Travel footnotes


Fell sick on your last trip? Your hotel room may be to blame.

I once had a boyfriend whose family members communicated with each other via scribbled notes, left where the intended recipient could not fail to see them. The house was a treasure trove of missives, but the one that really gave me pause was left by his mother on his father’s reading chair: “I see you are no longer using your cream. Congratulations on beating your fungus.” Yikes.

It turned out that his father had picked up a case of athlete’s foot in the hotel on a business trip to Seoul. Athlete's foot is a common fungal infection that easily spreads in public places such as communal showers.

I was reminded of the incident when in January this year, a Fox network news clip was posted on video sharing website YouTube featuring the antics of chambermaids in various hotel rooms. The one that got people talking showed how maids cleaned the drinking glasses in US hotel rooms. The clip showed chambermaids variously using a blue fluid labelled "Do Not Drink" to clean the glasses; wiping them down with used guest towels after rinsing them sans detergent in the bathroom sink; and, using the same rubber-gloved hands to clean the glasses as the toilet in the ensuite bathroom.

These videos clips opened the floodgates – people came forward with their own hotel hygiene horror stories. One woman related how she marked the edge of the bedsheet with her lipstick when she first checked in. After the maid had cleaned her room, she checked the sheet and found that it had not been changed. She had been expected to sleep on someone else’s sheets.

Personally, I have checked into a Phnom Penh room with a paper strip across the loo saying that it had been disinfected – only to find that the last user had not flushed. In Ho Chi Minh, the loo had a cockroach in it. I have had on several occasions in luxury resorts in Malaysia and Thailand had to ask the maid to clean the bathroom twice. In a business hotel in Sydney, the carpets were sticky. In Singapore, in a six-star room, the shower stall was wet and the bar of soap was covered in body hair. In Shanghai, the maids never scrubbed the shower stall at all – they just sprayed some liquid into it and wiped it down.

Dirty rooms have been part of the travel experience everywhere in the world. What makes the new revelations surprising (and horrifying) to most is that the hotels mentioned were all part of well-recognised, international, even luxury, brands from which one would expect top-notch hygiene practices – especially with eating and drinking utensils. The second interesting element is that the journalists who took the secret video clip got a 100% hit rate. In other words, every hotel they went to showed chambermaids using less-than-hygienic practices, implying that the problem is widespread in the US, even with its strict health codes. None of the hotels named would comment on the video, except one where the spokesman simply said that the cleaning practice shown was "certainly not part of our training programme".

Judging from web-chatter and my own experience, the situation is not much better in Asia.

The video revelation has spawned a range of work-arounds – some of my friends now travel with rubber flip-flops to shower in. Another friend swabs down light switches, remote controls, telephones, loo seats and door handles with Dettol wet wipes. The mother of a good friend turns maid, travelling with rubber gloves, disinfectant and brushes with super-hard bristles, all the better to scour the shower stall with.

In days long past, I am sure hygiene practices were sometimes a lot worse. The difference is that now, with travellers being more educated in, and wary of, disease transmission, expectations are higher. Hotels need to clean up their acts. The price of the room does not give travellers just a bed for the night. It implicitly promises, among other things, security, amenities, a clean room and all that it entails. It should also guarantee that the chambermaid is trained – and monitored – so that she does her job right. And when their maids are caught out, travellers should be compensated for non-delivery on the implied promise. Only then will hotels take responsibility for hygiene lapses, and actively work to eradicate them.


First Published: 
August 2008


Post new comment

The content of this field is kept private and will not be shown publicly.
You are not logged in:

simone vazSimone Vaz is a life traveller who practices macrobiotics and is a self-proclaimed health and fitness commentator. To support her organic habit, she runs interim marketing and community outreach PR campaigns for private sector organisations.