Why do I keep getting locked out of hotel rooms?
September 23, 2010 1:47 AM   Subscribe

Why do I keep getting locked out of hotel rooms?

This happens nearly every time I stay at a hotel that uses electronic keycards. After a day or so, I come back to find that the card no longer works and I have to ask an employee to renew it. This has happened on 3 continents over 20 years, sometimes several days in a row. Other people have been complaining on the internet about being locked out in the same fashion, but I still wonder if it's just a case of faulty devices (but the keycard I'm using at work have been working without problems for years, and I keep it in the same wallet that I use for the hotel cards) or if it's done on purpose by hotel managers for some mysterious reason (in one case, it was a mechanical lock that was changed when I was away).
posted by elgilito to Travel & Transportation (24 answers total)
I find electronic keycards are often de-activated if I put them in my handbag with my mobile phone.

I find keeping the keycard in my pocket and the phone in my handbag (or vice versa) solves the problem.
posted by Hot buttered sockpuppets at 1:51 AM on September 23, 2010

Any kind of magnet might screw up your keycard. Are you carrying magnets in your pants?
posted by twoleftfeet at 1:51 AM on September 23, 2010

No, as I said, I keep the keycards in my wallet where other electronic cards have been safe for years. I don't have a cell phone. In one case (in China two years ago), a colleague and I were locked out of our rooms at the same time. There was one case where both my card and my wife's were deactived.
posted by elgilito at 2:04 AM on September 23, 2010

Possibly the hotel policy is that keycards are automatically disabled daily at checkout time, to prevent you from leaving but taking a keycard with you and coming back later to steal someone else's stuff from your old room. Ideally if you were staying multiple days they would disable that system during your stay but maybe for some reason they can't or forgot to.
posted by EndsOfInvention at 2:16 AM on September 23, 2010

Even a magnetic clasp on a bag can demagnetise that kind of device. But according to you, that isn't the problem.

So I think the simple answer is that the keycards are getting deactivated by the system, whether intentionally, through human error, or through bugs in the system.

I've also had mechanical locks fail to work, but in my case it was because there actually was a fault in the lock. My mind boggles at the idea of hoteliers actually having the resources to go around changing mechanical door locks capriciously, cackling evilly to themselves as they turn the screws, but anything's possible. However in my case I think it's more likely that someone damaged the lock trying to break in.
posted by tel3path at 3:07 AM on September 23, 2010

where other electronic cards have been safe for years

I think you're disregarding of a perfectly reasonable explanation too quickly.

Ignoring the one one-offs from your post (mechanical lock, colleague had the same problem), it looks like you need to test HBS' theory: next time you get a key card, put it in something protective - a thick plastic card holder, for example. See if you have the same problem.
posted by devnull at 3:53 AM on September 23, 2010

Statistically, somebody has to be the guy whose keycards get deactivated on every continent... And that somebody is you. However, I take it that you stay in hotels a lot? I've been locked out of my hotel room two or three times in the last few years and I've stayed perhaps ten nights in hotel rooms in that time. I imagine 3/10 feels worse when you're staying more often and maybe a little less lucky.

That said, do you notice them trying to upsell you anything when you get your card replaced?
posted by doublehappy at 3:54 AM on September 23, 2010

I keep the keycards in my wallet where other electronic cards have been safe for years.

Most people have fixed positions for every item in their wallet - Is it possible that your other cards are sitting in a safe place, while the keycard is getting placed at an empty spot that is, for example, too close to a magnetic clasp?

It's a little far fetched as an explanation, but the idea that hotel management has been singling you out for harassment all these years is also somewhat unlikely.
posted by Dr Dracator at 3:58 AM on September 23, 2010

Just because other electronic cards are fine in your wallet, doesn't mean that your keycard can't be affected.

Assuming you're not going to the same hotel chain over and over again (who may have an odd policy about de-activating keycards) then I'd still try keeping it out of your wallet the next time to see what happens.
posted by mr_silver at 4:00 AM on September 23, 2010

I have worked in the hotel business and have made, at a guess, eleventeen million key cards for guests.

