Monday, January 19, 2009

Hotel Key-ed Off Cards

Once again, I had to suffer the inconvenience of a hotel room key card that didn't work. This happens probably once a month. You know what I'm talking about, those little credit card sized pieces of plastic that are coded to open your hotel room door. Sometimes they don't work the first time, sometimes they don't work later on in a stay. They are the topic of today's post. By the way, it's an urban legend that these keys are coded with enough personal information for someone to commit identity theft.
I should have known something was wrong with my key when I went down to the fitness center before breakfast, and the key didn't unlock this door (often your room key is used for other doors throughout the hotel - especially to open a back door after dark). I thought it might be because someone inside the center had locked the bolt in order to have a private workout (I could hear weights clanking). After all, I did get into my room the night before (note: but I was issued two keys - and the other one that I must have used the night before still worked when I checked it later).

So I had to call the front desk and waited til security came up to let me in to the gym. I should have saved myself this wait, and the time after the workout it took for me to go up to my room, try the ineffective key, and go back downstairs to the front desk by just admitting I had a problem and needed a new key right off. So after my workout, I needed to go get a new key to my room. In the interest of security (trust me, I have no problem with this), the clerk asked me for my ID, which I don't carry to work out. So I had to go back upstairs and wait for security to let me into my room. This will always happen when one doesn't have a lot of spare time, right?

At least the clerk didn't ask me if I had erred by putting the key next to my cell phone (which will demagnetize it). Since I stay at hotels more than 200 nights/year, I know not to do this. Sometimes, the clerk, or the machine, just doesn't encode the key correctly. This is especially frustrating at the end of a long day, after wheeling your suitcases to your room at the end of a very long hallway, to find that your key doesn't work. So you have to backtrack down to the front desk, get a new key, and then repeat the trip to your room. I once made this trip 3 times!

Most keys contain only a room number, a departure date and a "folio," or guest account code—although other data may be stored on them as well. The door locks, which are stand-alone, battery-powered devices, each contain a sequence of lock
codes. The sequence advances when an expired card is swiped or a new card inserted. The lock also logs when a guest, maid or other hotel employee has
entered the room. Hotel door locks aren't wired back to the systems at the front desk. Therefore, if a card is lost and a new card is issued, the room remains unprotected until the new card is inserted into the lock and it resets. Hotels use card-key locks because they are relatively inexpensive, make rekeying easy, include a time limit and provide an audit trail of room access.
As far as the cell phone problem (just in case one is - in a hotel clerk's opinion - stupid enough to do this), I found this blog post that covers this topic with a lot of discussion about the magnets used in blackberrys, which is what can scramble the magnetic code in the card.

The initial inquiry:

I have an persistent problem with my keycards for hotel rooms deactivating. The hotel chain does not matter -Starwood, Hyatt, Hilton-all the cards deactivate. My husband claims it because I store them in my wallet which I then put in my purse which also holds my blackberry. I say that although his theory for deactivation is possible, it is ridiculous that this happens. Where else would I supposed to store my room key except my wallet? So, my question(s) to you: do other people have this problem? Is the problem largely limited to women (or men) who carry purses which contain both their wallet and cellphone/blackberry? Can hotels fix this issue? And most importantly, is there anything I can do to prevent this-aluminum foil around the card or some other crazy hack?
The comments on this post go on and on, but if you have the time to read them, they are pretty insightful, especially from the irate hotel clerks.

Cases and flip-phone closures aren’t the only part of mobile phones with magnets… the earpiece speaker has one, too. (and if there’s an external speaker for speakerphone features, it will have one as well). It’s a fairly strong magnet at that: many mobile phones are now using neodymium rare earth magnets which are extraordinarily strong for their size. The reason is that you need a good magnet to operate the speaker (and get quality audio), and neodymium magnets allow phone manufacturers to keep the size small. It’s easily possible that the magnet present in the Blackberry’s earpiece is the source of magnetic deactivation. Couple that earpiece with a mag stripe on the hotel card which is designed for continuous alteration (as opposed to the stripe on ATM/Credit Cards which is set only once), and you’ve got a good recipe for futzing up the card.

  • But this is a very long way to go to get to my point, which is: It is conceivable that the guest of the hotel might have inadvertantly decoded their card or made some other error. However, it doesn't take much for an employee of any company, for any reason, to say, "I'm sorry." These are very magical words. I have for many years worked in customer service even before I started getting paid for it. Saying "I'm sorry" on behalf of a company just means, "I apologize that you were inconvenienced." It doesn't mean necessarily that the employee is saying, "It's my fault." It goes along way in smoothing ruffled feathers. Most people just want to know someone has a little sympathy for their situation.


  1. I've had the same problem, especially when I'm on a layover with a late checkout. Inevitably I'll go grab some lunch, come back to the room after the normal checkout time, and the darn key doesn't work!!!!

  2. At Oshkosh last summer Dave Higdon's room key failed almost every single evening of the 10 days we were there.

    We thought it was pretty entertaining, but he got fairly hot when he had to go back to the desk, sometime multiple times, to get a new key.

    After a few days he started visiting the desk on the way in each evening and just getting a new key by default.