Hotel Insecurities: How Safe Are We In Our Rooms?



The creepy video that has been making the rounds got me to wondering: Just how safe are we in hotels?

The video in question shows a security expert, Jim Stickley, breaking into a hotel safe – using a tiny screwdriver and a bit of wire – in a matter of fast seconds.

These are the very safes we are urged to stash our valuables in of course. (Note: I never use them, haven’t ever. There always are better places to hide stuff in rooms.)

If the safes aren’t safe, what else isn’t safe in today’s hotel room?

Let me count the ways. From faulty information security practices to much worse, hotels in fact create a lot of risk for every traveler.

For instance: we all know it is increasingly unsafe to use credit cards at hotel gift shops or restaurants.  Hilton, Trump, White Lodging, Destination, Mandarin Oriental – the list of breached hotels where hackers stole credit card data goes on and on.  

Maybe the poster child is Wyndham which, said the FTC, suffered three breaches in two years.  Hundreds of thousands of consumer accounts were compromised, per the FTC.

An obvious conclusion: as an industry hotels simply have not invested appropriately in cybersecurity and that is dumb because hotel guests are – almost definitionally – attractive targets to crooks. There may be some hotels that have got the message but the norm seems to be skinflint security that hackers make a mockery of.

One conclusion: never use a debit card at a hotel.  It just is unwise because protections are fewer than with credit cards. With the latter, generally, losses are capped at $50 (often $0 at many issuers). With debit cards losses can be much higher.

But my advice: pay with cash, or sign to your room, at hotel gift shops and restaurants – and really think about moving your business to places that take Apple Pay, where the tokenization of data will probably keep you safe in hotels.  Apple Pay thus far has limited availability at hotels but the numbers likely will grow, fast.  

Of course you also know: don’t trust hotel WiFi – it’s child’s play for a criminal to sniff all on the network and even to grab data out of thin air – and hotel business centers are petri dishes for malware. I won’t even print out boarding passes in business centers and, as for WiFi, I create my own hotspots because that is vastly safer.  

While we are at this, just don’t trust hotel room locks.  Break ins remain common, sometimes even while the victims are sleeping in the rooms.  

As for the door locks themselves, apparently many have known vulnerabilities that make them easy to pick.  In one well know gambit a dry eraser marker is used to pop open doors.  Oh, the chains too are typically easy to neutralize.

Hotels, too, attract petty criminals – such as the armed robber who made off with 3000 Euros from a money changer in New York’s Plaza Hotel.  

And sometimes slick, smart criminals such as the perpetrators of the $153 million jewelry heist at an Intercontinental in Cannes.  

And then there are the really big worries. Off and on – such as immediately after the 2008 takeover of the Taj Mahal Palace in Mumbai by murderous terrorists – there are fevered discussions of how hotels are tempting and obvious targets for terrorists. But in the US – certainly outside Manhattan and Washington DC – there does not appear to be much sophistication about security. Certainly nothing I would stake my life on.

All this said, when I do an inventory of my own losses at hotels over decades of travel it comes down to a few bucks in padded charges on bar bills. Never anything stolen from my room. Under $100 on total losses.

But still I will tell you this: I long ago ceased to have any confidence in hotel security. It just is not consistent and often it is no good. I do my own security and I suggest similar to you. Trust yourself and your preparations and your sleep – in whatever bed you find yourself – will indeed be safe and sound.

Road Trips: Driven by the Airlines to Drive



Blame it on the airlines. Maybe the TSA too.  However it stacks up, lately I find myself doing a calculation I never thought I would do: is it just easier to drive?

In a few weeks I’m in Los Angeles and, from my Phoenix base. Google tells me that is 385 miles, maybe 5.5 hours driving.

Of course I could fly – about an hour.  Add in 90 minutes waiting at the airport. Plus 30 minutes to get there on the lightrail. Oh, and at least 30 minutes – more likely 60 – to get from LAX to my destination.  Call it four hours.

Yes, flying is faster (it may even be a little cheaper) but the sheer – monumental – unpleasantness of the flying experience in 2015 decides this.

In a few months I plan to go to Taos, NM – where I have some land and many personal ties – and I’ll drive that too, about 550 miles, 8 hours.  Of course getting to Taos involves flying into Albuquerque, then driving two and one-half hours (add in 30 minutes more, to rent a car).  Put in the flight, the airport time, the commute and that easily adds up to 5.5 hours  and that’s assuming best case scenarios.

But I have my limits. Obviously I have no plan to drive to San Francisco – 11 hours, 750 miles – or Dallas, 1050 miles, 15 hours. That’s out of my driving comfort zone except under duress.

But Las Vegas?  300 miles, 4.5 hours. You bet.

Ditto San Diego or Orange County.

My new rule of thumb: if I can easily and comfortable drive to a destination in one day (8 hours) I am behind the wheel.

If it’s longer – if need to put in a night in a highway motel (much as I like them) – probably I’ll fly.

The deciding factor: comfort.  

Years ago, maybe I calculated around money and if driving was cheaper I’d do it. Now it is simply about comfort, or lack thereof.

I just do not like much of anything about the flying experience these days.  I personally know and like a few TSAs, I have no gripe with them – but I do not like the probing and prying that’s involved in checking into a flight. That’s just the first on a list of gripes.

