Knowing how to secure your guesthouse room while traveling is important. Fortunately, avoiding theft is easy. You just need to be consistent and establish a routine.
First, before you even unpack, do a quick inspection for bedbugs. Don’t put your bags on one of the beds as soon as you enter the room. Use furniture if there is any; bedbugs prefer to hang out closer to the ground. I always do a precursory check but don’t worry too much. In over a decade of staying in dodgy guesthouses, I’ve only seen bedbugs twice in the wild (once in Kuala Lumpur and once in Bali). Both times the bastards came out into plain view, but I didn’t get any bites or carry them around.
Once you think you’re bug free, check that the door latches and locks securely. Sounds like a no-brainer, but I’ve unpacked in many a room only to have to repack and move to another one once I found out the door couldn’t be properly locked.
Next, check all windows and ensure they actually lock. Many windows will have broken or flimsy latches that can be broken off the wood easily. Any scrapes on the paint from tools or previously broken latches are a cause for concern — pay attention. I know firsthand because I was robbed for the first time ever in Thailand after someone pried open a damaged window to climb inside my bungalow.
- See the story of my getting robbed in Koh Lanta, Thailand.
Don’t place your bag or valuables directly below windows where a deft hand can reach through.
While you are checking windows, do yourself a favor and look for any holes in the screens. Spray holes with DEET to keep the mozzies from coming inside later. If there’s a tiny hole, they’ll find it.
If there are two beds, choose the one farthest from the door or window for sleeping. This is mainly for noise management and to give you more time if someone comes crashing inside. If possible, keep your stuff off the floor in case something wants to crawl in and turn your rucksack into its happy little cave.
Pay close attention to your balcony if you have one. How easy is it for someone to crawl or climb over from an adjacent room? Check that the balcony door locks. The sliding-style glass doors can be physically secured by putting bottles or cylindrical objects in the metal track on the floor.
If lockboxes are provided at reception, use them! You’re better using your own lock rather than the one provided. If the safe is shared, you’ll need to count your money in front of the staff and get someone from reception to sign a receipt in case a couple of banknotes come up missing. You can also put it all inside of an envelope, write the amount on the envelope, and have them witness/initial it.
Guesthouse thefts are rarely performed by well-trained ninjas or professional cat burglars; most are simply acts of opportunity when temptation is presented. Someone breaking into your room won’t have much time to linger, so don’t make finding money or electronics easy for them.
Keep your electronics, money, and other important items either hidden somewhere in the room or deep in your luggage. Don’t leave your money belt or phone laying out in plain view! Putting valuables in unexpected places is better than leaving them in the open. Everyone checks under the mattress; instead, zip your cash inside the pillowcase or somewhere else unpredictable.
If your room or bungalow secures from the outside with a padlock-style lock, substitute your own for the one provided. This provides great peace of mind because you know that you are the only one with a key. Some receptions don’t care for this practice because they are concerned you will lose your key. A combination padlock is always an option, but be sure you can work it in a hurry, in the dark, and possibly drunk if you party too much.
Additional Tips for Guesthouse Security
Many guesthouses request that you leave the key at reception when you go out. Some have piss-poor security and allow the keys to be grabbed by whomever can reach across the desk. Unless you are heading for a swim or have a history of losing keys, opt to keep the key under your control. Conveniently “forget” to hand over your key when you come and go. Chances are, they won’t say anything.
Many thefts in guesthouses are performed by the underpaid staff. Be very courteous to everyone you encounter — that includes the front desk, housekeeping, maintenance, porters, and anyone else hanging around. Wages can be ridiculously low for many employees in developing countries, and sometimes family members are forced to work long hours in the guesthouse against their wishes just because it is a family business. If a staff member decides to go rogue and rob a room, don’t give them a reason to choose yours because you pissed them off earlier!
Staff members are most likely to swipe a big banknote or two from your moneybelt but not everything. They know better than to take it all. The most common method of guesthouse theft is for a staff member to quietly take one or two big denominations from your moneybelt over the course of your stay. Travelers rarely go through the drama to report a loss if it isn’t too big. Also, travelers may never even notice! Many think they just miscounted the total cash at some point. Keep a good inventory of exactly how much is in your moneybelt so you’ll know if some of it is missing.
For the reason mentioned above, I typically don’t announce that I’ll be checking out the next day when I’m paying day to day at a guesthouse. Giving notice you’ll be checking out is an optional courtesy so reception can know a room will be free, but it also lets staff know that you won’t have much time to notice, investigate, or report to the police if anything comes up missing. Most thefts occur when you’re just about to leave, usually the night before.
