If hotel room walls could talk, there’d be no shortage of juicy material for a best-seller; ask a housekeeper sometime. Hotels are full of history. They’re also full of the “stranger” element. And there’s something creepy about that. Movie makers know this and have long exploited it, with the infamous Bates Motel in Psycho or the Overlook Hotel in The Shining. Whether you’re staying at the Waldorf Astoria or the Super 8, after tucking yourself into an unfamiliar hotel bed, the last thing you want to think about is who may have slept there last night.
And, if anything bothers travelers who sleep in strange beds, the element of dirt seems to trump all others. As it turns out, much of the “dirtiness” that may cross your path in a hotel is invisible..and not necessarily found in the bathroom. We’ve done the research and have identified the most insidious elements of dirt in hotel rooms.
This is because you’re dealing with the human element. If only people behaved more predictably. One person’s perception of “clean” is quite different from the next. If you’re terrified of germs or even have a phobia about dirt, you might be a bit phobic about hotels, too. Don’t start avoiding hotels; just be aware that sometimes your experience will be less than perfect. In every class of hotel, it doesn’t hurt to err on the side of caution, which we’ll get to in a minute.
To be fair to hotels (which have remained surprisingly competitive with VRBOs), trying to keep a housekeeping department fully staffed can be a problem (paying better than minimum wage and treating maids with respect are too-obvious solutions to turnover; read Nickel and Dimed by Barbara Ehrenreich to get that angle of the story).
Let’s assume that, on the day you check in, a maid (or a few maids, even) may have called in sick, no-showed, or even resigned without notice; now the other maids are hustling to pick up the slack for all these absences and/or truancies.
The average maid cleans about 15 rooms per eight-hour shift, with an average cleaning time of about 30 minutes per room; with unpredictable staffing, maids might be cleaning more like a minimum of 16 rooms to well over 20 rooms per shift. Sometimes housekeepers, even more, conscientious ones, may feel forced to cut corners.
Bedsheets are neglected: Sometimes, in a two-bed hotel room, the maid won’t change the sheets on the bed that looks unused. In a good hotel, in a double room where only one bed appears to have been used, the other bed must always get stripped and changed, too. At least theoretically.
Towels may not be changed. Similar to bed linens, an unwritten rule applies to towels: if they look unused, the maid might figure you won’t know the difference if they don’t get changed.
Vacuuming shortcuts may be used. Instead of a proper vacuuming, a maid under pressure may give your room a lick-and-a-promise sweeping.
Dusting may not be done. Unless there is obvious dust, the maid may skip it.
Joan Crawford was infamous for her obsessive cleaning. For Crawford, no housekeeper was good enough, nor could anyone meet her finicky standards for cleanliness.
If Joan Crawford were alive today and staying in a hotel, she’d think twice before touching the TV remote control, the light switches, and the bedside lamp. These hotel-room items were found to contain some of the highest levels of bacteria in a 2012 study done by the University of Houston. Researchers tested the bacteria content of various items from nine hotels rooms in three U.S. states (Texas, Indiana, and North Carolina).
Bacteria levels were found to be highest on the mop and sponge in the maid’s cleaning cart. This is concerning because of the risk of cross-contamination among hotel rooms. Obviously, the maids could reduce contamination by replacing cleaning liquids during shifts, say the researchers.
And the items with the lowest bacterial content? Headboards, curtain rods and (surprise) bathroom door handles.
Two tests were done in this research: one for bacteria in general and one for cloriform bacteria. The results? Bacteria levels in hotel rooms were between 2 to 10 times higher than the levels accepted in hospitals. Although this was a small and, thus, limited study, the numbers are hard to dismiss; more research should be done.
Always, always carry plenty of alcohol wipes and when you get to your hotel room, wipe down every light switch, remote control, and other surfaces to minimize your risk.
What else should you be wary of in hotels besides switches and remote controls?
A common thread among hotels of all classes is carpet. Carpet tends to be filthy by the end of the day no matter what–and no matter where you’re staying. Walk around in socks most of the time if you can. Whatever you do, don’t walk barefoot.
Three places where human hair does not belong: On dinner plates, between eyebrows, and on bathroom floors (whether at home or away).
If you find yourself the beneficiary of other people’s hair in your hotel bathroom, insist that the manager send housekeeping to reclean. Otherwise, ask to be switched to a new room.
Find hair in your bed sheets? Request new sheets or get a new room.
Someone’s been sitting in my chair…someone’s been sleeping in my bed (and, nowadays, depending on where you stay, it might be someone’s been cooking meth in my room. Hopefully not). Freshened linens and towels can do wonders in ridding a room of those sleeping and bathing odors that no one cares to admit they make.
And think of it: How many people have slept in that bed before you? How many baby diapers have been changed on that bedspread? How many bare bottoms have plopped themselves on that bedspread while texting on the phone? How many times has housekeeping laundered that bedspread in the past year? It doesn’t look dirty? Ok! Throw it back on the bed. No one will be the wiser.
Now, when you imagine your old habit of snacking while sitting on the bedspread watching television in your hotel room, you may recoil in horror.
Speaking of horror, remember that much of the dirt you encounter when renting a hotel room won’t be obvious to the naked eye. That makes it scary. Like the classic horror film, Halloween, think of the bed bug boogeymen (and what you’ll need to do to get rid of them) as you might think of getting rid of The Shape, Michael Myers (you can’t get rid of him). Thankfully, you can get rid of bedbugs. Just know it will be like moving heaven and earth to get rid of them.
Scabies are nasty little creatures, too, who like to burrow in your skin (once they bite up and down your calves, you’d think you’d been bitten by something with teeth like giant sawblades).
Imagine having to take every shred of clothing you own, wash in hot water, and seal in black plastic bags for days.
The best thing to do with a bedspread in a hotel room: immediately remove it off the bed, along with any decorative pillows and place it in a corner on the floor. Assume it’s filthy.
Also, keep your bags off the bed and zipped up. Put dirty clothes in a plastic bag and wash them immediately upon returning.
If you’re a frequent traveler, you could go so far as to make a travel bed bag—like a sleeping bag made of sheets you can use to protect yourself from bedbugs.
Whatever you do, make it a habit to automatically check for bedbugs– no matter how nice the room or how many times you’ve stayed there.
Before booking, look up any complaints about a hotel on The Bedbug Registry.
You should assume that most hotels do not regularly sanitize key cards. It would be a good idea for them to start, wouldn’t it? You might keep your keycard in the little wallet it comes in. When you need to touch the card, be ready to wipe it off. Again, a good reason to always keep sanitary wipes handy.
Also, beware elevator buttons and door handles in the lobby and other common areas. These are incredibly germ-infested places.
Remember: Your hotel room needn’t look like something out of a David Lynch movie to be dirty.
Although fresh sheets, fresh towels, steam-cleaned carpets, hair-free bathrooms, and other elements should be basic to your experience as a guest at any hotel, they might not be. Take steps to protect yourself. Carry sanitary wipes (and using them) is a good first step. No need to go all Joan Crawford on your trip. Just be aware of the invisibility of dirt.
Written by Katie Anton