Hotel rooms can invoke visions of serenity and even a bit of luxury, but they can also be the stuff of a germophobe's nightmares. Whether it’s the possibility of unwashed bedding, or the imagined bodily fluids lurking in the bathroom, hotel rooms have a bad reputation for harboring filth.
From finding the bottom of your feet had turned black from a grimy carpet to discovering a dried, sticky substance on the toilet seat, if you spend any time traveling, you know that hotel rooms are only as good as their housekeeping staff.
We reached out to Dr. Gary Vallen, an expert in lodging operations and a professor of Hotel Operations at Northern Arizona University's Franke College of Business in the School of Hotel and Restaurant Management — where he has taught for the past 28 years (and was one of the founding faculty members of the program) — in the hopes that we could get an insider’s scoop on hotel room cleanliness. Vallen, who is the co-author of the best-selling textbook in the industry Check-In Check-Out; Managing Hotel Operations (soon to be in its 10th edition) and has provided hospitality consulting for the past 45 years, had some tips on what to avoid in hotel rooms, and also some insight about what areas aren’t as dirty as you might imagine.
If you have waded into the dark waters of Google to learn what the dirtiest items in hotel rooms are, you probably know that the top spot for contamination is (shocker) the main light switch and is closely followed by the TV remote.
In a study from 2012, researchers from the University of Houston swabbed various areas in hotel rooms and tested them for things like fecal bacteria, streptococcus and staphylococcus. The team, led by Katie Kirsch, hypothesized that the samples taken in hotel bathrooms would yield the highest levels of bacteria. Instead, they were surprised to find that even toilets couldn’t compare to the germ levels found on light switches and remotes – two areas we frequently touch in a hotel room without pause.
According to Dr. Vallen, hotel rooms are as clean as our own homes. This means that unless you’re obsessively sanitizing your household remote controls and light switch panels, they probably have a scary amount of bacteria wriggling around on them, too.
What about the bedspreads? Is it true that hotel housekeeping professionals don’t rewash them between guests?
Reneta McCarthy, a lecturer at Cornell University's School of Hotel Administration and former housekeeping manager for a big-name hotel chain warns that hotels typically schedule room deep-cleanings on a quarterly basis. That means your bedspread (especially if it is covered by sheets or a duvet cover) may only be washed four times a year.
While that sounds scary to anyone who imagines an entire universe of bacteria in a swirling microcosm in their hotel bed, Dr. Vallen offers some wisdom:
“Today's beds have washable comforters and duvets so that guests are not pulling a comforter used by previous guests up to their faces. Of all areas in the hotel room, the modern bed in a well-operated chain property is likely the least of one's concerns.”
Hotel beds, however, still have one major ick factor: bedbugs. Dr. Vallen has a rule of thumb before settling into your hotel room that can minimize your risk of exposure.
“A wary guest should follow this procedure: Don't even open your luggage until you have checked the mattress, and never place your luggage on the bed itself. Pull down the bedding and look at the sheets, the mattress cover and even the mattress. If there are telltale signs of bedbugs, such as excrement (tiny black dots that look like pepper) and/or small red dots (blood stains), get out.”
Other items of concern that are often overlooked are the small glass cups and mugs left on hotel bathroom counters. Dr. Vallen warns travelers to never drink from the glassware in the bathroom.
“High-end resorts will often provide inexpensive wrapped plastic disposable glasses. Even if the glassware is removed daily, taken to the dishwasher, cleaned and sanitized and returned to the room, the very fact that it has been handled by the dishwasher, again as it is loaded onto the maid's cart, then pushed in the cart down lengthy hallways through at-risk environments, and then touched once more by the housekeeper as it is placed in the bathroom, there’s too much risk.”
Are all hotels equally gross? While housekeeping regulations vary between hotels, it is generally safer to rely on major hospitality chains. Dr. Vallen was quick to point out that modern boutique hotels can also provide excellent, clean rooms.
When I asked Dr. Vallen what he looked for in hotels, he gave the following tip:
“Treat yourself to a quality hotel room, and always stay in a room that is better than your own bedroom at home.”
Sounds like we're better off spending the cash. Sorry budget motels, but our immune systems deserve a vacation, too.
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