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Hotels' Dirtiest Secrets

By Robert Firpo-Cappiello
September 29, 2021
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Evgeny Glyanenko/Dreamstime
Just checked in? Don't touch ANYTHING till you read this latest study!

The data hounds at TravelMath.com have done us all a favor, undertaking a study of how clean (or, make that unclean) a typical hotel room may be. Prepare yourself for a gross-out: After studying the remote controls, bathroom counters, desks, and phones at nine different three-, four-, and five-star hotels, TravelMath reports that the typical hotel room is way dirtier than your house (you read that correctly) and even dirtier than some airplane cabins.

"DIRTY" MEANS GERMS

Still with us? When we say “dirty,” we don’t mean dust or grime. We’re talking about bacteria, viruses, and parasites that can give you or your kids respiratory infections, skin infections, and even pneumonia. The measure of a hotel room’s “dirtiness” for this study was the number of viable bacteria cells (known as colony-forming units, or CFUs) per square inch. On average, hotel bathroom counters and remote controls top 1 million CFUs per square inch. Ugh.

SWANKY HOTELS MAY BE DIRTIER THAN BUDGET LODGING

The biggest surprise was that three-star hotels appear to be cleaner, on average, than four- or five-star hotels. These “average” hotels that offer limited amenities appear to do a better job of cleaning surfaces than their tonier competitors. Among three-star hotels tested, bathroom counters were the dirtiest surfaces, but still far cleaner than those in upscale hotels. Bathroom counters at four-star hotels appear to be the germiest of all hotel surfaces, and the remote controls at five-start hotels are pretty gross too.

HOW TO PROTECT YOURSELF FROM GERMS

We don’t enjoy sharing just the bad news, so we’re happy to report that there are a few steps every traveler can take to stay safe when checking into a hotel.

* Wash your hands frequently.

* Pack a small bottle of antibacterial spray.

* Pack a carton of antibacterial wipes.

* Disinfect surfaces such as phones, bathroom counters, and desks.

* Pack clear plastic bags and wrap one around the remote control so you can still easily operate it without actually making finger-to-bacteria-laden-key contact. (While dousing the remote with disinfectant may seem appealing, it is perhaps not the best idea.)

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Warning: Your Passport "Expires" Three Months Before It Expires

It’s one of your worst travel nightmares: You show up at the airport, packed and ready to fly overseas, valid (non-expired) passport in hand, and you’re told, just a few hours before your fight is scheduled to take off, that your passport is not valid for the destination you’re headed for. Huh? We’re seeing more and more American travelers getting turned back because their passport is within three months (or, in some cases, six months) of expiration. Due to the variety of entry and visitor policies of many foreign countries (including super-popular destinations like Italy, France, and Spain), you need to make sure your passport is valid for at least three months after your departure date. For some countries, especially many in Asia, the period may be six months. Rather than try to explain the varied policies of every destination you may have on your bucket list, we’ll send you over the U.S. State Department, which has a handy tool for researching your destination’s requirements. READ: "11 Worst Travel Nightmares (And How to Make Them Go Away)" What do you do if you’re scheduled to fly to, say, France next week and you’ve just realized your passport will expire in less than three months? Luckily, there’s an app to help with that. ItsEasy.com just launched the very first passport renewal app that streamlines the entire process. Founded in 1976, ItsEasy is a United States Government–registered passport- and visa-expediting company based in New York City. Download the free user-friendly app on your smartphone or tablet, and you can renew your passport, get photos, fulfill visa requirements, and use the emergency info button (just in case you lose your passport or visa while traveling in another country), all easily and safely. The app also has a renewal reminder that will notify you nine months before your passport expires. Using it to take passport photos is easy: Snap your picture, and it will be reviewed and approved by ItsEasy passport pros, then opt to have it printed by ItsEasy and delivered by first class or overnight mail, or choose to have it emailed to you to print yourself. READ: "How Not to Be a Jerk on a Plane" ItsEasy charges $29.95 for its passport renewal services, in addition to the Department of State's passport fee, which includes a trackable priority United States Postal Service shipping label, passport photos, all of the forms, and order status updates. Customers can choose standard or expedited renewal. Once the application is submitted, ItsEasy emails customers the full passport application to print and complete, a checklist to ensure it’s all taken care of, and a secure trackable USPS priority shipping label to send everything to ItsEasy. They will review and process everything before passing it on to the U.S. Department of State. “Why wouldn’t you want an app that saves you precious time and money?” David Alwadish, CEO and founder of ItsEasy, has said. “Between buying the envelope, postage, passport photos, and running around for the errand, if the value of the users’ time saved is factored in then the savings would grow exponentially. We are providing you with peace of mind with government-approved and regulated experts handling the entire process—including pre-checking of documents, printing the photos, writing the check, and gathering what you’d have to go buy yourself. I can confidently say that you’ll be aware of where your application is at all times.”

