I travel for work a fair amount. On average, I spend one week a month on the road. During the busiest times, I’ll spend 5 out of six weeks traveling the United States with the occasional trip abroad.
Through my travels, I’ve walked the streets of London, sweated over a plate of hot fried chicken in Nashville, and walked around the Acropolis. These are not experiences I get around my hometown.
The tough part is that I need to be away from home to get these experiences. Home is where I’m safe. Home is where my supplies are.
I recently took a “Counter Custody” class from Ed Calderon. The bulk of the class focused on staying out of and eventually escaping illegal restraint. However, several sections focused on travel preparations.
I already included several of these concepts in my “toolbox.” That being said, it was great to learn others that are now a part of my hotel preparations. Especially when it comes to hotels.
Hotels are where I spend my security efforts. They are a point of vulnerability. They are also places that I can turn into secure homes away from home. This article looks at how to secure your hotel room, and make it a temporary sanctuary.
Table of Contents
Risks of Hotels
Let me get this right out in front. I hate hotels. I don’t sleep well in them. I can never get the temperature right. The TV channels always suck. And work never gets the message that I’ve already put in my 12 hour day when I open up my email.
It all boils down to risk. When I’m in a hotel, I realize that I am at my most vulnerable. I sleep there. I’m unfamiliar with the layout and the neighborhood. I rarely have a local support network.
There is nothing good about hotels. The best you can do is secure yourself with information, and secure your hotel room with a few tools.
The first risk of hotels lies in their subtle familiarity. They make you feel at ease, and feel at home. A comfortable traveler will return. It is easy to get too comfortable and let down your guard.
Next is their layout. How many of you have actually looked at the evacuation sign and memorized all the escape routes? Do you have the means to escape from an upper floor?
Who do you call if you get in trouble? There are many countries where the police are the last people you want to call.
Do you have a local safety net? If you get sick, where is the closest pharmacy or hospital? Do you even want to go to the hospital if you are outside of your home country?
Each of these factors adds risk to staying in a hotel.
Hotel security starts well before you step out your front door or onto a plane. Pre-planning begins at home. Where you have time and resources.
Maps, Maps, and more Maps
My travel preparations always begin with research on my destination. This includes flights, routes, and any other relevant site information. We will save those discussions for another day.
Today we focus on the hotel. Next, I inform my travel network (more on them later) about my plans.
First, I collect information provided by my travel agent. Hotel name, address, phone number, and email. This goes into my travel binder with flight information, customer locations, and any trip-specific information.
Next, I focus on the hotel. Google maps is the tool of choice. I get detailed and broad-area views of the hotel. I always screen capture both maps and satellite images.
One note, Google normally uses satellite (depending on the area), Bing uses aerial imagery. Often, Bing imagery is higher resolution. Aerial imagery shows the texture of the land, travel patterns, and other data you can’t get from maps.
When possible, I’ll also add maps with routes from Google on them. It’s good to get routes to any points of interest. These include the hotel, grocery stores, pharmacies, police stations, EMS units, hospitals, and urgent care centers. Grab an image of everything you can think of.
Now I get personal with the hotel. I start from the outside and work in. Google street view is your friend. Take snapshots of the main entrance, side entrances, and service entrances. What are the unusual points of entry and exit? With Google Street View, you can even zoom in.
Ask a few questions here. Do they have Valet Parking? Where are the fire escapes? What is the top floor the fire escapes reach? Are there walking paths, outside facilities, or fences?
Rooms and Layout
The next step is to get inside. This is a lot easier than you think. Especially considering google, yelp, and the hotel’s own website.
I start with the website, and grab any pictures of the entrance, atrium, and other common areas. I especially like dining areas. Not, because I love to eat, and I do, but because they have doors to the kitchen.
Kitchens need supplies, and supplies mean loading docks. If things go sideways at the front door, head to the kitchen and out the back!
Most hotel rooms look the same. The bathroom may be on a different wall, but they are all basically the same. I love Yelp.com for hotel rooms. People take the stupidest pictures! It’s outstanding!
Want to know the many room layouts? Yelp.com
Want to see the faces of the different bartenders? Yelp.com
Want to see what kind of locks are on the balcony doors?
Want to see what kind of locks are inside and outside the hotel room doors?
You guessed it… Yelp.com
These photos are a treasure trove of information! You can see the general cleanliness of the hotel–angry people post the best pictures.
