Ridiculous or not? Housekeeping secrets of your hotel towels

Christa Webster doesn’t trust her hotel towels. And with good reason.

She lived in a hotel for a year and a half, and still travels frequently. Webster says just because the towel is folded on the rack doesn’t mean it’s clean. Once unfurled, she, like other hotel guests I’ve spoken with, has discovered the towel in various states of uncleanliness — soiled, discolored or covered with hair.

“I inspect them carefully and then wet the ones I’m getting rid of to make sure they give me new ones,” she says.

I recently investigated the hygiene of hotel sheets on this site and found that while most linens are changed between guests, some aren’t. After the series, readers urged me to look at towels, too. They said towels could be a far bigger problem, since hotels often urge guests to recycle those items.

Here’s what should happen: The standard operating procedure is for towels and sheets to be changed between every guest, according to Joe McInerney, president of the American Hotel & Lodging Association. Towels are also swapped out every day at some, but not all properties.

“Some do, some don’t,” he says. “It’s a management decision.”

But what about the hotels with the little signs that encourage you to re-use your towels? McInerney says housekeepers generally err on the side of not recycling, because changing towels is something so ingrained in their training.

I wondered about one scenario in particular, which several readers had brought to my attention: What happens on the day of checkout, when your room is serviced in the morning and you leave a few hours later. Say you washed your hands and used the edge of one of the clean towels, without disturbing the clean-folded look. Will your hotel still change it?

“If they don’t look like they have been disturbed, the towels are not changed out between guests,” says Richard Adie, the general manager of The Statler Hotel at Cornell University. “It certainly depends on the judgment of the housekeeper.”

So it’s possible — however remotely — that you could end up with a towel another guest has used.

But McInerney says it’s unlikely. “Most guests aren’t that tidy, and housekeepers can tell when a towel has been used,” he says.

That’s not the experience of at least one guest I talked to. Ursula Aspel recently stayed at a large upscale Las Vegas hotel. She says the towels looked clean, “but they smelled like Doritos.”

“By the third day of my stay, I had red bumps on my torso,” she says. The diagnosis? Scabies, a contagious skin disease caused by a species of mite, and better known as the “seven year itch.”

She filed a claim with the hotel, but was rejected.

“Today I’m scarred,” says Aspel. “I have dark spots on my torso, arms and thighs. I will never wear a sleeveless dress.”

Other guests corroborate her account in at least one respect: They believe housekeepers are rewarded for changing as few towels as possible.

Mary Rhoades, who recently traveled to Houston for a Scrabble tournament, found her hotel only offered one set of towels. She was sharing the room with another attendee. Repeated requests for a new set were not answered. Finally, she swiped a new set from a housekeeping cart.

“After my roommate complained in person to the desk, we were given vouchers for a comped breakfast,” she says.

Some travelers take extra precautions, just in case they check into a room with slightly-used towels. Jo Gilbert, a frequent traveler, says most of her towels have been clean. “In some cases, I’m better off with my quick-dry travel towel,” she adds.

(Photo: kirst yhall/Flickr Creative Commons)

Christopher Elliott

Christopher Elliott is an author, journalist and consumer advocate. You can read more about him on his personal website or contact him at chris@elliott.org. Got a question or comment? You can post it on the new forum.

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  • Arizona Road Warrior

    “I wondered about one scenario in particular, which several readers had brought to my attention: What happens on the day of checkout, when your room is serviced in the morning and you leave a few hours later.”
    – – – – – – – – – – – – –
    Over the years, I have had several late check-outs (1:00 PM to 3:00 PM) and the hotel room was cleanedserviced when Iwe left the room NOT before.

  • http://theinfamousj.livejournal.com/ TheInfamousJ

    I am still reminded of the adage, “If you dry a clean body with a clean towel, you have a wet, yet clean, towel.”

    Of course that saying was from my mother, explaining why reusing towels would cut down on the amount of laundry that needs to be done, rather than aimed at hotels …

    Still, I feel that these are isolated incidents caused by humans – to err is human – rather than a matter of industry policy. I won’t lose sleep over the fact that the corner of my hotel towel may have been used to dry someone’s cleaned hands.

