Ridiculous or not? The “myth” of the unchanged hotel sheets

No recent story has generated more hate mail than my investigation of hotels that don’t change their sheets between guests.

I use the term “investigation” lightly, since the topic was so well-covered by my colleagues that I simply reviewed some of the previous articles, told a few of your stories, and added my two cents — which is that a vast majority of hotel always change their sheets.

That didn’t go over very well with some of my readers.

“You apparently fancy yourself a crusading journalist a la Woodward and Bernstein,” scolded one hotel executive. “In fact, you’re at the vanguard of your own self-styled movement of coach-potato journalism.”

Ouch.

The executive went on to say that the sheet-changing story was nothing more than a myth, and berated me for not including any examples.

“I have worked in the lodging industry for 35 years and have never — repeat, never — heard of hotel, whether a budget or luxury establishment, that didn’t change it sheets between guest stayovers.”

I’m not going to embarrass this executive by naming him in my story, because it turns out, he’s wrong. But he makes a valid point. Why didn’t I include any real stories from hotel guests? And why not let someone from the industry address this issue?

Well, I did. In the online version, I linked back to a story on my site in which a woman complains about unchanged sheets on her bed. But it happened at a budget motel, where, as I say in the story, these things are thought to take place from time to time.

So was that just a single incident that made for and interesting story? Hardly.

Carolyn Golaszewski, a flight attendant for a major airline, wrote to me after the story appeared to say the dirty-sheets problem was widespread.

“Over my career, I’ve stayed in many a room that were not clean,” she told me. “Sometimes our layovers are less than nine hours so there’s no time to mess a room up. It’s still disgusting that I may be sleeping in a bed not made over. So to make sure it’s cleaned correctly I strip the bed I’ve slept in. I know it doesn’t help me but at least the next guest hopefully gets clean sheets.”

Michael Lynch, another hotel executive with more than three decades of experience, said the dirty sheets are likely just housekeeping errors, and aren’t done intentionally. And they can happen anywhere, “no matter what type of bedding or hotel.”

“It is, and always will be, buyer beware,” he added. “No industry can provide a 100 percent guaranteed clean product to its customer base. This is true from apple orchards to zebra ranchers.”

How about an example? I’m working on a changed-sheet case right now that is so disgusting, I can’t bring myself to publish all of the details. (Warning: If you are easily offended, stop reading now.) It comes to me by way of reader MA Schulman, who was a recent guest at a full-service hotel in Daytona Beach, Fla.

“I arrived close to midnight, and after unpacking, getting everything ready, I pulled back the sheet on the bed and there was a brown substance resembling human feces down the middle of the sheet,” he says.

In fact, it was human feces.

“I called the front desk and explained this, whoever answered said they would send someone up to take care of the problem. A few minutes later, a maintenance person showed up, dropped sheets, and left, I asked but they refused to change them,” he added.

Folks, it doesn’t get any worse than that.

I sent the angry hotel executive this letter and the links to my previous story, along with a polite explanation that essentially said I didn’t harbor any fantasies about being the next Woodward or Bernstein. (Actually, I don’t “fancy” myself as anything more than someone who helps consumers, but that’s beside the point.)

His reply was far more polite.

“I understand that we in the hospitality industry sometimes fall short of the mark,” he admitted. “However, it is helpful to remember that every day, tens of thousands of rooms in this country are cleaned by people who are proud of their work and graciously hospitable to their guests.”

Also, he said housekeepers worked long hours at low pay, yet still managed to bring a lot of “care and enthusiasm” to the job.

Fair enough.

But my conclusion is the same: While an overwhelming number of hotel beds are changed between guests, there’s always a chance your sheets will be recycled — or worse.

Note to commenters: It’s come to my attention that some of the discourse has been less than polite lately — in the words of one reader, too much “like FlyerTalk.” I would appeal to you to keep the conversation civil. Our commenters have a reputation for being level-headed and cordial. Please, let’s try to keep it that way.

(Photo: jon k/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 . Got a question or comment? You can post it on the new forum.

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  • Carver

    Seems to me that the hotel exec has a point. There are two different issues here. One is whether hotels purposely choose not to change the sheets for whatever reason or whether sheets are sometimes unchanged and why?

