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How safe is it to stay in a hotel right now? We asked an expert

From the lobby to the guest room, we look at how safe it is to stay in a hotel right now – plus what you can do to protect yourself

Huw Oliver
Written by
Huw Oliver

As lockdowns lift and border restrictions ease around the world, you may well be mulling over finally jetting off for a much-deserved holiday. You’ve decided that, on balance, it’s worth braving the risks of flying. But once you’ve landed, where’s your best bet for a clean, safe and truly comfortable place to stay?

After months of closure, many hotels are reopening for business all over the world. However, with hundreds of guests from all corners of globe potentially staying in the same building at once, you have good reason to be concerned about bedding down for the night in your typical chain establishment.

We looked at the scientific evidence and spoke to an expert – Dr Donald Schaffner, an extension specialist in food science at Rutgers University who researches quantitative microbial risk assessment, handwashing and cross-contamination – to find out everything you need to know about how safe it is to stay in a hotel right now. Plus, if you do go for it, we looked at what you can do to stay safer once you’re there.

How safe are hotels? Your questions answered

What are the risks in the public areas of my hotel?
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What are the risks in the public areas of my hotel?

Unsurprisingly, the greatest risk in hotels stems from direct contact with other humans. By their very nature, hotels are places where people gather: people who are completely unknown to each other and probably from countries all over the world. That makes communal areas, like restaurants, elevators and swimming pools, the most likely place for the virus to transmit.

As Schaffner puts it, ‘any time you’re in a situation where you are around other people, then you are at risk’. And because Covid-19 is known to spread among asymptomatic people, travellers should in fact assume anyone they encounter – staff or fellow guest – is potentially infectious.

As long as you remain physically distanced from others in the lobby for formalities such as check-in, then the risks here should be quite low, says Schaffner. Three much riskier areas, he adds, are bars, restaurants and elevators – where social distancing may not be so strictly enforced (or impossible).

Menus and tablecloths are likely to have been disinfected. But when the food and drinks come, you’ll have to remove your mask, increasing the risk of catching the virus from those around you. That means it may be best to order in room service or some sort of delivery from elsewhere.

Having second thoughts about that dip? When it comes to hotel swimming pools, the water should generally not be cause for concern, as chlorine levels are usually high enough to deactivate the virus. Physical-distancing measures will almost certainly be in place, but swimmers should also be wary of any potentially contaminated surfaces.

What are the risks in my hotel room?

When you get to your room, you don’t need to be concerned about the air quality. Air-conditioning units tend to be self-contained and don’t recirculate air from other rooms (and if they do, this function will probably have been turned off).

In any case, the virus usually doesn’t linger at high enough levels to pose a risk to most people. In fact, studies have shown it settles out of the air completely within three hours.

You may also be wary about certain objects that are shared between visitors and regularly touched: remote controls, door handles, bedside tables, and so on. At busier hotels, there may have been only a few hours between consecutive guests staying in some rooms.

Schaffner, however, points out that the growing scientific consensus is that surface transmission poses a much lesser risk than airborne transmission. A recent editorial from the Lancet on the subject reads: ‘The chance of transmission through inanimate surfaces is very small, and only in instances where an infected person coughs or sneezes on the surface, and someone else touches that surface soon after the cough or sneeze (within one to two hours).’

So in other words: unless the previous guests has only just left the room, it is very unlikely you will contract the virus in this way – especially given most hotel chains have introduced strict new disinfecting regimes.

I don’t want to encourage people to be lax when it comes to sanitation in their own room,’ adds Schaffner. ‘But what I really don’t want is for them to say, “Well, I sanitised this remote ten times, and I’m feeling a little stressed, so I’m going to go and sit in the bar for a couple for hours, right next to another person, and have a few drinks.” That’s the trade-off we don’t want.’


What safety measures are hotels taking?
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What safety measures are hotels taking?

Most major hotel chains have increased their cleaning protocols and are now displaying branded ‘hygiene programmes’ prominently on their websites. Hilton’s ‘CleanStay with Lysol’ initiative, Marriott’s ‘Commitment to Clean’ and Hyatt’s ‘Global Care & Cleanliness Commitment’ all promise to enhance sanitation procedures to help mitigate the spread of the virus.

Hilton has pledged extra disinfecting of frequently touched areas in guest rooms, increased cleaning of communal spaces, and a ‘room seal’ to show it hasn’t been accessed since whenever it was last disinfected. Marriott, meanwhile, says guest-room surfaces will now be treated with hospital-grade disinfectants more regularly, and is offering disinfecting wipes for guests’ use. Hyatt is going further, and removing certain ‘high-touch’ items from rooms.

All chains are introducing social-distancing measures to comply with local laws. For example, Marriott has installed signage in lobbies to remind guests of distancing rules, and has removed and rearranged furniture to create more space. It has installed hand-sanitising stations throughout its properties too.

The firm is also anticipating a future where contact-free service is the norm: in more than 3,000 of its hotels, guests can use their phones to check in and access rooms. Marriott says you can also now use its app to make requests and order room service without any human contact.

What can I do to stay safe in my hotel?

The only way to eliminate risk is to not stay in a hotel – so think about whether your trip is strictly necessary.

External variables that may increase the risk of catching virus include the infection levels where you’re departing from and where you’re heading (see the very helpful Johns Hopkins University tracker). You should be particularly careful if you are older or more vulnerable due to a pre-existing condition. 

If you do end up going on holiday, there are plenty of simple precautions you can take. Even if it is not required by the hotel, you should wear a mask in all public areas. You should abide by social-distancing guidelines, and you should wash your hands regularly.

To feel more comfortable in your room, you could bring your own disinfecting wipes to clean high-touch surfaces like door handles, TV remotes and bedside tables. You could also sterilise any glassware with hot water and soap (although the hotel will almost certainly have seen to this too).

If you’re struggling to decide where to stay, Schaffner recommends looking at hotels’ sanitation and distancing policies, and if these aren’t available online, calling to ask for more information. ‘It’s certainly worth asking, “What’s your procedure? What are the chemicals you’re using? How did you validate this procedure? What are these recommendations based on?”’ he says. ‘And if you get a sort of non-answer, I would consider going to a different chain.’

Worried it might be a bit crowded? You could ask the manager about the hotel’s occupancy rates, or request a room that hasn’t been occupied for at least a day. It may also be worth opting for a ground-floor room, to avoid having to use the elevator, or choosing a hotel with ample grounds and outdoor space, so you have somewhere to relax that isn’t indoors.

And given the greatest risk will always stem from contact with others, it may well be sensible – especially if you’re in a ‘high-risk’ category – to stay in self-contained accommodation like an Airbnb or other private rental apartment.

‘If you are able to physically distance from people, that is having the greatest reduction in risk,’ says Schaffner. ‘I’m not sure that the sanitation procedures of the Airbnb are going to be up to the procedures that could be implemented in a chain. But if there hasn’t been anyone in that Airbnb for a week, I would say the risks are practically nil.’

Find out more about life after lockdown

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