When booking a hotel stay, most travelers are more anxious about the sights to see in their chosen destination rather than the cleanliness of their accommodations. But for some, bad experiences, a lifetime of mysophobia (fear of germs) or just the idea of sleeping in a bed that was occupied by hundreds of other people can be extremely stress inducing.
To learn about the good, the bad and the germy, U.S. News tapped Charles Gerba, a microbiologist and co-author of "The Germ Freak's Guide to Outwitting Colds and Flu," and General Manager of the Renaissance Blackstone Chicago Hotel Kim Corrigan, who's been in the hotel industry for 30 years, to share their insights on hotel cleanliness.
A 2014 report titled "Use of Hygiene Protocols to Control the Spread of Viruses in a Hotel," co-authored by Gerba, investigated how germs and viruses spread throughout a hotel during an overnight stay. The report studied how inanimate objects (like door knobs, table tops, light switches, TV remote controls and more) are able to transmit infectious agents when they become contaminated. Some of what Gerba and his colleagues discovered startled them: "I was surprised how maids moved from one room to another … and they may be using the same cleaning cloth. I didn't think [the viruses] would move to the next four rooms, though," he said.
Different tracers were used to track the spread of two viruses from contaminated rooms to the hotel's other accommodations and communal areas. The study discovered that both viruses were found on objects throughout other rooms on the property, as well as in public spaces like the dining area and the conference center, confirming how rapidly viruses can disperse.
"We travel more than any generation before, and we touch more surfaces indoors than any generation, so you get exposed to more people's germs than any generation in history," Gerba said. "Exposure is a lot higher than most people realize."
Obviously, a good rule of thumb when deciding on a hotel is to do your own research. Gerba said through his investigation, he noticed an "interesting" relationship with the room price. "The less you pay, the more bacteria you sleep in apparently," he said.
If you find a property offering rock-bottom rates, do some digging to ensure you're not sacrificing your health. Check reviews on sites like TripAdvisor or Expedia for traveler comments — you can bet if there are issues (like dirty glasses, stained pillowcases, moldy bathrooms, etc.) guests will write about them, and if you notice recurring red flags, book elsewhere. Also, look to see if any bug reports about the hotel have been made on the Bed Bug Registry, a free public database of user-submitted bed bug reports.
A 2012 study found the television remote to be among the most bacteria-laden objects within a hotel room, and not much has changed since then. Investigations by news outlets ranging from the Today Show to CNN continue to expose the TV controller as a consistently filthy item. Gerba noted that since it's one of the least-cleaned objects in a hotel room, germs tend to accumulate on its surface. He said he'd like to see hotels move toward flat-faced remote controls because they're easy to clean and can be wiped down quickly.
There is some good news for germaphobes: the bedspreads that once collected germs and were cleaned infrequently are becoming a thing of the past. Hotels and resorts that are part of brands like Westin, Disney and Marriott are just some of the properties rolling out bedding that's easier to clean and grants guests peace of mind.
"That was kind of an area that people talked about a lot that was kind of icky and gross," Corrigan said, adding her hotel and most Marriott properties utilize duvets and duvet covers nowadays. "Those get changed after each checkout and every three days if you have a person staying for longer."
Travel size hand sanitizers will easily fit in your pocket or purse, and you can get them for as cheap as $1.
"That always seems to be effective in reducing the spread of germs, particularly if you're at a hotel. If you're going to a conference, you're going to shake a lot of hands, touch a lot of surfaces, so that's always a good idea to bring it with you," said Gerba.
Additionally, Gerba's hotel study found that when guests implemented hygiene intervention practices (such as using hand sanitizer or Kleenex disposable hand towels), the occurrence of the viruses in guest rooms decreased 69 percent.
You know the television control is teeming with bacteria, but you still want to watch a movie or TV show. Instead of avoiding the TV altogether, pack a plastic baggie or shower cap and place your hand in it before handling the remote. That way, you've got a barrier between the bacteria and your skin and you can still enjoy some on-screen entertainment.
Sanitizing wipes are another easy thing to pack and use to clean your hotel room a bit more thoroughly. Gerba suggested a quick wipe down of table tops, such as the desk and bedside table, and bathroom counters to disinfect any areas the cleaning staff may have missed. Objects that people touch often and are harder to clean (like room phones and alarm clocks) could benefit from a wipe down, too.
If you notice something off like dirty glasses or hair from a previous hotel guest in your room, notify the hotel. After a guest checks out, housekeepers should be changing all of the bedding, vacuuming, dusting, cleaning the shower, toilet and the bathroom floor, "erasing any kind of evidence of a previous customer," as Corrigan put it. Glassware should also be washed and sanitized through a dishwasher, according to Corrigan and the American Hotel & Lodging Association.
"If [guests] find something that doesn't look like it's been cleaned properly, they need to bring it to the attention of the hotel and allow [the staff] the opportunity to fix it … ask the hotel to make it right," Corrigan explained. "That's also a training opportunity for the hotel. If something isn't right, we'll go back and make sure [housekeepers] are retrained so they are cleaning the rooms in the best manner possible."
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