If you see a lot of pictures of hair clogged drains, or dirty sinks, you know you are dealing with a less than attentive service crew. Will they leave a door open? Maybe so!
You can also get to know some of the crew. Bartenders are often in pictures. Pick out a name tag, and memorize the face that goes with it. When you arrive, grab a beer from “Tommy” like he’s an old friend.
How about in-room safes? I bet if you find a picture, you can determine the make and model. Within a few mouse clicks, I bet you can also find the factory combination or the shimming technique that will open it. Not that I recommend practicing that. But it gives you a sense of the security, or lack thereof, that the safe provides.
Back Outside and the Neighborhood
One other thing that Yelp helps with is crime. The hotel I researched for this article had negative reviews for damage to a parked car.
Spotcrime.com is a great website for local crime tracking. Input an address and you’ll get a map of local crimes for that location. communitycrimemap.com is another great website for this research.
Track the local crime threads. Look for theft, assault, and other more serious crimes. Look for areas with increased crime levels. Stay out of these.
Take all this acquired information and add it to a digital document. Print it out, push it to your phone, and have it on you at all times. Memorize the various points of entry and exit, and then familiarize yourself with the other materials.
Use these details to form your hotel exit plan if the worse comes to fruition. If it doesn’t, then just use the information to select a restaurant or bar in the good part of town.
Getting Your Room
Once you get into the hotel, the real work starts. Your first encounter is in the parking lot (assuming you aren’t taking a cab). Where possible, park near the front door and under a street light. If you are valet parking your vehicle, take everything of value out of it.
Also, remove everything that can identify you. Never leave rental agreements, old luggage tags, and old plane tickets.
Your next encounter is with the front desk staff. I always turn on the charm with the front desk staff. Even if I have over 12 hours of travel behind me, I’m nice. The front desk staff assign your room, and can get you amenities.
When possible, I select my own room via an app. Hilton and Marriott allow me to do this, and I love it. If that is not an option, ask for a room on the 3rd-5th floors.
Never get a ground-level room. The risks of this are twofold.
First, you are exposed to people outside the hotel. A passerby can look through your window. Worse yet, any ill-tempered individual is one rock away from being through your window.
I may be biased, but I mostly travel to cities, and I encounter many altered individuals on these city trips. You never know what will set someone off enough to break a window.
Second, there is little hotel security on the first floor. It doesn’t take much for someone to get into the hotel, they are public businesses after all, and then try doors to see what is open. Often, the elevators are secured so that you need a room key to get into the other occupied floors.
Floors 3-5 are off the ground, and are still low enough that an emergency vehicle can get a ladder to them.
Next, select a room near the stairs. In the event of a fire, you don’t want to go to the elevator. Likewise, you don’t want to wander around looking for the stairs. You want it easy… Hang a left and count three doors and you’re out the stairs.
Getting Your Room
As you smile at the desk clerk, make sure that they never mention your room number out loud. It’s no one’s business but your own. If they happen to mention that, kindly request a different room.
If you want to be a little more subtle, go to the room, then return and request a different one that is far from the ice machine, or away from the kids’ next door. Again, do it with a smile.
I always request two room keys. One for the front pocket and one for the back. They have a habit of going missing. It’s great to have the spare.
If you lose a room key, take your smile to the front desk, and ask to move rooms or have the old key invalidated. If in doubt, tell them you think it got lifted and you’re concerned someone will attempt to use the key.
Hotels are very cognizant of these issues, and should move you as soon as a new room is available.
Congrats! You’re in your room!
Time to make it your temporary castle. Every castle needs a moat. This is your hallway. Take a trip up and down the halls to get the lay of the land. Please note, your land may be big or it may be small. Get to know all of it.
While you are wandering around, use your cellphone to snap a picture of the evacuation maps they post on walls. Compare this to reality. Hotels are prone to mistakes. Digitally mark your room on your image. I even rehearse the top three evacuations so I know door counts or paces to my exits.
Now we move inside the room. First, do a complete toss of the room. Check the closets, bathroom, windows, balcony, and any connecting doors. Make sure they don’t have any surprises and all doors lock securely.
I check all drawers, under the bed, and furniture cushions. I’ll admit that this is a bed bug thing, I had a friend take a few home from a trip to Tampa. Talk about a nightmare! It took six months and thousands of dollars to clear up the resulting infestation in their home.
