How to Minimize Your Virus Risk in a Hotel

Perhaps your safest choice at present is a classic style “external corridor” motel.

Note :  This is an excerpt from our complete 200+ page book all about the Covid-19 virus, how to avoid it, live with it, and survive it.  You’ll notice it has footnotes throughout, you can click the footnote links to go down to the footnote at the bottom of the document, and if you click the footnote number in the footnotes section, that will take you back to the original point where you were reading.

You might think there is not a lot you can control when you’re in a hotel, but you have one very important control point – you can choose the hotel you stay at.  This can potentially make a huge difference to the risk you experience when overnighting away from home.

We suggest that, after provisionally selecting a hotel but before you book a stay, you telephone to their front desk[1] and “interview” them to find out their current approach to minimizing virus risk for their guests.

Make your call a “neutral” call and don’t disclose the types of answers you are expecting.  That is more likely to elicit thoughtful and truthful answers.

You could ask questions such as “What is your face mask policy” – a nice open-ended neutral question, and then follow up with “So do you require guests to wear face masks when checking in and when going to and from their room” and “Do all your staff wear face masks all the time” and “What would you do if someone reported a guest – maybe even me – or staff member to you who was not wearing a mask?”.

You could also ask “When I check in, will you be able to see when my room was last occupied and help me to select a room that has been vacant for several days”, and of course, ask any other questions that might be of concern to you, maybe “How many people do you allow in an elevator at one time?”.

You should also inquire about any new checking in and out procedures to minimize your time at the front desk.  Hopefully they have express check-out already, maybe they have some new form of express check-in too.[2]  If the property has your credit card on file, the only issue should be how you pick up your room key.  Nothing else needs to involve in-person interaction – this is now termed “contactless checking in”.

One point about all of this.  Don’t think you’re an outlier with your concerns.  A mid-August survey conducted by the American Hotel & Lodging Association shows that most guests want face masks required, don’t want daily room service, and want social distancing.[3]

Not only that, these measures are all being advocated/promoted by AHLA to their members.[4]  So you can ask about such things, and if problems during your stay, be more forceful, in the knowledge that your requests are in line with the best industry guidelines.

Once you’ve chosen your hotel, there are a number of aspects of your hotel stay to optimize.

Room Airflow

The first is airflow.  The thing you most want to avoid is a hotel that has a central air system, such that air is pumped into your room via ducting from a central heating/cooling service somewhere.

If your air is coming from somewhere else, you get to share in everything and everywhere else in the hotel that is using the same common air system.  An infected person three floors away could have their virus aerosol particles sucked into the central air system, and then blown into your room.

While a hotel might claim to have air filters to protect against that, we would view such claims extremely skeptically.  Unless they can advise the filter rating (see our discussion on MERV filter ratings in the section about “The Quarantine Period” on page 90), the frequency of filter changes, and the date of the last change, I’d totally not trust their claim of having adequate filtering, and – call me cynical but – I’d be hesitant to trust any other assurances they offered about adequate filter changing policies, too.

Shared air systems might have some sort of air outlet somewhere in a wall or more likely ceiling, and possibly have a return inlet for air to be taken back to the central unit, somewhere else.  A temperature control/thermostat opens some louvers somewhere to allow for more or less air flow.

Our perception is that most hotels do not have common shared air systems in the rooms – they are more often found in office buildings and possibly in hotel public areas, than in hotel bedrooms.[5]  It is more likely that a hotel has a central air conditioning system that pipes either hot or cold water from the central system to heat exchangers in each room, or possibly “in-window” or “in-wall” or individual “split unit” a/c units for each room.  Lower grade accommodation might not have a/c of any sort, and just have in-room heating units.[6]

Piped systems are usually described as either two-pipe or three-pipe (although these are terms it is unlikely the people at reception will be familiar with).  A two-pipe system can either have hot or cold water going through the pipes (one pipe to bring the hot or cold water in to your room, the second pipe to take the water out again after going through your heat exchanger), but it can’t have both.  So the entire hotel is either set to heating or cooling – I know that many times I’ve asked a hotel if I could cool my room, but have been told the entire hotel is set to heating,[7] and all I can do is turn the air off and maybe – hopefully – open a window.

