Although he sometimes feels "a little dishonest" about it, Jeremy Reed says he doesn't have much choice: With seven children, from an infant to a teenager, and on a limited budget, he often reserves only one hotel room when he's on vacation.
A big room.
"We usually get a suite with two queen beds plus a couch, and sometimes ask for a portable bed, too," said Reed, a software engineer from Keller, Texas.
Cramming his family into just one room invariably breaks the hotel's maximum occupancy rules -- you know, the ones tacked on the back of the door -- but it saves the Reeds money and it's far more practical, at least from a parenting perspective. "With many small children, it doesn't make sense for us to split the care responsibility for overnight lodging," said Reed.
Too-many-guest scenarios such as his are repeating themselves with greater frequency this year, as vacation-starved Americans are looking for any way to save money. Sally Black, a family travel expert and president of a Kunkletown, Pa., travel agency, says that many of her clients see a room reduction as a way to keep their vacation budget in check. "We're asked to do it more and more," she said.
Tempted to squeeze your party of five into a room meant for two? Hotels are on to you.
Molly Gamache, a former housekeeper in Natick, Mass., told me that her supervisors required her to count the number of toothbrushes in the bathroom. "If there were more toothbrushes than stated guests, management would decide whether to pursue it with the guests," she said. That sometimes meant a higher room rate for the visitors.
But not always. Jim Engel, the general manager at Bavarian Inn Motor Lodge in Frankenmuth, Mich., says that safety, not money, is his primary concern when he finds more people to a room than the law allows.
"Having too many roll-aways, cribs or the surprise child sleeping on the floor can become a serious problem if there's a fire," he said. If too many guests are discovered in a room, he tries to find a second room at a reduced rate. "Then we note the problem on their account for future reference in case they return," he adds.
Some hotels have begun catering to larger groups. The Park Hyatt Washington, for example, offers a special rate called "Families at the Park" that allows guests with several children to get an extra room for $75 a night. (Average room rates are about $400.) That eases some of the financial pain felt by vacationing families.
I can see both sides of this debate. On the one hand, families are trying to save a little money when they're on the road. On the other, hotels want to stay in the black -- and on the right side of the law.
I'm not convinced that one side is entirely correct, though. If I had four young kids (I have three) most fire codes would require me to reserve two rooms. Never mind that we'd probably all sleep in the same room, anyway. At the same time, I'm not in favor of an "anything goes" approach that would make a hotel room look like the aftermath of spring break in Daytona Beach.
Most hotels regard room occupancy as a gray area, taking a more pragmatic "don't ask, don't tell" approach. Unless the room looks like a refugee camp, they won't make a fuss. They'll offer a second room if it's available, at a lower rate -- and if they can't, they'll just look the other way until something becomes available.
"On the second room, there are no travel agent commissions or Expedia-type discounts, and the hotel is still able to make the same gross profit while providing a safe environment and good value to the guest," said Luke Knowles, the operations manager at Palos Verdes Inn in Redondo Beach, Calif.
The families I spoke with that have bent the maximum occupancy rule -- and yes, I include myself in that group -- say they've never been kicked out of a hotel when they were caught.
Still, many big families would prefer to find a place to stay where they don't need to lie about the size of their party. Internet entrepreneur Theresa Jorgensen, who travels with a family of six, was so frustrated with the lack of family accommodations that she founded a site called SixSuitcaseTravel (www.sixsuitcasetravel.com/), a directory of nearly 3,000 hotels that sleep at least six, and sometimes as many as eight, in a single room.
Another solution is to skip the hotel entirely and rent a condominium or cabin, where there's more room. These accommodations usually also have full kitchens, which means that you don't have to subsist on takeout pizza and overpriced restaurant food during your vacation.
Even Reed, the Texas software engineer with seven kids, has eased up on trying to jam his whole family into one hotel room. As his kids have grown up, he tries to book bigger accommodations.
His timing is good. His wife is expecting their eighth child soon.
Christopher Elliott is the ombudsman for National Geographic Traveler magazine. You can read more travel tips on his blog, elliott.org or e-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.