We know, we know — when you're on vacation, the last thing you want to worry about is hotel security. But returning from a day of exploring Mayan ruins or sampling French wines to find that your hotel room has been ransacked is a surefire way to put a damper on an otherwise decent trip.
Break-ins, fires, natural disasters and terrorist attacks are just a few of the potential threats to travelers' safety in hotel rooms. While we don't recommend being too paranoid about some of these — after all, one safety expert puts a hotel guest's chance of dying in a terrorist attack at a remote one in a million — it's in your own best interest to take a few precautions to protect against more common risks, such as burglary or fire. Read on for our top hotel safety tips.
Before your stay
Long before you actually book your hotel, start by doing your homework. Take a careful look at the security situation in the country and/or city you'll be visiting. Is terrorism a threat? Are tourists often targeted in local crimes? Are there certain neighborhoods, cities or regions that are more secure than others? The U.S. State Department offers country-specific safety information on its Web site; see travel warnings and advisories for more details.
When the time comes to book your hotel, don't just look at rates and amenities — pay close attention to location as well. Is the hotel in an upscale residential neighborhood, a bustling business district or a seedy commercial area? Is it safe to walk around after dark? Is there a police station nearby? All of these factors could affect the likelihood of a break-in or assault during your stay. You can find neighborhood information online or in a good guidebook.
You'll also want to find out about the hotel's own security measures. Call ahead and ask whether the front desk is staffed 24 hours a day, if there are security guards on the premises and if there are surveillance cameras in the public areas. In areas where terrorism is an issue, are vehicles inspected before coming onto the premises? Is access to guestroom floors restricted to guests only? If hotel staff can't offer any specific examples of what they do to keep guests safe, book somewhere else.
Arrange to pack a cell phone that will work throughout your trip. (If you're traveling abroad, see our international cell phone guide to learn more about your options.) Program key phone numbers into it ahead of time — like the direct line to your hotel's front desk, the number of your home country's nearest embassy and the local equivalent of 911.
Make two copies of your passport and credit/ATM cards: one to leave at home with a friend or family member, and the other to bring with you on your trip. (Be sure to keep it in a separate place than the originals in case of theft.) It's also a good idea to leave a copy of your itinerary with someone at home to make it easier to track you down during a natural disaster or terrorist attack.
For protection during international travel — particularly long-term trips or visits to less stable countries — we recommend registering your presence with your country's embassy or consulate in the region. U.S. citizens can do so here.
Don't accept a room on the ground floor if you can avoid it. Many safety experts recommend staying somewhere between the third and sixth floors — where rooms are high enough to be difficult to break into, but not so high that they're out of the reach of most fire engine ladders.
If you're staying in a motel where doors open directly to the outside (rather than a hallway), see if you can get a room overlooking an interior courtyard instead of a parking lot.
Don't let the front desk attendant publicize your room number. If he or she announces it out loud when giving you your key, ask for a different room.
While you're at the front desk, ask what phone number you should dial in case of emergency. Is there a direct line to the hotel's security team? Should you call the local equivalent of 911?
Upon arriving at your room, immediately identify a fire escape route. Check the location of the nearest stairwell and/or emergency exit (elevators should be avoided during a fire) and figure out a couple of potential plans for escape in case the hallway is blocked in one direction or another.
Check the locks on the windows (and balcony door, if applicable) as soon as you arrive, and notify the front desk if any are not functioning. It's a good idea to check these locks again each time you return to the room, as housekeeping may open them and forget to close them again.
During your stay
Keep your door locked at all times whenever you're in your room — including any deadbolts, security chains or swinging metal security locks. Never prop your door open, no matter how briefly.
At night, leave a pair of shoes next to the bed in case you need to leave in a hurry. Keep your room key and a flashlight close to hand as well.
If someone comes to your door unexpectedly and claims to be hotel staff, call the front desk to make sure the visit was actually authorized. Never open your door to someone until you're sure of their identity; use the peephole instead.
Protect your valuables by using the hotel safe — or, better yet, leaving them at the front desk while you're out. Get a written receipt for anything you leave with the front desk and find out whether you're covered in case of loss. (Many hotels do not accept liability for items left in guestroom safes.) If you're traveling with a laptop, you may want to consider bringing a security cable to lock it to a piece of furniture. Small locks are also available for suitcases.
When you leave the room, leave the TV or radio on, or put your "Do Not Disturb" sign on the door; both of these tricks will give potential thieves the impression that you're still there. (You can contact the front desk to arrange a housekeeping visit even if the "Do Not Disturb" sign is up.)
The hotel parking lot and hallways should be well lit. Report any outages to the front desk and ask for a security escort if you feel unsafe.
If you do experience a crime during your stay, don't simply complain to the hotel — file a police report as well. Your homeowners' insurance policy may cover certain losses during your travels, and the insurance company will need a copy of the police report and any other relevant documentation.