You must keep in mind that these cards are pretty flimsy pieces of plastic with a single, not-especially-robust magnetic strip, and they have been used by dozens or hundreds of guests before you. They do not hold a charge particularly well: imagine a video or audio cassette that has been taped over for the 245th time -- how good is the signal? They cease working for any of a dozen reasons, simple wear and tear being the most common. From the point of view of the designers of the keycards and the hotels, this is a feature, not a bug.

The keycards used by most hotels (on this continent, anyway) all come from a single company. The price to a hotel per card is a couple of cents. I would imagine the economics are more or less the same worldwide. Cards go out of circulation in two main fashions: one, they case working entirely and two, a guest loses the card (misplaces it about his person and has to get a replacement, loses it in a restaurant or something, forgets to return it upon checkout). The latter is far more common that the former, in my finding. Anway, cards have a very limited lifespan and every time a card disappears or conks out, the hotel is down a penny or two. The much more robust card you use at work is a better grade of material because the supplier assumes it is not going to get changed up every couple of days to a new code. Let us say it costs fifty cents to manufacture one of these much better cards. No hotel is going to consent to writing off fifty cents every time a guest loses a card when they could be taking a loss of two or three cents.

And I'm afraid EndsOfInvention has it backwards: in a perfect set-up, your card runs out at noon (or whatever the hotel sets it so) on your date of checkout, not every day. You check in Monday, you leave Thursday. If you come back Friday with the same card, it will be inert. There is no value for anyone in making your card stop working on Tuesday or Wednesday. (Note, of course, that the hotel can cancel a keycard at any time for emergencies -- say you neglected to sign your credit card slip when you arrived or something -- having to return to the front desk to get a new card means they can also get you to sign the slip).

So in short: no, there is no mysterious reason. The cards are cheap because they get lost all the time. As to why hotels don't use better cards (like your card at work), remember that the answer to any question that begins "Why don't they..." is usually "money."
posted by ricochet biscuit at 4:29 AM on September 23, 2010 [21 favorites]

Don't store your hotel keycard next to your credit cards or any other card with a magnetic strip. They'll deactivate them.

I switched over to storing it in a separate pocket in my purse, or in the money portion of my wallet, and haven't had a card deactivated since.
posted by punchtothehead at 4:57 AM on September 23, 2010

ricochet biscuit has it: hotel key cards are pieces of crap which don't require much external magnetic interference to lose their charge. Your work access card is designed to be permanently encoded, not rewritten umpty-dozen times until it won't hold a charge at all. I too have worked at a hotel front desk, and even when our system was working properly* I had to issue new keys to about 10% of our guests, if memory serves.

Cell phones and magnetic clasps are surefire ways of discharging them, but it could be something as simple as the clothes you wear most of the time happen to build up a larger than average amount of static electricity. Not necessarily enough to shock you, but enough to wipe your key card.

But I'm guessing it's mostly confirmation bias. This happens to everyone now and then, but it sounds like you travel more than most, so the times when it does happen may be frequent enough for you to have noticed.

*When it wasn't, sometimes even I couldn't get into a room. Had to completely reset it. That was fun.
posted by valkyryn at 5:43 AM on September 23, 2010

Yep, hotel cards are more easily discombobulated than your credit cards. I've had mine wiped by my blackberry many many times with accompanying credit cards untouched.
posted by L'Estrange Fruit at 5:43 AM on September 23, 2010

This thread gave me some useful keywords to investigate the matter further. This thread here reports similar issues, with some front desk people and card manufacturers chiming in.

First there's no general hotel policy of random deactivation, though deactivation mistakes do happen.

