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April 2, 2003--Historically, the city's hotels have relied on convention and business travelers to lock up a big percentage of the available rooms (31,201 at last count). Until toting kids on business trips became fashionable, families weren't considered an important target market in most downtown (Union Sq., SoMa, Financial District, Nob Hill) hotels. At the moment, however, with tourism still skittish and the economy bandaging its wounds, hoteliers are searching for ways to attract clients of any kind. Many hospitality professionals that I spoke with were promoting their establishments as family-friendly based on the flimsiest of evidence: "Well, we're close to the cable cars!" I see this as a good thing: Hotels want your business.

To this end, a couple of Union Square properties now advertise family-friendly amenities such as milk and cookies at check-in and board games in the lobby. More have restaurants with children's menus, and just about all of them supply complimentary cribs. I only found two hotels that charge for kids who bunk with their parent. These features aren't much to brag about, especially in a town that provides a good bit of family fare, but San Francisco considers itself a sophisticated city. It prefers to let the children rise to the occasion rather than pretending to be something it's not (like Las Vegas with its pseudo-kiddie amusement parks). Still, this begs the question: What makes one hotel better than another for families? Moreover, what hotel is the right one for your brood?

When my kids were small, hotel stays usually were comprised of one room with two beds (a double/double in hotel parlance). This is the most inexpensive option for a family of four, but adults must accept the fact that they will have no privacy and that bedtime will be dictated by the needs of the sleepiest among you. Now that our girls are older, we generally rent two rooms or a suite if possible. Renting two interconnecting rooms is a great option if you have teenagers or a large family. Along with some downtime for Mom and Dad, you'll have a second bathroom, so getting ready in the morning won't take all day. A suite is often best if your kids need you close at hand; if it includes a kitchenette, all the better (Kitchenettes aren't widely available, so reserve well in advance. If you'd like the option of eating breakfast in your room or making lunch to go, ask if refrigerators are available--in many hotels they are upon request. Then, ask if your room is furnished with a table. If the answer is yes, pick up some paper goods and plastic cutlery and you're good to go.). In general, suites are also less expensive than renting two rooms.

As to what makes one hotel better than another for families, based on our personal experiences hands-down the most important factor is attitude--does the staff like having kids around? Are the concierges (if available) tuned into what area attractions are of interest to kids? Is reception friendly and knowledgeable about hotel amenities and do they make sure to bring these extras to your attention?

Without actually hanging around the lobby and asking hotel guests about their stay (and sometimes, I did), attitude isn't always easy to discern. The listings that follow include lodgings that I believe are most appropriate for families based on various criteria--comfort, safety, location, amenities--and attitude when I could figure it out.

No matter where you decide to sleep, make reservations as far in advance as possible. You can always modify them (ask about the cancellation policy). As you get closer to your departure date, call the hotel to verify if rates have changed or if there's the possibility of an upgrade or a promotional package available. This is not the time to be coy; if you don't ask, most hotels will not bring this information to your attention, especially if they already have your booking. Hotels do get busy during special events, such as when the Giants baseball team makes the World Series or a huge computer show is in town. San Francisco doesn't have a "high season" as such, but Fisherman's Wharf hotels are busier in the summer months and downtown hotels have higher occupancy during the weekdays.

Reservation Tips

Many hotels will provide you with a booking reference number. Upon request, hotels will send you written confirmation of your reservation either by fax, e-mail, or snail mail. Keep this paperwork handy; it will be helpful if you decide to modify your plans in any way. If you do cancel a reservation, request a cancellation number. This is very important, especially if your reservation was made using a credit card.

Reservation Services--Thus far, I'm not crazy about using Internet travel agencies to make hotel reservations, because I'm not convinced that it's the way to get the best price or the most reliable information. However, if I needed some assistance I'd try San Francisco Reservations (tel. 800/677-1500 or 510/628-4450; www.hotelres.com), a Bay Area company with a local call center (meaning you won't be talking to someone in Kansas City about your San Francisco vacation). This is a no-fee service with access to 300 hotels in the Bay Area, a well-designed website, and accurate descriptions. For bed-and-breakfast reservations, try Bed & Breakfast International (tel. 800/872-4500 to reserve, or 415/696-1690 for information; www.bbintl.com).