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Travel 101: These Are the Best Snacks to Pack in Your Carry-On

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Post-Storm Caribbean Travel Updates

The Caribbean is open for business. Some travelers are surprised to learn that most Caribbean destinations are open, including Antigua, the Bahamas, Barbados, Dominican Republic, and Jamaica. Other islands, including St. Barth's and Turks & Caicos, are making swift comebacks from serious hurricane damage. But some islands will take weeks or even months to recover. Barbuda, Puerto Rico, St. Martin, and both the U.S. and British Virgin Islands are putting most tourism on hold for now. What to do if you have travel reservations in a damaged destination. If you have plane tickets, check in with your airline to see if your flight has been postponed. Airlines have been offering more and more flexibility in the face of natural disasters, and they may waive fees for cancellation or changes in reservations. Check with cruise lines and hotels to find out how to cancel or revise your reservations. To learn more, read “When a Hurricane or Wildfire Damages Your Destination.” Travel insurance 101. Most people prefer not to think about travel insurance -- they hope for the best instead of planning for the worst -- until disaster strikes. We do recommend a “cancel for any reason” policy when you are planning a trip to the Caribbean. But first check with your credit card company -- you might already have built-in trip insurance. To learn more, read “Travel 101: Read This Before You Buy Trip Insurance.” How you can help. According to FEMA, those hoping to participate in Hurricane Irma and Maria relief and recovery operations should volunteer with local or nationally known organizations—you can find one that suits your abilities, or register as interested and organizations will reach out if you fit their needs. (Sign up here for volunteer efforts in Puerto Rico and here for the U.S. Virgin Islands.) But as much as you might want to drop everything and go asap, please don’t—unexpected arrivals in affected communities can create an additional burden for first responders whose attention is better focused on those who need immediate assistance, so be patient. In the aftermath of a disaster, it’s often easy to forget that these conditions won’t be alleviated overnight—the survivors will need help for months and even years to come. A few options: All Hands Volunteers’ immediate response team is operating in the USVI after Hurricane Maria, and the organization should be accepting applications for volunteers once the most pressing concerns have been addressed. CARAS, based in Puerto Rico, runs regular group-service trips, and AmeriCares offers a database of disaster-relief volunteer opportunities.