Once you have tossed the room, lock adjoining doors, windows, and balcony doors. Now you’re ready to add a little extra security to the room.
The next thing I do is put out the do not disturb flag and turn on the TV. I’m not a slob, and my momma taught me how to make my bed. I don’t need a stranger doing that for me, thank you. The do not disturb flag keeps the hotel staff out of my room. At least for a few days.
Hotels usually have a three-day limit before they check rooms. I was in Hong Kong once when I got a forceable knock at the door.
The diminutive hotel manager and her 300-pound “assistant” asked to check my room to make sure I was ok. I smiled the whole time, and thanked them for their concern, but ensured them I was fine, and just had the flag out because of jet lag.
My TV is always on while I’m out of the room. It gives it that lived-in look. Especially when I leave ESPN on. It gives the impression that the sports-loving sales guy is in the room, rather than the doughy 50-year-old guy.
It doesn’t take much to open a hotel room door. Anyone with a key can get past the standard lock, and hotels have the tools to get past the door bar. If hotel staff have these, so do criminals. That’s why you need a little extra insurance.
I prefer door stoppers. Jam one under the door and it’ll be a lot harder to open. Jam one on the side and the top, and you’ve introduced a new set of challenges.
Door stoppers are cheap. You may need to trim off the point so that they fit tight, and that the tip doesn’t protrude out into the hallway.
Disclosure: This post has links to 3rd party websites, so I may get a commission if you buy through those links. See my full disclosure for more.
You can also purchase security devices. The SABRE wedge is a 120 DB alarm that trips when a door opens against it. These were used in Ed’s class, and I can attest that they are loud.
Although he used them to deny us of our sense of hearing and to distract us from getting out of our restraints, you will use it to alert you when someone tries to gain entry to your room.
There are hosts of other locks and alarms. Spend a little time with Amazon, and you will find something that fits your style.
You won’t be staying in your room at all times. Eventually, you need to eat, or do whatever you have come to town to do.
Unless you clear out your room, and who wants to take a suitcase full of dirty undies to a show or a meeting, you will still have an attachment to your room. It’s best to monitor your room when you’re away. Enter the security camera… Sort of…
We all have old phones. Some have a few, some have several. I never trade in my old phone simply based on the desire to retain my digital information. That doesn’t mean that they are useless.
Old phones are great security cameras. As long as their wireless and camera still work, they can be your eye in the sky.
Get a phone security camera app like the Alfred Camera app. Install it on two cameras: one will act as the viewer, the other acts as the monitor.
Leave your old camera in your room, on a charger and a stand, positioned in a way to have good coverage of the room and you’re set.
Free apps will have a minimum of features. Usually, for a modest onetime fee, you can get motion detection, cloud recording, etc.
The other option is to bring an actual surveillance camera system, such as an Arlo system.
Quick and easy to set up, they are perfect for the beginner. I have one at my house and love it.
Regarding video recording in a hotel room. I frankly don’t care. The do not disturb sign is out, so no one should be in my room. If they are, then they are violating that request. So my interest in their privacy just went to zero.
There are several issues I can imagine where I would like the means for self-defense in a hotel room. I don’t consider myself a high-value target. Then again, bad things happen to good people. I, therefore, prefer to hedge my bets.
While traveling, especially air travel, I don’t have the luxury of bringing all my preferred options with me. Therefore, I have to improvise.
It doesn’t take much to improvise a few defensive tools. A hotel magazine and a few wraps of tape make an excellent club. Hotel shops usually have assorted sharp objects that you can improve on. Nail files, toothbrushes, and hairbrushes can all be sharpened to an effective edge.
No store at the hotel? Take a walk to the local pharmacy, dollar store, or grocery store. The counter custody class came with homework. Take $5 – $10 to the dollar store, and see what you can improvise. I came out armed to the teeth.
You don’t have to be alone on a trip, even when traveling solo. Work on building up a local network. This starts with the cabbie or Uber driver that brought you to the hotel, and continues with the maintenance guy.
It doesn’t take much more than an appreciative attitude, and a generous tip to make a friend. I seek the “invisible” people in the hotel. Maintenance people are awesome resources.
The guy on the low-end of the hotel food chain always likes that you appreciate them. It doesn’t take much to make an introduction either. Remove a battery from the remote, and call down to the front desk that it isn’t working. When they send someone up, greet them with a smile.
Add a little self-deprecating humor (I can’t imagine that I was such an idiot, my kids steal batteries from the remote all the time). Then slip them $5 for their effort.
