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Sometimes when I check in at a hotel I am asked to drop the key at the reception before leaving the premises, even if I will stay longer. When this happens, I normally do like they ask me, but sometimes I forget and take the key with me the whole day. Even then, when I come back to the hotel in the evening I find my room cleaned and nothing different happens.

So why do some hotels ask you to always leave the key at the reception before you go out? This seems like a waste of time for both the reception and the guest, so I imagine there must be some advantage?

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    I can't cite sources so I am commenting instead of answering. This is how it used to be in previous decades, perhaps before universal keys or easy key copying existed. There may also be a customer service aspect. Asking for your key means more contact with the staff and a chance for them to be friendly, address any concerns, or sell additional services (like room service).
    – Freiheit
    Jun 28, 2016 at 21:29
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    I can imagine that this also helps if you need to do a fire evacuation during the day - you know who's not in their room.
    – pjc50
    Jun 29, 2016 at 9:26
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    What's this "key" of which you speak? I haven't been given a room key in 20+ years! I've received a plastic card which is programmed for the electronic door lock on my room, but a key? /hasn't traveled internationally in quite some time, maybe that's just a US thing
    – FreeMan
    Jun 29, 2016 at 12:38
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    @FreeMan Cheap European hotels often have a regular key as they haven't gotten around to upgrading their infrastructure. The very best hotels, on the other hand, don't even ask for your card back — they just deactivate it when you leave.
    – JonathanReez
    Jun 29, 2016 at 13:50
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    @MasonWheeler in South America I've almost always been asked to leave my key while going out at any hotel regardless of hotel level. Asked via the "hotel instructions" or verbally. In fact the box for the key behind the reception desk is ubiquitous and the hotel "rule" almost always tel you to to leave the key. This happens in low, mid, high-end hotels across Latin America but particularly in the south. I hate it. First off people are not always on the desk so I have to wait when I return (I notice many just reach over and grab it) but this means thieves can do the same. Jun 30, 2016 at 11:57

4 Answers 4

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I have encountered this practice in the past as well. Once I actually talked to them about the reason for it. In that particular hotel, this was encouraged, but not required. They explained that there were two reasons (for that particular hotel):

  1. It's much easier for them to know when the guests are out, so they can go and clean the room. They have had cases when the maid would knock on the door, receive no answer, and open the door with her own key -- just to find the guest still in the room, often in a state rather not expecting anyone to come in (this did include on a few occasions walking on people having sex)

  2. Minimise the risk of the key being lost/stolen. This reduces the cost in the long run - both in term of the keys/locks needing replacing, but also the liability. In that hotel, the keys were quite distinctive, clearly showing the hotel name and the room number on the key. If a key is lost, whoever finds it can just come in to the hotel, go to the room and steal something - and the guests would hold the hotel liable for the stolen property. The sign at the reception actually stated that the hotel would bear no responsibility for guests' property left in the room unless the key was handed to the reception upon leaving the hotel.

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    On the other hand, if I leave my key at the reception, a would-be thief wouldn't even need to steal it off of me -- just walk into the hotel and confidently demand the key for room number such-and-such. Unless the receptionist on duty happens to be the one who checked me in and happens to remember what I look like, they could waltz right in. I'd trust my ability to hold onto a key over a receptionist's ability to guess whom they should give the key to, any day. Jun 28, 2016 at 21:08
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    @HenningMakholm "remembering what people look like" is what receptionists do for a living (if only to make the job more interesting). If the person on the desk don't recognise you and doesn't ask for even the most basic ID (e.g. your name) before handing over a room key, you probably don't want to leave anything valuable in that hotel anyway.
    – alephzero
    Jun 28, 2016 at 22:46
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    I have never had a hotel receptionist ask for ID to get my key back, even when that receptionist had never seen me before. It seems like they're relying on thieves being too introverted to interact with the front desk?
    – stannius
    Jun 28, 2016 at 22:48
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    If a thief goes up to the front desk and asks for the key, they paint a giant target on themselves. Even if it works, there's at least one witness, and likely security camera footage. If it doesn't work, they're in a very awkward situation with nothing to show for it. It's much riskier than if someone just finds or pickpockets a key. Jun 28, 2016 at 23:52
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    @Alex: If the police did not look at the video, you have really shitty police. Jun 29, 2016 at 20:27
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Some hotels do like the keys to be left at the premises. That is just the way it is.

It is more work for them, to collect the keys and hand them back whenever you want to go to your room.
But they think it is worth it.

I have seen this when the keys or the keyfobs were quite expensive and in old fashioned/traditional hotels, where service is still valued.

All hotels have either a spare set of keys or a master key, or likely both. So no reason not to service the rooms. But hotel staff have told me that if the guest forgets to hand in the key when leaving, they have to have a new key made, which is a nuisance at least and can be costly in the longer run.

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In addition to the existing answers:

In budget hotels, it can save yet another bit of cost as they don't need to give out multiple keys per room. This has multiple advantages:

  • The cost of making the extra key
  • The hassle if even 1 of the keys gets lost
  • Because it is 1 key, you can force people to turn of the light when they leave the room (as they need to insert the keycard to make electricity work)
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  • 1) Any old card of the right size will activate the power, at least in the budget hotels you speak of. 2) What hotel can get away with only providing one key for budget reasons while still paying a full-time receptionist or two?
    – Lilienthal
    Jun 29, 2016 at 18:37
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    @Lilienthal: There are plenty places in the world where the full-time receptionists are unpaid family members of the owner. Jun 29, 2016 at 19:03
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Why do some hotels ask you to leave the key at the reception when you go out to come back later?

In the past (1970's/80's), for smaller hotels and pensions:

  • prevention of loss (they were rather ugly and heavy for a reason)
  • prevention of strangers 'wandering' around, where the reception is strategically placed near the main/only entry
  • telefon calls: with the then existing older systems where a manual connection was required, one simply told the caller that the guest was away if the key was there.

Hotels then often had a 'long memory', so people working there were often trained on what to look out for.

Maids would report to their Matron/Housekeeper and they would report to the receptionist anything that looked odd (the main source of the hotel grapevine that was very fast and often more extensive than strictly necessary).

Often, someone in the hotel knew how to exchange locks (and other general repairs), which would be done if a key was lost under suspicious circumstances. Thus a stolen key would no longer match the original room and become useless for a hotel thief. In the small hotel I worked at during my studies, the owner did this himself keeping track of all the exchanges. There were also spare keys/locks, so it could be quite some time until a stolen key would be used for another room.

So there were good reasons for this policy, which served not only the interest of the hotel but also of the guest (in public statements: the other way around).

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  • Why does it prevent strangers from wandering around?
    – Bernard
    Sep 23, 2021 at 9:52
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    @Bernard People basically have to report to the reception and state their business. If no valid reason is given, they are asked to leave. Reconnaissance methods for hotel thieves is: how easy is it to get in unobserved ; how easy is it to get a key. Professional hotel thieves would check this out beforehand. Sep 23, 2021 at 12:26

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