hotel theft

These days more and more guests check out of hotels with illegal booty stashed in their bags.

Most people who travel pick up some memento from their trip, a small souvenir to remind them of the time they had or to display in their home so anyone visiting will know they were lucky enough to have flown off to some exotic locale. Purchasing a small reminder of their travel is on most traveller’s ‘to-do’ list. And with all the cheap bastards in the world, it shouldn’t be surprising that picking up a small reminder of their hotel stay is too. Stealing amenities from ones hotel room is part of the joy of travel for many. Abbie Hoffman would be proud.

Petty theft from hotel rooms is not a new problem nor is it being exacerbated by the dismal state of the world’s economy. In fact, the ritzier the hotel and the more affluent the guest, the more likely it is that something that does not belong to the guest will be packed away in their suitcase. The five star Mandarin Oriental hotel in Hong Kong, not a cheap stay on anyone’s budget, looses 30% of the oriental silk shoe bags it places in its rooms to guest theft every year. And over at the Island Shangri-La, a hotel that has won countless awards for excellence, many well-heeled guests make off with crystals from their in-room chandeliers. A spokeperson for the hotel reports, “The cut-glass pendants have been passed off as diamonds to decorate clothes and for use as costume jewelry.”

And you thought it was only hip hop artist who were into large gaudy pieces of fake bling.

hotel theft

Fluffy bathrobes are one of the sought after and purloined hotel amenities.

Slightly bulkier were the Christian Fischbacher satin sheets that one guest swiped from the Setai in Miami. The guest was staying in a room with two beds and carefully remove the luxury linens from the unused bed, then meticulously remade it so as not to alert housekeeping. Linens are big in Asia too. Hotels have reported that duvets are often spirited out by enterprising guests using a simple technique. The guests arrive with their old duvets packed in their bag and simply exchange these with the inner stuffing of the hotel quilt. But that’s not stealing, it’s recycling.

Then there was the guest who made off with a $300,000 Andy Warhol picture from the W Hotel in Hong Kong. A fast-thinking concierge noticed the man walking out with the piece of art and raised the alarm. Still, the thief got away. Seeing the game was up, he calmly left the picture propped against a lamppost, stepped into a taxi, and sped away.

Guests walking off with valuable art and entire sets of bed linens is not the norm, though for some odd reason guests at the Holiday Inn Silom in Bangkok routinely unscrew and take home their room’s showerheads. In upscale hotels, fluffy bathrobes are the most common amenity to take a hike though François Delahaye, general manager of Paris’s Hôtel Plaza Athénée, says that this is actually a much smaller problem than it was a decade ago, since there is frequently no room in today’s carry-ons for the puffy robes. At the Four Seasons Hotel New York, guests who ‘borrow’ a bath robe for use at home are charged for it. Says Leslie Lefkowitz, director of public relations, “We put a charge for the robe on a card if we can be absolutely sure someone took it, and didn’t just pack it by mistake. Other swank inns take a different route. At the Raffles L’Ermitage Beverly Hills, they not only gift a bathrobe to VIP guests, they monogram it, too.

hotel theft

Artwork and mirrors - practically anything on a hotel room’s walls - are common items for guests to decide would look better in their own homes.

At the pricey Bulgari Resort Bali where rooms run $1,200 a night, not just robes, but any branded item is meant to go back with the guest. General manager Robert Lagerwey says that the hotel has designed those items to be stolen. “The funniest thing is guests who arrive with two suitcases, one of them empty. They always manage to leave with both full to the brim,” says Lagerwey. So there you have it. If you’re paying top dollar, you can raid your room to your heart’s delight.