A Note on Prices--Price is an important point for most families, and as I explain below, this is a great time to get a deal. For purposes of Frommer's San Francisco with Kids, however, I've had to use "rack rates"--a hotel's highest room price--in categorizing my hotel picks. You will probably get a much better quote unless things improve markedly, but even then weekend discounts, packages, and promotions are not unknown. In 2001, which wasn't a stellar year for hotel occupancy, the average room rate in San Francisco was $163. Compared to Manhattan, this is cheap. Compared to prices in 2000, this is a steal. Here, I've classified hotels based on cost for a family of four staying in one room, if possible, or two connecting rooms, if that makes more sense. An Inexpensive rating means the family can stay for $150 per night or less; Moderate means a bill of $150 to $225; Expensive is $225 to $300; and Very Expensive is over $300 a night. This does not include the 14% hotel tax, nor does it include parking, which can run from free to $35 a night.

Getting the Best Rate--As in most things, when you're hunting for a hotel deal, timing is everything. As I write this, a room in one of the city's four-star hotels is going for $159--and that includes parking, which practically makes this a minor miracle. A few years ago, when hotel occupancy rates were close to 90% on average, you'd be lucky to find a room, period, much less one at a deep discount. Obviously, I can't predict where the local economy is going, but if you have Internet access, you can get a pretty accurate reading of who's in luck--the hotel industry or you--when you're coming to town. A fast and completely unscientific (but I'll vouch for it) method of discovery is to look at a few hotel websites and compare any specials advertised against the rack rates I list in this section. If you find a room--let's say that $159 bargain--with a rack rate of $350, it's safe to assume that supply is on your side and now's the time to upgrade your vacation lifestyle. (Because these things are cyclical and those bargains won't last.)

I also believe in contacting a hotel's in-house reservation's desk (assuming they still have one), as opposed to dialing their 800-number. It's a rare operator out there in central-reservations-land who knows anything at all about the hotel you're after, except what they read on their computer screen. To unearth the real bargains that are available, first hone in on the website, then compare what you find there with whatever in-house reservations has to offer or central reservations if that's all there is. I've found better rates for the same hotel on the Internet versus a live agent; the opposite could happen just as easily. However, one bonus of speaking to a real person is that you can mention if you're traveling with children, ask about programs or perks for the kids, throw in the fact that someone's celebrating a birthday or anniversary, or get another opinion on the best rooms for you and yours.

Pools--I know that kids swoon over pools, but they are a limited commodity in San Francisco. I have listed nearly every property that has one, but be aware that younger guests have to be supervised by an adult. Lifeguards are a vanishing breed you won't see at a hotel pool. The great majority of swimming pools are on the small side as well, meaning that splashing kids may get the evil eye from other guests.

Accessibility--The Americans with Disabilities Act requires that hotels built within the past 15 years be handicapped-friendly. However, San Francisco hotels are often located in older buildings with ancient elevators, narrow hallways, and bathrooms seemingly designed for contortionists. If you or anyone in your family requires appropriately designed hotel rooms, look for a property that's been remodeled recently or built after 1985. Discuss your needs with the reservations clerk, whether it be space to maneuver in a wheelchair, grip bars in the bathroom, or TTY phones.