Get their name, and use it several times. They are usually invisible, and value the recognition. You’ve just made a friend! A friend that knows the services entrances and has keys to everything! Those are the best of friends.
It doesn’t take much to make a friend. But, sometimes a little social lubrication helps. Especially when traveling internationally.
My day bag contains a few give-away items. These include a cheap phone charger, a selection of phone cables, a pack of cigarettes, and a bottle of Jack Daniels.
Everyone has a cell phone these days. The best friends I ever made were an IT crew in Africa that were looking longingly at my cell batteries.
At the first opportunity, when one of their phones ran low, I handed out a few batteries. There was NOTHING they wouldn’t do for me after that gift!
The social tools I carry on every trip – Cigarettes, batteries, and alcohol.
Smoke breaks are also universal. A recognizable brand of cigarettes, the pack of Marlboros in my case, is the ultimate bond creator. Many international brands (especially in third-world countries) are little more than shredded newspapers.
Gift a pack of Red White and Blue smokes, and you have a friend for life! P.S. I don’t smoke. I pick up a pack every 3-4 months and give the old pack to the first homeless person I pass.
Liquor, especially a Good Ole American brand, is another great way to make friends. I carry a small bottle of Jack. Like Marlboro, it’s universally recognized.
When your cabbie mentions you are his last ride of the night, after a really long day, it’s time to make a friend. Pass him the bottle in exchange for their cell number and you have a personal driver for the rest of the trip.
Finally, have cash. There are very few problems that can’t be solved with the application of a crisp $100 bill. Enough said.
If you get into a bind, there is nothing like a social network of local experts to provide aid.
We can’t always rely on local connections. That’s where your support team comes in. If the modern world has taught us one thing, it’s the value of crowdsourcing. Crowdsource your hotel security.
I have a small diverse support network of friends. Each with a different take on life, experience, and core knowledge.
Whenever I travel to a way-out area, I pass the travel information to my team and cut them loose. Their initial input helps me refine my planning documentation.
Once I land, they have my back from afar. Depending on my location, I send them updates with variable levels of periodicity. During my recent trip to Africa, they knew every movement.
When I left the hotel and the planned route. When I arrived at my destination. I even echoed when I went to the gym, and when I planned on returning to my room.
We coordinated all movements via the Signal app. Yes, I’m one of the early adopters. A screenshot of my mapping application accompanied each text.
Well before the trip, we established protocols for normal situations as well as emergencies. It got exciting for the team when the gendarme rolled up a local in front of me while I waited in line to get into the embassy. If anything went wrong, a few clicks would let them know, and they’d execute the proper plan.
This was a great use in the Hotel. How much local currency do you need? Ask the team to crowdsource the cost of a cab ride, meal, and a gift from the kiddo, then let me know. Is tipping the local custom or an offense?
They checked that detail for me during the cab ride to the hotel. When you’re on a trip in a hotel, your mind is fully occupied. Many minds make light work. Use them!
Patterns, Patterns, Patterns
The final security advice I have is – know and break your patterns of life. A predictable person is easy to take advantage of. Within the confines of the hotel, it’s hard to be unpredictable. But do your best.
Vary when you take the stairs vs the elevator. When you get back to the hotel, don’t go straight to the room. Or go there, then reverse direction to hit a vending machine.
Do what you can to make life in your home away from home as random as possible.
Concluding Hotel Security
Let me be the first to say that I have no paranoid tendencies! You’re probably thinking exactly that right now… Ha.
I know how it sounds, but it’s true. I have a strong sense of preparedness. This requires an occasional deep look into the eyes of the dark side. This can develop a certain amount of paranoia. I don’t look at it that way. I choose to look at life as a game. Especially security.
This extends to travel to the middle east, Africa, Asia, just as much as it applies to Kansas and Ohio. The approach stays the same.
How secure can I make myself without it adversely affecting my life? Yes, I carry a pack of cigarettes when I don’t smoke. But I’ve used them to form temporary bonds.
I block my door shut and wedge my hotel windows tight. It’s all a part of the game of survival. I play that game pretty hard sometimes. But all the while I smile, make friends, and so far I’ve taken home the trophy every day.
I encourage you to add a posture of awareness and preparedness to your travels, and especially your stays in hotel rooms. It’s not expensive, doesn’t take much time, and when you win, you get to play another day.