Should you take the kids?

I just got a call from the producer of a popular TV daytime talk show inviting me to appear as a guest. The topic: traveling with children.

She’d found on old column of mine on the Web in which I berated parents for taking their offspring everywhere – on planes, to hotels and even on business trips.

I made up some excuse about being busy. But I wasn’t completely honest with her. When I wrote the column in question, I didn’t have any children. Now I’m the father of a six-month old boy, and I take him almost everywhere with me.

The latest research suggests I’m in good company. More than one-third of business trips are made by those traveling for the combined purposes of business and pleasure, according to the Travel Industry Association of America, a trade group. When on the road, about eight in 10 business travelers look for child-friendly hotels – inns that offer larger guest rooms and children’s menus – according to a recent YPB&R survey.

Hotels want us, and they want us badly. With business travel still on the skids, properties are looking to families as a way to stay afloat until more road warriors return. The likeliest guests are the ones who want to turn a one-day meeting into a long weekend.

“I think right now there are more deals available for people who want to take their kids,” says Stevanne Auerbach, an expert on traveling with children and author of the book “Dr. Toy’s Smart Play: How to Raise a Child With a High PQ (Play Quotient).” “It pays for the business traveler to bring family along.”

Buy-one, get-one-half-price rooms. Many hotels offer specials where you can book one room at full price and get the second one at half the price. The YPB&R survey says that more than 80% of business travelers are looking for a second room that’s half-price. Travel experts believe that struggling hotels will continue to offer these cut-rate deals throughout 2003.

Free babysitting. Hotels now offer special programs that can amount to de facto babysitting services for your children, so that you can get away with your partner or spouse for a few hours without paying big bucks. One of the best-known child-friendly hotels that caters to both the jet set and vacationers is the Loews hotel chain. Its member hotels give children a gift at check-in, plus access to a “kids closet” full of games and books to keep them entertained.

Kids fly/stay/eat free. Although these specials are primarily aimed at leisure travelers, there’s no rule that says business travelers can’t take advantage of them, too. About two-thirds of business travelers look for special children’s menus so they can save on their restaurant bills, according to YPB&R. One of the most memorable kids-fly-free offers is from Vail Resorts, which also includes a stay-free, ski-free offer, now in its second year.

But just because you can take your family on a business trip, and just because you can save money doing it, does that mean you should do it? I’ve been pondering that question ever since my son Aren spilled a full glass of iced tea on two colleagues with whom I was having a business lunch a few days ago.

Here are three helpful guidelines:

— Sometimes business and pleasure don’t mix. Yep, I’ve amended my once hard-line position – which was that when it came to traveling with children, business and pleasure never mix. But I still haven’t made it all the way to the other side – the one populated by moms-turned-travel writers who believe it’s their absolute right to take Junior anywhere, and who write column after column about how cute their little rug rat was on their last family cruise when he filled his diaper during dinner with the captain. I may never make it that far. “As much as I would like to have my family with me at all times, there are obvious disadvantages to bringing them,” says Bruce Klitzman, a scientist in Durham, N.C. “The demands of family and business for your attention is usually mutually exclusive.” So Klitzman often arrives early and takes care of business and is then joined by the family after everything is wrapped up.

— You can have too much of a good thing. Take it from me – I’m the oldest of five children and my father was almost constantly on the road (often with all of us in tow). It’s great to be together as a family. Really. While your parents work during the day, you and your siblings check out the hotel pool, spend a few quarters that were meant for the laundry on a video game and watch cable TV. During the evening, you go out to dinner. But sometimes that kind of schedule can be disruptive or boring to the children, and it can also test their parents’ patience. Or it can just be impractical. Gary Bargeron, a financial service manager from Charlotte, N.C., likes to take his children on business trips. “Of course, with a family of six, we limit our trips together to those locations close enough to home that we can drive,” he says.

— Not every child is a good traveler. I’ll never forget the summer that my uncle became so frustrated with his children that he actually gave them sedatives to keep them quiet during car trips. I’m the first to admit that I wasn’t the best traveler. I was a real screamer as a baby, especially on planes. My son is better-than-average, but far from perfect. Some children travel well, some don’t. Some destinations are great for the whole family, and some aren’t. (In an upcoming column, I’ll take a look at some of the best places for business trips with a family.) Michelle Means, who works for a chemical treatment technology company in Memphis, Tenn., takes her teenagers on business trips with her to Washington, D.C. “We allow them a very small scope of destinations on the Metro,” she says. “But anyone younger has to wait in the hotel and swim, eat or order movies.” Her point is, not every trip is suited to a child, just as not every child is suited to a trip. Sometimes you’re really better off leaving the little ones home.

It’s easy for traveling parents to dismiss these guidelines. It’s easy for them to take the hotels up on their tempting offers. And it’s easy for them to insist that their children are little angels on the road. But take it from my iced-tea soaked colleagues: They’re often wrong.

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