They bid her good night, told her to sleep tight, but neglected to mention the bedbugs that bite. Erin Sturges woke the next morning, after itching all night, in her rented room in a well-known motel chain. Red bumps developed on her neck and face a week later. Her skin was crawling— and so was something on the sheets. "Bugs," says Sturges, a sales representative who lives in Berkeley, Calif. "It was like something out of Stephen King. I wanted to scream."
Sturges complained to the manager, who reimbursed her for her room but not for her visit to the doctor. She had contracted scabies, not to mention a case of the heebie-jeebies that lingers to this day. "Now when I'm traveling I can't help wondering," Sturges says, "how clean, really, is this room?"
It's a question that occurs to many of us when we pull off the road and stop for the night. Sure, lots of places leave the light on. But how can we really tell if they've changed the sheets?
The short answer is we can't. There are no specific cleanliness standards issued by most counties or cities, though many states do have health requirements. In California, for example, if a hotel or motel lacks sufficient lighting, windows, or heating or is infested by vermin, it can in theory be shut down.
Enforcement is another matter. There's no one-stop shop that regulates hotels and motels by cleanliness alone. "A lot of it is guest driven," says Jim Abrams, president of the California Hotel & Lodging Association. "The marketplace often dictates what a hotel does."
So do common sense and common decency. It's standard practice, Abrams says, for hotels and motels to wash and change sheets between guest stays. (In some states, it's also the law.) Vacuuming, cleaning bathrooms, providing fresh towels—all are a widespread part of daily routine, according to Abrams. They are, for example, at the Renaissance Parc 55 in San Francisco, where director of housekeeping Jeanne Gafar says her staff regularly cleans curtains and wipes down counters and telephones with disinfectant; bedspreads are washed at least 10 times a year. Other hotels contacted for this story said they do the same. "We also pay very close attention to what guests tell us," Gafar says. "We read those little cards for their suggestions and complaints."
Hotels that ask for feedback might not always like what they hear. Ten years ago Chuck Gerba, an environmental microbiologist at the University of Arizona, conducted a study of hotel cleanliness. The results? Well, let's just say that bacteria you'd expect to find in the toilet often turned up on the TV remote control. "Generally, what we found is that the more you paid for your room," Gerba says, "the better the chance it was going to be clean. There's a direct relationship."
It's possible, Gerba says, to catch an unfriendly bug from a dirty hotel room—but you're unlikely to get anything much worse than a stomachache or a cold. Just to be safe, Gerba travels with disinfecting wipes so that he can clean surfaces on the spot. Travelers who don't feel like going to that trouble should consult guidebooks like those put out by AAA, whose hotel ratings are based in part on cleanliness.
To qualify for a single diamond in AAA's One Diamond to Five Diamond rating system, a hotel must meet "basic cleanliness standards," says Kelly Bell, the California State Automobile Association's manager of approved accommodations. That means vacuuming, cleaning bathrooms, and changing sheets regularly, especially between guests.
"If it meets our standards," Bell says, "that doesn't mean you're never going to find a hair in the sink or crumbs under the bed. But it does mean we think the place is pretty clean."
Even so, Bell admits, the first thing he does when he checks into a room is pull the bedspread off the bed. "Are you kidding?" he says. "You never know what people have done on those things."
Photography by Terrence McCarthy
This article was first published in May 2003. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.