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Outwitting hotels' maximum occupancy rules

(Luci Gutierrez for The Washington Post)

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By Christopher Elliott
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, July 4, 2010

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.

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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, Tex.

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.

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