What does “Family Friendly” travel really mean?

When choosing where to go on a vacation, the question often comes up: “is it family friendly?” Some will proudly announce “there’s no such thing!” They’ve taken their children everywhere and would have you believe that the kids can entertain themselves with nothing more than a pen and paper on a trans-atlantic flight.

There’s value in having a can-do attitude, but somewhere between the Disney cruise and the Parisian salon lies the answer for most.

When we were in Kauai, we stayed at the St. Regis for a couple of nights. They went out of their way to accommodate the kids, with welcome gifts, free-to-use sand toys, miniature bathrobes, miniature pool chaises—it was so nice. But on the other hand, there weren’t many kids there. The ambience was pretty quiet, the restaurants pretty fancy, and I gathered there were a few honeymooners among us.

Which quality is more important? The amenities or the atmosphere? How do you evaluate whether a place you’re choosing is family-friendly or not? Of course it completely depends on the kids’ ages, but I tend to have a few things on my mental checklist, and I was curious to ask friends and family what would be on theirs. Here are some things they had to say…

What makes a place family-friendly? 

In general…
Other kids.
By far and away, an expectation of children being present was the primary answer for everyone I asked. And I would echo that: In my example from Kauai, even if the other guests might not wish the kids’ presence on the chaise lounge next to them (not usually an issue, since they’d rather be down by the water), the big box of sand toys on display was a cue to everyone that kids are welcome. Kids were pictured in the advertising on their website and high chairs were visible at the restaurant. I feel like this makes a big difference—especially if other families actually are there, too! Even better? “A general tolerance of noise. We like not to be stared at when our kids fight over who pushes the elevator button.” In other words, a family-friendly place is often simply a place where other families are.

Limited travel required. This might mean to get to the destination in the first place, or it could mean limited travel-required once you arrive. But I’ve learned that most people anticipate that a “family-friendly vacation” requires very little time on planes, trains, and automobiles once you get there. “I am always on the look out for locations that require little to no loading in the car.”

Food they’ll eat. I’m always interested to learn what kids typically eat when they’re out. It can tell you a lot about what’s expected of them at restaurants. Are there full kids’ menus with crayons and all that? Does the kitchen simply offer a modified version of the adult menu? Is there no accommodation all? One friend mentioned that she values “restaurants with kid-friendly food that is affordable. It doesn’t have to be chicken nuggets, but small portions of non-spicy food is a plus.”

Space for play. Almost everyone agreed that the more room to spend out of doors, the better. For families with young children, this meant that beach destinations came up frequently. But camping was also a suggestion: “We love camping in spots where we have no internet or phone service and can just focus on the family.” One friend had stayed at a family alumni camp in the woods: “Kids running wild in nature, building forts with camp counselors while parents sit and enjoy wine. Pools, hiking, kid activities. Family camp all the way.”

If staying a a big city, this might mean looking for neighborhoods with ample parks and playgrounds—or rentals with a shared courtyard. We love visiting Silverlake in Los Angeles, but it’s not the most family-friendly ‘hood. There are ample hip coffee spots, but playgrounds are not as easy to come by—we would drive to Griffith or Echo Park.

Relatively temperate. Extreme heat or cold adds an extra challenge for anyone, but kids often have a particularly hard time dealing with being uncomfortable. Either extreme would probably keep a place off my “family-friendly” list if I had to hand one such list over.

At the hotel or rental…

Roomy accommodations. Having a place for everyone to sleep comfortably, preferably two separate living spaces, can make all the difference. If a larger hotel room is too expensive, try searching a home rental site, like AirBnB or Kid & Coe. We often rent homes and look for ones owned by families in hopes that the space will already be child-proofed, offer a crib, or come with some toys (the best!).

Outdoor access. Parents of babes who still nap will appreciate a balcony, a place to go and still enjoy a view: “Nothing worse than being held captive in a hotel room when your kids nap.”

On the other hand, one friend mentioned that she loves to seek out ground-floor units: These can eliminate the elevator-runs with the stroller and all the stuff. And they might mean a sliding door that your kids can run out in the morning to get some exercise. “Sometimes we feel claustrophobic in high hotel rooms with limited outdoor space. [At the beach,] you miss out on ocean views, but more than likely it’s a pretty garden view and not the parking lot. And most hotel’s ground floor rooms are cheaper than other units.”

Kitchens. Even if it’s just a sink, a fridge, and a hot plate, traveling with kids is made much so much more pleasant when you can make your own cereal in the morning, and bring dinner in if a restaurant is a complete fail. “And keep the wine for mom.”

Lifeguards. This actually had never occurred to us until last summer when we stayed at the Aulani, a Disney property on Oahu. At the pool, we noticed that older kids were given more free reign by parents who could actually relax. And even we, with little ones, appreciated the extra assurance. It’s not a necessary details, but it’s the sort of thing that can really add to a vacation’s quality.

And finally… 

Childcare. Many hotels offer childcare on site or will help with finding childcare solutions.

What’s on your list? If a friend asks you if a place is family-friendly, which of these factors determines your answer? What have been your top “family-friendly” travel experiences?

P.S. Some of the most family-friendly places we’ve been (other than Hawaii) were Bali—where everyone wanted to hold or entertain our baby; and Scandinavia—the playgrounds are legendary with reason. Paris, on the other hand…

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