12 Red Flags You’re About to Stay at a Bad Hotel
No hotel is perfect, but unfortunately, some are so imperfect that staying there can turn your dream vacation into a nightmare. Travel experts share the signs that a hotel isn’t all it's cracked up to be.
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Don’t book that room!
Hotels had a rough go of it in 2020: Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the travel and hospitality industries struggled to stay afloat. Now that some travel has resumed, many hotels are pledging to adhere to cleaning and safety guidelines set forth by the CDC and industry groups like the American Hotel & Lodging Association. But even so, not all hotels are compliant, so doing your research before you go is more crucial now than ever. The CDC does say the safest thing is still not to travel at the moment, but if you really want to get away or need to travel out of necessity, make sure you know these red flags that you’re about to stay at a bad hotel before booking. You might also want to look into the 12 cleanest hotels, according to travel agents.
The photos are doctored
The first test a hotel must pass in the age of COVID is a visual inspection online. Sometimes, you may not realize a hotel is iffy until you arrive—but you certainly want to avoid that happening if you can. First, give the photos on the hotel’s site a good look and compare them with photos from real guests on travel review sites. “Hotels with a good reputation and nothing to hide will ensure that the quality of their photos is professional, accurate, and not overly edited,” says Janet Semenova, cofounder of Boutique Travel Advisors. “Hotels whose photos are misleading or heavily photoshopped generally have something to hide.” For instance, look for gradient lines that indicate that colors were touched up. Another technique you might see is the use of a fish-eye lens. “If their pictures are all taken with a fish-eye lens, they may be trying to make small rooms appear larger,” cautions travel expert Grainne Kelly, a former travel agent and the founder of BubbleBum car travel innovations. While the size of the room isn’t the most important thing right now, if the hotel is misrepresenting some things, it could be concealing others as well.
And it’s not just what you do see—it’s the photos that are not there, too. If the website only shows photos of the exterior of the hotel, there’s almost definitely a reason that there are none of the inside. Even leaving out photos of a significant aspect of the rooms—think the bathrooms or the beds—can be a red flag. Also, make sure the hotel website clearly states its COVID safety protocols. FYI, these hotels have handled COVID-19 the best.
The website and Google disagree
Once you’ve confirmed that the photos of the hotel are to your liking, head over to Google Earth for one last check. You want to make sure the hotel is transparent in all matters and that it’s in a safe and clean area. So, if the “Street View” of the hotel’s address looks nothing like the pictures on the site, there’s a problem. “Google Earth will give you a very good idea of where the hotel is located and what is around it,” says Patricia Hajifotiou, owner of the touring company The Olive Odysseys and author of Travel Like You Mean It. “Make sure your hotel is really in the location it says it is!” For example, if you need to be downtown and the website says the hotel is in a central location, you’ll want to make sure you’re close enough to avoid having to take a (potentially COVID-risky) taxi ride.
RELATED: 22 Tips for a Better Hotel Stay
All of the good reviews are old
Next, you’ll want to know what’s been happening at a hotel since the pandemic, so pre-2020 reviews aren’t necessarily going to tell you much. And this goes for the positive reviews in addition to the negative ones—even the most glowing reviews can’t be taken at face value. “The date of a review is just as important as the review itself,” notes Cassandra Brooklyn, founder of the travel planning and group tour company Escaping NY. “A hotel may have stellar reviews, but if they’re all over six months old, something dramatic may have changed since then.” You know, like a global pandemic.
And the opposite goes for bad reviews—watch for a sudden surge of recent ones. “If there was an issue five years ago and recent reviews are OK, then there is nothing to worry about,” says Jurga Rubinovaite, a travel blogger at Full Suitcase. “However, if you find several people complaining about the same problem over the last few months, then it’s definitely a red flag that indicates that the hotel doesn’t care to improve its customer experience.” Find out which hotel chains have the worst reputations in the industry.
