|By Matthew Franck, St. Louis
Post-DispatchMcClatchy-Tribune Regional News
Sep. 30, 2007 - Let me start with a travel confession.
I'm a flagrant and repeat violator of a cardinal hotel rule. And worse than that, I've used my four kids as accomplices on several occasions.
No, I don't steal towels, pirate pay-per-view or strip rooms clean of pillows and blankets.
My infraction is what I bring into the room, not what I take out. My crime is ignoring hotel occupancy limits by packing too large a family into one room.
My children know the routine well.
Dad pulls into a hotel and goes to the counter alone to check in. The kids stay in the car, out of sight until they get the signal to sneak in the back door.
If that's not an option, we handle our illegal border crossings differently, sending our adorable immigrants past the front desk in batches. That way, it looks like two small families -- not one big one -- has walked in for the night.
I have lots of justifications, some better than others, for our feeble act of subterfuge.
Much of it has to do with the fact that I'm a tightwad. I admit it. I don't like paying for two rooms. The fact is, with our meager vacation budget, the expense is enough to make a trip impossible.
But I'm not just being cheap. Two rooms simply aren't practical, not with four kids under the age of 12.
Unless a hotel can offer connecting rooms, my wife and I are faced with the prospect of splitting up and dividing the kids, like picking teams on a playground. And deciding who gets the fussy baby can ruin not just a vacation, but a marriage.
We feel, at times, like we're a class of traveler that hotels either haven't thought of, or come to terms with.
In some respects, travel industry data bear out this perception.
It turns out that information on the travel habits of large families is virtually nonexistent. None of the nation's largest hospitality or travel associations could provide data indicating whether large families are more likely to cram into one room, or pay for two.
"No one has ever done any research on it," said Cathy Keefe, a spokeswoman for the Travel Industry Association of America.
The reality for many hotels is that big families simply don't pay off.
It's plain economics, not cold insensitivity, that has led hotels to this conclusion. Simply put, most hotels have nothing to gain by overstuffing rooms, and a lot to lose, in the form of extra laundry and upkeep.
"All I'm going to do is add more cost and not sell more services," said Bill Carroll, who teaches marketing and tourism at Cornell University's school of hotel administration.
But that's not to say the hospitality industry is completely shut off to the needs of big families. A small but growing class of suite hotels has begun to market larger rooms to families with more than two kids.
But those options are far from widely available, nor are they typically economical.
FIVE'S A CROWD
So until the industry changes, families such as mine have a kind of illegitimate relationship with hotels.
And while I can't get my hands on any data to prove it, I'm certain I'm not alone.
Trust me, every time I'm in a hotel I keep my eyes out for my brothers-in-arms. They're easy to spot, because they use the same tactics I do.
I've run into them at the back entrances. I've watched them file out of rooms like circus clowns from a Volkswagen. I've seen them at the breakfast buffet, as parents take turns feeding the kids, never filling more than four seats at the table.
On a recent trip to Kansas City I decided to break the silence.
I did so at a hotel pool, after noticing that the crowd splashing about was made up mainly of my own brood and two similar families, each with four or more kids.
At first, my fellow rule breakers were hesitant to pony up information, for fear that they'd turn themselves in.
But that anxiety crumbled when they were reminded that there's no such thing as hotel occupancy police.
Lisa Holke, a mother of four kids age 9 and under from Gretna, Neb., was eager to confide in another parent -- particularly one who also confessed to sneaking kids past the front desk.
Ruth Gryer, the other mother at the pool, has seven kids, three with special needs. She said splitting up with her husband creates problems, because some of the children require extra attention.
"It's just not feasible to have them in a room away from us," said Gryer, of El Dorado Springs, Mo.
She and her husband have been frustrated that hotels can't offer connecting rooms, sometimes placing members of the family on different floors. They've often been forced to say good night over the cell phone.
When all seven kids are traveling, the Gryer family books two rooms, as they did in Kansas City. But the family also has often opted to exceed the limit of four people to a room.
