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In 2020, many vacationers turned to glamping, RVs and vacation rentals amid fears that hotels might not be the safest place to stay. After all, stepping into a shower that a stranger used yesterday may have already given germophobes the jitters — even before COVID-19 became the fastest-growing word in the lexicon.
So, is it safe to stay in a hotel? After more than a year since the onset of the pandemic, we know a lot more about the way the virus spreads. And since then, most hotels have adopted commonly accepted safety procedures while stepping up their sanitation practices, making the TV remote cleaner than ever before.
With that in mind, here are three cleanliness red flags to watch out for — and three positive protocols you should expect to see — when checking in to a hotel:
Your hotel might not be as safe as it should be if you come across any of these tipoffs.
1. A musty or 'dirty socks' smell
“You’ll know it when you smell it,” says Rajiv Sahay, Ph.D., the director of the Environmental Diagnostics Laboratory at Pure Air Control Services, an indoor air quality firm. “It’s a pungent smell, like when you take your socks off. This is indicative of contamination, or especially, bacteria.”
That smell is often a signal that your room is poorly ventilated. And poor ventilation may not inspire confidence that there aren't also coronavirus particles from the last person who stayed there lingering in the air. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says aerosol particles can remain suspended midair for minutes to hours.
This room probably isn't one you want to stay in, pandemic or not. But if you just landed from a midnight flight and every other hotel is booked, you may have no choice. If so, open the windows to enhance ventilation.
What to do: Get another room. If that's not possible, open the windows and doors, and (maybe) turn on the air conditioning.
Similarly, another indicator of contamination is a room that feels hotter or more humid than normal.
While you’re likely not traveling with a humidity meter, humidity is easy to spot with the naked eye by looking for condensation collecting on windows. As before, you can open windows to improve ventilation, or lower the room temperature by turning on the air conditioning.
However, if the hotel room's air conditioning system is one that simply recirculates the air, like a fan, then it shouldn't be used. You can find out what kind of system it is by giving the front desk a call.
“You run the risk of spreading particles around,” Sahay says.
Otherwise, the World Health Organization says that a well-maintained air conditioning system is useful in increasing the rate of air change, reducing air recirculation and boosting the amount of outdoor air coming in.
2. Dirt in less-trafficked areas
Sure, high-traffic areas — like the check-in desk and bathroom sink — are probably cleaned on a regular basis. But Sahay recommends looking at the lower-trafficked areas, such as hallway tables or side staircases, as an indicator of whether housekeeping services are as thorough as they should be.
“Make a quick comparison between the high-touch areas and the areas that aren’t frequently touched,” he says. “Compare the layering of the dust in those areas. If you see any sort of difference, that’s an indicator that housekeeping practices are lacking.”
What to do: Ask for another round of housekeeping.
The CDC has said that, based on current evidence, transmission from contaminated surfaces doesn't contribute substantially to new coronavirus infections. So while you probably don’t need to worry about transmission from the TV remote, inadequate housekeeping is potentially a signal that the hotel isn’t taking coronavirus precautions as seriously as it could.
Don’t feel bad asking for another round of housekeeping — future guests will thank you, too.
3. Mask-wearing isn't enforced in indoor common areas
While the CDC has eased up on mask requirements, some experts recommend ongoing mask-wearing indoors, since you don’t know whether people around you are vaccinated.
“Hotels that are not careful to ensure CDC recommendations or do not enforce mask-wearing in the indoor areas should be a red flag that the utmost care is not being taken into account,” says Dr. Jessica Shepherd, chief medical officer of Verywell Health, a medical information website.
What to do: Skip the indoor common areas.
If people aren’t wearing masks in areas where they're required, and you have no way to verify their vaccination status, avoid lingering in the lobby. You might have been psyched about the free breakfast, but it’s likely not worth the savings if an unmasked buffet browser has a sneezing attack.
Even if masks aren’t legally required indoors for vaccinated people in the hotel’s location, private businesses (like hotels) may still require them. Regardless, it might still make sense to mask up indoors and even outdoors, especially if you’re in a crowded space, like the taxi line.
“It’s always important to be empathetic to those who still want to wear masks, have space and want to decrease interactions even as we begin to open up,” Shepherd says.
Though, Sahay says there’s no reason to wear a mask when you’re by yourself in your hotel room.
Here are some features you'll want in your hotel for a safer, cleaner stay.
1. Touchless technology
Touchless technology had been growing in popularity even before COVID-19, but it’s become more important than ever. Look for technology like voice-activated elevators or motion-sensor light switches and water fountains.
Seek out hotels that offer self-check-in, allowing you to access your room key through a phone app so you can skip the front desk entirely.
You might even find hotels that offer robotic room service. Marriott’s Aloft brand has experimented with a robotic butler, called Botlr, that can deliver amenities to guest rooms. Another Marriott property, Hotel Trio Healdsburg in Sonoma County, California, currently offers a contactless robot butler delivery service called Rosé.
2. Redesigned common areas
Many hotels have significantly adjusted operations, especially in common areas. Lobby lounge chairs have been spaced out, and hotels have dumped breakfast buffets in favor of brown-bag breakfasts.
Some hotel restaurants have exchanged paper menus for QR-code-based menus, and they’ve swapped silverware for prepackaged utensils (so you’re certain they’re clean and haven’t been in anyone else’s mouth). Call the hotel ahead of time and ask about its new processes.
3. Flexible cancellation policies
Flexible hotel cancellation policies aren't just beneficial in ensuring you get your money back if you need to cancel. They also better guarantee that potentially sick travelers won’t be sharing a hotel with you.
For instance, travelers coming from areas with a spike in coronavirus cases — or who have been exposed to the virus — might forge ahead with a nonrefundable trip. But a flexible cancellation policy might incentivize guests at high risk of transmitting the virus to cancel their trip.
It also provides you with more options, too. Skip the nonrefundable hotel fares and opt for flexible choices in the name of travel safety and convenience.
The bottom line
As coronavirus cases drop in most areas of the country and more people get vaccinated, there’s probably little reason to fear staying in hotels that take protocols seriously. And yes, that may be a different message than what you heard earlier on, when many travelers felt like staying in a vacation rental, RV or tent was the only safe way to lodge.
“The CDC stated that hotels were riskier than staying in a house or cabin with people from your household,” Shepherd says. “This has now changed that we have more vaccines, and now that hotels have adopted much higher cleanliness standards.”
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