Felix Legge considers whether it is ever permissible to remove items from your room.
I am not a thief. But when I find myself in the comfort of a hotel room swollen with tiny shampoo bottles and different-size pieces of soap, kleptomania stuffs me straight into her bag and runs away with me.
It can happen to the most upstanding among us. We've paid for the room, so we wrongly feel entitled to its contents. Only morality and the size of our bag stand in our way.
David Elton, partner of the small UK Homegrown Hotels chain, said: "People will steal just about anything they can. Bathrobes, coat hangers, bed linen, mattress covers, towels, pillows, toilet-seat covers - pretty much everything in a room.
"With a small independent hotel there's maybe more of a pang of conscience, but in bigger chain hotels people are less scrupulous."
I spoke to a number of hotel groups on the subject and the consensus seemed to be that toiletries are fair game. The principle is: if it cannot be reused then it can be taken. Likewise, small items with hotel logos, such as stationery, won't be greatly missed; you can assume you are providing a nice bit of publicity when you flash your stolen pencil on the bus.
If it's the free toiletries you want, then go wild, said Jacob Tomsky, author of the bestselling Heads in Beds, a memoir of 10 years spent in the hotel industry. "Hotels have plenty of items, all cute and travel-sized, waiting in store rooms. And checking out from the hotel isn't like going through airport security. No respectable hotelier is going to want to prise open your luggage and search for shampoo."
Indeed, he even advises taking your swag bag farther afield: "Consider the unmanned housekeeper's trolley a smash-and-grab situation. Take three of everything and get the hell out of the hallway. If you do get caught, just say you were out of shampoo, or, even better, toilet paper, and thought you'd save them the trouble by grabbing it for yourself."
Towels are the items that straddle the do-I-don't-I boundary, but from the hotels we spoke to, it is clear that they are certainly not yours to take. Despite a reported 68 per cent of British travellers confessing to towel theft, items that can and will be reused are out of bounds.
I spoke to the UK's Metropolitan Police about the law on towel-lifting. "It is a crime," its spokesman said. "If we were to receive allegations, we would follow them up." In practice, it appears most hotels would simply blacklist a guest over a petty theft and charge the items to their card.
In Japan, however, one hotel reportedly had a young couple arrested for running off with bathrobes and an ashtray, and a woman in Nigeria was sentenced to three months in prison for stealing two towels from the Transcorp Hilton Abuja Hotel.
Previous research in London's Telegraph has compiled a list of the most frequently stolen items, which includes light bulbs, batteries and kettles. I once met someone who claimed to systematically strip his hotel room of batteries as a matter of principle. Such is the sense of entitlement a little chocolate on the pillow instils in some customers.
When it comes to independent hotels, such as The Pig in Hampshire, I'm told "people like to walk off with the quirky things". While a foyer ornament makes for a memorable keepsake, some light-fingered guests at other hotels have shown a preference for more unusual mementos, including a grand piano, wheeled out of reception, and an owner's pet dog. One person in the United States turned up at the hotel with a removal van and took everything.
So how do hotels practise damage limitation without risking angering or embarrassing their guests? Many encourage you to buy the objects that take your fancy by selling them in the gift shop or online. "If the guest enjoys something enough to want to take it home with them," said Robert Thrailkill, general manager of the Conrad Miami, "they are welcome to do so, but at a charge."
In the US a couple of years ago, a few chains invested in electronic tags for their various luxury linens, in order to monitor the whereabouts of bed sheets and bathrobes. If it's tagged and you take it, you risk a naming and shaming when the alarm goes off.
And when it comes to toiletries, impracticality becomes the hotelier's ally. "The trend in luxury hotels is to go bigger and bigger with toiletry containers, so most guests don't or indeed can't take them, leaving them to be refilled," Elton said.
Ultimately, it seems you should use your better judgment, or, if your better judgment isn't up to much, ask the hotel, even if that means losing the little frisson of excitement you get as you wrap the hairdryer up in your pyjamas. But given the eternal allure of the freebie, I feel hotels are probably fighting a losing battle.
- The Telegraph, London
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