I fit fine in airplane seats, thank you very much, Dr. Atkins, but I still feel something approaching claustrophobia when I am crammed into a snug seat on a plane stuffed to capacity.

I dislike logging minutes in airports – except where there is a Centurion Lounge – and Phoenix Sky Harbor just is not on my like list.

I could go on but you know the drill because you fly too.

This drift away from flying is not all new.

I detected a shift in my sentiments as far back as five years ago when I found myself booking, first, a train trip from Newark NJ to Baltimore, then another train trip from Newark to Washington DC – even tho flying would have been a little cheaper and a lot faster. But I climbed aboard Amtrak and will again if the opportunity presents itself. It just is a more comfortable trip.

Really, what has happened is that – in their tireless quest for profits – airline executives have squeezed all the fun out of flying, at least for those of us who fly in back.  Upfront is a different world, I know, and bring me clients with generous expense allowances (as I had in bygone times) and I will probably sing the praises of first class, maybe even business class.

But there really is nothing to like about coach.

So it becomes a calculus of inconvenience and discomfort. There is no comfortable way to get from Phoenix to New York except to fly, that is plain.  Really long drives – and I have driven x-country twice in the past decade – are exercises in endurance.  

On shorter trips, however, my new philosophy is anything but flying.  

Now, if enough of us begin to think that way, well, flying would of course become attractive again. But I am not counting on that anytime soon.

Hoteliers: Stop Nickel and Diming Us!

Hoteliers: Stop Nickel and Diming Us!

by Robert McGarvey



The report out of NYU’s Tisch Center for Hospitality and Tourism is a 2×4 across a weary traveler’s forehead: “Following the 2014 record of $2.35 billion, total fees and surcharges collected by U.S. hotels are forecast to increase to another record level of $2.47 billion in 2015.”

I get it. Hoteliers are jealous of the profits wrought by airlines’ “ancillary fees” — totalling many billions in 2014, per research out of IdeaWorks and CarTrawler. Wrote Money Magazine:the largest three U.S. carriers (United, Delta, and the newly combined American and US Airways) racked up $13.7 billion in total ancillary revenue in 2014. Add in Southwest and the total goes to $15.6 billion.”

You know what? The airline fees don’t bother me that much because, mainly, I dodge them. I never check a bag.  I buy no food on board. I have a stack of free GoGo passes. I don’t fly the three carriers that charge for carryon (Spirit, Allegiant, Frontier).  I don’t buy alcoholic beverages in flight.  I don’t buy movies. Call me a skinflint but my credit card pretty much stays in my wallet at 30,000 ft.

I don’t even spend much money at airports which I have said generally ripoff passengers.

Hotels however get my goat, with an ever expanding list of fees. NYU’s Bjorn Hanson itemized a stultifying list of upcharges in his report:Examples of fees and surcharges include: resort or amenity fees, early departure fees, reservation cancellation fees, internet fees, telephone call surcharges, some business center fees (including charges for receiving faxes and sending/receiving overnight packages), room service delivery surcharges, mini-bar restocking fees, charges for in-room safes, automatic gratuities and surcharges, and baggage holding fees for guests leaving luggage with bell staff after checking out of a hotel but before departure, and charges for unattended parking. For groups there have been increased charges for bartenders and other staff at events, special charges for set-up and breakdown of meeting rooms, and administrative fees for master folio billing.”

These hotel fees just are harder to dodge and, sadly, they are spreading.

Even Hilton and Marriott have ended same day, free reservation cancellation.

Here’s a list of obnoxious hotel charges I put together last year.  Egregious things like early check in fees – the room is, obviously, empty, right? $5 to “restock” the mini bar, on top of the $10 you are nicked for the $2 candybar?

Resort fees have irritated me since I first heard of them and, really, $40 a day for pool towels, “free” activities, a newspaper I do not want and, oh, did I mention the invariably wretched hotel WiFi (which is why I usually use a personal hotspot).  

Hanson noted that resorts are getting ever more clever (or greedy?): “Other of the more recently introduced fees and surcharges include charging for unattended surface parking in suburban locations.”

Why would I pay extra to park in a large lot built for that purpose? I understand paying a stiff fee to park on the Upper East Side – but in Scottsdale? 

I am also hearing anecdotal commentary that more hotels are charging guests for taking stuff from the room – everything from the obvious (bathrobes) to the bizarre (toiletries – who charges for them?) Towels, ashtrays, bottle openers are also showing up as add on items on guests’ bills.   Note: if you have stories about these purloined item charges, tell me – I want to document a story.

Here are the problems with the avalanche of fees:  (1) often they are hidden and, if not hidden, they are not exactly made clear.  Word of advice – if resort fees in particular are not plainly disclosed, decline to pay them. Check on a mobile device. (2) We have met the enemy and he is us.  If we don’t protest greedy, grasping, illogical hotel fees, we will see more of them. It’s that simple.
Draw your personal line – and don’t accept one fee beyond it. That is how travelers can – and must – fight back in 2015.


Note: I am also looking for cases where people believe a hotel or convention center blocked their WiFi and disabled their ability to create a personal hotspot. Email