Frommer's Best Hotel Bets for Families

Best All-Around Family Hotels: The Hotel Monaco, 501 Geary St. (tel. 800/214-4220 or 415/292-0100; www.monaco-sf.com; $219-$299 double, $269-$599 suite; $139-$299 double; $269-$429 suite; kids 17 and under stay free parent's room), combines some pizzazz with the practicalities you want in a hotel, such as an excellent restaurant, top-quality staff, great location, and attractive rooms. While I would never suggest that you abandon the children, the fact that you could have a massage in the Monaco's spa while the kids hung out in the room for an hour is another plus. The warm and friendly Serrano Hotel (405 Taylor St.; tel. 415/885-2500 or 877/294-9709; www.serranohotel.com; $139-$299 double, $269-$429 suite; kids 12 and under stay free parent's room), which is more affordable, helps kids entertain themselves by stocking the minibar with toys and making a game library available to guests. The Handlery Union Square (651 Geary St.; tel. 800/843-4343 or 415/781-7800; www.handlery.com; $149-$289 double, $375 suite; kids under 16 stay free in parent's room) gets my vote as well for providing connecting double/doubles with queen size beds and little luxuries in the Club level along with small fridges, coffeemakers, and a pool.

Best Amenities for Kids: Pickings are slim in general when it comes to hotel amenities strictly for children (this isn't Disney World, mind you), but the Pan Pacific (500 Post St.; tel. 415/771-8600; www.panpacific.com; $360-$420 double, from $670 suite; kids under 18 stay free in parent's room) receives an A for effort with a kid's passport and coloring book. The Fairmont Hotel (950 Mason St.; tel. 800/441-1414 or 415/772-5000; www.fairmont.com; $379-$439 double, $589-$789 suite; kids under 18 stay free in parent's room) supplies cookies and milk on arrival, plus backpacks and maps depending on one's age. The Hotel Del Sol (3100 Webster St.; tel. 877/433-5765 or 415/921-5520; www.thehoteldelsol.com; $145-$165 double; $165-$185 suite; kids under 12 stay free in parent's room) passes out kites, beach balls, and sunglasses, which is both thoughtful and hopeful.

Best Suites: All the rooms and two-bedroom suites at the wonderful Nob Hill Lambourne (725 Pine St.; tel. 800/274-8466 or 415/433-2287; www.nobhilllambourne.com; $240 double, $360 suite; kids under 13 stay free in parent's room) are furnished with kitchenettes, a rarity in the city. You'll pay handsomely, but the Lambourne doesn't skimp on quality. On Union Square, the Cartwright Hotel (524 Sutter St.; tel. 800/227-3844 or 415/421-2865; www.cartwrighthotel.com; $109-$259 double, $179-$369 suite; kids stay free in parent's room) has a few two-room suites that are beautifully decorated and can be an excellent value. The homey suites at the Cow Hollow Motor Inn (2190 Lombard St.; tel. 415/921-5800; www.cowhollowsuites.com; $86-$135 double, $215-$265 suite; kids under 6 stay free in parent's room) contain two bathrooms, two bedrooms, and a kitchen--and must be booked far in advance. For value and space, these offer the best suite deal in town. The Laurel Inn (444 Presidio Ave., tel. 800/552-8735 or 415/567-8467; www.thelaurelinn.com; $155-$180 double; kids under 12 stay free in parent's room) doesn't technically have suites, but you can reserve interconnecting rooms (including one with a kitchenette).

Best Indoor Pool: You have to supervise your kids at every hotel pool, no matter what, but if you're like me (I'm not into the swim), you'll appreciate the lounge chairs, the hot tub, and even the exercise bikes poolside at the Hotel Nikko's health club (222 Mason St.; tel. 415/394-1111; www.nikkohotels.com; $350 double, $500-$550 suite, kids under 18 stay free in parent's room). The lap pool at the Palace Hotel (2 New Montgomery St.; tel. 415/512-1111; www.sfpalace.com; $520-$560 double, from $775 suite; kids under 12 stay free in parent's room) is so lovely it looks like the setting for a photo shoot.

Best Outdoor Pool: As you might have guessed, the competitors for this honor are few. Around Union Square, the award goes to the Handlery (www.handlery.com) for a small, heated pool around a pleasant patio. Among Fisherman's Wharf hotels, the Hyatt at Fisherman's Wharf (555 N. Point St.; tel. 800/223-1234 or 415/563-1234; www.fishermanswharf.hyatt.com; $169-$289 double; kids 18 and under stay free in parent's room) far and away fields the nicest pool. In the style category, the Hotel Del Sol (www.thehoteldelsol.com) wins for best-accessorized pool, for the palm trees and a hammock.

