On Her Own

Travel safety: hotel and vacation rental edition

We talk about travel a lot because it’s fun and it’s scary. We know that transiting between places is where dangers lie, and the strategies that can keep us safe on long journeys also apply to the shorter ones we take from day to day. We haven’t talked as much at OHO about the part where we stay somewhere new at the other end of our trip, our home away from home in the form of a hotel room or vacation rental. It’s easy to let down our guard in these places because they’re where we go to rest and recuperate from the excitement of being on the road and the activities we’re enjoying at our destinations. Much like our actual homes aren’t always a place of safety, though, our temporary homes might not be as secure as we’d like. Below are some of the things we should keep in mind as we check in, drop our bags, and put our feet up. Can you think of more?

Where are you staying? Travel costs and budgets being what they are, it’s tempting to choose the cheapest option. That can land you in high crime neighborhoods, though, or in the sorts of roadside motels that attract unsavory sorts. Becoming a victim is not a given in those places, but it’s certainly more likely than in others. Setting yourself up for potential trouble to save some money might work out in your favor, but the odds are against you and dealing with the cops and legal system in the aftermath – even if you’re only a witness – might eat up all your savings. You might also consider saving cash by sharing a room with someone you don’t know well, or choose a short-term rental with shared common areas. Most people in the world are nice, especially if you have even a superficial connection like a shared interest or an event you’re both going to, but there are exceptions and it’s difficult to predict who they might be. Even if the people you are directly staying with aren’t an overt threat, they may cause you harm or damage inadvertently or sloppily, or bring one in by inviting or allowing others into your space, or by being targeted themselves.

Who has access to the space where you are staying? Whether you are in a corporate-owned hotel or a privately-owned room, apartment, or house, someone besides you has the keys even if you’re traveling solo. At home, you can change the locks, but when you travel, you are by definition staying in someone else’s place where you can’t do that. At the very least, the property owners or managers will be able to come in, and there may be folks authorized to enter to clean or perform maintenance. Normally, they will respect the privacy and peace you paid for, but they might not always – and their keys could get into the hands of someone who is less motivated to make your stay a happy one. When they enter, they might also leave the door propped open or unlocked behind them during or after their time inside, allowing random other folks to also come in if they like. None of that is counting visitors, invited, mistaken, or otherwise. Perhaps they’re some new acquaintance you’ve just met, an angry ex-partner looking for a past tenant, or a delivery person bringing the dinner you’re desperately hungry for, or just a (gender neutral) dude trying random doors of a place where they know out-of-towners are gathered. Simply thinking about who might be in and out will put your mind in the right space to remember you aren’t in your personal fortress.

How will you keep those people out? Locking doors and windows is only part of the equation when someone else can open them without force. You may need to consider portable door locks or mechanically slowing a door from opening with a wedge or chair when you’re in. Travel alarms can also be an option; they won’t stop a person from entering, but you will be alerted if they do. Another avenue is reducing the number of people who are allowed or able to get in. In the post-pandemic world, housekeeping is rare in hotels and while a clean room with fluffed pillows and fresh towels is certainly appreciated, knowing that staff will stay out means you can be more suspicious of what sounds like someone at your door, and you can be assured that fewer folks are likely to see what you leave in your room. In vacation rentals, you might check in advance that the unit will use keypad access with codes that are regularly changed so a former guest’s codes won’t work. Similarly, for hotel rooms, keep control of your key cards and keep private about where you’re staying, including what specific room is yours. A combination of hard, physical security and soft, permission- and knowledge-based security can cover many potential entries, both innocent and not.

What about keeping your stuff safe, because people might come in anyway? Reducing how much you leave in your temporary home is an easy solution: don’t bring valuables and keep them with you as much as possible. That’s not always practical, though. You might have to bring along expensive electronics, firearms, or other equipment because they’re the purpose of your trip, then have to go somewhere where they aren’t appropriate or welcome. Even if you have a car available, many are far easier to break into than any dwelling, especially if parked in areas that aren’t highly-trafficked. When leaving those items in your room, keeping them stashed is a good first step. Instead of leaving your laptop or tablet on the desk, put them away and out of plain sight. Locking them up is even better, but be careful with hotel room safes: they may be targeted, and easy to get into for anyone who knows the master or backup code (many of which are available online). Bringing your own lockable bag is an option, but make sure it is secured in some way so that it can’t just be picked up to be opened later. A cable can be locked around a heavy or immovable object to slow down a casual thief, and perhaps paired with a hard-sided or slash-resistant bag.

When you are in your room, physical harms aren’t the only ones that should concern you. There are increasing reports of hidden cameras particularly in vacation rentals. Even if the prevalence of stories is a reflection of media hysteria, that doesn’t mean it doesn’t happen. Taking a few minutes to protect yourself from secret surveillance won’t cost you a lot of time and effort. Before you book your travel, think about staying in a hotel where these types of things are more rare, or check reviews of the rental you’re interested in along with other rentals from the same host. Spend an hour now looking up various types of hidden cameras so that you can recognize the types of objects they may be disguised as. When you arrive, look around critically for what might be out of place or unusual, and consider if they might be spying devices. Turning off all of the lights might reveal odd LEDs, while shining a flashlight might help you spot reflections from lenses. You can also download apps to your phone that will tell you the number, and sometimes the type, of devices connected to the wireless network you’re using or other ones nearby. If you find any, you can find a new place to stay or go with the simple expedient of covering, turning, or moving the devices (although you’ll have to be confident you found them all).

Hi, I'm Annette.

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