IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

Maid on a mission

Have you noticed hotel housekeeping being overly aggressive as management applies more and more pressure trying to squeeze every last ounce of efficiency of its staff? Christopher Elliott has, and he says you don't need to feel the heat.
Image: Hotel maid
Have you noticed hotel housekeeping being overly aggressive as management applies more and more pressure trying to squeeze every last ounce of efficiency of its staff? Christopher Elliott has, and he says you don't need to feel the heat.Getty Images stock

Wilma Smith was vacationing with her grandchildren in Orlando when she met a maid on a mission. When she returned from one of the theme parks one afternoon, she found the door to her room at the Days Inn propped wide open.

“We had cameras and laptops in there,” says Smith, a retiree who lives in Darby, Mont. “The maid had been there. Nothing was taken, but we were a little put out by it.”

Hotel guests today are facing off against increasingly zealous and indifferent housekeeping staff. Sometimes, these maids on a mission don’t even wait until you’ve left the room before they start cleaning.

“They have rigid schedules that are at the convenience of the cleaning staff,” says Terry Shults, who works for the University of Texas, and has experienced the hyperactive hotel staffers across the board, from budget hotels to luxury resorts. “One hotel liked to pick up all the sheets and towels in the morning and return them in late afternoon. Another liked to clean from 11 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. and take a break while in our room.”

Guests like Shults, meanwhile, were “always welcome to stand out in the hall or sit in our car if we were parked in front of a ground-floor motel unit,” he says.

What’s going on here? Hotels, like other businesses, are constantly trying to improve the efficiency of their work force. A skilled manager can save thousands of dollars in labor over the period of several months by skimming just a few seconds off the time it takes to service a room, although the results are not always as productive as they expected.

At a time when the lodging industry is raking in record profits — it earned an eye-popping $48 billion in 2007 — the pressure to squeeze a little extra work from their staff, and improve on last year’s numbers, is particularly intense.

But that’s not the only reason that more doors are being left ajar and guests are being shooed into the hallway. At the risk of oversimplifying this problem, it often just comes down to bad communication. And I’m not necessarily thinking of English-speaking managers who can’t communicate with non-native-speaking housekeepers, but also guests who simply refuse to talk with either.

Between the rush to clean rooms and this apparent communication gap are all the makings of some very dissatisfied hotel guests, not to mention exhausted hotel employees. You don’t have to end up as an angry customer. Here are six tips for avoiding housekeeping hell:

1. Three words: do not disturb
Remember what I said about communication? The best way to keep a housekeeper from barging in on your room is to hang the “do not disturb” sign on your door. I know guests who never remove the notice. How do they get their room serviced? They flag down housekeepers who are making their rounds and tell them they’re ready — or they just turn the sign around (you know, the one that reads, “Please service my room.”)

It’s important to be as clear about your wishes as possible. Which is to say, either flip the sign or tell a housekeeper you need your room cleaned. Lee Camp recently stayed at a motel in Crestview, Fla., and he removed the “do not disturb” sign before leaving for the day, hoping his room would be serviced. It wasn’t. “There were no clean towels, the garbage had not been emptied, the ashtray wasn’t cleaned, the bed wasn’t made and there was no coffee for the next morning,” remembers Lee. “Basically, nothing had been done to the room.”

2. Mention your housekeeping preferences in your guest profile
Hotels keep sophisticated guest profiles that track their likes and dislikes. If you’re a frequent visitor or if you belong to the hotel chain’s frequent-stayer program, chances are the property already knows that you don’t like being disturbed early in the morning — or at all. I wrote about hotel guest preference programs almost a decade ago and since then, the systems have only become more sophisticated. They’re now able to communicate your likes and dislikes to other properties within the hotel chain, and there’s very little the databases don’t know about you, particularly if you’re a frequent guest. It can’t hurt to let a hotel representative know your preferences and to specifically ask about a notation being made in your profile regarding your housekeeping needs. Who knows, it might prevent a housekeeping headache.

3. Don’t give them a reason to visit your room
Not every hotel employee that intrudes into the privacy of your quarters is there to clean. There are maintenance people, technicians, managers and ... the dreaded minibar police. Ron Dylewski, a videotape editor in Pittsburgh, had an encounter with the snack cops at a luxury hotel recently. “They wouldn’t be denied,” he recalls. “I was badgered, and they knocked on my door several times — the implication that I’m going to walk out without paying my minibar tab.”

The solution, of course, is to not accept the minibar key when you check in. Think about it. The items are marked up by hundreds of percent, so why would you even want access to them? In my experience, hotels take a hard line on minibar charges, and they go to great lengths to make sure their guests are billed.

4. Do it yourself — and save the environment
Those signs that encourage you to consider re-using the towel in your room may save the hotel money, as my colleague Amy Bradley-Hole pointed out recently. But on some level, they make a lot of sense. They force you to ask a number of other important questions. For example, is it necessary to change your sheets regularly, or to even have the bed made? What harm could come of asking a housekeeper for a few extra towels and giving her a few days off? Unless I’m on an extended stay, I prefer to reuse my towels, make my own bed and keep the housekeepers out of my room. I don’t think it’s responsible to throw towels away after just one use, but beyond that, I like the privacy. I don’t want hotel employees moving my stuff around.

5. Reward good behavior ...
There’s no rule that you have to wait until the end of your stay before tipping your housekeeper. If your maid is behaving, why not reward her — or him — by leaving a little something in the envelope before leaving? Or, if you’re afraid they might not understand that you’re tipping them early, just hand them the envelope or at the very least, tell them how much you appreciate the fact that they are respecting the “do not disturb” sign.

6. ... and punish bad behavior
As a hotel guest, you have numerous options when it comes to retribution. Withholding a tip, reporting the employee to a manager and complaining to headquarters are just a few of the choices you have as a disgruntled visitor. The sooner you speak up, the better.

I regret not having done that once. I was a guest at a small inn on one of Washington state’s breathtakingly beautiful San Juan Islands. It had been a lovely stay, but on my last morning in town, I returned from breakfast to find my luggage standing outside the door. Funny thing was, I hadn’t finished packing yet. I opened the door to find a maid reclining on the sofa, puffing on a cigarette.

“Ya missed your checkout time,” she snarled, taking another drag and turning her head away.

“My things,” I protested. “I wasn’t finished packing.”

“Took care of that for you,” she exhaled.

Sure enough, she had crammed the rest of my belongings into my bag and then wheeled it into the hallway so she could take her cigarette break in my room. I would have said something, but I had a plane to catch.

Needless to say, I did not leave a tip.

Every Monday, my column takes a close look at what makes the travel business tick. are always welcome, and if you can’t get enough of my column, for daily insights into the world of travel.