  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_KZU5PFY7PT5C2KTS5IPRIPKXII Andrew

    The voting here, in my opinion, is flawed…
    If there was a “maybe, depending on the circumstances”, then I’d vote that.
    I often “recycle” my towels–since I usually stay for 2-3-4 nights.  I hang them on the back of the door or across the towel rack.  More often than not, even if there is a “hang your towels to reuse them” sign, I still end up with a fresh set of towels–in this case, I’d rather they NOT be replaced.  OTOH, I’ve been to places where I’ve left them on the floor to be replaced, and I’ve walked back in to find a fresh set of towels on the rack, and the towels STILL on the floor (and these are not “cheap” properties.. these are Marriotts and Hiltons).  In one case, I took the towels (reeking, after they’d been on the floor all day soaking wet, and the housekeeper had “graciously” turned off the a/c in my room–leaving the room at 90+ degrees all day) to the front desk….

    Generally, I would say yes, they need to be replaced.
    I’d actually like to see (and I’ve seen this in some hotels in Asia) a band around the towels, much like you used to see bands around the toilets, certifying that the towels are clean and sanitary.

  • D65gto

    for 20 years I have spend weekends in motels up and down the east coast from Motel 6 to Hyatt’s.  I have made it a habit to bring my own sheets, blanket, pillow and towels (I travel in a truck) because I find hotel linens are sceevy.

  • Brooklyn

    Whether towels should be replaced daily isn’t the issue; especially in arid regions, it’s more ecological to reuse them if the guest agrees and hangs them back on the towel rack or over the shower rail (you leave them on the floor or in the tub if you want them changed).  The question is whether they should be changed between guests, and that’s a no-brainer! 

  • NeedsAVacation

    ” I am still reminded of the adage, “If you dry a clean body with a clean towel, you have a wet, yet clean, towel.”  ”
    Are you kidding?  Do you think scabies, lice, and other infectious conditions wash off in the shower?  

  • MikeZ

    That’s not the experience of at least one guest I talked to. Ursula Aspel recently stayed at a large upscale Las Vegas hotel. She says the towels looked clean, “but they smelled like Doritos.”
    “By the third day of my stay, I had red bumps on my torso,” she says. The diagnosis? Scabies, a contagious skin disease caused by a species of mite, and better known as the “seven year itch.”

    Sorry, but when you are in a room that is most likely occupied 300+ days of the year and when in Vegas with all those people, determining what you got was because of the towels is a bit of a stretch. So was she trying to say that the towels weren’t changed the entire time and that she never asked for new ones? Just doesnt make sense.

  • BillC

    As far as I know the towels have always been clean in the hotels that I have stayed in. I don’t carry out any extended examination though.

    As far as Ursula is concerned, was this her doctor’s diagnosis that towels that may or may not have smelled of Doritos caused scabies three days later? This is the type of anecdote that sends me around the bend. I would have rejected her claim as well.

  • Carver

    Same here..  Thus for me this has been a non-issue

  • DebbyNYC

    When I use a towel after my room is made up but before I check out I ALWAYS dump it in the tub/floor to make sure that someone coming behind me knows it’s been used. It’s the only proper thing to do. And like others, I like to save water on cleaning but its been my experience no matter how many times I hang things up to say “I’ll re-use” they always change them out. All you can do is try I suppose!

  • emanon256

    A few years ago I was staying in a very upscale hotel in Times Square for four nights a week for close to a year.  They usually put me in the same room every week, so I decided to try an experiment. They always had two hanging towels by the shower, and one rolled up towel in a cubby next to the sink.  I placed one of the hotel pens inside the rolled up towel in a way that it was visible if you bent down to look closely.  For several weeks, every time I came back, the pen was still in that towel.  It could be that no one was in the room over the weekends, but still, after I checked out, I would expect that they replace all of the towels just in case it was not me checking in next.  There were many times that without even thinking, I would dry my hands on the rolled up towel because it was closer to the sink than the hand towels.  After my experiment I stopped doing this, because I realized many other people could have done the same thing.

  • Sadie Cee

    Change the towels and all linen daily.  Otherwise, it will be too easy to make a mistake that results in not changing them between guests.  Most bacteria multiply in a warm, moist environment and thus diseases are spread.  We can save the environment in other safer ways – by not smoking and by not using plastic bags, for instance. 

    During my stay in a hotel when I use a towel in the morning, I make sure it is wet and I leave it on the floor.  That way I feel safer believing that the replacement towel on the rack when I return is a clean one.  At the end of my stay, I place all the towels on the floor to make sure that they are changed before the next guest arrives.  I always travel with my own facecloth.  Now I think I will bring along my own towels as well.

