A Family of 4 Gives HotelTonight a Whirl in Helsinki
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I like to consider myself an adventurous family traveler. But in an effort to push myself out of the family travel comfort zone of having accommodations reserved well in advance and planning trips out to a T, I decided to try something spontaneous, new (for me) and slightly risky during a recent overnight stay in Helsinki.
Recently, my family had one night in Helsinki before flying back to the United States on SAS Airlines' epic Kids Fly Free deal after an awesome spring break up north in Finnish Lapland. I decided that instead of booking a hotel in advance for our Helsinki layover, as I usually do, I'd open up the HotelTonight app on my phone when we landed at the Helsinki airport and use the last-minute hotel booking engine to see how it worked for spontaneous family travel.
I was aware that HotelTonight bookings aren't exactly geared toward traveling families, per se. You see, rooms booked through the site are guaranteed to accommodate just two adults. But it wouldn't be the first time my family of four (our kids are 2.5 and 16 months) had ended up in a room meant for two people, so I was willing to roll the dice to see how things would turn out.
No, we wouldn't be sneaking our extra two guests into our room. I wanted to see what would happen when we arrived at the hotel with a booking for two people but four people in tow. Right now, there's no way on HotelTonight to book the reservation for more than two people in a room -- although the app does allow you to specify whether you want one or two beds (see the main search bar next to the city) and you can make multiple room bookings.
Additionally, I was wondering if the hotel would be able to accommodate us with two baby cribs on such short notice (having them in bed with us means no sleep for anyone.) Could I find a good rate on a decent hotel on the day of travel? What about a hotel with an included airport transfer to make it easier than lugging all our stuff via public transport into the city? Would we end up with nowhere at all to sleep? Would we be turned away since the site only guarantees space for two adults? In short, I had a lot of questions.
Not knowing what to expect, I threw caution to the wind and arrived in a new city with two kids and no hotel reservations -- and, spoiler alert, I am glad I did.
Booking With HotelTonight
The first thing to know about booking a room through the HotelTonight app is that it doesn't have to be for literally tonight . Hotels can be booked up to 100 days in advance for stays of up to 14 nights, in case you don't want to press your luck as I did. Sometimes you'll find the best deals in the days leading up to (or the day of) your arrival, since that's when hotels are often really looking to sell rooms that aren't reserved.
In the days leading up to our overnight in Helsinki, I was checking the app to see available hotels and rates for the date of my stay. I saw quite a few tempting deals on hotels both in the city and near the airport, but decided to avoid temptation and wait for the day of our arrival to book, just in case things got cheaper (there's always a risk hotel rates will be more expensive, too, of course, as availability fluctuates).
When we landed at the Helsinki airport around 9am, I opened the app ( I have a T-Mobile phone plan, so international roaming is free in most countries , including Finland) and did a search for available hotels that night. Since I'd already been scoping out hotels for a few days, I knew that I wanted to stay close to the airport at a hotel with a free airport shuttle and breakfast included. A few Scandic properties near the airport came up, along with boutique and luxury hotel options. After browsing the list of amenities at the properties, I pushed purchase on the Scandic Helsinki Aviacongress hotel for a rate of $201 for the night.
HotelTonight doesn't let you confirm two beds in a room on the mobile site (nor request baby beds), but room type (ex. one king or two queens) is sometimes an option on the app. Larger families note that you can book up to four rooms via the app. You can also reach out to the site's "HT Pros" to make a request within the customer service section of the app or through the desktop platform after you book for help with special requests.
In the app, as soon as you have your booking, you can tap "24/7 Customer Support" for the live chat option or to call a customer service member. This is the way to attempt adding more than two people to your reservation (the limit within the app or desktop platform) -- up to the max capacity of the room and subject to additional charges by the hotel. You can also just show up at the hotel, of course, and request to add additional people to your reservation on the spot.
Since I was planning on going straight from the airport to the hotel, I didn't bother checking in with the HT Pros and decided to deal with the room configuration and add our kids to the reservation in person at check-in.
The free airport hotel shuttle for our hotel picks up guests right outside of baggage claim roughly every 20 minutes and stopped at several properties near the airport. We didn't have to wait long before boarding with our strollers, car seats and myriad of bags . Within about 10 minutes, we arrived at the Scandic Helsinki Aviacongress, located in an area surrounded by office parks.
Despite its rather austere exterior, the hotel immediately impressed me with its modern design and contemporary decor inside, with the reception area in the middle of a bright lobby. There was nobody waiting to check-in, so we were served immediately. Since I had already paid through the HotelTonight app, there was no need to run any payments at the hotel --everything was super quick and efficient. When loading your credit card into HotelTonight's system, be sure to use one that rewards you for travel purchases like the Chase Sapphire Reserve that pays out 3 Chase Ultimate Rewards points per dollar spent on travel to get you closer to the next trip.
Noticing our two children, she said, "I see your reservation is for two people, but that's OK." A sense of relief washed over me. I was prepared to pay extra to have the kids in the room with us, of course, but it was nice that that didn't happen.
I said that we'd need two cribs and she said she'd have them sent to the room immediately. While there was no extra charge for my kids at this particular hotel, be aware that this could have gone in a variety of directions. It's really all at the individual discretion of each hotel. I was willing to take the risk, but I do understand many families won't necessarily feel the same.
I was thrilled that the room was ready for us to check in despite it not even being noon yet. We were informed of the included breakfast (served from 4:30am for people with extra early flights!), kids' playroom and on-site pool and sauna.
Our room (one of 286 in the hotel) was modern if spartan, and really everything you need from an airport hotel with crisp white duvets on the beds, a safe, mini fridge and bathroom with a walk-in shower (no tub). As is often the case in Europe, there were two single beds pushed together instead of a single queen or king bed.
Within seconds of arriving at the room, housekeeping knocked with two cribs that they helped us align side-by-side in the space next to the beds. The configuration was tight, but for a one-night airport stay, it's really all we needed.
Finland is known for being an exceptionally family-friendly country, with kids play areas to be found almost everywhere you go, from city restaurants to airports. In keeping with that theme, our kids loved the hotel's basement play area equipped with a play house, oversize blocks and little cars they went crazy racing around. There was also a flight simulator game in a small room with a few movie theater-style seats that older kids would surely enjoy. You'd be hard-pressed to find anything like that in a US airport hotel .
There was also an indoor pool and a sauna, but we didn't make time to enjoy either during our stay.
Breakfast was included for all hotel guests, whether you book through HotelTonight or not, something traveling families always appreciate. It was typically Scandinavian spread of breads, cereals, yogurts, fresh juices, health foods and hot dishes. We were glad they didn't have Hyatt Place-style rules where you have to book direct to enjoy free breakfast.
Definition of 'give it a whirl'
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