archivelogo
 Do Not Disturb

michael BE SAFE.
GO LOCAL.


BY MICHAEL MATTHEWS

November 10, 2005 -- I have been fortunate. I have traveled the world for more than 40 years and have never had a problem. What prompts this column is the news of the terrible bombings in Amman, Jordan. The triple terrorist attacks on Wednesday were all aimed at hotels branded with U.S.-sounding names.

The Amman bombings, at a Hyatt, a Radisson and a Days Inn, are by no means the first time that U.S. hotels, albeit owned and staffed by locals, have been the site of a terrorist attack. In 2004, the Taba Hilton in Egypt was bombed. In 2003, the JW Marriott in Jakarta, Indonesia, was bombed. The Karachi Sheraton in Pakistan was bombed in 2002.

This raises a chilling question: Are guests, regardless of their nationality, safe in a U.S.-branded hotel overseas?

The answer is not particularly reassuring. Unless you are a fortune teller, of course, there is no way that you can ensure your sleep and your safety will not be disturbed regardless of the name on the door of your hotel. For now, however, I'd avoid the big U.S. hotel brand names if I were traveling in an area of the world where U.S. policies are not popular.

Having said that, I always wonder why Americans in particular want to stay in a branded hotel overseas. Back in the 1960s, with Hiltons and InterContinentals opening everywhere and bringing air-conditioning and safe water to guests, it was a smart move. But now, modern comforts are easy to find. And remember: Terrorists don't know what you and I know about the ownership of hotels.

Terrorists, for example, do not know (and probably do not care) that Hilton hotels outside the United States are run by Hilton International. Hilton International is a British company, not an American firm. And terrorists don't know that many apparently all-American hotel names are no longer in U.S. hands. A British firm owns the InterContinental and Holiday Inn brands, for example. Radisson SAS, which operates the Amman property bombed on Wednesday, is owned by a Scandinavian company. Motel 6 belongs to Accor, a French hotel group. Hyatt is an American company, but the Grand Hyatt in Amman is not owned by Hyatt. The Days Inn brand is owned by a U.S. franchising company called Cendant. But Cendant doesn't own the Days Inn hotel in Amman--or any hotel anywhere in the world.

But terrorists only see big, bad Americans behind every famous hotel brand name. So why increase your risk when you now have a myriad of choices of the "unbranded" variety in virtually every city in the world? Many of these properties are at the four- and five-star level and are usually much more interesting than the concrete box with an American brand name emblazoned on its roof. Believe me, I'll take the Landmark in London over the Hilton. I'll take the Adlon in Berlin over the InterContinental. I'll always choose the Hassler in Rome over the Sheraton or the Marriott. I could go on, but you get my drift.

So what about security? Are the unbranded places "safe"? Of course they are--if you choose wisely and use your common sense. Having avoided an international brand and decided to go local, make sure you pick a hotel with a "name" in a "safe," central location. Choose one with all the trappings because that will ensure a certain level of security, too. Travel magazines such as Conde Nast Traveler and Travel & Leisure publish lists of the best hotels. Many are local and not part of any U.S.-sounding chain. Some are truly great finds, many are excellent bargains--and, in the current climate, they seem far less likely to be bombed than hotels affiliated with U.S. chains.

Next, ask for accommodations on a floor that's about half way up the building. Not so low as you'd be in the line of fire of any explosion, but not so high that you'll be trapped. Ask for a room near the fire stairs. Be sure that the hotel has a sprinkler system. A friend of mine recently complained that all of his clothes were ruined when the sprinkler system went off unexpectedly. So what if it saves your life?

And I know that less than one percent of travelers ever do it, but it is wise to let your local embassy know where you are staying. At least your government will know where to find you if something does go wrong. (You can find a good list of embassies and consulates at EmbassyWorld.com.)

So I say, "Go local!" The barman may not know how to make a particularly good martini, but you'll be safer and have much more to talk about around the watercooler when you get home. Most of all, you'll be proud of yourself. And you may like the local places so much that you'll tear up that frequent-guest program card.

This column originally appeared at joesentme.com.

Copyright 1993-2005 by Michael Matthews. All rights reserved.