Regardless of the cost of the room, these days travelers have no qualms about stuffing their luggage with a few souvenirs from their hotel room. And it’s not just the robes, towels, soaps and shampoos. If it’s not bolted down, it will walk. Actually, even if it is bolted down, it will still walk. Hotel managers report seeing flat screen televisions leave the premises, freshly unscrewed from walls by determined guests. Not to mention door hinges, showerheads, the carpeting, luggage stands, and even ceiling fans. So what’s the big deal? It all adds up to $100 millions worth of items every year. In 2008, 560,000 towels went missing from rooms at the Holiday Inn chain of hotels prompting the company to hold a Towel Amnesty Day during which they offered to pay $1 to the charity “Give Kids the World” for every towel-thieving story posted online.

Hotels are not about to take this lying down. Often they can’t because someone stold their bed. More often than not these days, missing items are discretely billed to your credit card. Room compendiums have become a fashionable addition at many hotels, listing every conceivable removable item, and even a few that aren’t, such as the aforementioned ceiling fan. You may not realize it, but you are not longer stealing your booty, you are buying it. But theft continues and some hotels have even resorted to embedding specially crafted RFID tags within their linens, just to help guests avoid “accidentally” stuffing them into their suitcases before heading to the check-out desk.

hotel theft

The Holiday Inn chain of hotels lost 560,000 towels to theft in a single year.

The chips, designed by Miami-based Linen Technology Tracking, are sewn directly into towels, bathrobes and bed linens. When a tagged item leaves a hotel’s premises, the RFID chip trips an alarm that instantly alerts the staff. The system has already paid dividends for one Honolulu hotel, which claims to have saved about $15,000 worth of linens since adopting the system last summer.

The most commonly ripped off items from hotels and resorts are towels, bathrobes, leather items (blotter, telephone pad), alarm clocks, hair dryers, bath pillows, show pillows, cushions, drinking glasses and feather duvets. And, ironically, in America, Gideon Bibles. Batteries, light bulbs and toilet paper frequently go missing too.

While hotels would prefer that guests not clean them out, there are plenty of goodies you can take home guilt-free. The general rule is that if the hotel can reuse it, they don’t want you to take it. Still, there is a on-line debate over whether or not it is stealing when you pack the unused toiletries from your room into your suitcase at check out time. That may have more to do with your moral compass than expectations of the hotel. The truth is that even the most parsimonious hoteliers want you to take their grooming products and paper goods home, the thinking being that every time you use an item that bears the hotel’s name you’ll remember what a wonderful time you had there and plan another visit. And not just to take more stuff.

hotel theft

Docking stations for iPods are the latest trend in hotel room theft.

François Delahaye, general manager of Paris’s Hôtel Plaza Athénée, confirms that most hotels feel that the shampoo, shower gel, toothbrushes and cotton earbuds are good to go. “If you want it stolen, put your logo on it,” Delahaye says, adding that most logo items are considered promotional and it is expected that guests will take them with them. Some hotels even anticipate guests’ illicit impulses: their toiletries read, “This is the cutest soap that you will steal from a hotel. Enjoy it.”

Hotels would be happy if it were just toiletries and promotional items that checked out with their guests, but some travellers just don’t know when to stop. Flower decorations, pictures, mirrors, and show pillows are among the more sedate items to frequently disappear. Alarm clocks, stereos, and iPod dock disappearances are on the rise. And that’s theft no matter how you try to justify it.

Psychological experts scratch their heads over why otherwise moral people steal, but admit that petty theft is common. “For some people there is a rush of naughtiness,” says Terrence Shulman, a therapist and founder of the Shulman Center for Compulsive Stealing, Spending and Hoarding in Franklin, Michigan. “Life is rigged against fairness and everyone breaks the rules — doing right is no longer what it once was.”

hotel theft

Some guests bring an empty suitcase with them to haul away their room’s duvets and bed linens.

Schlman says that many people justify theft by assuming the hotel “can afford it,” that those costs are passed on to the traveler. And they don’t view walking out with a bathrobe or a new set of towels as a criminal act even though some hotels prosecute for larceny. He recounts one incident he was involved with where the guests whose room was adjacent to the parking lot cleaned out the entire room down to bare walls. When the couple were arrested they sited the exceptionally rude desk clerk as justification for their crime.