You've just come back to your room after breakfast in the hotel restaurant and the phone you had on charge is missing. You check everywhere, bedside tables, under the bed, the bathroom but still no joy. It's gone AWOL, but what happens next all depends on the law that applies in the jurisdiction where the disappearance occurred.
In Australia, if your property is stolen or damaged during your hotel stay, the liability of your accommodation provider is determined by state law. In Victoria for example, the relevant law is The Australian Consumer Law and Fair Trading Act of 2012. Under this law, the liability of an accommodation provider is limited to $300 per unit of accommodation.
There are exceptions to this limit, for example if the loss was caused by negligence on the part of the accommodation provider, or if the guest's property had been deposited with the accommodation provider for safekeeping. The act also requires an accommodation provider to accept guests' property for safekeeping, unless they have a reasonable excuse for not doing so.
Once accepted into their care, the liability of the accommodation provider increases dramatically, to a maximum of $3000 per accommodation per unit.
This amount can be varied under a written agreement between the guest and the hotelier, who is entitled to charge for this service. However the accommodation provider can refuse to accept goods for safekeeping depending on the nature, size and value of the items, and the type of accommodation and tariff charged for the accommodation.
Thus a hotelier would reasonably refuse to accept a $15,000 Colnago C64 road bike into their care. A Leica SLR camera might pass muster at an upmarket resort, although you might have to pay for that, but a motel owner in the boondocks would be within their rights to decline to accept responsibility for such a valuable item.
In NSW the relevant law is the Innkeepers Act, which requires a hotelier to make good the loss of property brought to the establishment. Liability is limited to a maximum of $100, however that's per person rather than per accommodation unit, as under the Australian Consumer Law and Fair Trading Act that applies in Victoria.
There's a condition attached, in that this limitation only applies if a printed copy is conspicuously displayed in the guest room and at or near the reception desk or near the main entrance. If the property was entrusted to the care of the accommodation provider for safekeeping, as in Victoria that limit no longer applies.
In Europe the liability of hotels to pay compensation for lost items is governed by the Convention on the Liability of Hotel-keepers concerning the Property of their Guests. According to the convention, the compensation for lost items is limited to 100 times the daily price of the hotel room for a theft committed inside the hotel, and 50 times the daily price of the hotel room for a theft in a vehicle in the hotel's car park. That's potentially huge, and you can expect a hotel would go all out to prove their innocence. The burden of proof is therefore high.
In the USA a hotel's liability for guests' belongings also varies according to state law. As a general rule a guest claiming recompense for missing or damaged items will need to prove negligence on the part of the hotel. If the hotel can demonstrate adequate security and working locks on the door, in most states the hotel will not be held liable for any loss or damage. In some jurisdictions a sign in the lobby that states "this hotel is not responsible for any stolen or lost items" may be their get-out-of-jail-free card.
What about travel insurance?
You might get some joy here, but don't count on it. You'll probably need a police report and receipts to prove ownership and the value of any items you're claiming for. An insurer will want confirmation that the hotel was not at fault, otherwise any claim for compensation is between you and them.
Most insurance policies limit the amount they'll pay out on any single item and they'll probably apply depreciation, as well as whatever their standard excess is. If it appears you were negligent ("why wasn't that laptop in the hotel safe?") that's pretty much a deal breaker on any claim you might make.
Five ways to stop it from happening
Damage limitation. As far as possible, don't travel with valuable stuff. Laptops, cameras and smartphones are must-have items for many travellers but expensive jewellery, maybe not.
Use the safe. That's what it's there for. Or hand it over to the front desk for safekeeping. You'll get a receipt and that's a solid gold promise.
Hide it deep in your suitcase, and lock it up.
Put the "Do not disturb" sign on your door when you're out.
Intensely paranoid? Put your valuables in a bag, inside a drawer or cupboard, rip up a sheet of notepaper in random pieces, scatter the bits over the top and snap a photo. When you return, snap another photo. If the images don't match you might want to have a chat with management.