Are the cheapest hotels the dirtiest ones? Don't believe it

Which? Holiday, a British consumer reporting magazine, recently ran tests on the cheapest hotel brands in England, and evidence of questionable hygiene was found at two low-cost chains, Ibis and Travelodge, that included mold on mattresses and urine tracks down the side of the toilet. Unwanted bacteria was also found in some of the rooms.

The hotel cited as the dirtiest was the Ibis near Euston station in London. I have personally stayed in that hotel and inspected it in my duties as a travel writer, and although I didn't bring my petri dishes and sterilized swabs with me to make sure, I didn't find the cleanliness to be so alarming that it deserved the nickname of The Dirtiest Hotel in Britain. Maybe I got the good housekeeper that day. (Or maybe I'm the one who left the problem stains behind.)

The findings got a fair bit of attention in the press, but that's because they confirm existing biases about budget lodging. I certainly don't find the methodology to be fair. First, the magazine only tested sixteen rooms, which is not a decent number by any scientific standard. The magazine also made allegations that it didn't have the budget to test properly--one hotel was accused of having something that looked like a bloodstain on a bedspread. (Unacceptable, to be sure, but to call it a bodily fluid without knowing for sure seems a little like railroading to me.)

Simply to single out the cheap chains for investigation, as the magazine did, is downright skewed. We've all had hotel horror experiences, but they happen across price categories. I'd like to know how the bacteria counts would differ at the Dorchester or Brown's, two institutions that charge ten times what the average Travelodge does.

There are strict laws governing restaurant cleanliness, but hotel management is mostly given free reign. Cleanliness is completely up to the competency of the person cleaning the rooms, and hotels of any price level can unknowingly harbor a lazy cleaner.


TV news shows love to stash lousy cameras in hotel rooms in a non-scientific effort to terrify viewers over cleanliness, and their own biases lean toward the more expensive brands. ABC did a casual exposé of inadequate procedures for cleaning in-room drinking glasses. That story addressed brands that don't fit into the budget category, including Holiday Inn, Embassy Suites, and Millennium. This local New York City news show took on Marriotts, Ritz-Carltons, Embassy Suites, and Sheratons near Times Square and in Atlanta. And three years, ago, a British TV show took a UV lamp into London hotel rooms of every price category and found them all lacking. In the bathroom of the highest-priced room, it said in typically purple British prose, "you're effectively taking a shower in bacteria."

If you think that's gross, check out Extended Stay's viral video of a hot blonde licking everything in one of its units to prove, in a virtually pornographic way, that everything's clean (or at least tasty--the sickness would set in later). This is not a method that I would use as a travel writer.

Meanwhile, who's going to take the swabs to the airplanes that we all have to fly, regardless of our budget? There's already evidence that there are colonies of funky critters growing unchecked on many major air liners, and the Wall Street Journal has run stories hinting that some passengers have been coming down with diseases after taking trips on commercial flights.

No one that I know of, so far, has alleged that hotels of any price category are actually making people ill, although if we all took to licking their TV remote controls, that would soon happen. There is no compelling evidence to say that budget hotels are any worse than expensive ones.

Until some standards are in place, the only fail-safe method will be to pack your own bleach.

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