A paw-star review
Roula Khalaf, Editor of the FT, selects her favourite stories in this weekly newsletter.
Some 23mn US households have acquired a new pet since 2020. Now big hotel brands are competing for the business of this new clientele: the pampered pup. According to a 2022 report by Mars Pet Nutrition, 52 per cent of Americans are planning on bringing their dogs along with them on holiday. The Hilton travel group says “pet-friendly” was the third most popular filter on hilton.com in 2021. But travel with pets can be a lot like touring with toddlers: better in theory than in reality. They can’t handle time differences; eating and elimination can be tough; and they’re cranky when their routine is disrupted. Even so, as someone who seldom goes anywhere without my elderly mutts, my philosophy is that with the right hotel – or campervan, or tiny house – a good time can be had by all.
We’ve done our fair share of unheated campervan holidays, so for this article we aimed for luxury. The mutts and I put our heads together and came up with a shortlist of the commanding heights of pooch tourism in the American Midwest, where we live. If we disagreed, I let the dogs decide: for as any parent knows, if the offspring aren’t happy, the matriarch will be miserable, whether travelling with dogs or daughters.
As a born Midwesterner who grew up in the ’50s and ’60s, when dogs lived outdoors in dog houses – and weren’t often let inside, let alone on the bed and under the sheets – I’ve been surprised at how the red carpet has been rolled out for my pets. In October, my 13-year-old Chinese street dog Huahua donned formal attire and sat down (in a chair) to savour a “bark-uterie board” of raw meats and treats at the Sheraton Grand Chicago Riverwalk, on the banks of the Chicago River. Just before Thanksgiving, her 12-year-old mutt mate Dumpling dressed in a starched tuxedo to lounge by the fire in the lavish library of the 1893 Chicago Athletic Association Hotel. (Huahua chose a black sweater-dress, with flouncy tartan ruffle, in honour of the season, but Dumpling’s tuxedo stole the show.)
My dogs were living rough on the streets of Shanghai before our family adopted them in 2010 and 2011, so no one could describe Dumpling and Huahua as to the manor born. But they quickly learned how to crawl into the lap of luxury, and stay there. These days, they look as natural as any royal corgi, lounging on the leather sofas and Turkish carpets of America’s top hotels.
Our first intro to the more luxurious end of travel was a “tiny house” cabin in the woods of western Michigan, part of the Getaway chain of mini-cabins in remote locations: complete with cellphone lockbox, they promise escape from the stresses of modern life. We all shared a queen-sized platform bed: the dogs weren’t supposed to be allowed on it – good luck with that. (We are still waiting to try out tent “glamping” at Camp Long Creek, in Missouri’s Ozark Mountains. With toilet, heat, refrigerator and king-sized bed, I’m sure I’d love it – and just as sure the dogs would be agnostic. They aren’t the outdoors type.)
But highest marks from the mutts went to our hotel stays: the Venetian Gothic-style Chicago Athletic Association Hotel won first place. Their pet amenities weren’t the best – though the tapestry dog beds were plush, and multiple packets of dog treats were waiting for us in the room – but the quality of the pet welcome was flawless. The check-in clerk immediately asked to be introduced to my dogs by name, coming around from his high desk for a quick pet. And when he heard they were Chinese, he asked which Mandarin character for “Hua” was the correct one to use for Huahua’s name. Pooch may not have cared that a clerk wanted to write her name in Mandarin, but her person was impressed.
Dumpling and Huahua revelled in the celebrity of being the only canines in the hotel’s historic Drawing Room, which fills with young office workers and university students every afternoon. The pups wandered from patron to patron, demanding a stroke or cuddle. I finally tore them away for a trip to the dog park – to which the hotel had helpfully provided a map, along with a list of dog-friendly restaurants. This was crucial intel, since Chicago is not dog-friendly. The city’s massive Millennium Park, directly across the street, does not allow dogs.