The main cause seems to be indeed magnets. Like Ricochet Biscuit says, keycards are cheap. They have "low-coercity" magnetic stripes that require less energy to write but are far more sensitive to magnetism than the "high-coercity" ones found in credit card (or in my work card, I suppose). That would explain why I don't have problems with my other cards. I don't carry a cell-phone or a blackberry, but I can't exclude having small magnets (such as the ones in wallet clasps). Still, I was locked out 3 days out of 6 last summer in Rome, and my current wallet is magnet-free, and I took care to protect the keycard.

In the thread cited above an hotel employee who faces this problem every day gives a possible answer: "One thing that we find is that many of these people have been into the museums and buildings with high levels of security screening and this frequently deactivates the keys". As someone who is always visiting museums (when a tourist) or has to go into official buildings (when on a business trip), this is a very likely explanation. In Rome, we had to go through security gates several times. That would also explain why the people I'm traveling with have the same problem: we go through the same security gates (or are exposed to the same magnetic sources) during the day.
posted by elgilito at 5:47 AM on September 23, 2010

I also think that higher end cards have multiple tracks where the information is stored for redundancy. So if a reader cannot get all the information from one track, it can reconstruct the data from another track. The cheap cards only have one track where the information is stored.
posted by MrMulan at 6:29 AM on September 23, 2010

nthing the advice to keep them in a separate pocket, etc. I've had the same experience numerous times and now always keep hotel keys away from other cards, cellphones, etc. Doing that seems to have helped.
posted by nuffsaid at 8:02 AM on September 23, 2010

Next time you're in a hotel, get an extra key. Keep one with you in the normal manner as you have been, and stash the other someplace where it's safe. On checkout day, compare if they both work. Repeat until you have another deactivation, and you'll find if you're affecting the cards.
posted by anildash at 8:19 AM on September 23, 2010

this happened to me in Sedona, Arizona. the front desk blamed the vortex.

ricochet biscuit's explanation sounds more plausible.
posted by changeling at 12:15 PM on September 23, 2010

Is there some observational bias here? Do you stay in a LOT of hotels, and just remember the incidents where you get locked out? Could you say what percentage of hotel nights were lockouts -vs- normal?

I've had this happen to me a few times - but only a relatively small fraction compared to the number of nights I've spent in hotels - it's probably about 1/20 or less.....
posted by TravellingDen at 4:57 PM on September 23, 2010

My college roommate deactivated her dorm keycard (sturdier than a hotel card) approximately once a fortnight with nothing more than the apparent magnetism of her butt, as the keycard lived in her back pocket. My card, stored in my back pocket, would not start losing activation until about six months had gone by.

However, your wallet is presumably not made of her butt, so that theory is out. I'm thinking that one of the other residents of your wallet is bullying your flimsy hotel cards.
posted by desuetude at 5:09 PM on September 23, 2010

I have the same issue, every single time I stay at a hotel my key stops working. No matter where I put it on my body, in my purse, etc, I always have to go get a new key several times over a stay.

At one hotel I visit once a year, every year, they know if they same me coming (on camera) toward the front of the hotel to just have another key ready for me.
posted by SuzySmith at 9:11 PM on September 23, 2010

I have a metal card holder that I use when traveling and it's been lucky for me so far- I've yet to have a keycard get deactivated when using it.
posted by Four Flavors at 9:14 PM on September 23, 2010

I work in a hotel and deal with these cards every day. Yes, they are easy to demagnetize. It's a fairly common occurrence, and I've noticed that as cellphones turn into computers, it happens more and more. Your iPhone will jack that card up. Honestly, though, the single biggest reason is human error on our part. The software we (and most others) use to encode and manage the keys has a default two day stay. So, if you check in on the 23rd, your key will expire on the 25th at noon unless we manually change the dates. Sometimes we get a rush, or get lazy, and forget to change those dates. Two days later, we'll have to recode again. Honestly, it may well be my biggest pet peeve with the desk staff: it's easy to just not let it happen, but I see it everywhere I go.
posted by unique_id at 3:52 PM on September 26, 2010

Thanks to all! I'll keep your advice in mind the next time I have to use a keycard.
posted by elgilito at 4:09 AM on September 28, 2010

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