby with chalkboards, board games, a video gaming zone, and kid eats like waffle grilled cheese.
1. Loews Hotels & Resorts
Before other hotels rolled out the red carpet for the under-12 crowd, this chain kicked off the Loews Loves Kids program. Every child receives a gift, like a Slinky or a mini Doodle Pro, at check-in. While you're at the front desk, you can raid the Fisher-Price Lending Library to borrow almost every type of baby or kid gear -- from jogging stroller to car seat, outlet protectors to potty seat. All restaurants have children's menus and keep kids occupied with Wikki Stix or other toys. And while you take advantage of a spa treatment or a fitness class, you can ask the concierge to book a babysitter or, at some locations, drop off kids ages 4 to 12 at the children's club. Guest rooms are spacious, and most locations offer junior suites with a door separating the two sleeping areas.
Can't-Miss Location: At Loews Miami Beach Hotel, kids can take a free sushi-making class, watch a movie poolside, and join a sand-castle contest.
2. Kimpton Hotels
This fun collection of boutique hotels isn't cookie cutter in architecture, restaurants, and design, but they all offer the KimptonKids program that includes childproofing kits (with outlet covers, toilet latches, and night-lights), a toy at check-in, a list of local family attractions, and even a goldfish tank for the room. "We take care of the goldfish so families get to enjoy it," says Steve Pinetti, senior vice president of Inspiration & Creativity. Don't miss free wine hour nightly; some locations have juice or milk for the kiddos during that time. Room and suite types vary by location, but the website is clear about what will work for your clan.
Can't-Miss Location Mini tourists love the funky design of the lobby at the The Hotel Monaco in Washington, D.C., just a couple of blocks from the Smithsonian.
3. JW Marriott Hotels & Resorts
It's affordable luxury. This upscale division of Marriott isn't much pricier than the regular Marriott yet tends to have bigger, more stylish rooms and a wide array of family-friendly features, including amazing pool complexes and the same Tots Travel Too program found at its sister property, SpringHill Suites (see slide 3). Some locations have a drop-off children's program for kids ages 4 to 12; all offer babysitting recommendations as well as state-of-the-art fitness centers and spas.
Can't-Miss Location Who needs a water park if you stay at the JW Marriott in San Antonio? A lazy river and rapids come off water slides, and there's a splash area and smaller slides that are just the right size for the under-5 set.
4. Omni Hotels & Resorts
Bedtime is a real treat. Room service will deliver milk and cookies to your kid on the first night of your stay. Or you can arrange an alternative if your child has food allergies. Eight locations offer Kid's Fantasy Suites, a separate room with twin beds, toys, and its own TV. At the front desk all kids receive a backpack with a water bottle and little toys like a kazoo and a kaleidoscope. The front desk also has a suitcase filled with games and toys that kids can borrow. And for you? You can request a free in-room fit kit (with an exercise mat and weights) and order from the breakfast menu with healthy ingredients such as nitrate-free bacon, cage-free eggs, and hibiscus smoothies.
Can't-Miss Location Escape to the Freedom Trail Suite with bunk beds, beanbags, a chalkboard wall, and Colonial costumes at The Omni Parker House, in Boston. Don't miss a slice of Boston Cream Pie -- hotel chefs have been serving it since 1855.
5. Westin Hotels & Resorts
Everyone will sleep like a baby. The chain known for its super-comfy Heavenly Bed has a crib version that features a fitted sheet and an adorable dust ruffle. Plus, most locations can offer bed rails, upon request, if your kid needs them. And you're off the hook for the bedtime story -- just pick up the phone to hear a variety of tales. Some locations offer a drop-off kids' club for children ages 4 to 12 -- including special "Parents Night Off" programs -- and all have babysitting services. Kids will leave with a souvenir of their stay: a drawstring bag with trinkets such as a coloring book and crayons.
Can't-Miss Location Float down the lazy river pool at The Westin Kierland Resort & Spa, in Scottsdale, Arizona. The resort also plans elaborate seasonal activities, including a hunt with more than 20,000 Easter eggs this month.
Originally published in the April 2012 issue of Parents magazine.