By the author of Street Survivalism: A Practical Training Guide To Life In The City and The Ultimate Survival Gear Handbook.
It’s almost summer in the northern hemisphere. Most places are open, and tourist destinations everywhere are preparing to welcome travelers again after two and a half long years of restrictions and protocols. Business travel is slowly returning, too. As your family gears up for vacationing, it’s worthwhile to brush up on your hotel safety knowledge once more.
Traveling requires special attention, awareness, and care when visiting places. Even locations considered relatively safe, such as hotels, motels, and resorts all require situational awareness.
My field is more street survival than traveling safety. But these areas are connected, and years ago, I got hired to prepare a guide on urban awareness and safety for executives of a major company who travel frequently.
I wanted to make it more comprehensive and ended up consulting with a couple of hotel safety experts. I also spoke with a lot of hotel security staff. It never ceases to amaze me what people are capable of. We can learn a lot about street smartness and situational awareness in these interviews.
City hotels can be high-population, high-rotation places.
There are all kinds of hotels, sure. Most large hotels have loads of tourists, business people, contractors, staff, and all kinds of people entering, exiting, or just circulating around restaurants, casinos, stores, and other facilities.
This facilitates the infiltration of individuals or even groups looking to take advantage of travelers. There are crooks and criminals specialized in attacking hotels and tourists. Opportunity crime is something to be wary of as well.
High-profile hotels usually have strict vigilance and high-tech security systems. Many keep counter-crime units inside to combat internal and external transgressions, frauds, and scams. This should show you the size of the problem (and level of threat).
But the #1 rule is taking responsibility for our own safety.
Situational awareness and security consciousness
Tourists travel to change environments and relax. It sucks having to stay alert and aware when all you want is to relax and have a good time away from home. But staying alert to your surroundings is still necessary, especially in this day and age.
Most people lower their guard heavily when traveling, internally or abroad. This is okay for the most part. No one has to maintain high alertness all the time. To do that, learn how to assess your surroundings and adjust your awareness level.
Also, be security-conscious: this will show other people you’re not with your heads on the clouds or overly distracted by the attractions of the place and programs of your trip.
One example of security consciousness is being wary of people around you while you’re providing personal information (checking in or out) or just carrying on conversations. Another is being grey and blending in. “Happy clueless tourists looking lost” are preferred victims because they’re easy to spot.
Finally, never forget to keep your luggage in sight and close at all times. It can be hard to do that when checking in or with all the movement going on around, but it doesn’t matter. It’s your stuff. Find a way, not excuses.
Avoid ground and top floors.
Ground floor rooms aren’t very common in big cities and large hotels. But they are in beach, country, and road hotels and motels. These rooms are the easiest for crooks to break in and steal stuff from.
Some people make this easier by leaving stuff unattended on the balcony or the external window/door open (or just unlocked). I have seen countless minutes of footage of thieves taking laptops, cameras, and other goods from ground floor balconies and even rooms while the occupants were taking a shower or visiting the ice machine.
Floors above ground level also require the proper key card or some other identification to access by the elevator. But top floors leave no escape if some threat is coming from below. If something like that sounds like a possibility where you’re staying, avoid the top floor.
Straight up: Be wary of public Wi-Fi networks. Use a VPN. Update your apps and OS before leaving. Also, change your passwords before traveling and again upon return.
Select the most secure settings on your laptop, smartphone, and tablet. Turn off auto Wi-Fi connect on your device. Turn off your Bluetooth unless you need to use it.
Be cautious when providing personal information, whether virtually or in person. When consuming inside the hotel, be cautious of frauds and scams. If something smells fishy, or when in doubt, check with the front desk or hotel administration.
Avoid logging in to any online accounts that require or store sensitive information. When surfing online, make sure the URL of the website you’re visiting starts with HTTPS. The S stands for secure, and data is encrypted.
(Need more information on emergency evacuations? Check out our free QUICKSTART Guide.)
Study the building.
It takes no longer than five or ten minutes to scout the most important areas of almost any hotel and gather critical intel. It can be a life saver, depending on the situation.
Most hotels have a printed floor plan in every room. Regulation varies, but it’s usually located at the door or entrance and easily visible. I study the floor plan and take a picture of it to keep on my smartphone right after checking in, and then proceed to a quick walk to check the entire floor myself.
At a minimum, take note of exits. The ones signaled for an emergency, but also the ones used by the staff, and any other that might be used in case of necessity (including the windows). Large hotels have lots of staff rooms on every floor. It’s harder to get lost or confused if you know where those rooms and exits are in advance.
I often think about how I’d escape the room and the building in case of fire or a terrorist attack. Some might call me paranoid, but this mental visualization might help me gain a few seconds during an emergency or avoid panic and brain freezing in critical moments.
I also take a quick walk around the lobby, the bar, the restaurant, and the garages. It only takes a few minutes, but a lot of information can be gathered from these that could help save time and trouble in case something happens.
Study the surroundings.
It’s all fine and good to research the surroundings of the hotel for scenery, attractions, and facilities as most tourists do. But don’t forget about safety. Be aware of the dangers by performing previous research on the surroundings of your hotel (or other “staying place”).
