Staying safe while in a hotel

Travel | Scott Laird 12 Feb 2020

Recently, in a medium-sized city at a property belonging to a large international hospitality brand, I was intrigued to find a list of "guests of the day" posted at the front desk, with the first and last names of loyalty program members who had been selected to receive additional perks.

Although well-intentioned, and appreciated (I happened to be one of the lucky guests), I requested that the front desk staff take down the list. While most guests might not have minded, it's a violation of guest privacy to have their residence in-house publicized.

Airlines observe similar restrictions, which is why standby and upgrade lists in public view only show partial names.

Making sure your private details remain private is just one way to maintain personal safety and security while staying in hotels.

Given my recent experience, I thought a review of other best practices would be prudent.

Toss the key envelope immediately

Key envelopes are a weak point in hotel security because they're full of information such as the hotel name, room number and departure date. Mistakenly leave a key envelope somewhere, and anyone can pick it up and access your room, while a keycard found without a key envelope is virtually worthless.

For a similar reason, the keyless entry feature on many hotel apps allows guests to hide the room number once they've located their room. If you receive a paper key envelope, leave it in your room or throw it away once you've arrived. If you're forgetful, take a picture of the room number for later.

Similarly, another faux pas is to receive a key envelope with the guest name written on it. If this happens, ask for another with just the room number.

What about manual keys?

Old fashioned, manual keys are often common in historic buildings. Most hotels request guests leave such keys at the front desk (because they're easily copied); they have large key fobs attached as a reminder.

Travelers accustomed to hotels with inadequate security features or hotels with manual keys often travel with doorstops in their luggage. They're a low tech way to remedy security shortfalls, particularly in regions where refusing a hotel room for security features would result in checking into another room with the same deficiencies.

Mum's the word

Similar to keycards, guests should never give a room number out loud, unless you're checking out, and should be wary of hotel employees who do.

Unfortunately, more than once have I had to ask for another room after showing a member of bell staff my keycard with the room number, only to watch them repeat not only the room number, but also my name out loud within earshot of any number of strangers.

This isn't to say hotel employees that make mistakes are all out to get you, but they do have a duty of care to ensure guest safety by safeguarding guests' private details.

Take mental notes on arrival

Travelers are venturing to unfamiliar territory and surrounding themselves with people who are more familiar with their surroundings than they are. Thieves and scammers know this and will look to exploit it, so it helps to familiarize yourself with your surroundings.

En route to your room, keep an eye out for locations of elevators, emergency exits and employees-only areas. Each could be useful if you're followed to your room. Also note the location of house phones that dial directly to the operator or front desk when picked up.

Finally, do a cursory check of the room upon arrival. Pick up the room phone and check for a dial tone to make sure it works, check all exterior doors (including connecting room doors) for working door locks, deadbolts, security chains or bars.

Finally, note the location and escape path to exits. In most hotels around the world, this will be noted on the inside of the guest room door.

If you feel followed

A common security concern in hotels is the fact that large buildings with multiple floors can also be difficult to maintain surveillance.

In areas where crime is a concern, many hotels add security features such as secure elevators requiring key cards to request guest room floors, while some others go a step further and have security staff checking key cards at elevators. Absent these, or even in hotels where these features exist, a guest who feels followed still has remedies available.

Guests using elevators with keycard access should each scan their cards for access, and there's no shame in requesting other guests do so, even if they say they're going to the same floor. If you feel concerned, feign having forgotten something at the front desk and return to the lobby.

Once on the floor, if you feel uneasy, pick up the house phone in the elevator landing.

Hotel operators and security are generally trained to "get eyes on" calls from house phones. If an attack is imminent, attempt to reach the house phone or an emergency exit (both will alert hotel staff) or make noise to disturb other guest room occupants.

Solo travelers with particular concern about being followed can book hotels built around atriums, where it's easy to attract attention in an emergency.

A word about hotel safes

In-room safes prevent opportunistic thefts, but from a liability perspective, the hotel is no more responsible for the items stored inside than anywhere else in a room. Employees can access guest room safes, although the number of employees with the tools and knowledge to do so is likely limited to security and top management.

However, hotels do accept liability for items they accept at safe deposit boxes at the front desk; be sure to get a receipt to demonstrate acceptance of custody.

Get the hotel's business cards

Most hotels keep business cards with the hotel's address and contact details at the front desk. Grab a couple when checking in, especially if you're in a country where your first language isn't common, since the hotel name and address will be typically also be written in the local language.

Business cards can also be helpful if you need to call for emergency help while inside the hotel. With a business card at hand, you'll have the address and contact information if asked.

When in doubt, call the front desk

A friend of a friend once got a middle-of-the-night phone call from a local prankster who convinced them they were calling from security about a gas leak that necessitated everything electrical in the room being thrown out the window "for safety reasons."

The guest complied in a sleeping pill-induced haze, and thankfully wasn't held responsible because the prankster had been prolific in the area, but the embarrassment could certainly have been avoided by hanging up and calling the front desk back to confirm.

There are many running hotel scams that involve strangers calling random guest rooms and identifying themselves as hotel employees, often asking for personal or credit-card information.

Hotel employees know not to ask for this information over the phone, so tell callers you'll call them back or come downstairs.

Similarly, if you're not expecting a visit from a hotel employee, ask them to identify themselves by name and their department and call that department for verification before opening the door.

The takeaway

Hotel staff is often a guest's first, best resource when it comes to hotel security, in addition to maintaining vigilance while traveling in unknown surroundings.

Travelpulse (TNS)

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