A three-pipe system has two pipes in to your room – one with hot water and one with cold – and one pipe out with whichever water went through your heat exchanger.[8]

In the case of these types of systems, there is typically a heat exchanger unit in the ceiling with an intake somewhere close to the door you enter the room, and an outtake directing the treated air into the main part of the room.  The ceiling is often lower in that area to provide space for the heat exchanger.

The thermostat/control unit adjusts the water flow that either heats or cools the air, and also adjusts the speed of a fan to circulate the air in your room.

These systems are okay, because you are recirculating your own air, rather than getting air from somewhere/someone else.

In-wall or in-window units (ie units that actually go through the wall or window) are often found in older type hotel rooms – I’ve memories of them in many a Holiday Inn, decades ago.  Often they seem to have a noisy compressor with worn bearings, and need to have their heat exchanger cleaned so it will actually work efficiently.  They are simultaneously taking your room air and passing it through your side of the unit, while independently taking outside air and passing it through the other side of the unit, transferring the heat either into or out of the room in the process.  Outside air may or may not be mixed in with the inside air being sucked in and blown out of your unit.  Some units have a setting where you can choose between outside or inside air coming in.

If you have the choice, and assuming the temperature of the outside air isn’t too extreme to make it difficult for the unit to keep the temperature in the range you want, you should usually set it for outside air to be admitted, assuming you feel that the outside air is likely to be safer than inside air, such as may come in from the corridor outside your room.

Split systems have a heat exchanger somewhere outside, then pipes transferring the heat or cold from the outside unit to the exchanger somewhere in your unit.  There is no outside air that is brought in, you’re just recirculating the air in your room.  These are more modern and usually much quieter than the in-wall or in-window units of yesteryear.

Opening Windows

We also like to have a room with a window that can open to the outside, so some fresh air can be brought into the room.  These are common in smaller hotels, but less common in large new hotels.

Totally sealed windows, from a hotel perspective, are usually cheaper and safer.[9]  The last thing a hotel wants is for their guests to be “wasting” heating/cooling energy by opening a window direct to the outside air, and a solid slab of glass without any opening fittings is cheaper than a window that can partially or fully open.

You might wonder “How do I get fresh air and not suffocate if the windows don’t open”.  There are several answers to that question,[10] ranging from “Well, actually, you can’t” to “It’s complicated”.[11]

The simple answer is that fresher air comes into the room variously when you open the door, and through leaks and pressure differentials, clearly in sufficient quantities that you’re not going to die from lack of oxygen.[12]  Air might come in from the external walls of your room or from the building interior.

The following image is an interesting depiction of the three different factors that typically impact on air flows in a multi-storey sealed hotel, using sample values for the purpose of the model result displayed.[13]

Figure 28 :  The different forces influencing sealed hotel air flows

 

Our take on the above diagram is that it is preferable to be in a lower level room where at least you’ve the stack effect meaning that fresh air is more likely to be coming into your room from outside, rather than in an upper level room where it is more probable that stale air from the rest of the hotel will be entering your room and then exiting through leaks around the sealed windows and external wall in general.

Unfortunately, there are other air quality issues that complicate the matter.[14]  Probably my choice would be to compromise and choose a room on a low but not ground floor.

Overall, it seems fair to say that many sealed hotel rooms have poor quality air that is insufficiently exchanged with truly fresh and truly clean air.  Dust and CO2 levels might be high but oxygen and humidity levels might be low.

Air quality in hotel rooms is an overlooked issue that deserves more attention all the time, not just during Covid-19 times.

Back to the windows, again.  If you have windows that can open, that is potentially good, but not invariably.

