As I try and figure out my future travel plans, I start picturing what travelling with the kids will look like again. Will we be lounging by the poolside at a nice resort, chilling on a sunny beach in the Maldives, hiking the trails above the Cliffs of Moher, or trekking the treetops of Costa Rica?
It looks so picture perfect – especially when we’re all suffering from cabin fever – but let’s admit it, what we envision as our greatest family moments can end up a far cry from it.
Sometimes that reality hits early before you even get to your destination. For example, the night before your flight, your baby goes through a sleep regression. The moment you board the plane, the inevitable sibling bickering begins. As you attempt to immerse your kids in the local culture, you’re met with complaints of “it’s hot, can we go back to the hotel, I need a bathroom,” and the list goes on.
As parents, we look forward to family travel as it represents an opportunity to connect with our kids while introducing them to new experiences. As adults, it represents an outlet, an escape from the daily grind. For kids, it doesn’t matter so much where they go, as long as it’s going to be fun and they feel engaged.
How do we achieve a happy balance? For me, the answer lies in finding a hotel with a great kids’ program.
The Advantages of Hotel Kids’ Programs
To cater to a growing number of family travellers, many hotels and resorts now offer kids’ programs or clubs with the sole purpose of ensuring kids and parents have a good time on vacation.
They provide activities and supervision to keep kids entertained with the goal of taking some stress off parents. It really can be a win-win situation and help you achieve that balance of having family time and some much-deserved “me” time.
Making use of a hotel’s children’s program has allowed me and my husband to enjoy a peaceful meal together, to go walk around and tour most of the city in a day, and check out places that are not so kid-friendly (old cobblestone roads not suitable for strollers, crowded medinas, etc.)
The great thing about children’s programs is that you can use them as much or as little as you choose, so there’s no need to feel guilty about dropping off the kids for a few hours. As a matter of fact, with a good program, you may find your kids not wanting to leave! There are hotels we stayed in two years ago that my kids continue to rave about.
I also find that those hotels with kids’ programs tend to have all-around great kid-friendly amenities even outside of the program. This is an advantage of booking a hotel over possibly a vacation rental, like Airbnb, which typically do not provide these services.
Even better news for us in the Miles & Points community is that some hotels belong under the Marriott and Hilton brands, so what better way to sweeten a points redemption than get your elite benefits and childcare too!
Important Considerations for Kids’ Programs
Kids’ programs are usually property-specific, rather than brand-specific, and can be quite a mixed bag.
Unfortunately, many hotels don’t publicize their kids’ program in great detail on their websites, so it requires a bit of Googling or calling the hotel directly to get more information. Just like looking for the right daycare, it’s important to research about a kids’ program beforehand. This way you can address any concerns or questions you may have and make sure the program will suit your needs.
Here are some things to take into consideration when looking at a children’s program:
- When the program is offered. Some hotels only hold their children’s programs during peak travel times like March Break or summer holidays, while others will be year-round.
- Hours of operation. Some programs offer activities and supervision all-day, while others only at certain times on specific days. If you’re planning on taking a day tour without the kids, it is important to ask about drop-off and pick-up times and how strict they are with them. A hotel once made an exception for us and opened 30 minutes earlier so we could make our tour.
- Pre-registration. Most programs will ask that you pre-register at least 24 hours beforehand to ensure adequate staffing numbers. Registration is often first-come, first-served. Although some programs can accommodate last minute drop-offs, don’t assume it’s the norm.
- Fees. Some programs are complimentary and included in your room rate, while others will charge sessional or hourly fees. Some may have a surcharge for certain activities only. If there is a cost, there may be sibling discounts as well, so don’t forget to inquire about them.
- Age restrictions. While some programs will take infants and toddlers, I find most usually take children aged 4 to 5 and up. If you have more than one child, you will also want to inquire as to whether they have programming geared towards their specific age groups.
- Parental supervision. Some programs offer drop-off options, while others require that you be present with your child or at least remain on-site at the hotel. Programs that have age restrictions will sometimes allow a younger child to participate if their parent remains with them during the activities.
- Activities. Some hotels provide structured programs like nature walks, cooking classes, scavenger hunts, and art classes. Have older kids? Perhaps they will enjoy time in a games room, snorkelling, archery, or photography sessions. Some programs allow free play and operate more like a babysitting service. Others offer a mix of both.
- Meals. Some programs provide snacks and meals, while others do not. This is particularly important if your child has any food allergies or dietary restrictions. You will want to know what about their food handling policies and if their staff are trained to handle any reactions.
