Sarah Firshein c.2020 The New York Times Company
Who is liable if your personal items disappear from a hotel room?
Dear Tripped Up,
My friend and I recently stayed in a posh hotel in London. Five days after checking out, my friend discovered several pieces of jewellery missing and realised they had been stolen while she was at the hotel.
I am horrified that this would happen. I have a journal entry from my grandmother’s trip to Paris in 1936 in which she describes having earrings stolen from her hotel room — I know theft happens, but I don’t know what consumers are supposed to do about it. — Hannah
I empathise with your friend (and your grandma!) and I especially relate to the feeling of being horrified.
About three years ago, one of my rings disappeared from a Paris hotel where my husband and I were babymooning at the time. I had left all of my jewellery out in plain view — foolish, I know. The hotel had physical room keys (versus key cards), making it impossible to track who had entered. Hotel management insisted that I had misplaced the ring (I didn’t) and denied any fault.
Take it from me, pregnancy hormones and missing diamonds don’t mix well. But even as I (unsuccessfully) explored the possibility of restitution, I confronted a reality that even most experts agree on: “This is a very convoluted area of the law,” said Stephen Barth, a Houston-based attorney who specialises in the hospitality industry.
Who’s to blame, legally, and the action you can take depends on a dizzying list of factors, ranging from where in the world you are to the vicissitudes of decades-old innkeeper statutes.
Barth stressed the importance of using the hotel-provided safe — either the in-room safe or the front-desk safe deposit box — not only from the obvious practical standpoint, but from a legal one as well.
In the US, he said, a hotel may be liable for the entire value of items stolen from the safe if there is clear complicity or negligence. A hotel’s liability for items left out of the safe varies by state, with generally unfavourable limits: around $300 to $500 (R4,800 to R8,000).
Things get even more complicated when travellers — like your friend who remained unaware of a potential incident until days after checkout — don’t act in the moment.
“The first and most important step is to report the theft or loss — first to hotel management and then to the police. You’ll most likely need to provide a formal police report to file with a travel insurance claim,” said Stan Sandberg of travel insurance comparison website TravelInsurance.com.
So although I wouldn’t have luck going to bat for your friend so far after the fact, I’d like to use my remaining column space to lay out other guardrails. Most people do as I did: wait until something bad happens. Having been through it, I wish I had been more proactive up front.
First, take the time to look at what’s covered — or not — by your current insurance, and note that general travel insurance doesn’t always cover the full value of fine jewellery.
“While the total coverage limits range from $1,000 to $3,000 on standard and premium plans, they may have per-item limits for jewellery or high-value items of $500,” Sandberg said.
Home or rental insurance may also fall short — we learned that the hard way after returning from Paris and realising our policy had an extremely low limit for valuables. Nearly immediately, we switched to another home insurance with a valuables article policy. Now, regardless of where I am in the world, my jewellery is protected against loss or theft.
The new policy provides an enormous peace of mind. But these days, I rarely travel with jewellery anyway — a strategy endorsed by Barth. “The most valuable thing I ever travel with is my passport, then once I get to the hotel I leave it in the safe. I set a reminder on my phone to access the safe before I check out,” he said.
It’s no surprise that the Paris hotel ultimately refused to pony up. But I’m a big believer in upsides, and if there’s a tiny one to be found, it’s that the experience also forced me to whip my own travel habits into shape.
Now, the safe is the first thing I do when I enter a hotel room and the last thing I do before checking out.
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