In 2021, your children will be the ones calling the shots. As parent, yours will be a purely symbolic authority. You will already be familiar with this dynamic, of course, but here’s what’s new: this rule will apply not only within your own home, but in hotels too.
The family travel market was going through a growth spurt before Covid-19 threw it a curve ball. Lockdowns, however, have super-charged your children’s power over the hotel industry. According to one recent survey, two thirds of parents are hoping to go on holiday once restrictions are in the rear-view mirror and, says Expedia’s report on how the youngest family members are influencing travel, “although final decisions are made by the adults, Gen Alpha [that’s your children] influences family trip choices”.
This year, therefore, hotels will be competing for your kids’ attention and, terrifying as you might find their newfound omnipotence, this may prove no bad thing. Back in 2013, a survey commissioned by the Luxury Family Hotel chain found that more than a quarter of a million British parents had cut a family holiday short either because they felt unwelcome or because it was ill-equipped for their needs.
Just under a decade later, says Simon Maguire, the managing director of Luxury Family Hotels: “We have definitely seen the hotel sector make improvements when it comes to being family friendly, which is good news. But saying you are family friendly and actually being family friendly can be worlds apart.”
Family rooms are still often awkwardly configured; kids’ meals less “field to fork”, more “deep-freeze to deep-fried”; communal and recreational spaces dotted with boring breakables that leave children fidgety and adults on perpetual high alert. “That causes angst for both parent and child,” says Maguire, “which is not what you want when spending your hard-earned money.”
Well, quite. So how do you identify the hotels that are not simply paying lip service to family friendliness? The ones who welcome not only the sight but also the sound of children?
Do not let the promised tiny fluffy robes and teddies fool you. If you want to know whether the hotel loves kids, it’s in the room design.
Genuinely family-friendly hotels will have built this ethos into the infrastructure itself. Family suites will have a separate, snug bunkroom for the children. This will ideally be equipped with Netflix (hell hath no torture like navigating terrestrial television with children) and certainly with its own door.
That last aspect is key, illustrating that the hotel understands and cares about the practicalities of family life (show me the parent who enjoys sitting in the gloom with the TV set to whisper once the kids are asleep).
Lots of hotels now have special family sittings, early in the evening. These can be a red herring, indicative not of a desire to make families feel comfortable but to keep their unsightly habits separate from the “real” guests. Instead, ask to see the kids’ menu. A good one will have a couple of fussy-eating staples (pesto pasta; burger). If the whole menu could be cooked in a microwave or deep-fat fryer, run a mile. Children are clearly an after-thought here.
Still unsure? Ask if they provide colouring pages and coloured pencils. Any hotel restaurant worth its salt knows these to be essential weapons in your fight for a fuss-free interlude.
The reverse applies to pools. Dedicated family swim times are a godsend for those who don’t relish death stares from adults doing lengths while their children re-enact a scene from Jaws. Genuinely family-friendly hotels know this, while the best also provide toys, floats and the odd pair of goggles, in the knowledge that parents are frazzled, forgetful humans.
Before you book, however, check the slots are generous and well-timed. All children will want to swim after breakfast and around teatime. It is written into their DNA. Don’t ask why (I don’t know).
If the hotel you are scrutinising has a library, ask if it includes children’s books. This is a good way to sort the semi- from the seriously welcoming. As with books, also bikes. If the hotel has a store for guests to borrow, but it does not include children’s sizes, this is a bad sign. Ditto wellies.
Does the hotel in question welcome dogs? This can be a very good sign, since your kids will also whine and scramble about on the furniture.
On the other hand, if its website has more space devoted to dogs than children (surprisingly common in the UK) then strike it from the list (it’s really aiming for retirees, not rug rats).
A lot more nuance than meets the eye here, too. Ostensibly, kids’ clubs are a good sign that your children will be entertained on your break. Dig deeper, though, and they may be yet more evidence that the hotel is desperate to tidy them away, out of sight and earshot of adult guests. The worst are a form of primary-coloured kettling. The good ones, on the other hand, will not only show you a staffed room of toys, but will also have a daily rota of varied activities.
The best ones will take your children outdoors as much as possible, while the absolute gold standard is a schedule of activities that are specifically designed to engage and appeal to tweens. Look for evidence of this even if your family does not include one, since, as any entertainer will tell you, performing to half a dozen bored 12-year-olds is far more frightening than a full Wembley Stadium. If a hotel can crack that crowd, it can make anyone happy.
Travel within the UK and overseas is currently subject to restrictions. Check the relevant guidance before booking and travelling.
The best family-friendly hotels in the UK to book for spring