Best Spa: Yes, I know this is a family travel guide, but that doesn't mean part of the family can't disappear for an hour or so for a well-deserved facial or massage does it? Hands-down, the most elegant spa with the latest treatments is found at the Huntington Hotel (1075 California St.; tel. 800/227-4683 or 415/474-5400; www.huntingtonhotel.com; $310-$455 double, $485-$1110 suite; kids under 5 stay free in parent's room).

Best In-House Entertainment: The Top of the Mark at the Mark Hopkins Intercontinental (Number One Nob Hill; tel. 800/327-0200 or 415/392-3434; www.markhopkins.net; $355-$485 double, $605-$3,000 suite; kids under 18 stay free in parent's room) is terrific for drinks, views, or dinner and dancing on the weekends. With the kids tucked in bed in a room below, you'll have the pleasure of going out for a nice evening without venturing far from your temporary home. If you want to do something silly in the evening with the kids, take them to the Tonga Room at the Fairmont Hotel (www.fairmont.com) for appetizers and a mild tropical storm.

Best Lobby: Just seat me in the Fairmont Hotel (www.fairmont.com) between the columns on a chaise, and if I'm not where you left me, check in the Laurel Court bar.

Best If You Have a Car: For stays around Union Square, the Galleria Park Hotel (191 Sutter St.; tel. 800/792-9639 or 415/781-3060; www.galleriapark.com; $179-$299 double, $309-$429 suite; kids under 16 stay free in parent's room) is built over a parking garage so it won't take long to retrieve yours. Like all downtown hotels, parking charges are nuts--$30 is average--so it's not economical to park here, just convenient. Parking is free at the Cow Hollow Motor Inn & Suites (www.cowhollowsuites.com) and the building that houses the suites has a separate entrance that deposits guests right on Chestnut Street. A spot for your car also comes courtesy of the Hotel Del Sol (www.thehoteldelsol.com). At the Marina Motel (2576 Lombard St.; tel. 800/346-6118 or 415/921-9406; www.marinamotel.com; $99-$149 double, $99-$199 suite; kitchens $10 extra; kids under 18 stay free in parent's room), even your car gets a room (okay, a garage) and it's convenient to the Golden Gate Bridge.

Best If You Brought the Dog: The Hotel Monaco (www.monaco-sf.com) has packages for pooches that rival anything other hotels have for kids. I don't know if there's an underlying message there. A sister property, the Serrano Hotel (www.serranohotel.com), will challenge you to a hand of blackjack upon checking in, with prizes if you win and a request for a $5 donation to the SPCA if you lose. No matter how you fare, your dog can be walked by appointment, and the hotel stocks gourmet pet food, treats, and comfy bedding.

Best for Walkers: Steps from Chinatown and the Financial District, and still close to Union Square, the Hotel Triton (342 Grant Ave.; tel. 800/433-6611 or 415/394-0500; www.hoteltriton.com; $219-$279 double, $329-$389 suite; kids stay free in parent's room) has a divine location unlike any other hotel. If you prefer to be steps from the water, go for either the Embarcadero Hyatt Regency (5 Embarcadero Center; tel. 800/233-1234 or 415/788-1234; www.sanfrancisco.regency.hyatt.com; $179-$320 double; kids under 18 stay free in parent's room) or the more intimate Harbor Court Hotel (165 Steuart St.; tel. 800/346-0555 or 415/882-1300; www.harborcourthotel.com; $139-$209 double; $450 suite). The Hyatt is a better bet for families with small children because the rooms are larger and the amenities greater than those at the Harbor Court. For older kids, the Harbor Court is more sophisticated and the YMCA next door (which hotel guests may use) can provide an outlet or temporary escape. Located halfway between Union and Chestnut Streets, Hotel Del Sol (www.thehoteldelsol.coms) is close to shopping, dining, and the delights of the Presidio.

