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Hotel Security for the Traveler

The sad truth is that criminals target travelers, especially around hotels. There are, however, some practices which can reduce your risk of being the target of crime or other hazards in a hotel.

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?
  • Is there a fire alarm and water sprinkler system?

"Generally, the only way to find this out is contacting 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 first floor room, as they often have sliding doors or windows that are accessible from ground level, and 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. 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 a quick escape route in the event of an emergency. 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  are driving and don't know the area, obtain detailed directions from the hotel, 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 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, and items stored in your car trunk should be placed there before you arrive to minimize the security risk. 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.

Check In

At the front desk, the simple process of checking in can make you vulnerable. 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 may overhear you. Women traveling alone should consider registering as Mr. and Mrs. as 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 parking the car. Where practical, look people in the eye to leave the impression that you could identify them. Request a new room if the desk clerk announces your room number and then have them write the new number down. 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.

Smoke and Fire

Most hotels offer in-room instructions outlining what to do in case of fire, and it is wise to read them carefully. 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 exit safely 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 extra minutes you might need to escape.

Hotel Room Security

Some hotels can monitor when and with which key a room is entered, and there are usually room cleaning procedures to help thwart intruders. Out-of-the way hotels in foreign countries 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 - professional thieves and hotel staffers are usually aware of every possible hiding place. Use the hotel safe, and get a receipt for what you leave there. Although some hotels provide a safe in each guest room for storing valuables, be aware that there could be insurance issues if you use a guest room safe rather than 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 maintenanceworkers are truly from the hotel.
  • 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. Also, be careful about the leftovers you leave on the 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.
  • Before you go to sleep, make sure that your deadbolt lock and chain locks are in place and that all windows and sliding doors are secured. To make your room appear occupied when you leave, place the DO NOT DISTURB sign on your door and leave the TV or radio on at an audible level. At foreign destinations, this may be difficult as housekeeping may have instructions to remove DO NOT DISTURB signs in your absence.
  • Most security specialists advise you to keep your room key with you at all times so that no one (including hotel staff) can see by checking the front desk that you are not in your room.

For more security tips visit our Security Travel Tips Section. 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.

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