After playtime, we sampled a lockdown-inspired expansion in Chicago sidewalk and street dining. Dog owners can dine with their dogs, at least when it’s warm enough. The pups and I watched the sun set behind the iconic Chicago skyline from the patio at Brown Bag Seafood Co. Dumpling had his favourite: Lake Superior whitefish.
Close second place went to the elegant art-deco-style Allegro Royal Sonesta Hotel Chicago Loop, mostly for the impressive pet shrine in our room: leashes and poop bag holders, collapsible water bowls and tennis-ball toys, plus an oversized welcome sign that even spelled their names right. But whenever we stay in places like this that aren’t self-catering, we face the same problem: most US hotels don’t allow dogs in their restaurants, which makes dining difficult when it’s too cold to eat outside. During a November Chicago hotel stay, the mutts and I had to don boots and overcoats, and trudge to the nearest McDonald’s – where they weren’t allowed in either. I tied them up outside, and dashed in – while they made friends with a street dweller decked out improbably in bulletproof vest and combat fatigues. We retreated to a nearby bus shelter so I could wolf down my burger. Which wasn’t very chic.
Virgin Hotels Chicago, ranked as one of the city’s most pet-friendly by rover.com, the pet-care website, welcomes mutts for breakfast, lunch and dinner in the hotel’s downstairs restaurant, and its Two Zero Three Coffee offers a whipped cream “pup cup”. The brand is unusual among big hotel chains because canine companions stay for free. (The Allegro Royal Sonesta charges $75 per visit, but this itself is low by many hotel standards.) Virgin guests aren’t required to cage dogs in the rooms, nor are they banned from leaving them unattended – as they are in many hotels – and there are no pet-size restrictions. The Trump International Hotel & Tower Chicago, for example, limits dogs to 25lbs each (Huahua weighs in at 42).
Clearly, pooch travel has come a long way since my Michigan childhood, when the family dog was lucky if he got stuffed in the back of the station wagon and allowed to live in the yard.
Given the statistics, the number of people travelling with pets can only be set to increase. According to a 2022-23 study from the American Pet Products Association, 66 per cent of US households own pets now, up from 56 per cent in 1988 when they began tracking this data, including 65mn homes with dogs. “The expectations have changed,” says Iris Junge, former general manager of The Allegro Royal Sonesta Hotel Chicago Loop: Sonesta, as a brand, saw a 19 per cent increase in stays with pets between July 2021 and July 2022, she says. “People used to be very quick to say, I’ll kennel my dog… now they make them part of the family.”
But for all the touchy-feely reasons that I travel with dogs, I have to admit that cost is also a factor. Kennelling the mutts near my home costs the same as a modest hotel room for me and my two daughters (about $130-$150 per night). And then there are the cringeworthy extras: Pawsitively Heaven Pet Resort, an hour away, offers my pets a private room with raised bed, colour television and music for $132 per night, double occupancy, but a “tuck-in with goodnight kiss” adds $3 per night, and homemade hot meals such as “beef stewie loaf” cost $3-$5 per meal. At the Pooch Hotel in Chicago’s trendy West Loop neighbourhood, pet parents can choose from seasonal camps and themed events where pooches get their paw pads rubbed and teeth brushed, and they can learn how to “sniff the flowers”. But even if you’re willing to pony up, kennel spots can be hard to nab, booking up months in advance.
Let’s be clear: I travel with pups for my sake, not theirs. I’m either too cheap to leave them at home or feel guilty doing so. But Karin Pienaar, animal-behaviour expert at COAPE International, the Centre of Applied Pet Ethology, says holidays aren’t always good for them. “TV has images of people on holiday with their pets, gazing off into the sunset, but your average dog can find it quite distressing, and for some” – especially poorly socialised pandemic pups, she says – “it can be horrendous.”
Pienaar warns that many a pandemic pup would be better off left at home. And as Americans drive less and fly more, pet travel could return to pre-pandemic levels, experts say. In the past few months I holidayed in Denmark, Norway, Hungary and the Czech Republic – and not even I dragged poor Dumpling and Huahua along.