This doesn’t have to be anything too detailed. Do some research on statistics for crime and other kinds of social unrest. Look for information on drug trafficking and consumption hotspots in the area you’re staying. Ask locals about the best and worse times to go out, places to avoid, and so on.
Also, take a bird’s eye view of the main avenues and other landmarks. It’s useful to know about train and metro stations, the closest police and fire stations, embassies and foreign representations, and mass gathering places like stadiums and others.
Know where your car is.
Some hotels have outdoor parking. Others have indoors. Some are auto-parking, and others have valet service. I like to know where my car is parked, and this information should be provided by the staff.
If not, I go check it out after checking in. At the very least, I look up the garage floor and where the key is deposited. Also, I ask the staff to keep me updated if the car has been moved and the reason for it (that’s security consciousness).
But be discreet: try not to sound like a paranoid prepper or crazy tin-foil hatter. Just say something silly or innocent as an excuse as to why you’re keeping track of where your car is. You know, like you will have to put something back in it once mail gets in. Or it belongs to a crazy paranoid cousin or something.
Keep OPSEC when traveling.
Don’t post on social media. At the very least, avoid posting about specifics. If you can’t avoid it, leave that for after you check out and take off. Never, ever, post your room number, not even the floor number. Heck, don’t flaunt your hotel.
Don’t show your valuables in photos. I’ve been told countless stories of couples getting attacked in the street after leaving the hotel for dinner or a city walk. It’s clear from the footage and the victims’ accounts that the thugs knew what they had of value on them prior to the attack.
There are criminals and gangs specialized in monitoring social media near hotels and tourist attractions. Not just that: even the staff can be involved in scams. Information is power. If you provide criminals with information, you’re helping them. Keep OPSEC when traveling.
Keep the door locked.
Different hotels have different door latching systems. Some are electronic, using card keys, biometrics, sensors, whatever. Others use regular keys. It doesn’t matter: never rely 100% on the system, whichever that may be.
Always ensure the door is shut, latched, and locked whether you’re in or out of the room. It doesn’t matter if it’s just a quick trip to the ice machine right down the hall: criminals only need a few seconds to take stuff from unattended rooms if the door is open.
Keep the window or balcony door locked.
Always check before leaving the room, even for short periods. Oftentimes, the crooks and gangs acting in these places have inside information or are former employees themselves.
They might know the place inside out, the staff routines and times, and the habits of typical occupants. They will detect and take advantage of any weakness or slip to act. If they perceive attention, awareness, and care on the part of the traveler, they’ll move elsewhere.
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If staying in a hotel located in a suspect or dangerous area, take a doorstop and use it when inside the room. Keep the blinds closed, and leave the “do not disturb” card on the door at all times. You may keep the TV on while going out to give the impression that there’s someone in the room. Security experts say these measures work.
Never, ever carry the key or card in the complimentary hotel envelope. This usually contains the room number, and in case both get lost together, whoever finds it can enter the hotel and your room. It may sound obvious, but I’ve been shown ample evidence it’s not for a great number of travelers and tourists.
Hotel room safes: to use, or not?
It’s quite a controversial issue, really. Some experts told me they should be used, while others provided some arguments against it. The majority of hotel room safes are actually quite easy to break into. It’s a fact.
I admit to using them on occasion, based on my own assessment of the conditions and other factors. It can be better than trying to hide it inside bags or under the mattress, some of the most obvious places ever, according to the experts I consulted with.
I’ve also used all sorts of tactics to conceal passports, cash, ID, and other valuable stuff hidden in the room while traveling. One is to put inside a zipper-lock bag and put in the toilet tank or taped to the shower curtain upper corner (or some other place). These are just ideas. You can look for places to hide important stuff. Use your creativity to take advantage of the room’s features.
Most hotels offer a central safe for valuables. This can be a good and safe option. Depending on the hotel policy, it can be insured. Either way, it tends to be safer than room options.
You can’t afford to be clueless about hotel safety.
These are just some tips and advice to improve safety while staying in and around hotels. There are others, as the quantity and variety of scams that can be perpetrated against tourists are endless.
The main takeaway is to keep the importance of safety and awareness always in mind when traveling. Most people tend to think that hotels, especially large and upscale ones, are inherently safe.
They might be, for the most part. But predators and danger exist everywhere, and it’s our duty to make their life as hard as possible. There are other risks as well, and there’s always a lot we can do to prepare and mitigate those.
Do you have any hotel safety tips we didn’t mention here? Any experiences from which you learned? Please share your thoughts in the comments.
Fabian Ommar is a 50-year-old middle-class worker living in São Paulo, Brazil. Far from being the super-tactical or highly trained military survivor type, he is the average joe who since his youth has been involved with self-reliance and outdoor activities and the practical side of balancing life between a big city and rural/wilderness settings. Since the 2008 world economic crisis, he has been training and helping others in his area to become better prepared for the “constant, slow-burning SHTF” of living in a 3rd world country.
Fabian’s ebook, Street Survivalism: A Practical Training Guide To Life In The City , is a practical training method for common city dwellers based on the lifestyle of the homeless (real-life survivors) to be more psychologically, mentally, and physically prepared to deal with the harsh reality of the streets during normal or difficult times. He’s also the author of The Ultimate Survival Gear Handbook.
You can follow Fabian on Instagram @stoicsurvivor