- Other safety concerns. Depending on your comfort level, you may also have questions regarding their staff (child-to-staff ratios, background checks, qualifications, first aid and CPR training, etc.), cleanliness, or other emergency measures and plans (COVID-19 aside).
Understandably, given the pandemic, many hotels have temporarily suspended their kids’ programs, so it is advisable to check with the hotel whether their program will be reopened by the time you plan to visit and whether any regular program offerings may have changed.
How to Find Kids’ Programs
Most family-friendly destinations offer hotels that have children’s programs. Those brands that more consistently offer them tend to be on the higher end when it comes to cost, but not always. A quick Google search for “hotels with kids’ program” will likely pull up some options.
When it comes to comparing options, I find that Oyster.com is a good place to start. Simply plug in your destination, then select “Best Kid-Friendly” and a list of hotels will populate.
If a hotel has a children’s program, it’ll generally be mentioned in the description. When you select a hotel, it’ll bring you to the “Overview” page that lists the pros and cons of the property. The “Full Review” tab will provide more detailed information about the children’s program if it’s available.
Some hotel brands have a children’s program across the whole brand, such as Ritz Kids by Ritz-Carlton, Kids for All Seasons by Four Seasons, and Westin Family Kids Club by Westin, but what is actually offered by each program will vary by property. It is best to go to the hotel’s official website for more information.
Good Kids’ Programs Around the World
Over the past few years, these are some kids’ programs that have really stood out for us, including many hotels that we booked using our hotel rewards points and allowed us to get a bit of extra value out of those points.
Penha Longa Resort, Ritz-Carlton (just outside of Lisbon, Portugal)
- Available year-round, pay by session, supervision provided, for ages 4 to 12 years old
- Pros: Well-trained and friendly staff, great indoor and outdoor facilities for kids
- Cons: Cost, need to remain on hotel property while kids are in the program (there is plenty to do on property though); should you wish to go off-site, they have a third party babysitting service that can provide a sitter to attend the program with the kids
- Booking strategy: There aren’t many Ritz-Carltons that are a Category 5 hotel in Marriott Bonvoy (35,000 points per night at the standard rate), which makes this place a great redemption option. If you hold the Amex Bonvoy Card or the Amex Bonvoy Business Card, you can also redeem your annual free night certificate here as well. Their standard rooms can accommodate up to two adults and one child; for bigger families, you can book two rooms and request that they be interconnecting or book a suite.
Martinhal Chiado Family Suites (Lisbon, Portugal)
- Available year-round, complimentary for hotel guests, supervision provided, for ages 6 months to 12 years old with separate areas for different age groups
- Pros: Well-trained and friendly staff, great indoor facilities for kids, meals in club for a small fee, will take babies and toddlers, open throughout the day, reasonably priced rooms considering childcare is complimentary, great location in Lisbon
- Cons: No outdoor facilities for kids
- Booking strategy: Martinhal is a local chain, so the best strategy here is to use a fixed-value points currency to redeem for a stay, like MR Select points or HSBC Rewards points. Book directly with the hotel, as third party sites like Hotels.com tend to charge much more.
Rome Cavalieri, A Waldorf Astoria Hotel (Rome, Italy)
- Available July & August only, complimentary for hotel guests but some activities require an additional charge, supervision provided, for ages 4 to 11 years old
- Pros: Well-trained and friendly staff, unlimited complimentary snacks including a Nutella bar
- Cons: Unique activities require additional fees, hotel located 10-15 minute drive from main attractions
- Booking strategy: Standard room rewards available at 80,000 Hilton Honors points per night and can accommodate up to three guests. Interconnecting rooms are available for bigger families. The best way to score big here is getting into the US credit card game. Signing up for any one of the four Amex US Hilton-branded credit cards will grab you enough points for a free night here. The Hilton Aspire Card also comes with an annual free night certificate that can be redeemed here as well as the annual $250 resort credit (which can be used to offset any activity fees). Gold or Diamond status will also score you free breakfast (kids included, when we visited!)