The key issue is to understand the direction of air flow when you open your window.  Is fresh air flowing in, or is dirty air being taken out?  In particular, if air is leaving your room, that means you are drawing air into your room not from the outdoors, but (depending on room design) from the corridor that you came into the room from.  That is obviously very much less desirable.  The diagram and our comments, immediately above, apply with only slightly less force if the windows are openable.

A second issue is – if you do have a window, is it likely to give you fresh air, or are you in a huge high-rise hotel with windows of other rooms everywhere above, below, and alongside your window?  In that case, maybe you are having air from other rooms simply coming back into your room.  Some people know this from living in apartments – they open an outside window but instead of getting fresh air, they get the cooking smells and smoke from other adjacent apartments.

The best room of all has windows on two opposite sides, so you can have a draft of fresh air coming in one side and going out the other.  That’s rare in a regular hotel room, although sometimes you can get that with corner rooms or suites that have windows on two sides.

If you can’t open any windows, you might want to consider bringing a portable air purifier with you.[15]  As best we can tell, purifiers that add “ions” to the air actually make no real difference at all to the air quality, and purifiers that add ozone are a bad choice, because ozone is poisonous, even in very low quantities.  You simply want a unit that blows air through a HEPA type filter (and make sure you understand how often the filter needs changing and comply with that recommendation).[16]

There is one more strategy you can consider when it comes to managing your air flows.  You can turn on the bathroom fan and leave it running, and thereby sucking some air out of the bathroom and hotel room in general.  Although bathroom fans often provide only very little airflow, they at least provide some, and perhaps that might help bringing fresh air in from outside (assuming you’ve managed to open a window) and going through your room and then out through the bathroom fan.

Common Areas

This brings us to the other major consideration when choosing accommodation.  Avoiding shared “common areas”.  If you’re in a traditional hotel, you have a reception area, elevators, and corridors that you have to go through every time you go to and from your room.  You know that sometimes there’s little or no air flow in some of those areas because the air in them is often much hotter than in your room, stuffy, and smelly.  Those are all areas that it would be great to avoid at present.  Social distancing in an elevator in particular is close to impossible, although happily you are not in them for long.

It might seem counter-intuitive, but ask for a room as far from the elevators as possible.  The reason for this is the further from the elevators, the fewer the number of people walking past your room’s door and possibly breathing out virus particles that might then be sucked under the door and into your room by air flows.

Talking about elevators, if you’re not too far up, consider at the very least walking down the stairs (particularly the emergency exit stairs if you’ve a choice between “official” internal stairs and the emergency exit stairs) rather than taking the elevator.  Maybe even walk up the stairs to your room as well on occasions when you’re feeling particularly energetic.

If the hotel has both garage parking and outside parking, we’d probably choose the outside parking, especially if the “inside” parking is in a basement or a poorly vented building.

Your hotel might have all manner of enticing and appealing amenities and guest services/features, like a pool, a gym, a lounge, bar, and restaurant, a business center, and maybe other things as well.  We’d recommend staying well clear of all such places at present.[17]

All these issues and considerations make the old fashioned “external corridor” motel become very much more appealing.  You can park your car close to the door to your unit, which you can walk directly to, or perhaps go up a flight of stairs and then walk to, and probably, the walkway is open sided to the outdoor elements, assuring you of fresh air.

The best possible solution is a separate free-standing cabin, of course, giving you maximum separation from other guests.

Often your motel unit will have openable windows on two sides, making it easier to get a fresh air flow through your room.  Free-standing cabins

Apart from checking in and out, your entire stay can be conducted without needing to enter any enclosed areas or get close to anyone else.

As for checking in and out of a motel, that might be simultaneously less sophisticated but more flexible than in a larger hotel.  Phone in advance and ask them how this can be arranged, and if they don’t already have a good system, suggest you simply phone them from your car upon arrival and they bring the key out to your car for you.[18]

This gives you the best possible control over your environment while staying there.

There might be another benefit – and also cautionary note – to staying in a motel room.  If the room has some cooking facilities – a fridge and microwave, possibly other cooking equipment too – then you can avoid the risk of eating in a hotel restaurant.

