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 Do Not Disturb

michael ARE YOU SAFE IN YOUR
HOTEL ROOM? YES, BUT...


BY MICHAEL MATTHEWS

December 8, 2005 -- Have you ever been truly frightened? I mean, more than just scared. I mean, wondering whether you are about to die? Have you ever been so frightened that you knew that if you moved or shouted for help you would never have another drink or laugh or cry again? Have you ever been rigid with fear?

I have. The clock on the bedside table read 2:38 a.m. and there was somebody in my hotel room.

I'd only been in bed a short time after placing my wallet and money on the desk and my watch by my bed. But I had failed to put the security bar across the door--you know, that little piece of metal above the door handle.

I heard the bedroom door click open. I heard someone walk slowly across the room, stopping at the end of my bed (probably to ascertain whether I was asleep) before moving to pick up my wallet, open it and put it down. I heard him pick up my money and then slowly move across the room towards me. I felt him standing over me. My eyes were tightly closed, feigning sleep. I heard the scrape of the metal of the wristband of my watch as he picked it up. I heard him move back across the room and the click of the door closing behind him.

But had he really left the room? Or was he just waiting for me to make a move for the telephone or call for help before killing me? I waited. Eventually, I opened my eyes and looked at the bedside clock. It was 2:41 a.m. Less than three minutes had passed and it seemed like three hours.

I sat up and called the operator. Security came and did an immediate search. I had lost about $120 in cash and a valuable watch, but I was alive.

The thief was never caught. It turned out that he had robbed seven rooms that night. I was the only one who had awakened. He'd entered the rooms using a duplicate passkey. Since then, I have never forgotten to put the little security bar across the door.

In recent months, readers have asked me whether I think hotel rooms are safe. Frankly, I think they are very, very safe. Yet nothing is guaranteed. Nothing is a sure thing. Nothing is foolproof. But, generally speaking, I believe hotel rooms are safe.

The new electronic room locks--the best are the Marlock ones that use real metal keys, not a plastic card--record exactly what time you entered and left your accommodations. They also record exactly who else entered your room and at what time. They record when and whether it was a maid, a supervisor, a maintenance man, a bellman or management that entered your room in your absence. Most room locks are now centrally wired and do not have separate batteries that are prone to running down, making the locks useless. And contrary to urban myth, the plastic cards and keys almost never contain any information other than the room number. They do not even have your name.

So, do these lock systems make you safe? Nobody can be 100 percent safe. During the London blitz there was a saying: "If the bomb has your name on it, it will get you." You could make the same comment about hotels, I suppose…

But, certainly, if you close and double-lock your door, put the little security bar across it and ensure that your balcony window and door are similarly locked, you should rest peacefully. It is also worth leaving the bathroom light on, not only to guide you to relief in the middle of the night, but also as a deterrent. A thief is less likely to enter a room with a light on.

What about hotel safes, both the ones in the room and the ones behind the front desk? Are the safes safe? Well, simply put: Don't keep the crown jewels in either.

I personally hate in-room safes because they are not truly safe and can be easily opened by those who know how. If you use the main safe behind the front desk, then just use it for your passport. But even those aren't really safe.

One of the "best" hotel robberies I know was at the old Mayfair Regent in New York. A gang of four robbers came in during the early hours of the morning, tied up the lone bellman, the front desk clerk and the night cook. They donned their uniforms and then proceeded to bore open every safe. One of the robbers acted as doorman and lookout and he was even tipped by a couple of guests as he opened the doors and escorted them to the elevators. They got away with millions and then had the nerve to pull the same robbery at two other New York hotels, the Pierre and the Carlyle. I suspect that they are now living in luxury on the Costa del Sol.

Unfortunately, you shouldn't leave valuables in your room, either. That advice goes double for your briefcase. A smart robber who gets into your room can just pick it up and walk out with it. Worse still, they can open it and rifle its contents. That happened to me years ago at the Dorchester in London. The thief helped himself to $1,000 in cash and more in traveler's checks while I was having breakfast in the dining room. It wasn't until mid-morning, when I opened my briefcase far from the hotel, that I realized I had been robbed.

By the way: You know those three or four little numbers that are on the combination locks of your briefcase? I bet I could open them. All I need to know is your birthday, your street address or other simple numbers, all of which you probably entered on the registration card when you checked in. My briefcase's combination lock was my birth date.

So what can you do to increase your safety? Well, a friend of mine travels with a couple of those rubber door wedgies, but, for myself, I just put the little security bar across the door and don't leave any valuables in the room when I am not there. And I stay away from hotels that still have those old-fashioned box-like locks on the door.

I hate to admit it, but as I said, if the bomb has your name on it, frankly, there is nothing you can do.

This column originally appeared at joesentme.com.

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