Why don't hotels let you open your room's windows?

All I wanted to do was open my hotel window.

I was visiting Hong Kong for the first time in the month of February, a seasonal sweet spot when the air temperature was cool and relatively dry. Way up high in a boutique hotel tower in Tin Hau, I fancied some fresh air to go with the natural light flooding my austere but chic room.

But first, I had to sign a waiver.

The room's window had a handle, but it was locked. When I rang reception they told me they'd be happy to unlock it for me – if I'd sign a piece of paper promising to accept all responsibility. It felt like I had to promise not to fall out (or words to that effect). It seemed odd, but I signed and soon had my supply of fresh-ish urban air.

At least the window could be opened. To my dismay as I've travelled around the world over the past decade, it's become more common for hotel rooms to have windows that can't be opened. At all. Not even after pulling a sad face at reception, or resorting to outright pleading.

I hate staying in hotels where the windows don't open. If I have to leave the air-conditioning on for airflow, I end up feeling dehydrated, as if suffering from a hangover. If I leave the air-con off I feel suffocated, and develop a different kind of headache. Either way it's awful. Aren't hotels supposed to be a "home away from home"? What home has windows that can't be opened?

Why do they do it? I've given up asking hotel staff about this, because the answers range from nonsensical to unlikely. A common explanation involves danger: that by opening windows, guests will soon be falling out of them – by accident or on purpose.

This over-the-top response gives pause for thought. I've stayed in plenty of hotels which compromise between a full-open window and the sealed variety, by enabling it to open ten centimetres or so. Enough for some ventilation, but a challenge to fall through.

I suspect the real reason is the obvious one, when dealing with any price-sensitive, customer-facing business: cost. Openable windows have hinges and other moving parts which require maintenance, and they let in dust and other random particles which add to a room's wear and tear.

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More significantly, open windows affect the efficiency of a building's air-conditioning system, which might explain why unopenable windows are most commonly found in brand-new hotel towers resembling corporate office blocks.

The unopening hotel window seems more common in the USA, where they at least have decent air-conditioning if you're forced to live without fresh air. In Europe, you're still likely to find hotels with windows that can be opened. However, the plague is creeping in even there.

On a recent UK trip I stayed in a Manchester hotel within a newly built glass and steel tower. The geniuses which designed it had managed to combine the worst aspects of two continents: the unopenable hotel windows of North America, and the feeble air-conditioning of Europe. My west-facing room was uncomfortably warm in the afternoon, in an unseasonably sunny summer.

Whatever reasons motivate hotels to seal up their windows, there's one thing I'm sure of – no guest actively wants windows that can't be opened, nor has ever asked for a room with that feature. So it's up to we travellers to prompt change, if we want it.

If, like me, you can't stand a hotel room deprived of fresh air, here's a checklist when considering a booking. First, ring the hotel to see if it has rooms where the windows can be opened; if you ask, they may book you into one of these, or into a room with balcony doors which can be left open at night.

If it's difficult to contact the establishment, have a browse through the TripAdvisor reviews for the hotel, searching within them via the keyword 'window'. Fellow sufferers are sure to have mentioned if the windows can't be opened.

Older hotels are often a good bet for openable windows, though you can't always rely on this; there's nothing sadder than a window frame in a grand old establishment whose handles have been welded shut.

If you do get stuck in a room that's made unpleasant by the absence of an opening window, say so on a review site. If enough people do so, it might prompt a rethink among hotel chains and their contracted designers. We might even get some windows reopened in those vintage hotels.

You can at least thank your lucky stars you haven't endured a room that follows the latest fringe hotel trend, as reported in the Wall Street Journal in August this year – rooms without any windows at all! That really is my idea of hotel window hell.

See also: Why do hotels think guests want to see each other use the bathroom?

See also: The best and worst new features you'll find in modern hotels

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