If there are cooking facilities, it would be prudent to disinfect them prior to using them – especially cutlery and crockery.[19]  The pots and pans probably get hot enough while cooking food to kill any virus particles, but the plates, glasses, knives and forks probably do not.

Is the Room Safe or Contaminated

What hidden dangers might lurk in your room’s comfortable bed and bathroom?

There is another important set of considerations, too.  And that is the biosafety of your room when you first get there, and maintaining it throughout your stay.  Depending on your risk tolerance, you might content yourself with merely saying “there’s very little chance of infection via an exposed surface/fomite, and any risks have been countered by the hotel’s own cleaning policies” or you might take a more proactive stance to this issue.[20]

If you wanted to be more proactive, we’d suggest bringing your own disinfectant with you, and spraying down the surfaces you’re likely to come in contact with.

These surfaces also include the bedding.  That might be the most significant risk of all.  Imagine the guest before you, spending all night coughing and breathing into a pillow.  Then the housemaid changes the pillowcase, but leaves the pillow untouched.  How safe is the pillow within the fresh pillowcase?[21]

I don’t know the answer to that, but you might want to consider spray disinfecting the pillow as well as the pillowcase, and/or possibly traveling with your own pillow.  You can get small sized “travel pillows” that take up less space in a suitcase than a full size pillow.[22]

We’d also consider spray disinfecting the top half of the top and bottom sheets/blankets/duvet on the bed – the parts that come in contact with your hands and face.  We’d pull back the top sheet and covers and have them on the bottom half of the bed, then spray the top half of the bottom sheet and the top half of the bottom sheet accordingly.  No need to soak the sheets in disinfectant, but applying a mist of spray will definitely help shift the odds of avoiding the virus in your favor.

If you are certain the sheets are fresh/new, rather than just smoothed out and re-used, you could skip this step, or alternatively, replace it with a spray of the top of the mattress or mattress cover (whatever is immediately underneath the bottom sheet) and a spray of the blankets or the actual duvet filling inside the duvet cover.

If you’re in a hotel with many other decorative pillows, put them all in a corner of the wardrobe or somewhere and don’t touch them for the duration of your stay.

One more point.  If the bed has a bedspread, as it probably does, be careful how you move that.  You don’t want to shake a bunch of virus particles loose off the covers and throw them up into the air, where they’ll hang and wait for you to breathe them in.  Fold the covers gently in on themselves, then move them to a corner of the room and carefully place them on the ground, and wear a mask during the process.

Towels are probably okay.  They are almost surely fresh from the laundry and haven’t been used by a prior guest.

We’re not sure about the status of bathrobes/dressing gowns, if they are provided.  In theory, you’d expect them to be freshly laundered; in practice, who only knows.

If you are spray disinfecting items, you should wear a mask while doing so then leave the room for a while to let the spray settle out of the air and dry.  Wear the mask before moving sheets and bedding around, because the act of doing so could dislodge virus particles and get them back up into the air again.  In addition, the stronger disinfectants are not good to breathe too much of!

There’s one other thought.  When checking in, you should ask the front desk person helping you “Was there anyone in my room last night?”.  Most systems will allow the hotel to see the history of who was in the room in the past, and they should be able to tell you when it was last in use.  The longer the period the room was vacant, the less you need to worry about these things, because any virus contamination will have naturally died out.  Indeed, when checking in, see if it is possible to have a room that hasn’t been slept in for the last three or four nights – many hotels have very low occupancies at present so this might be possible.  The longer it has been empty, the less chance of any remaining viable virus particles.[23]

There’s an important related issue.  Once you’ve gone to all the trouble to make your room safe, you now want to keep it safe if you’re staying more than one night.  We’d recommend not allowing the housemaids in to the room during your stay.

Tell the front desk you don’t want daily servicings, and hang a “Do Not Disturb” sign on your door.  If you’re obsessive about this, also carry a sign that says in big bold colored letters “Do not service my room” and leave it on your bed (yes, sometimes housemaids ignore the “Do Not Disturb” signs, especially if they know you are not in the room – they just think you forgot to take the sign off, or consider there’s no way they’ll disturb you if you’re not there).