The site fires back at negative reviews
A couple of negative reviews need not completely turn you off of a hotel, particularly if the guests’ complaints seem overly picky or are regarding things you don’t care about (like the view). Plus, you likely won’t see a few things in hotels anymore for COVID-safety reasons, and not all guests will be thrilled about that. “There will always be complaints or misunderstandings so that in itself isn’t a reason to think that the hotel is necessarily bad,” Rubinovaite says. What is a red flag, though, is an immature reaction to a negative review. “Negative reviews can and will happen even at the most professional and reputable hotels around the world,” Semenova says. “It is the way in which management handles these reviews, both online and off-line, that speaks to their integrity.”
For instance, Rubinovaite says you’ll want to take note “if they don’t show concern about what happened or if their responses are rude.” Instead, they will ideally respond by offering a sincere apology and a solution to the problem—this is a strong reflection of how they will treat customers in person, according to Semenova. “Management that responds negatively to their negative reviews generally provides poor customer service to all their clients,” she tells Reader’s Digest. With COVID at the top of guests’ minds today, hotel managers should take every opportunity to address and remedy concerns, particularly those related to safety protocols or cleanliness.
The price just doesn’t seem to fit
With the travel industry now hungry for business, there are plenty of ways to score great deals on hotels. But there’s a difference between using a legitimate technique to get a markdown and an up-front price that just seems…off. Be especially wary if your hotel is not part of a trustworthy chain with well-established COVID-19 protocols, as it might be in such dire straits that it could be cutting costs elsewhere, too. “If a price looks too good to be true, it probably is,” warns Leona Bowman, a luxury travel blogger at Wandermust Family. “If you are getting a five-star hotel at a two-star hotel price, it is worth doing some more investigating.” Prior to COVID, such unbelievable deals could have been because of renovations, local building works, or maybe even bed bugs. But now you’ll want to make sure it’s not because of something like a local COVID outbreak, as well.
Brooklyn also recommends taking a quick look at the price of other, similar hotels to see if the charge seems reasonable. “If the hotel is much cheaper than surrounding hotels with similar amenities, there’s probably a reason that the hotel can’t charge higher…[such as] terrible service,” she tells Reader’s Digest. These days, “terrible service” could mean neglectful housekeeping and a risk to your health. Check out these much more reliable tips for saving money on hotel rooms.
There have been bed bug sightings
Speaking of bed bugs, even in the age of COVID, you will still want to avoid these little critters. If you weren’t aware that there was a “Bed Bug Report” available online, now you are—and you should never travel without consulting it again. On BedbugReports.com, you can type in the name of your hotel and find its specific location to see if any guests reported bed bugs while staying there. If there have been sightings, especially in the past couple of years, you’ll definitely want to look elsewhere. By the way, here’s why you should think twice before sitting in a hotel chair—in any hotel.
Safety measures are lax
Even if your hotel meets all of your preliminary standards, it’s still unfortunately not a guarantee that it’ll be the perfect place to stay: Some other warning signs are only apparent once you’ve walked through the door. While most hotels do take safety seriously now, the sad truth is that there are always bad eggs. Hotels should have protocols in place for mask wearing, social distancing, and handwashing among employees. And keep an eye on the reception desk: The first sign of lax COVID protocols is maskless employees.
Plus, just as in pre-pandemic times, you’ll want to make sure “safety” includes your personal safety: Things like broken or missing security latches on guest room doors is another red flag. Also, “unattended after-hours reception areas with main doors unlocked”—even if it’s located in a safer-seeming area—are a big red flag, says Sheryl Hill, executive director of the travel safety organization Depart Smart.
The carpets aren’t clean
Of course, anything that’s conspicuously unclean is cause for concern today. Check the beds and the bathrooms for any ickiness, and make sure everything looks and smells clean, too. Even if nothing seems amiss, you should probably give all hard surfaces a wipe-down. But you might not pay too much attention to what’s beneath your feet, although it could offer a clue as to the hotel’s general attitude toward cleaning. Hill cautions that “nasty carpets usually mean nasty sheets and towels.” She reminds Reader’s Digest, though, that the age of the carpets doesn’t have anything to do with this. An older carpet can still be clean if it’s well maintained. You should also be on the lookout for small patches of carpet that don’t quite match the whole thing. That’s a sign that staff hastily removed and switched out a stained or damaged patch, rather than replacing the whole carpet or doing a more thorough cleaning. Beware of the other dirtiest spots in hotel rooms, too.
