Hotel Security for the Traveler
The sad truth is that criminals target travelers, especially around hotels. The abundance of literature on the topic of hotel security does not seem to have deterred criminals from using hotels as a target of their trade. An informal survey of hotel security staff reveals old patterns of crime repeated and new tricks (or new variations of old tricks) continuing as before. There are, however, some practices which can reduce your risk of being the target of crime or other hazards in a hotel.
The Starting Point
The starting point for hotel security consideration begins well before you have checked into the hotel. If you drive to a hotel and park in their garage or parking lot, auto security, luggage protection, and personal safety will be your starting point. If you arrive by cab, your safety in the taxi and care of your luggage will be your starting point. In fact, unless you have visited a particular hotel fairly recently, your starting point should be a telephone call from home to ask a few questions. If the hotel is in a foreign country, the list of questions to ask in advance will be more extensive. At the very least, a call should be made to confirm your reservations; get a fax of confirmation and note the name of the person you spoke to.
Questions To Ask And Where To Ask Them
According to Sal Caccavale, Director of Security for the Waldorf Astoria in New York, there are three questions to ask for selecting a secure hotel: Are there electronic door locks? Is there good key control? And is there a fire alarm and water sprinkler system? "Generally, the only way to find this out is calling the hotel directly. The number one security issue is controlling who has access to a guest's hotel room. While we can install electronic locks and keep a closely controlled system of key control, it's the guests themselves who often let down their guard and fail to lock their door when they go out to get ice at the end of the hall, or open their door to an uninvited intruder," says Caccavale. "It is important to remember that a hotel is a public place and criminals are attracted to places where outsiders are vulnerable."
What Room To Reserve
If possible, avoid staying in a room located on the first floor of a hotel. Since first floor rooms often have sliding doors or windows that are accessible from ground level, they are a greater security risk than rooms on higher floors. Second floor to fifth floor rooms are usually a good choice in the event of a fire, as they are more easily accessible for rescue purposes than rooms on higher levels. But rarely is room selection so simple. If you are attending a convention or visiting during the busy season, your choice of rooms may be limited. And a more expensive room will not guarantee you greater fire security, since the most luxurious suites are usually located on the top floors, and can therefore be more difficult to escape in a fire. Rooms away from the ice machine or utility area will minimize your exposure to the noise of hallway traffic, and a room near a stairwell will provide an alternative to endless waiting for crowded elevators. Women traveling alone may wish to choose a room near hall or stairwell surveillance cameras for added security. Before you get settled into your assigned room, verify that there is a reasonably quick access to a fire escape route by window or stairway.
Arrival At The Hotel
If you intend to arrive by car and don't know the area, obtain detailed directions from the hotel. Be sure to ask if there are any areas that should be avoided en route, and if possible, plan to arrive during daylight hours. Parking is your next concern. If you drop off your luggage at the hotel and park your car in a public lot, consider how visible your car is, and how safe you will be walking to your car after dark. Find out in advance if the parking area is monitored by surveillance cameras. If you are a single woman, you may want to request that the hotel provide you with an escort to and from your car. If you use valet parking, make sure only your ignition key is left on the key ring given to the valet. It is unwise to leave anything of value in your car while it is parked; Even an adapter cord left plugged into the cigarette lighter is risky, since it an indicator to a potential thief that you own a cellular phone. Items to be stored in your car trunk should be placed there before you arrive so as to eliminate the security risk of someone watching you do so in the hotel parking lot. If you are arriving by limousine, taxi or hotel shuttle bus with other passengers, ensure that all your bags are loaded before you embark. If there is more than one stop between the airport and the hotel, watch to see that your bags remain on board as others disembark.
At the front desk, the simple process of checking in can make you vulnerable from a security standpoint. For example, you will identify yourself by name to the desk clerk, and may be overheard by others. Your luggage tags may be visible to people standing near you. You will pull out a wallet or billfold to give the desk clerk your credit card, in clear view of others. Your room number may also be overheard, and a thief who is paying attention will quickly discern whether you are traveling alone or with others. To the greatest extent possible, be discreet when disclosing information about yourself, and be aware of who is standing around you and may overhear you. Women traveling alone should consider registering as Mr. & Mrs. Whatever. Generally, there is no additional charge for an additional person and it hides the fact that you are alone. If asked, say your husband is just around the corner. Where practical, look people in the eye to leave the impression that you could identify them. Request a new room if the desk clerk is overheard giving out your room number and then have them write down the number rather than announcing it. At a foreign hotel, discretion is much more difficult since a passport must be produced and sometimes even left at the desk. Unless you are familiar with the hotel, you have no way of knowing who will be privy to your passport.
