How Women Can Avoid Holiday Hotel Crime

What with hackers compromising door locks and databases and -- as happened to me last week -- wall safes coming off their hinges, how can you expect to relax in your hotel room and feel safe?
12/28/2012 07:11 am ET Updated Feb 27, 2013

Safety shouldn't be the first thing we think about when getting ready for the holidays -- but these days we often can't avoid it.

What with hackers compromising door locks and databases and -- as happened to me last week -- wall safes coming off their hinges, how can you expect to relax in your hotel room and feel safe?

Safety is, after all, part of what we pay for in a room and as women who travel, we unfortunately have to be just that much more careful.

Most of us already know the basics, but hotel room security is a bit like a flight safety briefing: you've heard it 100 times and you don't pay much attention. You'll assume everything is fine in your hotel and ignore the most basic advice -- which you'd never ignore at home. You're on holiday, after all, so what could go wrong?

Actually, quite a bit.

Safety is relative, of course. According to Cornell University's Center for Hospitality Research, security is much tighter in a new or luxury hotel than in a roadside motel or guesthouse, so you'll have to adjust your precautions to your surroundings. Unfortunately, holiday time is when most thieves emerge because there are more goodies to steal.

Your plan to keep your accommodations safe should start even before you check in. Ask the hotel a few basic questions. Is it located in a well-lit part of town? Does it have security cameras or a 24-hour front desk? Can you dial directly from the room without going through a hotel operator? What floor is your room on? Between three and six is the acceptable range: three is high enough to prevent breakins from the street, and six is the limit for most fire-engine ladders.

Once you're assigned a room number, try to shield it from prying eyes, both for your own safety and to make sure no one charges anything to your bill. And by the way, don't let the desk clerk read your room number out loud; crowded lobbies can be full of eager ears just waiting for an opportunity. If you have any concerns at all, ask for an escort to your room. Once inside, check every corner to make sure the room is empty, including closets and behind the shower curtain.

The basic safety precaution is always the same and you've heard it often: never open the door if you don't know the person behind it. Just because someone says they work for the hotel doesn't make it true: call the desk and check. Concerned about Peeping Toms? Stick a piece of tape or a Band-aid over the peephole on your door.

To make sure no one gets in, always keep your door locked, both the bolt and the key lock. If there's a real key -- the kind you turn as opposed to the card you swipe -- don't leave it in the keyhole. A thief can jiggle the key and slip it under the door while you're asleep. Instead, keep it in your shoe, along with a flashlight. No thief will reach it there, and the flashlight will come in handy if there's a fire.

A good way to keep unwanted visitors out of your room is to use a universal door lock. You can also place a wedge under the door, either the electronic kind that howls when someone opens it or a simple rubber doorstop if you prefer the low-tech approach.

If you're on a low floor with open or poorly-shutting windows, a portable motion alarm is a good idea. You can hang it near the window or on the door handle. If someone tries to enter your room, a loud siren should send them running.

What about your belongings?

Once you leave your room, try to make people think it's still occupied. Either put the Do Not Disturb sign on the door (but don't forget to tell the housekeeper what you're up to) or leave the radio and light on. A potential thief will probably move on to another, clearly empty room instead.

Conventional wisdom tells you to store valuables in the room safe. I tend not to because I've seen how easily a safe can be opened by someone with the right equipment. I try to leave most valuables at home. Instead of a laptop, I often carry an iPad so I can keep it with me during the day. I take my passport and credit cards when I go out, either in a money belt or in a slashproof bag. Bottom line, I travel as light as possible.

If you have no choice and need your laptop, use an alarm or a security cable to secure it to a radiator or something equally solid.

Do these precautions seem excessive? Not at holiday time. You're off to have fun, remember? And fun requires peace of mind.

'Tis the season to be jolly, after all, not the season to be worried.