    As to the former, I do not believe that any hotel that I am likely to visit would purposely not change sheets. However, I can easily see a sheet changing fallling between the cracks, e.g. overworked housekeeping staff, systems errors, etc.

    That’s why I say the exec has a point. You don’t do justice to the hospitality industry by failing to seperate out the two.

    Now, if you want to talk about nasty, let’s talk about hotel bedspreads

  • Travelworks

    I used to work for a mail-order hotel/motel supply company. We special ordered brown sheets for a less-than-reputable roadside motel in Arizona. The owner told us he uses brown sheets because they did not have to be changed as often as white sheets.

  • john4868

    I tend to agree with @Carver on this story. There are two issue here:
    1. Accidents or poor housekeeping that leads to dirty sheets on the bed when the guest arrives. This could simply be sheets that didn’t get cleaned (ever find a dirty fork at a restuarant?) or poor housekeeping but not a policy of the hotel.
    2. Hotels that have adopted the policy to not change the sheets between every guest every time.

    The first I can excuse if the hotel corrects the problem and its not a pattern. The second is unacceptable.

  • phil

    I think stripping the bed before checkout would probably ensure a change of sheets for the next guest. Sometimes I have stayed in hotels and when getting ready for bed notice the bottom sheet has numerous wrinkles in it, not sure if this is because the fitted sheet has lost some of its tight fit around the mattress or something else

  • Jeanne_in_NE

    Thank you for the “Note to Commenters”. I try to not post anything on any forum that I wouldn’t show to my pastor, although from time to time I think he’d tsk, tsk me!

  • Dang Ph

    I spent around 60 nights every year in several hotels in the world, even in remote area like Vietnam, Thailand, Cuba, Morocco, Tahiti, Brazil etc… and many times in Cuba, but never had a unchanged sheets at arrival. It could be a myth, it could be a capricious customer… but I put the odd on the capricious side. Even then, in this case, I would promptly ask for a immediate change, not to complain later.

  • Dang Ph

    I agree that Hotels don’t change sheet every day but change absolutely between guests. I think this owner not talking about “between guests’

  • Chris in NC

    I also agree with Carver on this one. I don’t believe that any hotel would purposefully not change sheets between guests just to save money. Rather, what may be more widespread is poor housekeeping and/or poor management.

    Having spent numerous nights in hotels in my life, there are more than 1 occasion when I have been assigned a room that either a) was poorly cleaned or b) wasn’t cleaned. In most instances a call to the front desk results in an apology and moving to another room that was clean. Less common, someone (other than housekeeping, ie, front desk person), will come up and attempt to clean the room and change the sheets.

    Carver also makes another excellent point. Even though the sheets are changed, it is my understanding that bedspreads are not changed or washed between guests. Nor are the sofas sanitized. Probably the most germ laden item in your room is the remote control. What about the towels? If it doesn’t appear used, do you think the housekeeper will swap out the entire set of towels?

    When we stay in hotels, we are careful. We do perform a bedbug check and make sure the sheets are clean. But don’t get too paranoid!

  • cjr001

    In the end, the first unnamed exec also does a disservice to Christopher by making such a blanket statement. They personally haven’t heard of it happening, therefore, it never happens. That’s a little naive.

    The law of averages alone tells you that there is a motel/hotel *somewhere* that intentionally skimps on sheet changing, for whatever reason.

  • Chris in NC

    Jeanne, I was somewhat surprised by the note because I though the conversation had been quite civil. (at least in articles that I respond to) Then I saw the discussion forum on the TSA baby patdown.

    Going back, it seems that the TSA related articles engender strong feelings one way or another. Its a very polarized topic (which is why I steer away from commenting on those). Also interesting, I didn’t recognize most of the names in that discussion thread.

    While I may disagree with some of the posters, I do appreciate your insights!

  • Crissy

    I agree with @Carver about his 2 theories. I think any reputable hotel is changing their sheets between every guest. But that doesn’t mean that on occasion a housekeeper doesn’t miss or skip a room for a variety of reasons.
    @3cef93f591d618c03dd10e10da396899:disqus thanks for the tip, if I ever end up in a hotel with brown sheets, I’ll run away.

