How to deal with theft from your hotel room

On our recent travels in Central America we had two incidents where money was stolen from our room. Both involved relatively small amounts ($20 and $30), both were the result of carelessness on my part, but both cases still left a distinctly sour taste in the mouth. Yet what stays in my mind is the sharp contrast between the way that the senior staff dealt with the situations.

First case: We stayed in a small guest house with no safe storage facilities. $30 went missing from our room (I had hidden it in a zipped compartment of my backpack rather than carrying it around all night – a mistake I now know). I only noticed the following morning, and as the duty staff spoke no English and my Spanish is not good enough to explain that I was missing some money that I had counted earlier that night, I waited till later that night and wrote an email to the owners.

Their response couldn’t have been more professional. They apologised unreservedly, explained that they had taken on a temp worker to cover an absence and that they had clearly made an error of judgement. They offered to return the $30 to me and asked how best they could do this. On top of that they offered us two free nights to compensate for our problems. I didn’t want to create problems for them in sending small amounts across borders and we’re not likely to be back there anytime soon. But by their swift and caring approach they turned what was a negative experience into a positive one.

Second case: mindful of the earlier incident, having checked into a Mexican hotel and found no safety box in the room I hid a small amount of remaining money very carefully in a hidden pocket in my bag. Again $20 was missing when we returned from a day out. This time I immediately reported the missing money to the hotel management.

The hotel manager came up to our room and called the cleaner in. There then followed an extremely awkward exchange where he asked her if she had taken the money. She said no, he turned to us and shrugged his shoulders, saying that we should have put the money in the security box at reception (it was the first we’d heard about this facility). For the remaining time in the hotel the cleaner ignored our gaze (and omitted to clean our room until prompted) while the reception staff were decidedly frosty with us. We saw and heard nothing from the manager again.

So what did I learn from these experiences?

Should I have been more careful with my money? Absolutely. Both incidents happened near the end of a six week trip, we had spent most of our cash and I had foolishly dropped my guard to our cost. In future I will not leave cash in the room unless there is a safe available.

Should I have let the incident go? Definitely not. Yes, for hotel staff in Central America $20 is worth a lot more than it is to me. But to let it go would mean that I would be allowing similar incidents to occur (no-one rummages through one guest’s bag and doesn’t do it again to someone else) – I tried to put myself in the shoes of the hotel manager and in his shoes I would certainly want to know if such things were happening in my business.

And finally, is a theft from a room a disaster for a hotel’s reputation? No, it doesn’t have to be. It is an opportunity for a hotel to show how much it cares about its guests. In both of these cases they managed to do that perfectly.

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Freelance travel writer

8 Responses to “How to deal with theft from your hotel room”

  1. Hey Andy. Sorry to hear that happen to you. And I think you did the right thing telling the incidents to the concerned parties. I have a friend who forgot her wallet at the lobby of a hotel in Vietnam she was staying in. The CCTV cam showed that one of the staff picked the wallet up when she left but denied having taken the contents (her money, credit cards, and IDs). Good thing the manager at least offered to pay for her return ticket since she already missed her flight while looking for her wallet. It can suck for that to happen to you on the road, but then again, you’ll have to figure out something when you’re out of options, right? :)

    February 9, 2011 at 10:19 am
  2. There is indeed a remarkable difference between how hostels deal with cases like theft, and I really like the way it was handled in the first case.
    A couple of tips for the future: if I’m carrying a lot of money I often ask the person at the reception to keep it for me (I ask a signed paper that they have my money). If it’s not that much I also leave it in my backpack, but most of the time between my dirty loundry. The only person who doesn’t care to put his hand in every of my dirty socks is me :-)

    February 9, 2011 at 11:17 am
  3. I don’t think you really did anything wrong. Putting $20 hidden in your bag is pretty standard practice i think. I do it all the time. Usually in a little pocket i made at the bottom of my sleeping bag as it is quite hard to get out and then put away again for any thief.
    If you take all your cash with you then you are also taking a risk that you will lose it somewhere during the day/night that you are away so having that extra stash is always handy.

    However, what i have to say is that i have been in this situation from the tour operators/hotel managers point of view.
    It is a tough position. You want to help the guest as much as you can but you do not want to accuse your staff, the staff you have to work with everyday, of theft even if you suspect it.
    In fact, on a trip 2 years ago, i used the excuse that the Hotel we stayed in had a new member of staff etc…. in a similar manner to your first example. After our guests got home we told them that we had recovered the money and gave them the amount they lost back. It wasn’t much and they really appreciated it.
    In fact it was one of our guides. He was and still is a nice guy but has some gambling problems and is a little bit light fingered. I didn’t accuse him outright but told his father my suspicions, as is the custom where i was working. His father agreed that it was his son and told me a long list of family secrets about the son stealing from the family and abusing their trust. How he had sold carpets from their shop to other carpet dealers at under cost price and squandered the money.
    It was the last straw and the son now digs roads in Afghanistan and will continue to do so for a few years until his father lets him back into the family business again.
    So… i guess you should and must bring it up to the Hotel staff but remember that their response to you is not always the end of the matter.

    February 9, 2011 at 3:50 pm
  4. The dirty socks trick is a good one – thanks Nicolas :-)

    Thanks for sharing your particular experiences James. Your last sentence is the key here – we felt awful for telling the hotel management because we know what it can mean for the individual concerned (and in the first case they did tell us that they fired her). But if she’s taking something from every guest who comes through, how long will such a place survive once TripAdvisor gets filled with a stream of thieving tales? It’s a tough call and not a nice decision to have to make when you’re trying to enjoy on a holiday. As you illustrated, there’s always a back story to such incidents.
    But as a hotel manager (or tour company) what you can never get away with is ignoring the guest’s concerns and hoping that they go away.

    February 9, 2011 at 6:56 pm
  5. The manager dealt with the theft in a ridiculously unprofessional manner. They should have done their own interrogation of the employees involved without your presence. At least you learned a lot and shared your new found wisdom with your readers at a cost that is not too crazy.

    February 10, 2011 at 5:51 pm
  6. Wow. This just remind to something happened like 5 years ago in Costa Rica. Got back in our hotel and caught the cleaner red handed with my wallet. Of course we immediately called the hotel manager. The cleaner said he didn´t do anything, that it was his own money (like 15 bucks) and this manager actually ´believed´ the guy!

    February 11, 2011 at 11:53 am
  7. Thank God it was just 30 and 20 and not a lot more … I’m off to 3 months in Mexico soon and as I will be staying over in hostels, too, just wondering what to do with the money, as it can be dangerous for a solo female traveler to carry all the money on me as well.

    February 14, 2011 at 3:29 pm
  8. Sounds like these things are not so rare. CSFT, there are some good tips from others here (esp. the one about the dirty laundry!) but it’s best to use security boxes when you can and not have too much cash at any one time (use ATMs to pop up – they are everywhere). Where are you going in Mexico?

    February 14, 2011 at 4:42 pm
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