By Felix Legge –
I am not a thief. But when I find myself in the comfort of a hotel room swollen with tiny shampoo bottles and different sized 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. The gatherer instinct takes over and we become that man from The Road, combing our luxury wasteland for anything we can slip into our trolley. Only our morality and the size of the bag we brought stand in our way. Maybe I’ll need fifteen monogram paper bathmats. I don’t care if the word of God is meaningless to me in Russian. Those curtains would fit my shed.
David Elton, partner of Homegrown Hotels, a small hotel 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.”
But is it technically theft? Just what, in the eyes of the law, can we get away with taking?
I spoke to a number of hotel groups on the subject and the consensus seemed to be that toiletries are fair game. The assumption is if it cannot be reused then it can be taken. Likewise, small items with hotel logos, such as stationery, won’t be overly missed; you can assume you are providing a nice bit of publicity when you flash your stolen pencil on the bus.
If the free toiletries are what you want, then go wild, said Jacob Tomsky, author of the best-selling Heads in Beds, a memoir of ten years spent in the hotel industry.
“Hotels have plenty of items, all cute and travel-sized, waiting in store rooms and all you have to do is pick up the phone and ask. And checking out from the hotel isn’t like going through airport security. No respectable hotelier is going to want to pry open your luggage and search for shampoo. We hope you take the amenities. We want you to use them later and think of us.”
Indeed, he even condones taking your swag bag farther afield:
“Consider the unmanned housekeeper’s trolley a smash and grab situation. Pack your bags full of almond butter hand cream and guava face soap with espresso crisps. Take three of everything and get the hell out of the hallway. Even if you do get caught, just say you were out of shampoo, or, even better, out of toilet paper, and thought you’d save them the trouble by grabbing it for yourself.
“Think of it this way: these amenities are here for you, they are yours. We are in no position to dispute the claim that when you wash your hair you prefer to dump fifteen bottles of lavender and poppy seed shampoo all over your scalp like some gooey shower freak.”
Towels are usually the item that straddles the do-I-don’t-I boundary, but from the hotels we spoke to, it is clear that these 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 Metropolitan Police on the law regarding towel-lifting. “It is a crime,” its spokesman said. “If we were to receive allegations, we would follow them up.” In reality, it appears most hotels would be more likely to blacklist a guest over a petty theft, charge the items to their card, and save the police the trouble.
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 Abjua Hotel. So perhaps you should think twice next time the soft fabric starts testing your scruples.
Previous Telegraph Travel research has compiled a list of the most frequently stolen items. Among the more unhelpful items commonly taken are batteries, light bulbs 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 a customer.
When it comes to independent hotels, such as The Pig, in Hampshire, I’m told “people like to walk off with the quirky things”.
And while it’s true that a foyer ornament makes for a memorable keepsake, some of the most unusual items stolen also include a grand piano, wheeled out of the reception, and an owner’s pet dog. One person in America turned up at the hotel with a removal van and took everything. For a full list of the most bizarre items stolen from hotels, click here.
So how do hotels practice damage limitation without risking angering or embarrassing their guests?
Many, such as the Ritz-Carlton, encourage you to buy the objects that take your fancy by selling them in the gift shop or online. “A guest room should feel like a home away from home,” says Robert Thrailkill, general manager of the Conrad Miami. “If the guest enjoys something enough to want to take it home with them, they are welcome to do so, but at a charge.” If you see the coffee machine on sale in reception, they hope you’ll remove the one bulging from your wheelie-bag.
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 an 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”, said Mr Elton.
Ultimately, it seems you should use your better judgement, or, if your better judgement 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, and given that people with a questionable moral compass usually lack the self-awareness to realise it, I feel hotels are probably fighting a losing battle