  • Chicky

    I guess I’ve been lucky. I’ve never stayed anywhere I thought the sheets had not been changed when I checked in. Having said that, I absolutely believe it can happen. The housekeeping staff is human, just like the rest of us, and I know it could happen. That being said, as another poster commented, as long as the hotel addresses the situation promptly and courteously, and it isn’t a pattern, I’m not going to worry too much about it.

  • Brooklyn

    Just last week I arrived at a hotel after a night flight, dropped off my bags
    and returned at the end of the day to find that the room had not been made up.
    That’s no big deal. The issue is whether housekeeping sometimes just smoothes
    over sheets that don’t look slept in, even though they have been, rather than
    changing them. I’m certain that this happens and it worries me, especially
    during flu season. Ditto for the bedspreads, which we know go unchanged for long periods of time. I wish hotels could be legally required to wash bedspreads after each guest; they could swich from the fancy quilted things to light, washable cotton or follow the practice of many European hotels and just use a duvet and no bedspread, changing the duvet cover each time.

  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_7GREA4BKYCXC45C4KARPGJXYVI Drew T

    Phil–I’ve noticed the same thing, at lots of hotels… I’ve done some investigations (at large, name-brand hotels… I end up normally just over 100 nights a year in a hotel due to work)… and have found that a lot of hotels don’t have fitted sheets. They just use flat sheets on both layers–I guess it’s cheaper and easier for them to just have one type of sheet?

  • Leeannewrites

    Chris in NC, agree that the TSA topics engender a lot of passion among commenters. That’s because many of us have been traumatized by horrific abuses at the hands of overzealous TSA agents. Experiences such as this are guaranteed to inspire strong feelings, and thus, strongly-worded comments.

    But we need as many people as possible to read these articles, offer their opinions, and read the experiences and opinions of others. So I hope you will not avoid these topics in the future.

  • bodega

    I have no doubt that this does happen. I actually had a client be detained at checkin at 11pm to a MIA hotel after flying in from CA, to finally get to her room and notice the bed rumpled and the sheets warm from someone having just been in her bed.

    Lately, I had also wondered about the towels that guests don’t use during their stay in a room but perhaps touched, lightly wiped hands on. So when we stay at a hotel. We make sure at the end of our stay, that all towels are crumpled and on the floor even if we haven’t used them. I might do this with sheets now, too. I have also been finding the complimentary toiletries have been opened and some used.

  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_JVORRILRMJBBK4PXEOPGG7HEIQ David D

    And then there are some hotels out there that don’t even bother to go in and clean the rooms every day. I experienced this at a small motel in the Duluth area a few years back when I was working in that area.
    It would also be interesting to attempt to separate out guests’ experiences based on the ownership of the hotels in question. One weekend I stayed in two different locations of a well-known budget hotel chain. At one, there was a language barrier and the room was not clean at all (funny smell, smudges on the tables and headboard, etc.) and I ended up enduring a mostly sleepless night on top of the bed fully clothed, and at the other, checkin was a breeze, the room was sparking clean, and I was out like a light in minutes.

  • Jeremy

    Keep in mind that they could have simply assigned you the wrong room! One time I arrived at a hotel in Australia to find a similar setting sheets rumpled, towels all over the place – except when I looked around more carefully I realized there was someone’s luggage there too! They had assigned me a room in use by another guest, who was out at the time, and coded my keycard for the same room. This experience makes me think twice about leaving valuables behind in a hotel room too…

  • http://dominicanrepublichotelsandresorts.com/ Spencer

    Interesting debate. I tend to agree with the idea of stripping the bed when you leave. That said one can’t rely on that as not everyone will do it I suppose so it really is up to the hotel.

  • Sam

    We stayed in Playa del Carmen, Mexico at a hotel on the beach in town. The maid didn’t put pillow cases on the pillows – the pillows were years old and stained; disgusting looking. We asked twice. I finally put my husband’s jacket over my pj’s and stomped down to the desk where the clerk gave me cases off pillows in a nearby room. Won’t be staying there again!!

  • Carver

    Strongly worded is one thing. Attacking those we disagree with is quite another.

