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Hotel Privacy: How Much Can You Really Expect?

Just exactly how much privacy can a hotel guest expect? I received two different versions of this seemingly simple question last week:

“As an innkeeper, do I have the right to enter a guest’s room if the privacy sign is displayed on the outside of the door?”

“Can hotel management enter a room just to see if the TV or air-conditioner is still on if the registered guest is away?”

Certainly, the first question came from hotel management rather than an individual traveler, and the second might be from either. In any case, however, these two submissions raise a question that should be of interest to anyone who uses hotel/motel accommodations. And, in this case, the answer is, “it depends.”

Which Law?

As far as I can tell, there are no federal laws regarding access to hotel guests’ rooms by hotel management and staff.

Apparently, some state and local laws address the issue, although not very specifically. According to material cited by a spokesperson for the American Hotel & Lodging Association (AH&LA), hotel law in general mandates that guests be entitled to a certain degree of privacy as a condition of their peaceful occupancy, at least until checkout time of the agreed upon day of departure. Reasonable circumstances for entering a guest’s room include maintenance, imminent danger, nonpayment, overstay of reserved period, breaking house rules, and disturbing other guests.

Clearly, this sort of language leaves a lot of wiggle room on both sides. I suspect that only case law can decide the outcome of individual disagreements between hotels and guests.

How Strong Is ‘Do Not Disturb?’

Furthermore, there is little or no law specifically relative to the enforcement of privacy signs. A few years back, the trade journal Hotel & Motel Management polled members about the circumstances under which they could enter a room displaying a DND sign:

  • The only (close to general) agreement was that it was OK to enter a room after 2 p.m. on checkout day if a guest hadn’t already checked out and settled the bill.
  • Beyond that, responses ranged from “once every 12 hours” and “once every 24 hours” to “any time as long as the guest is notified first.”

Hotel managers generally agreed, however, that ordinary housekeepers should err on the side of caution. If a hotel employee believes there’s a possible problem, only hotel security or management should enter a room with a privacy sign on the door.

On the other hand, management believed in an overall right to look into any suspicious rooms. Several stories report employees’ discovering dead guests.

What Can Travelers Expect?

Certainly, you can expect a “reasonable” degree of privacy, whether or not you actually have a “do not disturb” sign displayed. And if you want extra peace and quiet, for the most part such a sign should keep the majority of the day-to-day housekeeping staff out of your room.

But any behavior that could annoy fellow guests—especially overly loud radio, TV, or partying—is a request for an uninvited visit from hotel management or security. And you can’t rely on any privacy sign as legal justification for leaving valuables in an unattended room—hotels generally disclaim liability for valuables that aren’t handled in accordance with hotel policies.

Long-Term Occupants

Although specific requirements vary from state to state, long-term hotel residents—those who stay more than a month, for example—are considered tenants rather than hotel guests. As a long-term resident, you are entitled to the same privacy protections and guarantees as you’d get in a leased apartment or house.

Other Guest Rights

Earlier this year, I reported on the general subject of hotel guests’ rights. I didn’t touch on privacy, which I’m glad to cover now.

As with privacy, hotel guests’ rights are a lot less specific airline passengers’ rights. Much of the treatment you can expect is based on common law or industry custom rather than specific regulations, and whatever regulation exists is a patchwork of state and local laws. The trade associations aren’t any help, either; they have no consumer offices.

The bottom line is that, in many cases, if you have a dispute with a hotel, neither you nor the hotel will find as much specific guidance as either might wish for. If you can’t negotiate a settlement on your own, your only recourse is to small claims court or a lawyer.

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