15 Instant Red Flags in Hotels According to Travelers

Tired of booking bad hotels? Here are 15 red flags to look out for, as discussed by travelers in a recent online forum.

A good hotel sets the foundation for a good vacation. Everything from the location and amenities to top-notch service and the general vibe makes your trip infinitely more enjoyable.

Conversely, staying in a bad hotel can spoil the experience. Uncleanliness, rude staff, subpar facilities, and many other negative factors can blight your visit – especially when you’ve paid good money to stay there.

So how do you separate the wheat from the chaff? What are some tell-tale signs a hotel isn’t up to scratch? I recently found an online forum where travelers revealed the red flags they look out for. Many of their responses were insightful, so I thought I’d share 15 of the best.

1. Young Employees

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One person made an interesting point about the average age of workers at large hotels. Apparently, they’re always wary when they don’t see “a single employee over the age of 20-23.”

In their experience, it suggests the hotel manager has decided to hire as cheaply as possible, which has always translated to awful service. The fact everybody’s young also implies that older, more experienced, and better employees have chosen to leave. What does that say about the hotel?

2. Low Price

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As the old saying goes, if it sounds too good to be true, then it probably is. Be suspicious if every hotel in a particular place costs X, but the one you’re looking at (with similar amenities) is charging considerably less.

There’s usually a reason for that discrepancy in price. Maybe there’s construction happening, the hotel’s undergoing renovations, or the service is appalling. Either way, you’ll likely get what you pay for.

Similarly, there could be hidden costs. The hotel could be trying to get your attention with a lowball room price without advertising the parking charges, Wi-Fi charges, and other fees.  

3. Questionable Responses from Owners on Online Reviews

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Checking online reviews is essential when booking somewhere you’ve never been before. Other than a word-of-mouth recommendation, it’s the only way to find out what a hotel is really like.

When reading them, people in the forum suggested paying close attention to responses from the owner/manager—especially to negative reviews. One wrote: “If they attack the negative reviewers at all, stay away.”

4. Brown Spots on the Mattress

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Bed bugs are a hotel guest’s worst nightmare. Nobody wants to share a room with creepy crawlies that suck your blood and infest your clothes.

In good hotels, you’d hope this wouldn’t be an issue. But there’s no harm in looking out for the tell-tale signs of them. As somebody on the thread mentioned, any “little dark brown spots near the top of the bed, below the mattress or in the mattress seams” are bad news.

5. Bulletproof Glass Around Reception

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Nothing says “you’ll be safe here” quite like bulletproof glass. Any hotel that feels the need to protect its reception area this way is basically holding up a sign telling patrons it can be dangerous.

It might be standard practice at some establishments, and everything else about the place might be fine. But it’s not exactly comforting to observe. It makes you wonder what they’re expecting to happen, or who your room neighbors might be, or what could happen overnight…

6. The Smell of Poor Ventilation

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For one person (and almost 4,800 others who upvoted the comment), the smell of poor ventilation as soon as you enter a hotel is another instant red flag. Makes sense, too. You want the hotel to smell as clean and fresh as it (hopefully) looks.

Poor ventilation is a recipe for trouble in hot and humid destinations, too. It can also cause mold and indicate poor air quality – both of which provide a perfect environment for nasty infestations. Finally, that smell may also imply a lack of maintenance.

7. The Smell of Lysol

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Leading on from the previous comment, others noted that a strong smell of Lysol or other air fresheners is a bad sign. Aside from the chemicals hanging in the air, it makes you wonder what they’re trying to hide.

They wrote: “It’s fine around the house when someone has been sick or something, but a lot of cheap motels use it. It indicates maybe they use the Lysol instead of a proper cleaning and to hide god-knows-what odors or nastiness.”

8. Warnings from Locals

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Online reviews are invaluable, but it’s still hard to know what a hotel’s like before you arrive. Likewise, when you’re not rolling in money, it’s tempting to book somewhere as cheap as possible.

Some people described situations where their first clue that they’d chosen poorly came from local residents warning them about the hotel. Examples included Uber drivers asking if they were sure they wanted to go there and cops explaining they should book elsewhere.

9. Poor Recent Reviews

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This sounds like an obvious red flag, and it is, but it’s worth talking about. Basically, instead of taking a high star rating at face value, make sure you sort hotel reviews on booking sites by “most recent” for a more accurate depiction of what you’ll experience.

Indeed, the average rating might look fantastic, thanks to historic reviews. However, something may have changed (e.g., it has new owners) that has dragged the standard down. You see the 4.8/5 stars and assume it’s excellent, failing to realize the latest reviews give it one star.

10. Unusual Practices

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One person described how one of the worst hotels they’d stayed at served breakfast from 9 am. When he expressed his surprise at how late that was (he had meetings in town before that time), the hotelier asked if they wanted breakfast right then instead. It was 8 pm, and they weren’t joking.

Obviously, this is a very specific red flag you’ll probably never experience! But you may encounter other oddities that cause you to raise an eyebrow. Consider calling up prior to booking to ask a few questions and get a sense of the hotel’s professionalism. If you get strange vibes, book elsewhere.

11. Selective Photos – Inside

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They say an image is worth a thousand words, and the photos of a hotel in its web listings can reveal a lot about it. However, sometimes you have to read between the lines. One person on the thread wrote:

“An easy red flag is when you’re looking a place over online and there are absolutely no photos of the exterior or street/neighborhood, just generic-looking photos of beds and the breakfast room.” It makes you wonder what they’re not showing you.

12. Selective Photos – Outside

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It’s equally worrying when most of the photos are of the local area and attractions instead of the rooms. The implication is that the biggest selling point is the hotel’s location, not the establishment itself.

Somebody wrote: “Sometimes they’ll have nine of those pics, and then the 10th is of the room where it looks [like] you’ll be kept until you’re sold.”

13. Cash Deposits for Minor Items

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Some folks described hotels asking them for small cash deposits to get access to items like TV remotes for their room. Apparently, it was a precursor to other problems. Here’s how one person explained it:

“I get that the hotel was probably really tired of replacing lost remotes. But I guess I just don’t want to be staying in a place where much of the clientele would apparently steal the remote if not for their $5 deposit.”

14. Empty Reception Area

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Good hotels almost always have at least one employee at reception to greet guests, respond to questions, and answer calls – at least during working hours. It’s unideal when that isn’t the case.

According to one person: “If there is nobody at reception, particularly if it’s advertised as a 24-hour service…It suggests that the receptionist is either super busy doing the work of three people and the place is understaffed, or a lack of discipline in the staff.”

15. Signs in Disrepair

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Ironically, a bad sign can be a bad sign. Check the condition of the one outside the hotel. Is it well-maintained? If it’s dirty, tired, missing letters, or the bulbs lighting it up aren’t working, they could be ignoring maintenance issues elsewhere, too.

On a similar note, keep an eye out for poorly made notices full of instructions and rebukes policing guests’ behavior (“little hectoring laminated notices,” as one person put it). It’s another literal sign the hotel could be badly managed or that its guests can cause problems.



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Author: Danny Newman

Title: Writer and Content Creator

Expertise: Travel, Digital Nomadry, Outdoors, Blogging

Danny Newman is a writer, content creator, and digital nomad from the UK. He founded the travel and lifestyle blog What’s Danny Doing, a popular resource for people seeking more adventure, self-discovery, and purpose. A nationally syndicated writer, Danny’s work features in dozens of online publications, including MSN.com and news sites across the US.