If a bellhop is available to carry your bag, take advantage of it, especially if you are traveling alone. He will enter the room ahead of you and enable you to safely verify that there are no intruders hiding in the bathroom or under the bed. If you enter your room alone, prop the room door open with a chair while you check for intruders. If you are traveling with others, have someone stand in the open doorway while you check. Do the same for them if you are staying in separate rooms.
Smoke And Fire
In most hotels there are bedside instructions outlining what to do in case of fire. It is wise to read them and follow them. Your first task should be to count the number of doorways on your floor from the door to the exit staircase, and then walk down the staircase to the ground floor. This will help you familiarize yourself with your escape route so that in a fire situation, when it is likely to be dark and smoky, you will be able to walk or crawl along your route to safety with no confusion, surprise turns, or unexpected locked doors. Put your room key and glasses beside your bed so that in an emergency, you will be able to find them quickly. If you leave your room in an emergency, take your room key with you so you can retreat back into your room if necessary.
If you discover that the hotel does not have a smoke detector system, carry your own. It is also a good idea to carry an emergency escape smoke hood, which filters out the harmful gases that are present in a smoke-filled environment, and provides those precious few extra minutes you might need to escape.
Hotel Room Security
Access to your room by strangers, and protection of your belongings, are the basic issues of hotel security. This is where the question of electronic door locks and key control comes into play. It is a virtual certainty that people unknown to you -- the cleaning staff -- will enter your room when you are not present, and the door will be left open for a period of time each day. Well-managed hotels have elaborate security procedures in place to control who is issued a key.
- Some hotels can monitor when and with which key a room is entered, and there are usually regulations about staff room cleaning procedures to thwart intruders. Out-of-the way hotels in foreign countries, hotels in cities like Moscow, and hotels in less developed countries, often do not have secure door locks. In some cases, the hotel staff may actually target you and your belongings. Your level of security awareness and the precautions you take must be adjusted for each city and area you visit, but there are standard minimal precautions that apply almost anywhere. Here are some tips to protect yourself and your belongings when you travel:
- Don't leave valuables in your room when you are absent. Use the hotel safe, and get a receipt for what you leave there. Professional thieves and hotel staffs are usually aware of every possible hiding place for valuables. Some hotels provide a safe in each guest room for storing valuables. Be aware that there could be an insurance liability coverage issue if you use a guest room safe rather than using the main hotel safe (e.g. your credit card loss/theft policy may not apply if you use the room safe).
- When you are in your room, lock the door, use the chain lock, and use your door peephole to identify people who knock at your door. Overseas, there may be no chain lock and no peephole, so you should carry a good quality traveler's door lock, a doorstop alarm that wedges against the base of the door, or a motion detector.
- Do not open the door for unexpected visitors. Call the front desk to verify that someone claiming to be making a service call is from the hotel. Overseas, where a language barrier may complicate such a call, you should definitely carry your own interior door lock so that even someone with a key may be barred from entering when you are in the room.
- Some hotels and motels that do not have their own dining facilities allow food to be delivered to your room from outside the hotel. It is best to have such deliveries made to the lobby. Delivery to your room allows an outsider to meet you, know your room number and determine whether you are alone. It is especially perilous for women traveling alone to have such details known by an outsider. Also, be careful about the leftovers you leave on a tray outside your door. A single drinking cup with lipstick marks and/or remnants of a single meal can alert passersby to the fact that you are alone in the room and can help them to determine your level of vulnerability.
- When you are sleeping, make sure that your deadbolt lock and chain locks are in place and that no window or sliding door will provide access by an intruder. When you are not in your room, you may want passersby to believe that it is occupied. If possible, find out the hours for maid service, so that you may place the DO NOT DISTURB sign on your door and leave the TV or radio on at an audible level. At out-of-the-way foreign destinations, this may be difficult because room cleanings may not be at appointed hours, and maids may have instructions to take down DO NOT DISTURB signs in your absence.
- Most security specialists advise you to keep your room key with you at all times in and out of the hotel so that no one (including hotel staff) can see by checking the front desk that you are not in your room. If you decide to use a hotel fitness room or pool, it's a good idea to leave your key at the front desk rather than with your belongings. At some foreign destinations, hotels require you to turn your room key in as you go out. In Moscow, a concierge at the end of each floor is responsible for holding and dispensing room keys as guests come and go.
With a few simple precautions, you can improve your personal security and protect your belongings even if there may be criminals lurking about your hotel.
By Peter Savage, a Senior Consultant to the Parvus Co., an international security firm in Baltimore, and author of the highly acclaimed The Safe Travel Book. A regular columnist for the travel and security publications, he frequently appears on CNN as an expert on travel security. He is a former Foreign Service Officer in Latin America.