Staying Safe in Hotel Rooms Is a Matter of Vigilance, Common Sense

TIMES TRAVEL WRITER

When I was younger and stupider, I took a room at a cheesy mom-and-pop motel on Maryland's Eastern Shore. I was traveling alone, researching a B&B; guide, for which I was being paid a pittance. So I couldn't afford pricey accommodations, especially the beautiful B&Bs; I toured during the day.

The place I checked in to--I've somehow suppressed its name--had several banks of rooms scattered across a parking lot on a lonely strip of highway. I don't know why the clerk gave me a room at the very back, or why I took it. I was tired, I guess, and went to sleep as soon as I got in.

Several hours later I was awakened by violent banging on my door. I got up and yelled, "You have the wrong room." But it did no good. The banging went on for five minutes. Meanwhile, I called the front desk, but there was no answer. Then I cowered in the bathroom, noting that the whole room shook from ceiling to stained carpet, like the houses of sticks and straw built by the two little pigs. Then the banging stopped. I got back in bed and tried to sleep.

About an hour later, it started again. This time I called the state police, who said it would take at least 30 minutes for them to get there. I passed the time packing my bags so I could jump in my car and hit the road as soon as the patrolman arrived. Of course, by the time he did, the banging had stopped, and there was no evidence of an attempted break-in.

You'd think I'd have learned a lesson from that experience about hotel room safety, a crucial issue for women travelers. But the more you travel, the easier it is to get blase, as I did last spring at the Charles de Gaulle Airport Sheraton near Paris, which has all the security bells and whistles. When room service knocked, I unfastened every lock on the door and opened it wide, without first checking that my visitor was who he said he was. Nothing bad happened, but it's a basic hotel safety rule: Never let anyone in--whether that person says he's from room service or says he's your long-lost friend--without first making sure of that person's identity. Use the peephole. If someone knocks when you aren't expecting a caller, phone the front desk to see if they sent anyone up.

Other basic hotel safety rules are similarly obvious:

* Don't accept an isolated room in the rear building of a motel or at the end of a long corridor.

* Your room's front door should not be accessible from the outside, as mine was at the Maryland motel. Hotels built around atriums are considered safer. "If the door opens to the world, you're available to any pervert who cares to knock," says Sharon Wingler, editor of the Internet site http://TravelAloneAndLoveIt.com.

* Don't leave the door open, however briefly, and always lock it behind you. The Automobile Club of America requires that the hotels it certifies equip rooms with a primary lock (for which guests have the key) and a secondary deadbolt (engaged from inside). "Chains are too easy to break up," says Michel Mousseau, an AAA regional manager.

Kevin Coffey, founder of a company and Internet site, http://www.corporatesafety.com, dedicated to teaching business travelers how to stay safe on the road, thinks reputable hotels should also have U-bolt locks, which, like chains, let you crack the door open but are much stronger. "No one," Coffey says, "can absolutely insure your safety. That rests with you."

Many hoteliers realized they needed to do more to keep guests--and especially single women--safe when singer Connie Francis was raped in her room at a Long Island Howard Johnson's Motor Lodge in 1974. The intruder entered through a sliding glass door that had a faulty lock. Francis sued the chain and won a multimillion-dollar settlement.

In recent years, hoteliers' main effort to advance guest safety has been the introduction of electronic locks and key cards, which are automatically recoded for each new guest. Coffey thinks these are safer than standard keys but notes that some of the older systems don't have automatic recoding functions. If the key isn't reprogrammed, someone with an old card could enter your room.

Still, a hotel's security is only as good as the people at the front desk. They should never announce your room number out loud (so that anyone listening will know where you are) or give it to someone who phones for you.

Nor should they let anyone into your room, no matter what that person says. But this rule is all too easily subverted. Laura Powell, a women's business travel expert from Washington, D.C., says she's persuaded hotel staff to let her into her room when she has shown up at the front desk after a jog without her key. And an acquaintance found that her room had been invaded by a man who got a key by telling the desk clerk he was her husband. He got her name from the room service menu she had hung outside her door.

Unfortunately, the more economical the lodgings, the fewer security features you can expect. Phyllis Stoller, founder of the Florida-based Women's Travel Club, was traveling on business with male colleagues who selected a budget motel with laundry drying on banisters and young men sitting outside their rooms, talking and smoking. Stoller, the only woman in the group, thought the place seedy and went to the front desk to ask what kind of people stayed there.

"Right now," the clerk said, "it's the Baltimore Orioles farm team, here for spring training." That made Stoller feel better.

If women travelers use their heads and follow basic safety rules when they check in to hotels, it's reasonable to expect similar happy endings.

For the Record Los Angeles Times Sunday September 2, 2001 Home Edition Travel Part L Page 2 Travel Desk 2 inches; 40 words Type of Material: Correction Her World: "Staying Safe in Hotel Rooms Is a Matter of Vigilance, Common Sense" (Aug. 26) incorrectly identified the company and Internet site founded by Kevin Coffey. His company is L.A.-based Corporate Travel Safety, and his Internet site is http://www.corporatetravelsafety.com.
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