Travel accommodation with toddlers: watchouts and workarounds

"Um, where's the washing machine?"

No way. My pulse started racing. I stopped unpacking the kids' clothes and grabbed my phone, hastily thumbing through the listing for this, our new home for ten days. And there it was: a blank white space where, no matter how much I willed it, the word "washer" didn't appear.

Now, I've no problem with using a launderette. But we'd arrived in Toronto just as an ice storm had hit the city, and the thought of skating up and down a few blocks every two or three days laden with washing (we'd packed on the light-ish side as I planned to do a load of laundry every other day on average) suddenly seemed like a thoroughly tedious (not to mention treacherous!) way to spend our time. And then there was the prospect of suddenly having to turn round bed linen in a day if our 3-year-old had an accident overnight (I'd already ascertained there were no spare sheets in the apartment). Aargh!

So, after quickly verifying that the next place on our itinerary did definitely have a washing machine (how did I ever take that filter off when I was running my searches?!), I decided to contact our host. I confessed I hadn't noticed that she had no washing machine on her listing, mentioned I was now in a slight panic given we have two young children who go through an average of one complete outfit a day (each), and asked her if there was a local launderette she could recommend. I knew she stayed in the apartment herself sometimes, so I figured she had to do washing somewhere? At best, I hoped she might even have a deal with a local business that could involve collection or delivery and perhaps some sort of discount; at worst I hoped she might at least suggest somewhere quick and reliable.

She replied pretty promptly and we ended up on a call: to my utter delight she told me she had a washing machine and a dryer in the communal basement which we could use! She didn't advertise these facilities because they were in a shared space which other residents used for storage, but clearly she'd decided I was a trustworthy guest and so it all worked out in the end.

So what have I learned? ALWAYS check if there's a washing machine in a place before I book it regardless of what filters I think I've applied, ha ha! Almost: for the purpose of this post I'm going to title my learnings as "watchouts" and their subsequent "workarounds" - here are my first two.

Watchout 1: always check the details in your chosen Airbnb or HomeAway (or travel accommodation site of your choice) listing before you go ahead and book it. 

And do this in the reviews as well as the official details: if free parking on site is important then look for reviews that mention parking. Sometimes people will helpfully mention that they couldn't fit their SUV into the designated space, for example - suddenly that "free parking" note isn't quite so useful if you know you'll be using a big vehicle.

If you can be disciplined enough to do this you can also do something a bit scary and certainly more time-consuming, but in my experience it's worth it: take off all but the utmost essential filters when you're searching for places. For example, I really appreciate a dishwasher as, with two young children, we tend to go through an inordinate number of small plates in a day for various snacks, plus we eat in most evenings so it's nice to be able to put the plates and bowls in the dishwasher and simply press a button before the chaos of the bedtime routine begins. But when we found a great place in Hermosa Beach, LA, which was only one block from the beach and the only downside was the lack of a dishwasher, we decided it would be worth the hassle. And it certainly was: the location was excellent, and the apartment was really lovely and ridiculously well equipped in every other way. Plus my two little helpers had plenty of fun getting involved with the washing up:

airbnb toddlers washing up

Another time this strategy worked well for us was in San Francisco. We were there for two months and had friends and family come out to stay with us at various points in that time, so I really wanted a place with two bathrooms. However it was proving very difficult to find two-bathroom accommodation in an area we liked that was anywhere near our budget, so we decided we would just make one bathroom work. Things became further complicated when our then 2-year-old toilet-trained while we were there, but we and our guests all managed to survive, and we got to enjoy a superb location (Marina District / Pacific Heights border) and some wonderful hosts. In fact, they were so nice they even insisted we and our family visitors headed up to their holiday home in Sonoma Valley for a few days when they weren't using it: and we found ourselves in this amazing place (with FOUR bathrooms nonetheless)!

sonoma valley holiday home toddlers san francisco
Photo credit: HomeAway.com

The San Francisco example also highlights my first workaround nicely:

Workaround 1: Communicate with your hosts as personably as possible.

By this I mean a couple of things. Firstly, try to get in touch with them "in person" as best you can - if you can see them face-to-face then all the better, but if not, a phone call is way nicer than a text message. I know when you're travelling sometimes it's hard to call and grabbing wifi to send an email is the easiest option, but it's the least personal of them all, and makes it feel more like a business exchange than a person-to-person communication. I texted our Toronto host initially and I should have called - I'm really glad she suggested we chat because I'm sure she was more open to helping me once we'd established a voice-to-voice relationship. The only caveat I'd throw in here is that the form of communication should be what suits the host best too: if their instructions are to text or email first then I'd definitely respect their wishes and use their preferred channel.

The second thing I mean by the word "personably" is: be a person. As in a nice, fellow human being. In our first week in San Francisco our kitchen sink started leaking, so we put a bucket underneath the pipe, cleaned up the water that had collected so far and contacted our host (who lived upstairs) to ask her if the sink was problematic because there was a small leak. She popped down that evening after work, twiddled a few washers and stopped the drip - but not before saying how grateful she was that we'd tried to minimise the problem. It turned out previous tenants had just let the water run and ignored it for a few days before reporting it, which then necessitated a much bigger clean-up job. So, be a nice person, and hosts will be nice people too. It really is that simple.

The second watchout we've come across a few times is especially important when travelling with toddlers, and it's a hard one to be sure you'll avoid...

