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Hotel safe(ty)

Off somewhere nice this summer? Like a lot of people traveling, Vivaldi security expert Yngve Pettersen brings along a number of valuable items. His laptop for starters. Are hotels and booking sites taking guest security seriously?

For many years, my searches for hotels have been based on the availability of an in-room safe, location, and price.

Unfortunately, I am not able to use this search sequence when booking online. None of the major hotel booking sites I’ve checked let you filter hotels by “in-room safe”. 

So what I do is search for hotels for my preferred location and acceptable price range, and then go through the list to check if room amenities include an entry for “in-room safe”. Only then can I make a choice.

Sadly, it’s often problematic to store your valuables safely while staying at a hotel.

​Let’s imagine a conversation.

Traveler: Time to go to the beach and do a bit of shopping. I don’t need the laptop for that, so I’ll just leave it here on the desk.

Insurer: Hold on, hold on! You can’t do that! Your travel insurance (and, optionally, your extra insurance for the laptop) clearly states that you either have to keep expensive items under your personal supervision at all times or store them safely when they aren’t under your supervision. If they aren’t stored securely, we won’t reimburse you. Basically, you mustn’t leave your laptop easily accessible in the room (or put it in the checked luggage when flying).

Traveler: Ok, I’ll put it in my big suitcase, lock it and leave it in the hotel room. 

Insurer: No, you can’t do that! Thieves can roll the suitcase straight out the door or open your suitcase without having to break the lock. That suitcase of yours may have a TSA approved lock, but those keys can be made by anyone, after some <censored> person posted a photo on the internet.

Traveler: So, where can I store my laptop?

Insurer: You will have to store it in the hotel room’s safe.

Hotel: We are so sorry, but we don’t have any safes in our rooms.

Insurer: What?! Traveler, why didn’t you book a hotel with an in-room safe?

Traveler: I actually tried. According to the booking site, this is the only hotel within a reasonable distance that has an in-room safe.

Hotel: That information is false! Our chain’s own site does not list in-room safes for our hotel.

Traveler: Then you should get the information corrected on the booking site.

Hotel: The booking site won’t let us make any changes, they have posted false information before, and it wasn’t easy to get that fixed. They just put anything they like on those booking pages.

Booking site: We are so sorry your stay did not meet expectations. Here is a gift card you can use for your next booking.

Traveler: OK, no safe in the room. How do we store my laptop securely, then?

Insurer: You will have to store it in one of the hotel front-desk safety deposit boxes. You do have that, right, Hotel?

Hotel: Yes, we do have deposit boxes at the front desk.

Traveler: OK, I’ll be down shortly.

Hotel: But… I don’t think we have any boxes large enough for your laptop. They are mostly intended for jewelry and such.

Traveler: So, how do I store this safely, then?

Hotel: Oh, sorry, it turns out we do have one box that is big enough. It was all the way at the bottom, so we didn’t notice it. Here, let us put your laptop in, lock the box, and here is the key. Have a nice day!

Traveler: Good. Thank you! Insurer, satisfied?

Insurer: Yes.

Traveler: Finally I can get to that beach.

I hope you enjoyed this little story. It clearly shows that if you are going to comply with insurance requirements, you must use locked storage to keep valuable items, including your laptop, when you travel.

Physical security matters 

So what are the dangers of leaving your laptop, camera, or other valuables in the room? After all, the room is locked.

The primary danger is theft. Somebody can break into your room while you are out. But it is not just somebody walking into the hotel you need to be concerned about. The thief can be a dishonest hotel employee. Most of them have keys that let them into any room and might be able to create extra keys so that they cannot be easily identified.

In the case of laptops, there is an additional danger – tampering with the computer or copying the data. This is sometimes called an “evil maid attack” (although the attacker can be of any gender), and is a particular concern in certain countries, especially if you are a high-profile traveler.

If you are concerned about this threat scenario, using an in-room safe or front-desk safe deposit might not provide enough security. It’s better to carry your laptop with you.

​​Satisfaction is never guaranteed

Even if I go for a hotel that lists “in-room safe” as an amenity, there’s no guarantee there will be one. 

Some hotels are listed as having in-room safes but don’t actually have them. The most recent case for me was just this month when I traveled to the USA. 

Then there are the hotels that have an in-room safe, but it’s not big enough for my laptop. The most extreme case was an Anaheim hotel that had safes barely large enough to hold a passport. Most wallets would not fit into it.

Less extreme – but equally irritating – are the ones that are almost big enough. During last year’s vacation, I stayed at four hotels in Switzerland, and only one had a safe big enough for my laptop. Another one was just big enough – if I put the room’s hairdryer under one edge of the laptop, elevating that side, I could close the safe.

In one case, when traveling with my old 12-inch laptop, I had to take off the extra-capacity battery on the laptop to get it inside the safe. In another case, I had to do that to get it into a front-desk safe deposit box.

For some valuable items such as large camera accessories (e.g. a tele zoom lens), neither in-room safes nor front-desk deposit boxes might fit the item. Then you have a problem.

Photo by🇨🇭Claudio Schwarz | @purzlbaum on Unsplash

Booking sites, hello! 

Most hotel booking sites do not offer a search filter for “in-room safes”. This is a bit odd, in my opinion, since these sites have a lot of other room details you can search for. And if they do, they don’t specify the size of the safes. 

Hotels.com seem to have realized there is a problem with in-room safe sizes, so last year they began offering a separate category: “In-room safe, large enough for a laptop”. Unfortunately, they haven’t updated this for all the hotels they offer.

One possible reason for the lack of such filters (as well as why so many hotels don’t have in-room safes) is that many travelers, especially business travelers, don’t make this room feature a priority. They may just not be thinking about it. Or maybe they are assuming that the insurance or their employer will cover any loss?

That could become an expensive assumption.

Data is valuable 

All this is taking into consideration just the economic value of the laptop. What about the data that is stored in the laptop? That might be the most expensive part of losing the laptop, especially if the data is somehow recovered by the thief. And if the thieves are smart, they will download the data, leave the laptop, and you will be none the wiser… until much later.

It’s high time hotels and booking sites start taking guest security seriously, beyond just securing the doors and elevators. 

Add large in-room safes to all rooms or provide sizeable safe deposit boxes for large valuable items. 

And allow guests to search for hotels with such security items in the same way they can search for a bathtub or pet-friendliness. 

Main photo by Lauren Mancke on Unsplash.

* * *

Do you want to share your perspective on privacy and security on the Vivaldi blog? This summer, we’re opening the blog to guest bloggers eager to talk about the subject. Here’s how to be a guest blogger for Vivaldi this summer.

 

Yngve Pettersen
Written by Yngve Pettersen

Developer and Security Expert at Vivaldi.


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