    Also, as a result of a thread here several years ago, I never leave my toothbrush in the bathroom during my stay. One former hotel housekeeper revealed that in her experience some disgruntled staff use the guests’s toothbrush to clean all areas of the bathroom (to put it delicately).



  • http://travelingwinechick.com/ Elizabeth Smith

    I do the same as DebbyNYC, I put used towels in the floor or tub in a pile for housekeeping. But who knows how long the towels neatly folded on the rack have been there supposedly “unused.”  Every time I hear these stories about unchanged linens and towels, I am creeped out.

  • John Keahey

    Your poll is a bit ambiguous. Changed every day if the same guest is in the room? No. Changed between guests? Most certainly.

  • Phil

    I think the best way to ensure a towel is not re-used by the next guest is to put it on the floor. I have not experienced my room be cleaned prior to a late check out. IF the room has been cleaned prior to me checking out, any towel I might use will end up on the floor. If the hotel is not going to look after the next guest perhaps we should look out for each other by ensuring a used towel is never put back on the towel rack when checking out.

  • Steve R

    Also the same here…I have never had my room serviced prior to leaving on the day of checkout. It doesn’t really make sense, since the housekeepers have to clean more thoroughly between guests than they do in the middle of a stay.

  • sara8032

    While I voted yes, it’s not quite what I’d LIKE to answer – the option I’d like wasn’t there. As another commenter said;
    “Changed every day. No. Changed between guest, most definately!”

  • Steve R

    If anything, I’ve noticed that housekeepers tend to replace towels unnecessarily during my stay. I always hang my towel up to dry (I don’t use a new one every day at home, so why do so at a hotel?) and despite the signs in the room stating that towels that are hung up won’t be replaced, I come back to fresh towels.

    I agree that hotels should definitely change the towels between guests. I don’t know that they should replace perfectly good towels that apparently haven’t been disturbed, though. The average hotel room I’ve stayed at has at least 3 bath towels (I’ve never quite figured out why so many give 3 as opposed to 2 or 4), plus hand towels, plus washcloths. Personally, I only use 1 bath towel and 1 hand towel. It seems awfully wasteful to re-wash the others that I didn’t touch. (And I make it very clear upon checkout which ones have been used; they go on the bathroom floor).

    As for the possibility of someone wiping their hands on a corner of a folded towel and that towel being left for the next guest: sure, it’s possible. I’m not losing any sleep over it, though. If someone is so disease-ridden that I’m going to catch something from a towel they used a small corner of to dry their clean hands, then chances are I should be more concerned about other areas of the room that I know aren’t cleaned between guests (light switches, etc). Of course, I would not want to reuse a towel that someone else used more extensively, but as I said, I find the likelihood of that pretty low based on the fact that they usually replace towels that I was going to reuse myself.

  • bodega

    A lot of hotels have gone to placing towels below the sink.  When you wash your hands and reach down to get a towel, water from your hands easily falls onto the other towels.  When I noticed this, I started placing all towels on the floor before we left for the day or when we are checking out.  With conservation and budget cutting, I can see today’s guests getting last nights guest’s towels.  I have also found many of the complimentary toiletries to have been opened and put back for the next guest to use.

  • Monica

    I like the hotels that ask you about changing towels. Several hotels I’ve stayed at recently say that if you want clean towels, leave them on the floor. If you are willing to reuse your towel again, just hang it over the side of the tub/shower and they will refold it and hang it back up. I honestly don’t mind reusing my own towels, but DEFINITELY between guests it should be changed. Period.

  • Cliffordpwoodrick

    Several years ago, we stayed at three high excellent chain hotels in Canada while on a tour. We also got scabies but I would suspect the bedding rather than the towels. I never received a response from any of the three hotels when I informed of the problem. Our doctor stated that we could have picked up the mites at any of the three based upon when we saw her. Clean hotel rooms are a problem.

    Have a wonderful mitefree day – Cliff

  • Michael K

    I’ve personally seen this occur although I wouldn’t say it’s common.

