Hoteliers: Time to Give Us Keyless Entry

By Robert McGarvey

How many ways have hotel key cards failed us. I remember a stay at a Berlin hotel where twice in the space of the first six hours I was a guest I needed to replace the key card.

I remember long, long walks in a Las Vegas casino hotel to get a new card.

Ditto in Chicago, San Francisco, Washington DC.

Key cards are failed technology. They just are unreliable.

And, worse, they can be hacked.

So is now the time – finally – when hoteliers will switch to room entry systems based on the cellphones we carry?

The New York Times believes just maybe. It related that “the number of hotels in the United States that have digital keys available rose from 6 percent in 2016 to 17 percent last year, according to a survey by the American Hotel & Lodging Association.”

Of course, there are quirks in the implementation.  According to the Times, “Some [hotels], including Hilton and Marriott, only allow a single phone to receive a key during a stay, and other guests in the room receive card keys. Like the card keys, the digital keys can be used to access elevators, fitness centers, parking garages and other common areas. Some mobile keys require the user to touch a button on their phone screen to unlock the door, while others require that the phone be held up to the lock.”

Basically however this is all quite simple. Some electronic innards are built into the room lock and the traveler uses Bluetooth to open the door. Easy.  

Why is this taking so long? Why are the implementations often so wonky?

Partly it’s our own fault.  Many of us just don’t want to use our phone to open our hotel rooms (also cruise ships and, for the record, my key card failed on the last cruise I took in October 2018).  

A recent YouGuv poll found that only 29% of us say they would prefer to access a hotel room wirelessly – which means that 71% are content with the status quo, that is, keycard entry.

If you are in that hold out group, feast on the vulnerabilities of key card systems. Researchers have shown that with a one minute hack and a $300 RFID card read/write tool most hotel key card systems can be hacked.  Pull a room card out of the trash, reprogram it and, bingo, you have a master key card that will open an estimated 500,000 to one million hotel locks around the world.  

Feel safe? Sure, that vulnerability may have been patched by now but know that there are other vulnerabilities, other hackers, and a growing acceptance of the reality that keycard entry systems just don’t measure up.


Keycards also fail – frequently and annoyingly.  It’s just poor technology.  I cannot remember the last time I spent more than a couple nights in a hotel and didn’t need a replacement card. For a one night business trip, sure, no probs.  But for anything longer they can be counted on to fail.

Nobody in the office space, where keycards took hold perhaps 50 years ago, believes keycards have a long future.   Some of course are using biometrics for entry and others are using phones. In that world, keycards are heading towards extinction.

So why aren’t hotels stampeding to put keycards in their past? Probably it comes down to money or, rather, the reluctance to spend it.  Hoteliers, and the hotel owners, just are skinflints when it comes to investing in this kind of upgrade.

That’s despite the fact that, as reported in Hotel Management, “Mobile keys are the safest form of guestroom entry in hotels today. Unlike plastic keycards that guests often leave within easy reach, which provide immediate access to the guestroom when stolen, mobile keys offer several layers of security.”

Then there are environmental benefits in getting rid of oldfashioned plastic keycards. Hilton for instance estimates a savings of 40 tons of plastic due to get use of its Digital Key app.

Another, huge plus of using the phone to open doors is that it just may eliminate the check in desk and almost certainly will end the long lines.  A guest who has a reservation can just sign in via the phone and walk straight to his/her room where the phone should open the door.

Sign me up.  

I have used a keyless system to open up and start my car for at least five years. No fails. How convenient.

I want it in hotel rooms too and I want it now.

How about you?

3 thoughts on “Hoteliers: Time to Give Us Keyless Entry”

  1. For many good reasons there are still people who do not [or cannot, for security reasons] download apps to their cellphone. What are we supposed to do at hotels? Break the door down?

    Just “sign in” on the phone, walk “straight to the room” and open the door. How personal; how “secure.”

    And I and others have had “fails” on keyless car open/close and start systems. More than once.

  2. While I love the idea of these digital keys, I have had them fail at multiple Hilton and Marriott locations on multiple occasions. So now I ask for both since maybe one or the other will work when I need it to.

  3. I have been using the Hilton digital key on my iPhone from go. It’s been flawless to date. I choose my room through the app. When I arrive I can go straight to my room. It always works. I never stand in line at the front desk.

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