That's the common limit for hotels with two beds, though a few chains allow bookings of five people.
Hotels often cite fire codes when explaining why occupancy limits are in place. But in reality, travel experts say those codes vary widely across the nation, if they are in place at all.
"There's no rhyme or reason to it," Keefe said. "It's city by city."
But while codes vary, hotels are almost uniform in their occupancy standards. Carroll, the tourism professor, said the rules likely have more to do with property liability, with insurers anxious about over-packed rooms.
WHAT ABOUT ETHICS?
My fellow parents at the pool said they had thought through the ethics and safety of overfilling a room. Holke said she's wondered if firefighters would know to look for her kids if they hadn't been declared at the front desk.
And aside from those fears, the parents say they don't want to feel like freeloaders. They know they're pushing the rules, so they go out of their way to leave the room cleaner than a smaller family might. And they keep a lid on noise to prevent spoiling other people's stay.
It can all add up to less than an ideal situation.
So for Gryer, the solution for her large family is to avoid hotels if at all possible.
That's been my approach as well. In the typical two-week vacation I might spend at most three nights in a hotel. For the rest, I stay with friends and family or I rent a campsite or use a family member's time-share benefits.
But none of those options work in all situations.
So as much as I try, I can't quit hotels. And yet I can't get past the guilt of breaking the rules.
After scouring the hotel industry for alternatives, I've come up with a few options that work in some circumstances.
Increasingly, high-end hotel chains -- Hyatt, Marriott, Hilton and Sheraton -- have added multiroom suites designed with executives, not large families, in mind. Hilton's is Embassy Suites; Marriott's properties are Residence Inn Suites and TownPlace; Hyatt has the Hyatt Summerfield, and in some cities you'll find Sheraton Suites. The rooms often feature a bedroom that's separate from a living area, which is equipped with a hideaway bed.
Not surprisingly, the rooms can run upwards of $250 a night -- more than the cost of two economy-class rooms. But with some hunting, I was able to turn up a $140 luxury suite in Denver on a weeknight in August. And had my stay been on a weekend, when the business travelers clear out, I could have had that room for $85.
Jennifer Jones, director of brand marketing for Embassy Suites hotels, said the chain not only markets to large families, but to smaller ones who are traveling with grandparents, or extended families booking multiple rooms for reunions or weddings.
To draw families in, Embassy Suites also offers free made-to-order breakfasts and family incentives such as Build-A-Bear gift bags for kids.
MINE, ALL MINE
I must admit the sales pitch on suite hotels is appealing, even if some of the rooms were beyond my budget. Jones even helped line up a reservation for my family on a recent trip out West. As I booked the room, it felt odd to speak to a hotel clerk who didn't turn me away when I declared the size of my brood. I felt I belonged.
Then I backed out.
In the days prior to my trip, bargain hunting got the best of me. After experimenting with several Internet travel search engines, I managed to find a room for just $60 in Denver -- while being completely open about my four kids.
I wound up at Crossland Economy Studios, a stripped-down version of a business-suite hotel with a tiny kitchenette and two beds. Both the hotel website and a call to the front desk prior to booking gave me the go-ahead to reserve the room with six guests.
In truth, the room probably was built for only four. We slept in the same configuration we always do -- my three oldest kids sideways on one bed, my wife and me on the other bed, and the baby in a portable crib from home. We were as tight as ever, but we were legitimate.
We repeated this approach on our way home from our trip out West.
At a booked a roadside motel room along Interstate 80 in Nebraska, I opted for full disclosure. No more vague or incomplete declarations of my family's size. No more smuggling my kids through the lobby.
I told the motel manager straight up that I had four kids and wanted to keep them in one room. He welcomed me, even congratulated me. Turns out the best tactic might be candor.
"If it works for you, it works for me," he said. "I'm just going to list this as two people and two beds."
I thanked him. Then, without any concealment or trickery, my gang of six strutted off to our room. And we were all together.
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