  • Mark K

    I have never checked into a hotel and found sheets that appeared to have not been chenged since the previous guest. And I have stayed in lots of hotels over the years in every type of hotel from a Motel 6 to a Four Seasons including many privately owned (non chain) B&B type places and road side dumps. But appearances are not always actuallity. I like to believe my sheets are clean when I check in.

    As in every service oriented business these days, hotels are trying to do more with less. This means the housekeepers are pushed to clean even more rooms in ever shorter time frames so something has to get skipped if any problems are encountered along the way that prevent them from cleaning as many rooms per hour as they are assigned. So if a bed doesn’t appear to have been slept in, why not skip changing the sheets? If the towels in the bathroom appear untouched, why replace them with fresh ones? I don’t agree with pushing the help so hard that things get skipped, but then I’m not a hotel owner trying to make a buck.

    As far as hotels not cleaning the room every day during my stay, I’m OK with that as long as they clean the room completely between guests. There are several extended stay hotels that only clean the rooms every 4 days during your stay. I don’t have my house cleaned every day, so why should my hotel room get cleaned every day? I don’t mess up the hotel room more than I would my own house so cleaning the room every day is just not required. That said, I do appreciate having the towels replaced daily (especially at a beach hotel).

    There is one hotel chain, Hampton Inns I think, that was promoting the fact that they do change the entire bed covers, including the beadspread, between every guest. It must be bad in the industry when that is the selling point to get people to choose your hotel over others.

  • Cleome

    I find it very amusing that the hotel exec thinks that you shouldn’t say bad things about his housekeeping staff because he makes them work long hours for low pay.

  • Joelw

    A number of years ago my wife and I, having checked in earlier, returned quite late to our room at a Courtyard by Marriott. I had just settled into bed when my wife yelled “Get out of the bed!” Not sure of what transgression I might have been guilty of, I jumped up. It turned out that she had found pubic hairs in the bed which obviously had not been changed. Not only was it near midnight but it was also Christmas eve and needless to say there were very few staff people around. We were given new sheets but had to make the bed ourselves. While we were very angry at the moment,we realized in retrospect that with all the checkiouts and checkins earlier in the day that our room must have been inadvertently skipped. The hotel comped the room without being asked and we have joked about this ever since.

  • Ajaynejr

    Are we sure that the laundering of the sheets and towels was that good?

    Maybe the pubic hairs went into the washing machine and did not get filtered out and landed on one set of freshly washed sheets that then went onto a bed.

    Solid and gelatinous filth (including vomitus) really needs to be scraped off before the sheets and towels go into the washing machine. 

    Another dilemma arises when there are two beds and the guest uses only one. The guest may have mussed up the other bed but puts it back as carefully as he can so the bed looks unused. Then the housekeepr does not change that bed and the next guest finds evidence suggesting the bed was not changed.

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

    I once stayed at a hotel where there was a used condom in the sheets. It was clear to me that the condom had been through the washer and dryer, but had somehow stuck itself (dry latex is a bit grabby) to the bottom of the flat sheet. I don’t blame housekeeping for this as they are likely very efficient with changing sheets and are unlikely to notice such a thing.

    I requested a room change or a linen change, but still intended to pay for the room. The hotel was professional enough to comp the room.

    These things happen. Heck, I’m more likely to get unchanged-between-guest sheets when staying with friends or family than with a hotel, though. Especially some of my friends who seem to constantly have a guest over but neither have washer and dryer in their place nor a linen closet of immense proportions.

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

     I could not agree more strongly with what you said about having the room cleaned during your stay. It goes so far beyond a simple “Like”, that I had to comment. :)

  • LarryB

    Every time I’ve stayed in a nice hotel, the sheets have been fresh upon arrival. Budget hotels, not so much. Last summer, I stopped at a chain, budget motel in Spearfish, SD. It was the most disgusting hotel room I had ever been in. Filthy carpet, mold and mildew, reeked of smoke even though it was nominally non-smoking, and the sheets were full of hair. Not just a few strands, but lots of long, black hair. I was too tired to look for someplace else, and the front desk had a “we’re full – tough luck attitude”. (Bike week in Sturgis was that week.) I put some towels on top of the bedspread and slept fully clothed.

    People who think every hotel always changes its sheets between guests are deluding themselves.