Best Views: Request a room above the 15th floor at The Argent (50 Third St.; tel. 877/222-6699 or 415/974-6400; www.argenthotel.com; $279-$349 double, $529-$1,800 suite; kids under 18 stay free in parent's room) and put those huge picture windows to good use. If it's the bay you crave, talk to the good people at the Embarcadero Hyatt Regency (www.sanfrancisco.regency.hyatt.com) and request a room with a view. The kids will have a ball using the glass elevators with an indoor view. Sometimes you need a little distance to see things properly, and you get that from the rooms at The Laurel Inn (www.thelaurelinn.com), situated in the Presidio Height neighborhood.

Best Hotel Food: The Grand Café and Petite Café in the Hotel Monaco (www.monaco-sf.com) are garnering rave reviews for the new chef, Paul Arenstam. His talents elevate the simplest of dishes, but more important for families, the restaurant can accommodate differing appetites and tastes. Anzu in the Hotel Nikko (www.nikkohotels.com) is tops for sushi. If the kids aren't ready for hamachi, start them off with kappa maki (cucumber roll) or a California roll. The classical music station KDFC broadcasts live from the Sunday brunch at Anzu--a true feast-for-the-senses affair. Children's menus are available. The best hotel restaurant for kids has to be Puccini and Panetti next to the Monticello Inn (127 Ellis St.; tel. 800/669-7777 or 415/392-8800; www.monticelloinn.com; $239-$269 double, $299 suite; kids under 18 stay free in parent's room). No other restaurant that I know of lets the little ones design their own pizza. The Dining Room at the Ritz Carleton (600 Stockton St.; tel. 800/241-3333 or 415/296-7465; www.ritz-carlton.com; from $500 double, $850 suite; kids stay free in parent's room) is one of the most highly rated restaurants in town. If it's time to introduce the children to the wonders of the cheese cart at the end of a meal, this is place to do so.

Best Room Service: The W Hotel (181 Third St.; tel. 415/777-5300; www.whotels.com; $179-$509 double, $700-$1,800 suite; kids under 18 stay free in parent's room) provides concierge services 24/7, so good food and whatever else you need should be at your disposal whenever.

If Price Is No Object: There's nothing like puttin' on the Ritz-Carlton (www.ritz-carlton.com) for the ultimate in hotel experiences. You can't walk far without a staff person asking if there's anything you need. The hotel is grand, the hotel food is divine, kids are treated as well as the adults--you'll all feel like VIPs. The Pan Pacific Hotel (www.panpacific.com) is another luxe joint with good amenities for kids and staff happy to do your bidding. The valet switch in the bathroom rather sets the tone. The Palace Hotel (www.sfpalace.com), a historic landmark, just finished another renovation and the rooms are drop-dead gorgeous. With 24-hour room service, a full-service spa, pool, and central location, it hits the mark in every way. If I had my pick of the lot, I'd move into the Fairmont Hotel (www.fairmont.com). It's steeped in history, the rooms are done to the nines, children are coddled with special menus and amenities, and it feels special but not rarified.

If Price Is the Deal Breaker: You could probably find something cheaper in the neighborhood, but you'd be hard-pressed to find anything more charming than the Golden Gate Hotel (775 Bush St.; tel. 800/835-1118 or 415/392-3702; www.goldengatehotel.com; $85-$130 double). Rooms are small but clean and bright, and breakfast is part of the package. If you don't mind sharing a bathroom, the San Remo Hotel (2237 Mason St.; tel. 800/352-7366 or 415/776-8688; www.sanremo.com; $75-$85 double) is quite a deal at less than $90 a night, and it's close to North Beach and Fisherman's Wharf so you'll also save on transportation.