    At one particular hotel where I stayed several times in 2006 — the Princeton Hyatt — housekeeping would regularly seek to enter to fix up the room, change towels, bedding, etc. around 7:30am, regardless of whether it was checkout day or not.  It prompted me to inquire out of pure curiosity at the front desk:  How  do they ensure that the next guest has clean sheets, towels etc.?  What if I am at breakfast and come back to shower or use the bed afterwards?  Do they come back and clean the room a second time after checkout?  If so, why bother cleaning it at 7:30am also?  The employee I spoke to was pretty defensive.  He insisted that all rooms are cleaned between guests but did not provide direct answers to my questions.To be clear and fair, I never noticed any problems with the cleanliness of the sheets or towels at this hotel during any of my stays.

    I can easily imagine how it could happen though.  Especially when the hotel (as this one did) allows “automatic” check out.  They can never be certain that you’ve left (until I suppose such hour that they’ve automatically deactivated cards from the previous day and verify that you are not physically in the room).

  • Dmarshak

    As a veterinarian, I can tell you that a human can’t get scabies from a towel.  Either that woman made up the diagnosis, her dermatologist was talking about a different disease, or she got scabies from a dog.  The scabies mite can’t live on humans, and it certainly can’t survive on a towel.

  • Livermorebrianc

     Uhm, you have absolutely no idea what you’re talking about. There might be different types of canine scabies that can’t live on a human host but humans MOST DEFINITELY can get scabies. I’ve had them, it isn’t fun. They itch like you wouldn’t believe. BELIEVE ME.

    Scabies are usually transferred from human to human intimate contact OR can live up to 5-7 days  (in this case, I would suspect the bedspread over towels) off the host.


  • MikeZ

    I honestly do not know either way who is right, but I find it very funny how people quote Wiki as being the ultimate source of correct info over someone who works in a relevant field.

  • SallyLu

    I like the idea of a band around the clean towels.  I’ve never had a problem, but I think that would put some minds at ease.

  • Livermorebrianc

    Mike, because it was the first site that popped up on my search.

    Perhaps the Center for Disease control would convince you:


    If you care for some other sources:


    I’m glad you have so much faith in someone who claims to be a veterinarian on the web. I can claim to be a nuclear physicist but it won’t make a false statements any less false. You may not like my source but at least I provided some independent data to support my claim.

  • emanon256

    A human can get human scabies from a towel, or sheet, or another human.  They can live for a few days outside of a human body.

    A human cannot get scabies from a dog. Its a different mite. 

  • Lacalvina

    I’d be happy to reuse my towels, but there is usually nowhere to hang them up to dry. I always throw them on the floor to make sure they are laundered.

  • Guest

    Why change a towel on the rack that is still folded up from the last service?

  • Brooklyn

    Because every time the toilet is flushed, the whole room is sprayed with a fine mist of the toilet’s contents.  Bad enough that it’s your own fecal matter – do you want someone else’s on your towel?

  • Guest

    I’m gonna puke….

  • flutiefan

    uh-oh, you might outrage those TSA activists on this site who blast the argument “If it has never happened to me, then it must have never happened”!  watch out AZRW!

  • flutiefan

    while Wiki may not be the best source of info, i can assure you that humans CAN get scabies.  in college, my boyfriend and i contracted them from sheets (we believe…there were certainly NO DOGS around us anywhere at any time).  they are certaily itchy and obnoxious, but i never got scarred from them, as poster Ursula claims.  a few weeks of treatments (and a recurring treatment a couple months later), and they were gone.

  • flutiefan

    not sure how being a vet qualifies you to report on skin mites.   but yes, i have had them, and they are quite uncomfortable.  and no, i am not a dog.

  • http://theinfamousj.livejournal.com/ TheInfamousJ

    I wouldn’t define scabies, lice, or infections as a clean body …

  • http://grouptravel.org John Conner

    Hotels I know don’t even enter the room on the day of checkout till you have actually left. Even if it is a late checkout, housekeepers should not be entering the room till the guest has actually checked out. It makes the process a lot simpler.

  • Pammers1216

    I always empty the towel bars when I check out of my room and throw the towels in the bathtub. That way I figure they’ll be replaced for the next guest. I will do that when I check into a hotel too if I have an extended stay. I’ll check the towels, use one or two, toss the rest into the tub in the morning and get fresh towels. 

  • Gina

    I concur.  I have many late checkouts, and I won’t even allow them to clean the room before I check out.

  • Gcbfit4life

    Yes, the same way they put bands around the toilettes.