When parents start looking for places to stay in Italy or anywhere in Europe that can accommodate the entire family, it doesn’t take long for them to realize that hotel websites and villa brochures don’t provide the details needed to make confident decisions.
There are some family-focused travel guides that do provide specific information, and parents can always call the hotel, or apartment and villa managers, directly. There are two things that make a property family-friendly – first, its physical construction and amenities, and second, the attitude of the owners, management and staff – so parents should be prepared to ask a lot of questions.
Physical property and amenities
To begin with the obvious, travel is highly personal and what works for one family may not work for another, so it’s important to outline trip priorities at the start of the process. The age of the children makes a real difference in who will be happy doing what. What kind of experiences does the family as a whole want? What would you like to do at each destination? The difference between city and countryside accommodations can be substantial, not only because of differing amenities and activities, but also because of transportation needs like rental cars. Things for the family to consider:
Staying in the city
Hotels versus apartments: The upside of staying in a hotel is the opportunity to enjoy the number of services available. For those travelers who like to rely on the front desk or concierges for questions and advice, this is a key advantage. And room service is one of the better inventions of mankind. But the downside is the lack of privacy, space, and in many cases the cost of even a moderately priced hotel is high for families of four or more. The good news is that there are a growing number of properties that have the amenities of an apartment, but the services of a hotel. This is a wonderful option for families that want the best of both worlds, but they are still rare and have to be looked for.
Connecting rooms and suites: Many hotels in historical city centers in Europe do not have rooms large enough for four or more people. The trick is to find hotels that have connecting rooms or suites that sleep four people with a door between the living room and bedroom. This information is rarely posted on a hotel website and usually requires an email or phone call.
Location (location, location): It is hard enough to get out the door with the kids in tow without having to waste time on dealing with transportation. A hotel or apartment in a location with things to do and see in the immediate area is important. With young children, it is really nice to be within a five-minute walk to a park or playground. Parents should make a list of desired activities and confirm that they have fairly easy access to them.
Equipment: Many hotels offer cribs and high chairs. Some apartment rental agencies provide cribs, but there are some that do not. If you need infant or toddler equipment, ask at the time of the initial inquiry and make sure the equipment is reserved as part of the confirmation.
Elevators: Many apartment buildings in Europe do not have elevators. If you have young children and the unit is above the ground floor (and remember that in Europe the “first floor” is often one flight up) you may want to look for another option.
Supplies: Access to grocery stores, bakeries, and family-style restaurants is essential when evaluating the location of an apartment. Ask the rental agency if it can provide such information.
Staying in the country
Resorts versus apartments and villas: Complete resort properties can have a large array of on-site amenities. Stand-alone apartments and villas may have a swimming pool, but usually you have to leave the property for structured entertainment. Resort properties not only have the convenience of onsite services, but also have a social atmosphere where children and families can meet each other around the pool or in public gathering areas. For those families that want more privacy and independence, an apartment or small villa would be the preferred choice. Larger villas are ideal for extended families or two families traveling together.
Amenities: Many rental or resort properties have swimming pools, but the options grow smaller when family members add tennis, bikes and playgrounds to the list. Have the family create an overall activity plan. Remember that a long list of amenities may be irrelevant if you will be out sightseeing every day.
Room plans: Some resorts have kitchens and living spaces while other are just hotel rooms. Even if you don’t plan on cooking meals, it’s nice to have more living space for weeklong stays.
Location: Make a list of the top sites you want to see and select a property that is within a 1.5-hour drive.
Flat grass and safety: Many properties do not have adequate flat grass and open spaces for young children to run around. (Some properties have beautiful lawns that are made for viewing, not walking.) Stairs are unavoidable in many cases, so it is essential to understand the room location within a property if this is a concern. If photos or property layout is not available on the website, ask for photos or brochures ahead of time.
Swimming pools: Pools may not be fenced. Find out ahead of time and understand where your room will be relative to the pool area. For villas you will need to know about door locks.
The attitude of staff and management toward children is impossible to evaluate online, but there are key things you can do to increase the odds that you end up at a place that is comfortable with kids. The best options are recommendations from a trusted source – another family or a family-oriented travel guide. If such resources are not available you can ask the property to confirm that it caters to families (although how many properties would actually say no, they don’t like families). So look for caveats about have children at the pool or in the restaurant. One online tool is TripAdvisor to find out what other travelers are saying about a property. There are also online guidebooks that have forums where users provide feedback.
Rarely does the prefect property exist that meets every requirement for children of different ages. But when families take the time to figure out what is important for the group as a whole, and then set priorities for a fun (and minimal parental stress) trip, it helps them pick the best place to stay. The right property can make or break a vacation.
Amie O’Shaughnessy is the founder of Ciao Bambino!, the first-ever international association of vacation properties for families. With a comprehensive and growing resource for parents featuring hand-picked and thoroughly reviewed hotels, resorts and rental properties, the website includes detailed information and advice for planning fun, safe and memorable family vacation experiences.