Best for Peace and Quiet: Because the Pan Pacific (www.panpacific.com) is multistoried and built as a hotel (rather than converted from some other purpose), larger-than-average rooms are so far from the street and designed with soundproof windows that you'll hardly know you're in the city. Even the lobby inside The Huntington Hotel (www.huntingtonhotel.com) is quiet. Large rooms high off the street again lower the decibel level.

Best for Teens: The Hotel Triton (www.hoteltriton.com) will wake up the most disaffected teenager with rock 'n' roll in the lobby and a design palette that has "groovy" written all over it. Rooms are small so you won't be sharing, but that's good for the kid who needs some space. The W Hotel lobby and bar (www.whotels.com) is a whirlwind of activity that can be fascinating for teens. The clientele considers itself pretty hip. The location, across from Yerba Buena Center, means instant recreation for the kids at the Metreon.

Best for Toddlers: Your active 2- or 3-year-old will have one of the Ritz-Carlton bellmen on his knees fitting the electrical outlets with covers on a quest to childproof the room. All you have to do is ask. (www.ritz-carlton.com). The Palace (www.sfpalace.com) elevators, lobby, and guest rooms are spacious enough to make pushing and parking strollers a breeze. Even with your luggage around, you'll have enough space to keep from tripping over the baby furnishings. The same goes for rooms at the Fairmont Hotel (www.fairmont.com), and there's a lovely outdoor garden in the back suitable for letting off a little energy.

Best for Baby: In the past, the Serrano Hotel (www.serranohotel.com) has offered a special "Baby Love" package for guests with infants--ask about it when booking. Along with complimentary cribs, the hotel keeps strollers, booster seats, playpens, and baby paraphernalia handy, so you can pack lightly. It's the only hotel in town that advertises these perks. However, if you need to heat a bottle in the night, the microwave oven in your kitchenette at the Nob Hill Lambourne (www.nobhilllambourne.com) will allow you to get back to a peaceful sleep. The Laurel Inn (www.thelaurelinn.com) is another top pick for travelers with babies or toddlers, again for the availability of kitchenettes but also for the neighborhood, which is teeming with families.

Best for Shoppers: There's no better location for parcel-toting families than the Westin St. Francis (335 Powell St.; tel. 800/WESTIN-1 or 415/397-7000; www.westin.com; $129-$569 double; $250-$5,000 suite; kids under 18 stay free in parent's room). You can stock up in all those Union Square stores and have your packages back in your room in minutes, ready to reload. If you're in a hurry, confine yourself to the San Francisco Shopping Center at 5th and Mission, and hurl your goodies into your room at the Hotel Milano (55 Fifth St.; tel. 800/398-7555 or 415/543-8555; www.hotelmilano.citysearch.com; $109-$299 double; kids under 13 stay free in parent's room) right next door. The Embarcadero Hyatt Regency (www.sanfrancisco.regency.hyatt.com) is equally well placed for family shopping in the Embarcadero Center. With cinemas and restaurants in the center as well, the kids can be fed, watered and entertained afterward.

Best for Large Families: If you wanted to, you could get five kids comfortably situated in a king/king room at the Monticello Inn (www.monticelloinn.com). With room service, it'd be quite a party. The Hyatt at Fisherman's Wharf (www.fishermanswharf.hyatt.com) can set you up in connecting double/double and on request will provide a fridge. Even better, there are coin-op washers and dryers on every floor, which, if you can get the kids to do a load, will make your return home calmer. The absolute best hotel for big or extended families is The Laurel Inn (www.thelaurelinn.com), because you can request interconnecting rooms with two double beds and one of the kitchenette units, creating your own personalized suite.

Best for Long Stays: Around the Marina, the Cow Hollow Motor Inn & Suites (www.cowhollowsuites.com) provides apartment-style suites with full kitchens and discounts for stays over 5 days.

Best for Nonconformists: Hotel rooms are okay, but you're looking for something different. Dockside Boat & Bed (PIER 39-Gate C; tel. 415/392-5526 or 415/395-5527; www.boatandbed.com; $165-$340 double including tax; kids $25 each) can place a yacht at your disposal (just for sleeping, not for sailing).