Can a pet-friendly hotel actually save you money?

The travel industry is brimming with some pretty lame incentives to try to get us to leave home.

I'd rather chew on sandpaper than embrace the semi-misogynist precepts upon which most "girlfriend getaway" packages rely.

And in the selling of that idiotic term staycation, expensive luxury hotels in my hometown have tried to get me to cover them, forgetting entirely that the whole point of the coinage was to give cash-strapped people a way to let off steam without spending money.

I used to ascribe pet travel to the same category of over-the-top travel lunacy. Before the recession descended, hotels liked to send out press releases about pampering your pooch while you vacationed. Pretty dumb, I thought even then, but something happened when we all decided to tighten our belts: Hoteliers dropped the upper-class pretensions and re-focused on practicality.

Hotels are no longer pitching pet travel to the luxury set. Now, they just want to make it pleasant to travel with our animals. Lose the silly, coddle-your-dog trappings, and pet-friendly hotels are not only a fun idea, but also something that could save you money under the right circumstances.

A few weeks ago, I stayed in a hotel that made me re-examine my feelings. When I checked into the Hotel Indigo in Atlanta, I was surprised by the sight of a little Jack Russell terrier peering at me from inside the manager's office.

As it turned out, he was more than the manager's dog. He was a mascot. "Indie" was an ambassador of sorts. The Hotel Indigo (this one, anyway) has positioned itself as a pet-friendly hotel, where business travelers visiting the offices of Coke and AT&T can forget about leaving their best friends back home.

Guests with dogs are put on the same floor -- the one closest to the ground, for easier walks -- and they're allowed to choose from a variety of dog beds and hand-made food bowls, which are displayed for animals in the manager's office the way a gentleman's club might display its rarest scotch.

The standard price is in line with what other Midtown Atlanta hotels are charging: $119 is a usual rate, and for the rental of the dog accessories, another $20. Considering it costs $25 to $80 a day at most kennels to board your dog, there's already a savings, and few pet owners would argue that sticking your dog in a kennel is healthy emotionally -- for you or for it. Bringing your dog to your hotel both can both bring down the cost and eliminate stress.

Traveling with your pet may actually be gaining popularity in a way "staycations" never could. This month a new airline, Pet Airways, took off. The fledgling carrier, which uses a small turboprop plane that normally carries 19 human seats, is essentially just an animal transporter -- the only humans are pilots and flight attendants, who give animals attention in flight. Although bookings have been healthy, it only operates out of five regional airports, and ticket prices are $149 to $250 each way.

The people's airlines' prices for pet travel are similar as long as pets weigh less than 100 pounds.

Travel doesn't always have to cost money, though. Dogs that are small enough to fit in a portable kennel that fits beneath a seat are usually counted as a piece of carry-on luggage. And if you drive, of course, the companionship is free.

Other hotels are also getting in on the pet-friendly niche, although usually, it's on a per-location basis. One rare hotel brand that seems to be embracing animal travel chain-wide is Kimpton Hotels, which keep animals around its lobbies to affirm their devotion to the concept (for example, the Hotel Burnham in Chicago has a bulldog named Dillon).

Kimpton dips a little into the ridiculous indulgences of the pre-recession era (pet psychics, spa services), but those seem to exist mostly to draw attention to its more practical offerings (toys, pooper scooper bags). Also to the chain's credit, bringing a pet is free.

The Web site maintains a listing of pet-friendly accommodation in North America. Poke around, and pet-friendly hotel amenities surface in the unlikeliest places. The Grand Traverse Resort & Spa in Michigan offers doggy lodging for $35 a day -- still cheaper than a lot of kennels, and a lot happier for your animal.

Walt Disney World will keep your dog for $15 to $20 a day, and your cat or other small animal for $10 to $13. (Two of its kennel locations are cheaper, but require you to return during the day to take them out on walks.)

The resort requires animals to have proof that your pet has its shots -- something it's always wise to carry with you as you bring your beastie out into the world.

Some hotels still cling to the cutesy pre-recession High Living pitch. The Muse Hotel in Manhattan furnishes lots of goodies for free, but it does it on a foundation of anthropomorphic nonsense. According to its Web site, its in-house mascot, Ginger, "prefers Prada, visits to the spa and ahi tuna." Whatever. She'd probably like a cup of Alpo, too.

As long as it's free to bring your pet, or cheaper than a kennel, I suppose it doesn't really matter. Whether it's couched in ridiculousness or not, it can still save a person money to bring Man's Best Friend along.
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