Travel Tips

Airlines' 10 Dirtiest Secrets

Lately there's been a lot of idle speculation in the blogosphere about the cleanliness of airplanes, the flightworthiness of the equipment, and the abilities of the crew. Here at Budget Travel, we regularly interview pilots, flight attendants, lost-and-found agents, and other travel professionals—sometimes on condition of anonymity—and we do our best to debunk the junk and deliver the truth. That said, the truth sometimes hurts. Here, we are not only delivering the airlines' dirtiest secrets, but also rating them on a "scary scale" of 1 to 5. 1. ARE PETS STORED IN AN UNHEATED, UNPRESSURIZED HOLD? I hate to get all Mr. Scott about this, but this legend absolutely defies the laws of physics: At 30,000 feet, that would mean temperatures below zero and not enough oxygen. The truth is, pets are kept warm and safe in the hold. However, airline travel can be harrowing for pets—the runway is so noisy during loading and unloading that the workers wear headphones. 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The EPA even warns people with at-risk immune systems (including children and adults over 50) to avoid airplane water. Buy a bottle! "Scary scale"? 5! 3. DO AIRPLANES JETTISON THEIR TOILET WASTE INTO THE AIR? Who started this weird myth, a fourth grade boy? No, airplanes do NOT jettison toilet contents in midair! Ever, ever, ever. Well... at least not intentionally. A California man once had a chunk of frozen airplane waste (which, by the way, was blue because of the chemical with which airplane waste is treated) bust through his sailboat. On a "scary scale" of 1 to 5, I've got to give the sailboat guy a 5! 4. WHAT'S WITH THE MOOD LIGHTING? Why do the plane lights dim before landing? Dim lighting prepares your eyes for seeing outside in the event of an emergency evacuation. (Similarly, you are asked to open your window shades before landing so the crew can see outside in the event of an accident.) On a "scary scale" of 1 to 5, I'm gonna give this a 1 because, once you understand the reason for it, it seems kind of comforting (am I the only one?). 5. CAN STRANGERS UNLOCK THE AIRPLANE LAVATORY FROM THE OUTSIDE? Yep! Toddler, grandparent, or spouse locked in the bathroom? Relax—right behind the no smoking sign on the door there's usually a little switch to unlock the door! On a "scary scale" of 1 to 5: If I have a toddler and I'm standing at the door, that gets a 0. If I'm flying alone and a total stranger decides to pay me a little surprise visit, 4. (And while we're on the subject of airplane lavatories, do not walk in there in your socks or bare feet. You don't even want to know what's on that floor!) 6. THE CABIN AIR CAN MAKE ME SICK, RIGHT? Wrong! Airplane cabin air is filtered and often tests cleaner than hospital air. However, just about everything else onboard should be considered a mile-high petri dish. In fact, your tray table may have been used to change a baby. Yeah, that's right. E coli bacteria are regularly found on airplane tray tables. What can you do about that? Travel with sanitizing wipes to clean off surfaces you or your loved ones may touch during the flight, and to clean your hands. On a "scary scale," the cabin air gets a 0 and the tray table gets, uh, number 2? (Sorry!) 7. HOW CAN I BE SURE MY PILOT KNOWS WHAT HE OR SHE IS DOING? How experienced is your pilot? And how worried should you be about that? You may be flying one of the big carriers in name, but here in the U.S. you may actually be in the hands of a subcontracted regional airline crew. Oh, and your pilot may make less in a year than a cab driver. Yep. Those regional airlines have grown so fast in recent decades that requirements for pilot training went down to accommodate the demand. If you were having, say, brain surgery, would you want the doc with more operations under his belt or the guy getting paid by the hour? That said, I've never had a bad experience due to pilot error, and we travelers often completely misjudge pilot actions—bumpy landings, for instance, are no indication of a pilot's experience or competence, they just happen. But how would you rate the issue of pilots' experience on a "scary scale"? 4 or 5. 8. ARE PILLOWS, BLANKETS, AND HEADPHONES CLEANED OR CHANGED AFTER EVERY FLIGHT? Cue Aerosmith and dream on. Flight crews are busy, budgets are tight, and you've probably witnessed the onboard scramble that occurs between flights. If your blanket is neatly folded and your headphones are in a plastic bag, congrats! That's about the best you can hope for these days. On our "scary scale," I give that a 3 or 4. 9. ARE PILOTS AND COPILOTS REALLY SERVED SEPARATE MEALS IN CASE OF POISONING? This is a really good idea, of course, and I wish I could tell you that it's strictly enforced. But the reality is that the crew eats whatever they want whenever they can get it. (Some bring their own food, others eat what's served out of the galley.) On some flights, the pilot and copilot will indeed be served separate meals. On others, not so much. On a "scary scale," considering that I've seen few, if any, accounts of poisoned pilots wreaking havoc in the skies, I give it a 2. 10. IS IT TRUE THAT OXYGEN MASKS HAVE ONLY A FEW MINUTES OF AIR IN THEM? Yes. But it's not as bad as it sounds. Airplanes are pressurized mostly because the air at 30,000 feet does not hold enough oxygen. In the very rare event of depressurization, the oxygen masks descend and, though it may be frightening, passengers use them for a few minutes while the pilot quickly gets the plane down to around 10,000 feet, where oxygen levels are comparable to a mountain summit. On our "scary scale," this makes me feel a little safer and I give it a 1. Though if you've ever been on a plane that descended from 30,000 to 10,000 feet in a matter of minutes, there's not a theme park ride in the world that will ever scare you again!