- Available year-round, pay by session, supervision provided, for ages 5 to 12 years old
- Pros: Well-trained and friendly staff, great outdoor pool system with lazy river, slides and more
- Cons: Expensive for one child but additional kids are discounted, indoor space was relatively small and congested
- Booking strategy: Standard room rewards are available at 56,000 Hilton Honors points per night and can accommodate up to 4 guests. Like the Waldorf Astoria in Rome, the best strategy here is getting an American Express US Hilton card. If you aren’t into the US game, consider the American Express Platinum Card. It will give you Hilton Honors Gold status, which comes with complimentary breakfast for you and a guest (at this property, breakfast is complimentary for kids 5 and under, and dinner for two kids under 12 is covered by the daily resort fee). You can also book through the American Express Fine Hotels & Resorts program for additional perks, including a US$100 resort credit that can used towards covering the program fee.
- Available year-round, complimentary, supervision provided, for ages 4 to 12 years old with separate areas for different age groups
- Pros: Well-trained and friendly staff, great indoor and outdoor facilities for kids including a massive 5-acre water oasis with lazy river, slides and more, a games room and outdoor playground
- Cons: High cost of accommodation in exchange for top-notch service and amenities
- Booking strategy: The best way to save is through using a fixed-value points currency to redeem for the stay (as mentioned above). TD Rewards points can also be used to book rooms through their own Expedia for TD portal. If you have the Platinum Card or the Business Platinum Card, you can once again take advantage of perks offered through American Express Fine Hotels & Resorts; if not, go through one their preferred partners like Virtuoso.
Rasa Sentosa Resort & Spa, Shangri-La (Sentosa, Singapore)
- Available year-round, payment required but may be complimentary with certain room packages, supervision provided, for ages 5 to 12 years old with separate areas for different age groups
- Pros: Well-trained and friendly staff, large indoor and outdoor facilities for kids, great kid-friendly amenities on-site including pools with slides, climbing structures, beachfront access, a kids buffet section, and complimentary baby food
- Cons: Resort located on Sentosa Island, requires a 15-minute shuttle ride to get to the mainland
- Booking strategy: Shangri-La has its own loyalty program, the Golden Circle program. Unfortunately, because their footprint is mainly in Asia, most of us probably are not heavily invested in the program and won’t have enough points for a redemption. Until March 31, 2021, the Platinum Card can grant you Jade membership in the Golden Circle program, which entitles you to perks like free breakfast, a complimentary room upgrade, and early check-in and late check-out.
Alternatives to Kids’ Programs
Kids’ programs aren’t for everyone. They may not fit your needs or they may be an unnecessary extra cost. Some hotels that offer fabulous programs may not fit your budget if a points redemption is not an option. Or maybe the pandemic has left you anxious over leaving your kids with other children you don’t know.
If any of these apply to you, here are some other options to consider.
- Use a babysitting service. Most hotels have a company or list of trusted contacts that they frequently use for babysitting services. In Orlando, many hotels have recommended babysitters available upon requestKids Night Out. If you’re going to use a babysitter, make sure to hire one that’s part of a reputable company and check their reviews.
- Go on a cruise. Most family-friendly cruise lines offer complimentary children’s programs, with an additional cost only for meal-time supervision or late night fees. Great deals can be had when booking cruises during big promotions (i.e., kids sail free and 60% off second guest with Royal Caribbean). Even better, book through Costco or if you have an American Express Platinum Card, through American Express’s Cruise Privileges Program for extra perks.
- Go to an all-inclusive resort. I have yet to try an all-inclusive, but companies like Beaches Resorts offer children’s programs for infants and up. This may also be a good way to use up any WestJet Dollars you still have lying around.
- Take trips with grandparents or another family. It’s always nice to have an extra pair of hands to help, or other kids to keep yours entertained. You can even take turns babysitting each other’s kids for an evening. Offer to book their rooms and rack up some extra points and possibly elite nights as well.
- Take a trip without the kids. My husband and I like to take one or two trips a year for ourselves, while another one or two trips with the kids. This way we get our fill of adventure on our own, and when we travel with the kids, our focus is on them and what they want to do.
Kids’ programs at hotels are great for bridging the gap between your travel goals and providing a positive experience for your kids. Whether you just need a bit peace and tranquility or want to go on an arduous excursion, children’s programs ensure that your kids are well cared for and have fun too, with the flexibility to use them only when you need to.
Before you book a hotel with a children’s program, though, always consider whether the program being offered will meet those needs. Most hotels that offer a program tend to cost more than those that don’t, and there’s no point in paying for something you cannot fully take advantage of. With COVID-19, it does raise another level of concern, but hopefully when this pandemic is over, these programs can continue being a useful resource for family travel.
How do you balance your travel needs with those of your kids? Have you been to a hotel with a great children’s program? If so, please share with the rest of the community in the comments below.