Playing it safe at a hotel

Fires can happen anywhere, including hotels. But guests can reduce their own risk by following fire safety tips.
(Jason Plotkin / Associated Press)

When my husband and I checked into the Dupont Plaza Hotel in San Juan, Puerto Rico, nearly 30 years ago, he assessed it this way: “What a dump.” He was right. There were no smoke detectors and no sprinklers. We weren’t terribly concerned because we figured the odds of such a thing were low.

We were wrong.

Two weeks later, on Dec. 31, 1986, a fire at that hotel killed 97 people in 12 minutes. In the casino, gamblers burned to death, seated in their chairs. One hundred forty people were injured. The blaze, set by disgruntled hotel workers, is one of the most catastrophic in hotel history.

In 1990, Congress passed the Hotel and Motel Fire Safety Act “to save lives and protect property by promoting fire and life safety in hotels, motels and other places of public accommodation.” Now, U.S. guest rooms in hotels and motels must be equipped with hard-wired, single-station smoke detectors and an automatic sprinkler system, with a sprinkler head to comply with National Fire Protection Assn. standards.


Even with federal safety regulations, how do you know the hotel you’re checking into is safe from fire and from theft?

Hotel fires occur with greater frequency than many people realize, said Paul Rouse, chief administrative officer and fire safety expert at Guardian Safety Solutions International. To protect yourself, you must be prepared.

Rouse’s fire safety tips for travelers:

Be sure your hotel or motel is equipped with automatic sprinklers and fire alarms. This is especially important for trips outside the country, where strict U.S. standards may not apply.

Review the evacuation map posted on the back of your room door. If it is not posted, request one from the front desk.

Locate the exits nearest your room.

Count the number of doors between your room and the exits. This might help in case of an emergency evacuation.

Pack a small flashlight.

If there is a fire, feel your room door. If it’s hot, keep the door closed and seal it with wet towels. Call 911 and tell the operator which hotel room you are in; signal from your window.


Break the window if you have to.

Always use a stairwell and not an elevator.

Personal security expert Robert Siciliano and Mike Kelly, chief executive of On Call International (a company that helps travelers with emergency travel assistance), offer these general hotel safety tips:

When you’re checking in, if the desk clerk blurts out your room number so others can hear, quietly request a new room.

Ask for a room facing the street or overlooking a swimming pool or other activity areas. The likelihood of being easily spotted may deter someone from climbing in your window.

Have a bellhop take your bags to the room. Ask him to inspect the room before you enter, check under the beds, in the closets, in the shower, behind the curtains and anywhere else someone might be hiding. Check to be sure that all the locks are working properly.

If there is no bellhop, ask the manager to accompany you to your room. Or tell the desk to investigate immediately if you don’t call within five minutes.

Be suspicious of a call from the front desk just after checking in requesting verification of your credit card number, “because the imprint was unreadable.” A thief may have watched you enter the motel room and called from the guest phone in the lobby.


Whenever you’re in the room, secure the deadbolt and chain lock. Keep windows and balcony doors locked.

Portable travel locks, motion alarms, door braces, doorjambs and rubber wedges are available. Buy and use them. They cost less than $25 and ensure a safe night’s sleep.

Keep a closed-door policy.

Be sure the peephole works and use it to verify the identity of maids, room-service attendants or anyone else who knocks.

Do not open your hotel door for someone you don’t know. If you didn’t request towels or shampoo, communicate through the closed door.

Don’t open your hotel door to “room inspectors” who could swipe valuables as they pretend to check the quality of housekeeping.

Leave nothing of value in your hotel room when you’re gone. You’re deluding yourself if you think your laptop, the information on it, your jewelry, money, iPad or anything else is safe unattended in your hotel room.


It’s easy enough for a man in a three-piece suit to walk into your room while it is being cleaned, and say to the maid, “Excuse me, I just have to get something,” and to grab the suitcase with all your camera equipment.

When leaving your room for the day, keep your hotel key with you instead of at the front desk. Leave your Do Not Disturb sign on your door so others think it’s occupied.