Watchout 2: plan how you'll handle dangerous stairs

You can't always tell how steep or slippy or precariously-positioned stairs could be in a house or apartment, no matter how many photos you see in advance. We've encountered a few problematic staircases in our travels, such as the gorgeously colourful apartment we rented in Boston. This home not only had a steep, slippy set of stairs leading down to the front door really close to the bathroom (we had visions of our by now 3-year-old legging it to the toilet in a hurry while wearing socks on the wooden floors - yikes!), but also a pretty yet also pretty narrow set of stairs in the middle of the apartment leading up to the top floor, which would afford either toddler a nasty bump down on to the afore-mentioned wooden floor. (You can just see the first set of stairs on the extreme left of the picture below, next to the base of the upper set).

airbnbs-with-stairs-toddlers
Photo credit: Airbnb.com

And then there was the beautiful beachside apartment in Hermosa Beach where the main living space was actually up a very long, very slippy, wooden staircase which turned right into the living room beside the TV - which, as all parents will know, is like a beacon for all young children to want to stand up close to. In the shot below we had managed to get them to sit on the armchair but you can see all the toys are strewn in front of the screen where they'd been playing moments beforehand. And this photo also shows our all-important workaround.

Workaround 2: barricade with suitcases initially, then if you're staying for long enough to make it worthwhile investing in something more permanent, head to Target or a baby store and pick up some presssure mounted stairgates

airbnbs-with-stairs-toddlers

We used a combination of suitcases and tall chairs in Boston because we were only staying for 10 days and I knew stairs wouldn't be an issue in any of our subsequent homes, but in LA we used the stairgate you can see pictured, as well as a smaller, cheaper one at the bottom of the stairs because this was right outside the kids' bedroom. The gates need to be pressure mounted as you can't screw them into the walls of course, and we always tried to pad the ends with kitchen towels a bit to really try to minimise any marks, and thankfully we've never had a problem with any resultant damage. (Unlike that poor light on the right of this photo, which didn't survive four weeks in the company of our 1-year-old. Luckily I'd popped into the rental management company's offices during the second week of our stay just to say hi and have a chat with the owner who'd organised our stay, so when the incident occurred in week four I contacted him immediately, sent photos of the damage and in the end the amount deducted from our deposit seemed reasonable. Workaround 1 in action again!).

You could even order pressure mounted stairgates on Amazon and get them delivered - the two most like the ones we used are these ones. Please note: these two links below will take you to Amazon pages. If you click through there is no extra cost to you, but Amazon will pay me a small amount on any purchases made.
Gate-style stairgate (useful if you walk through it often and/or need an extra wide space covered)
Small step-over stairgate (cheaper and less bulky, but a bit tricky to get the exact locking position at first. NB This style seems to be specific to North America; I haven't seen them on sale in the UK.)

Sometimes, however, stairgates are very difficult to fit due to the style of the staircase. When we were in Vancouver little Miss H was only a little over 1 year old so we wanted to dissuade her from climbing up this smaller, carpeted staircase simply because the floor at the bottom was hard wood. Unfortunately, as you can see, the stairgate solution couldn't work, so instead we had to try laying it flat. And while this wasn't 100% foolproof, it certainly served as a visual deterrent initially, then once our 2-year-old had shown her how to treat it as a scramble net, it at least helped slow her down so one of us noticed before she got too far!

airbnbs-staircases-toddlers


My final watchout is difficult to explain in general terms as it's only happened once and I think it would be fairly unusual for it to happen again, but here goes.

Watchout 3: prepare to be on strange terms with your new neighbours

In San Diego we rented a house with a garden, which was wonderful. The garden was fully enclosed, fairly safe (just two cement steps to negotiate down from the back door and then largely grass), and rather spacious. Sure, the patio furniture seemed to be a magnet for bird poop so we didn't sit there too often, but we had races, the kids messed around in the sandy soil beds at the side, and I bought a cheap clothes rack and dried things outside in the sun (my drying preference where possible as the sun does wonders for stubborn food stains that always seem to adorn toddlers' clothes!). 

airbnbs-toddlers-garden
Photo credit: HomeAway.com

The even better thing about the garden was that the garage framed the other side, so in this photograph it would be at your back. The laundry facilities were in the garage and there was a side door almost directly opposite the back door of the house, so although it wasn't quite as convenient as the machines being in the house itself, it didn't seem too much of a hassle just to have to walk across the back yard. 

Unfortunately however, we didn't seem to have a key for the garage side door. Then when we used the buzzer to open the main big electric door we realised why: part of the garage had been fully partitioned off and so was entirely inaccessible to us. We didn't care about not having a full garage, of course: we knew the parking deal was either the driveway or the street. But I did find it quite odd that I had to come out through the garden gate so I was effectively on the pavement, in full view of the neighbours and dog-walkers, parading my laundry basket into the garage for all to see. Ha ha! I wouldn't have minded quite so much if it wasn't that I often put a load on first thing in the morning while I was still in my jammies, or was running out in the evenings hoping I hadn't dropped any smalls out of the laundry basket and not noticed in the dark! Better yet, the house opposite proudly displayed a sign protesting against short-term rentals in the neighbourhood, so I felt like quite the target every time I conspicuously buzzed our garage door.

Workaround 3: I think here you just have to accept the beauty of being a short-term resident. Temporary neighbours are just that. I'm sure they have some bad experiences with rental guests, so smile, be as nice and friendly as possible, and try to add to their community as best you can.

We were in San Diego over Christmas and the streets around us got into it in a big way, so we did our part: we got a tree and left the blinds open for the neighbours to appreciate it; we put up coloured lights round some of the windows; and we also supported a couple of local shops. Small gestures I know, but we tried to do what we could.

So there we have it: my top 3 watchouts and workarounds for travel accommodation with toddlers. Thanks for reading! If you'd like to know when I post my next article, simply sign up for email notifications at the bottom of the page. And if you've got a topic you'd like to know more about, email me on fiona@globetoddles.com or leave me a comment below. Whether you're on your family gap year already, in the midst of planning it, or just toying gently with the idea of a long holiday with your beloved ankle-biters in tow, I'd love to hear from you!

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