Do Not Disturb



July 13, 2006 -- In just the past week, I have been E-mailed for advice on a Venice hotel; asked the name of the company that makes the best sheets and where to buy them; and gotten a request for the name of the manager of a hotel in Las Vegas. And there was the urgent query from a reader who wanted information on hotel card keys and wondered if they really contained a lot of personal information about each guest.

The last question, I think, was a reaction to a recent story on hotel card keys. The article claimed that, in addition to your room number, hotel card keys carry other information, too. Well, in truth, they do. Besides your room number, hotel card keys generally have your name and the date you are checking out. PERIOD.

No matter what you may hear or read, plastic hotel card keys do NOT have your social security number, your credit card number, your birth date, how much you drank in the bar, the name of the companion with you at 2 a.m., whether you eat fish on Friday or anything else. The cards are simply encoded with your name, room number and your check-out date. Anything else you think might be on them isn't.

As frustrating as those horrible plastic things are--They never seem to open your room door when you are in a desperate hurry to relieve yourself, do they?--they are probably as safe an invention, for a key, as you'll ever find. They also protect you in ways that traditional metal keys cannot.

Using a card-key system, for example, hotels can keep an electronic record of when a staff member enters your room. The systems can record the time of entry and who it was: maid, engineer, etc. It also records when you enter your room. That's pretty neat: It stops petty theft, it allows management to know if your room has been cleaned and it records a host of other useful details.

But however safe and useful card keys may be, I just don't like those cheap bits of plastic. Give me an old-fashioned key any time. You know the ones I mean: The big brass ones with chains and balls on them to stop you from stealing them, the ones that are so heavy that you have to leave them at the front desk when you leave the hotel.

I have a collection of them somewhere, more than a hundred, harvested from hostelries all over the world. Some are so large that I almost had to pay for overweight luggage on my way home. Give me a real key like that any day.

Except for a few old-fashioned European hotels, of course, the days of the ball-and-chain keys are gone. But the future doesn't necessarily belong to those plastic card keys, either.

There is a company that makes old-fashioned keys for old-fashioned, but modern-thinking, hoteliers. It's called a Marlok key. It doesn't have a ball and chain, but it is a beautiful key nevertheless. It has heft and substance and weight, so you can find it in your pocket. And while you'd never guess it, the Marlok key is an electronic wizard on a par with the flimsy, plastic cards. It, too, keeps a record of your name, room number and date of check-out (And like those horrid plastic cards, if you linger past the check-out time, the Marlok key will automatically lock you out of your room and you'll have to make a trip to the front desk.) You'll soon be able to use a Marlok key to pay you bar bill and spa account, thus doing away with signing a paper chit.

I can honestly tell you that if Marriott and the like-minded mass-market chains started using Marlok keys and got rid of those plastic things, I'd start being a little nicer to them.

So, my friends, since we have now dispensed of the urban legend about hotel card keys, let me make one more suggestion: If you are still paranoid about those horrid pieces of plastic, just take them with you whenever you leave a hotel. The hotel doesn't care and you can keep the plastic as a souvenir. They'll never make a cool collection like my ball-and-chain keys from days of yore, but, needless to say, nothing, even collectibles, is what it was.

A note to readers: For the next several weeks, I'll be sailing in Maine, then heading through Quebec and Ontario. But I won't stop writing. Next up: House detectives and security cameras. That should certainly get your attention.

This column originally appeared at

Copyright 1993-2006 by Michael Matthews. All rights reserved.