Always, always, always lock your door when stepping out — even if only for a quick minute to use the shared bathroom down the hall. A majority of petty thefts happen when someone was away for just a minute or two (e.g., ran down to reception to get a towel, went to a friend’s room next door, etc).
If you feel you’re in a remote, high-risk environment, don’t show off your expensive electronics any more than necessary. Sitting in reception with a beautiful MacBook will certainly get attention. If possible, wait until the last day of your stay before you bring out that big SLR camera kit to take photos around town.
Last, know that if you leave your shoes outside the door (as is the custom in many countries), they could be stolen. This is especially a problem if your porch faces a busy path or if your shoes are nicer than the default flip-flops often seen. Bring them inside if you really care about them.
No, not bamboo spikes or shooting crossbow bolts — more like ways to tell if your room has been breached while you were out. If you have a reason to suspect that someone uninvited may poke around your room, consider placing hidden alarms as indicators that will let you know the door has been opened.
These can be as simple as a tiny piece of tape near the bottom of the door. You can also put an object — preferably one that rolls or slides — on the inside of the room beyond the halfway arc of the door when it opens. You can open the door only a crack to slip out, however, someone coming from the other side wouldn’t notice an innocuous object such as a wastebasket being moved when they open the door.
As mentioned, intruders are rarely professional jewel thieves and more likely nervous amateurs. If you suspect the window or balcony door is insecure, place bottles or cans (put some stones inside for more noise) on ledges and in obvious walkways. An unexpected clamber in the dark when one is knocked over may be enough to make a nervous thief abort the mission, even if you aren’t home.
Creative Ways to Hide Money and Contraband in Hotel Rooms
First, don’t screw yourself by hiding something so well you forget to take it with you when you check out half asleep in the morning! I’ve had this happen with cash at least twice now and had to go back for it. Once in Penang, Malaysia, someone else had already moved into my old room! Fortunately for me, they let me retrieve my hidden passport.
The most obvious place in the world to hide something is under the mattress. Don’t do it. If your room is so bare that the bed is the only choice, at least brave the filth by crawling under to hide something in the springs farther from the edge. In a pinch, you can make a small cut on the bottom of the mattress and place an envelope of money inside. You could also work money or whatever into pillow stuffing by unzipping or doing surgery on the pillows.
Some other creative options for hiding things in guesthouses:
- Inside the Toilet: You can shut off the water to your toilet, flush so that the tank is empty, and then hang a waterproof bag inside. I did this once in a dangerous environment in Jamaica — it worked.
- In the Toilet Paper Roll: If you’re blessed enough to be in a place with toilet paper, that is. Ensure that housekeeping doesn’t change the roll and get surprised by money falling out.
- Folded in the Towel: You can hang your money on the bar under the towel. Again, only if there isn’t daily housekeeping.
- Inside the Fridge: Most thieves in a hurry won’t take time to look inside of the mini-fridge for money. Again, do the unexpected and unusual. The cold obviously won’t hurt any kind of currency, but it could be hell on electronics. Not a good hiding place for your smartphone.
- Inside of Fake Toiletries: Another obscure spot, try hiding jewelry or rings in empty, dried travel-size bottles of shampoo or other consumables. Although the content is precious, keep the bottle with your other toiletries so that it doesn’t look out of place.
- In the Trash: This is not a good idea if there is any chance for a housekeeper with good intentions to empty the rubbish bin. Use a dry, empty Coke can and slip rolled up money inside; put the can in the trash bin. You’ll probably have to cut it apart later. This is obviously a desperate choice for many reasons.
- Inside of Light Fixtures: Many ceiling light fixtures have finger-tightened screws, just make sure that whatever you are hiding won’t burst into flames when the light heats up.
- Inside of Battery Compartments: You can hide money or contraband inside the battery compartment of the remote control if you have a television in the room. Go ahead and remove their batteries; chances are the thief won’t want to hang out and flip channels. You can also remove the batteries from your torch/flashlight and roll money into the handle.
- Inside of Shoes: If you’re carrying a pair of hiking boots or another pair of proper shoes (not flip-flops), you can probably hide money under the removable inserts.
Guesthouse security isn’t difficult. Establish a routine to do every time you check in and follow it. Be consistent, but you don’t have to be overly obsessive. I’m vigilant but not paranoid, and [knock on wood] have only been burglarized once in 12 years of traveling in some relatively rough places.
Note: These tips obviously apply to securing a private room or bungalow while traveling, not a shared dorm environment.