Try to go without fresh towels, although they are probably low risk to exchange.

Things to Bring With You

If you want to optimize your room environment as much as possible when traveling, you might want to think about bringing some items with you :

Footnotes

You can click the footnote number links to jump to that place in the main article, above.

[1] Don’t call the (800) reservations number, but the hotel’s direct number, and when the phone is answered, make sure you are speaking to someone actually physically at the hotel, rather than in a central call center somewhere else.

[2] One of my pet peeves is being required to provide name/address/phone numbers/email/credit card number when booking a hotel, and then find, upon arriving at the home, that I have to write it all down again onto a reservation card that the computer has printed out, but only with my name at the top, none of the other details.

[3] See https://www.ahla.com/sites/default/files/Survey_Frequent%20Travelers%20View%20on%20Hotel%20Cleaning%20and%20Safety%20Initiatives.pdf

[4] See https://www.ahla.com/sites/default/files/safestayguidelinesv3_081420_0.pdf

[5] There are two main reasons hotels don’t commonly use these types of ducted air distribution systems.  The first is noise – the systems provide an easy route for noise from one room to impact on others nearby.  The second is security – while not all ducted systems feature the large size rectangular ducting that people crawl through in action movies, some do and that is obviously not acceptable from a security point of view.

[6] The nice thing about in-room heating units is that you know for sure you’re not getting air from somewhere else, and you are free to then plan your airflow strategy more or less separate to your heating strategy.

[7] Actually, although sometimes I’ve been directly told that, but more often I’ve been outright lied to by staff who don’t want to get in an argument about why they can’t provide cooled air to my room, or who simply don’t understand how their system works.  I’m the type of guy who travels with a temperature probe so when I’m told “just give it half an hour to equalize the temperature in your room, it takes time” I can reply “how can it equalize the temperature down to the level I’m asking for if the air that’s coming out of the register is hotter than that at present?”.  It also gives one credibility when an engineer reluctantly appears in your room to wave your own temperature probe around and means you’re more likely to hear the truth rather than more lies designed to shut you up and delay the ultimate argument until after the person in question has gone off shift.

[8] There are also four pipe systems, with two completely independent water flows rather than a shared return water feed.  These are more efficient than three pipe systems, but also more costly.  For our purposes, the distinction is of course meaningless – the only thing that matters is that “your” air comes from your room and stays in your room.

[9] Apparently it really is a known “thing” that needs preventing – people will book a night in a hotel with a view to jumping out the window to commit suicide.  Some hotels with windows that can open, but with stops/locks on them to prevent opening more than an inch or two, will agree to remove the stop/lock but only if you sign a form first promising to be careful and not jump/fall out the window.

[10] The “collective wisdom” of the internet is particularly disappointing on this issue.  In researching this topic, we were appalled at how much nonsense was being offered as fact in authoritative seeming articles.

[11] Here’s a great article looking at one element of sealed-window type hotels and their air flows https://www.energyvanguard.com/blog/adventures-in-hotel-bathroom-ventilation

[12] In actual fact (in case you wondered) the big problem in sealed rooms is typically not too little oxygen but too much CO2.  Too much CO2 will give you headaches and make you drowsy/inattentive long before the oxygen concentration drops to a dangerous level.

[13] Image from this excellent presentation https://www.buildingscience.com/sites/default/files/01.03_2015-08-03_ventilation_multifamily_ricketts.pdf

[14] Ibid, although this depends on the form of overall ventilation.

[15] There are plenty to choose from on Amazon.

[16] One more point about a portable air filter.  Keep it sealed inside a zip-lock bag or some other sort of reasonably air-tight container when traveling with it.  The last thing you want are the bumps and vibrations of traveling to knock the dirt and virus particles off its air filter and into your suitcase, onto your clothes, etc.