The signs aren’t in good condition
Julie McCool, a travel blogger in Fairfax, Virginia, suggests that travelers pay attention to the literal signs: Are they in good condition, or are they in disrepair? This may seem like a trivial matter in the midst of COVID, but it could signal that a hotel isn’t up to snuff overall. “If the hotel won’t maintain the first branding you see, they may be ignoring maintenance issues throughout the property,” she tells Reader’s Digest.
McCool also warns to keep an eye out for hastily made or less-than-presentable signs hung around the property. This also goes for COVID-19 protocol signage, which should be well made and clearly visible to ensure the hotel has made a commitment to preventing the spread of the virus. The CDC recommends hotels provide easy-to-understand signage to guests and employees on social distancing, hand hygiene, mask usage, and cough and sneeze etiquette. Another sign they’re taking things seriously? The notices should be accessible for people with disabilities and include reminders for non-English speakers as well. You should also be aware of the 14 gross things hotels are still doing to save money.
The guests aren’t wearing masks
Hotel employees are often in a tough spot when it comes to guests who flout COVID-related rules. The staff may want to enforce safety guidelines, but they also want to please their guests and retain their business in these difficult times. The stakes are too high right now, though, so along with posting clear signage about the rules, employees should require guests to comply with them. Good hotels may even provide free masks to “assist” guests who aren’t already wearing their own, as well as offer hand sanitizer throughout the property and disinfecting wipes in rooms. But if there are a lot of maskless people congregating in public spaces such as the lobby and the hotel staff is acting like there’s no pandemic going on, that’s a red flag that your hotel just doesn’t care. And that could be a major health risk to you.
You experience poor service early on
Obviously, bad service at a hotel is what all of these other tips are trying to save you from, but if you catch it early, you can take action immediately and save yourself a lot of grief. Pay attention to how the staff treats you right when you walk in; nine times out of ten, that’ll be an excellent indicator for the rest of your stay. “It is very important that the front-of-house staff be present, helpful, and friendly,” says Kelly. (These days, they should also be wearing masks.) This is important whether you’re staying at a tiny, unassuming motel or a palatial resort. “If there is nobody to greet you, [they] are on their phones, ignoring you, or the front desk staff is nowhere to be found, these are all signs of an inattentive staff that may not be able to meet your needs during your stay,” Kelly adds. Even with contactless or mobile check-in for COVID safety, someone should be at the front desk just in case you need anything when you arrive. Whether you’re on vacation or close to home, make sure you also know the signs you’re about to eat at a bad restaurant.
No one is around to help
You might not be able to rely on the old standards of judging good service, such as valets offering to help with luggage (many hotels have suspended this service for COVID safety reasons). You also might have less interaction with staff overall, as the hotel should offer contactless room service and housekeeping shouldn’t enter your room during your stay. But in case you need something, someone should be ready and willing to assist you. If not, it may be because they’re “understaffed, have disciplinary issues, or don’t pay or train their staff well,” Kelly says. Or it may simply be rudeness. Either way, it’s not great news for hotel guests, especially since an untrained or undisciplined staff is more likely to put your health at risk. Next, make sure you’re not contributing to the problem: Find out the 18 things you probably shouldn’t be doing in a hotel room.
- Emerging Infectious Diseases: “Detection of Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome Coronavirus 2 RNA on Surfaces in Quarantine Rooms”
- USA Today: “‘No way this room was sanitized’: Despite assurances, hotels get mixed reviews on COVID-19 cleanliness, masks”
- University of Minnesota: “Inspecting Your Hotel Room for Bed Bugs”
- Janet Semenova, cofounder of Boutique Travel Advisors
- Grainne Kelly, travel expert, former travel agent, CPST, and founder of BubbleBum car travel innovations
- Patricia Hajifotiou, owner of The Olive Odysseys and author of Travel Like You Mean It
- Cassandra Brooklyn, founder of EscapingNY
- Jurga Rubinovaite, travel blogger and founder of Full Suitcase
- Leona Bowman, luxury travel blogger at Wandermust Family
- Sheryl Hill, executive director of Depart Smart
- Julie McCool, travel blogger in Fairfax, Virginia