Guillermo Arias  /  AP file
A room in the Motel Los Angeles in Puerto Vallarta City, Mexico. A new study of motels - done after guests left but before rooms were cleaned - found viruses on TV remotes, light switches and even hotel pens, showing potential hazards if the cleaning isn't thorough.
By Amy Bradley-Hole Travel columnist
updated 10/18/2006 5:01:50 PM ET 2006-10-18T21:01:50

There seem to have been many TV news segments and articles lately about the cleanliness — or lack of it — in hotel rooms. A lot of these reports are just media hype; these “creepy-crawly” stories draw in viewers, and seem to cycle around about as often as cold and flu season.

But hotel rooms are public places, and you are sharing them with other people. So here are some precautions you can take to ensure that your room is clean and critter-free.

1. Choose your lodging well. If cleanliness is very important to you, choose your hotel wisely. Large national chains with good reputations want to keep them. Complaints about dirty properties spread quickly and good hotels know this, so they do everything they can to make sure their housekeeping departments do a good job. Also know that a smaller property may be cleaner than a large one. The more rooms a housekeeper has to turn over, the more likely he is to cut corners.

2. Give the room a good inspection. You can get a sense of the cleanliness of a room as soon as you walk in the door. But take the time to look in the bathroom, under the beds, in drawers, etc. And pull back the bedcovers! Bedbugs and other critters can be an issue at even the nicest properties.

A vigilant guest who liked to pull back bedcovers once alerted me to one of the biggest problems I had in a hotel. He found lice in his bed, and we were able to track the little bugs to their source. An elderly couple, who were very sweet but obviously had hygiene issues, had brought a suitcase full of lice on vacation with them. We had to shut down three floors of the hotel for extermination, and I will be forever thankful to the observant guest who helped us catch the problem early.

3. Speak up. If you feel the room is not up to par, say so. And don’t worry that you will have to move rooms. Chances are you won’t have to. Give a housekeeping supervisor about 15 minutes in a room, and he can usually rectify any problem. But if multiple rooms, common areas, and especially restaurants or pools at a property all seem unclean to the point of being unsafe, you have every right to leave and ask for a refund.

4. Ditch the bedspread. When people find out that I’ve worked in hotels, they always want to know the same thing: How often are the bedspreads cleaned? The truth is: not that often. Cleaning bedspreads is expensive, and most folks would balk at the room rate if that cost were passed on to the customer. So yes, that comforter could very well be dirty. Remove it if you like.

But have heart: A nice trend we’re seeing at some properties is the use of duvets with removable duvet covers that can easily be cleaned after each guest. Ask about the linens when you book your room; you may be in for a pleasant surprise.

5. Carry your own cleaners. If you really are phobic about germs, or if you know you pick up every little virus, you may want to do your own wipe-down of your room. Antibacterial solutions are easy to find in travel sizes. Take some with you and wipe down the telephone, door handles, bathroom fixtures — whatever “bugs” you. Bring your own heavy-duty hand-washing soap, too, if you like.

But don’t stress too much. Most housekeepers do a great job and wipe down all surfaces with industrial-strength cleaners. (That recent study that showed how a person with a cold can contaminate a room? They tested for germs before the room was cleaned, not after.) That’s not to say that I haven’t seen some budget-conscious housekeeping managers water down the chemicals! So feel free to take extra precautions if you like.

So, knowing what I know, do I take all these precautions when I travel? Honestly, no. I do check for bedbugs — they’re scary! But when I turn in for the night, I pull that bedspread all the way up to my chin, because that’s how I like to sleep. And I truly believe there are more germs on that community fax machine in the office — and on my child after a day at school — than in an entire hotel room. But as cozy as that room might seem, it’s not really your home away from home. It’s a public place, and it doesn’t hurt to treat it as such.

For a related article on bugs that can stow away in your luggage, see Anita Dunham-Potter’s column this week on Tripso.

Amy Bradley-Hole has worked in the hotel industry for many years in many different positions and at all types of properties -- from small luxury boutique hotels to large resorts, both in the United States and abroad. E-mail her or read more of her articleson tripso.com!

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