[17] As a related comment, if you’re staying in a dishonest hotel that charges a dastardly Amenities or Resort Fee of some sort or another, and if the hotel has also closed its gym and/or pool, ask for that fee to be adjusted.  The fee of course is nothing other than another way of charging you money, but play their own game back at them – “You are charging me $25/day for using your pool and gym, and both are closed at present, so you should cancel your fee”.

[18] This can be offered on the basis of “It is safer for you as well as me”.

[19] Keep in mind that disinfectant is a powerful poison.  After disinfecting the cutlery and crockery, you then need to rinse the disinfectant off before using them.

[20] If you can trust the same housemaids who are regularly observed to clean drinking glasses with a cloth that they’ve just used to wipe the toilet with, to now do a better job of truly disinfecting and ensuring the hygiene of all the various surfaces in your room, well, good luck to you!

[21] That is also making an assumption that the pillow case is changed.  Probably it is, but for sure, not every hotel and housemaid changes every pillowcase after every stay.

[22] Amazon of course has plenty, but be sure to get a travel pillow for sleeping on a bed with, rather than a neck pillow for while you’re in an airline seat!  We’d also suggest you try the travel pillow at home first, to make sure it is acceptably comfortable.  Even two travel pillows are smaller (for travel purposes) than one single hotel pillow and might make a lot of difference to your sleeping comfort.

[23] We’d suggested, earlier, asking if this would be possible when you do your prior-to-booking phone “interview”.  If someone hopefully offers to make a note in your reservation of that request, I suggest you thank them, and ask what sort of occupancy level the hotel is expecting in the nights prior to your arrival.  If it is under 90% and you’re just asking for any regular/standard room, there’s little to be gained by accepting this offer, because the reality is that room assignments are usually done by computer and there’s no easy way, short of actually blocking the room off for the previous night, to ensure a room remains empty.

Certainly, don’t rely on any such “notes on your reservation”, which in my experience are often never looked at, or, if they are looked at, are ignored.  Ask as if you’re asking for the first time when checking in.

Want to know more?  Check out our entire 200+ page book, all about the virus.

Please also see our complete listing of all our virus related articles and other resources.

3 thoughts on “How to Minimize Your Virus Risk in a Hotel”

  1. lifegotinteresting

    One thought that I had, in hotels that use a central a/c system, it to bring some filtration material with you (HEPA preferred), cut and tape it over the air ducts. These materials are available on Amazon, and I used something similar in my registers at home because of allergies. Just one more line of defense?

    https://amzn.to/3mewoyh

    1. David Rowell – Seattle, WA, USA – New Zealander now living in the United States.

      Hi, Peter

      That’s an interesting idea, but…..

      1. The product you link to is not a HEPA type material. It is notably silent on any ratings at all. It might help cut down on “big” things like dust particles, but its effectiveness against virus particles might be too low to measure.
      2. I wonder how much of a reduction in air flow they cause?

      3. I can understand how they can be applied to the outside of a small vent at home, but a large vent in a hotel room – I’m not so sure. Even a pound per square inch, over perhaps 200 sq inches of duct register, can be quite a lot of pressure acting on it.

      4. I wonder how easy it is to remove the double sided tape prior to leaving the hotel room?

      If you can answer these points, it would help. I wish it does work, but need to be persuaded. 🙂

      1. lifegotinteresting

        Hi David.

        True I was unable to find any HEPA quality material that could be applied to a register, but my hope that the electrostatic nature of this material might help.

        I was planning on using some of that scotch “packing tape” to attach it while staying in a room. Since you can cut it to size, you can use it in most any situation. And i seems fairly easy to remove (although not from a painted surface).

        3M also makes easily removable double stick tape.

        True there is no proof it would help, but since it can’t hurt, is easy to apply, costs little and is easy to take with you, I would give it a shot.

        There is also a small HEPA quality air filtering unit on Amazon that I have ordered (to try to help with our smoky problems). It looks small enough to fit in a checked bag, but that feels like overkill.

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