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How Clean Are Your Hotel and Airbnb Stays? [COVID-19 Update]

Written by Jackson Lindeke

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At the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, shelter-in-place orders across the country brought an abrupt halt to many people’s travel plans. Several months in to the pandemic, the travel industry is showing signs of life again. Airbnb bookings reported year-over-year growth from May to June, airlines are taking more planes out of storage, and searches for “road trip routes” have surged 248 percent on Pinterest.

But travel is undeniably more complicated during a pandemic. On top of the usual factors when planning a trip – where you’ll go and what you’ll do – the question of where you’ll stay has become far more stress-inducing. Selecting your accommodations when traveling today is less about the view or proximity and much more focused on the cleaning procedures in place to ensure a COVID-safe stay.

Most major hotel chains have released new safety and cleaning protocols, as have vacation rental companies like AirBnB and VRBO. But the question on our mind is, how clean were they to begin with, and does their star rating align with hygiene standards?

To find out, we swabbed three hotels and three Airbnbs ranging from 1- to 5-star accommodations to see just how clean those offerings are. Curious to see which accommodation tends to be dirtier, or which parts of the room might be harboring the most germs? Read on.

Our research on Airbnb and hotel cleanliness can help guide your search for a safe place to stay during your COVID-19 travels.

**Our study was underway prior to the pandemic shuttering most non-essential travel this past spring, so the results below reflect pre-COVID cleaning and safety standards.**

Putting Bedrooms Under the Microscope

Like it or not, germs are everywhere, and not all bacteria are the same. Some can make you sick with minimal exposure. In the case of coronavirus, it can live on surfaces for variable amounts of time, from a few hours to a few days. So, it’s crucial to be aware of the surfaces prone to bacteria, especially when staying at a hotel or Airbnb during the pandemic.

It’s important to note that we were unable to locate a 1-star Airbnb, so we selected an Airbnb that was unrated and cheaper than our 2-star hotel.

With a focus on the bed area, we found the average Airbnb had nearly seven times more bacteria than a hotel. While hotels averaged slightly over 200,000 CFU/sq. in., Airbnbs averaged almost 1.4 million CFUs of bacteria per surface tested.

And if you think the ratings or reviews of an Airbnb might help you avoid a dirty shock, think again. A 5-star Airbnb had the highest concentration of bacteria, averaging 1.3 million CFUs per square inch tested.

However, the bed might not be your biggest concern. While mattresses across all accommodations averaged nearly 24,000 CFU/sq. in., and headboards averaged around 113,000 CFU/sq. in., nightstands were the most contaminated surfaces with close to 1.5 million CFUs per surface tested.

To understand hotel and Airbnb cleanliness better, we also surveyed housekeeping staff. It turns out that hotel and Airbnb workers were not fully confident their accommodations are cleaned adequately. Among 252 hotel and Airbnb employees, 40% of housekeepers believed guest rooms are not cleaned satisfactorily.

More than 1 in 4 housekeepers admitted bedspreads aren’t always washed between guest stays, and 1 in 5 said the same about the sheets. Considering the research that coronavirus can live on fabrics for 2 days, and most hotels’ COVID guidelines only allow for 24 hours in between bookings, that’s pretty concerning.

Bacteria Contextualized

Trying to grasp what several million CFUs of bacteria really means? We gathered some germ counts from a National Sanitation Foundation (NSF) germ study to compare against our hotel and Airbnb bedroom items.

The nightstands at both the Airbnbs and hotels we tested were the dirtiest items on the list, even dirtier than a school water fountain spigot and a kitchen sink. Even mattresses in Airbnbs, which were by far some of the cleanest items we tested, were still twice as dirty as a household toilet seat.

It’s important to note that not all bacteria are as bad as their names suggest. We analyzed the bacteria composition of each tested item. Here are some things you should know:

  • All of the headboards tested positive for strains of bacteria harmful to humans, including gram-negative rods and gram-positive cocci. Gram negative bacteria are one of the most troubling types of bacteria as they can cause pneumonia and even meningitis, and are resistant to multiple drugs.
  • All but one nightstand contained bacteria harmful to humans, including gram-negative rods and gram-positive cocci.

All mattress bacteria contained gram positive bacteria, which can be harmful to humans, but some also contained bacillus, which aren’t always harmful to humans and can be controlled by good hygiene.

An Abundance of Bacteria

In order to get a closer look at the mattresses we sleep on while we are guests at hotels and Airbnbs, we stripped each mattress in each room and took out our black light in order to find substances that were not visible to the eye in daylight. Take a look at our findings below.

While the space may have been dimly lit and dusty, our testing team on the ground reported that the 1-star hotel had two mattress covers and a hypoallergenic casing on their mattress. Even in the Airbnb, a few mattress pads on an old mattress seemed to help fend off germs; although, at 100 CFU/sq. in., this bed was just slightly cleaner than a toilet seat. The most concerning find was what appeared to be a cryptic handprint on the headboard, which tested positive for 140,000 CFUs of bacteria, primarily gram-positive cocci.

A 3-star hotel room might cost you more money, but that doesn’t guarantee you’ll be better off. In fact, of all the rooms we swabbed and analyzed, the bed in the 3-star hotel came back with 65,000 CFU/sq. in., the dirtiest mattress of them all.

Here’s what the testing team had to say about the 3-star hotel: “This hotel room had all the signs of a modest economy chain hotel, but as soon as we entered and saw the stains on the carpet, we started to feel very doubtful of the hygiene of the mattress. There were visible stains and a cigarette burn on the mattress.” In contrast, while we found a few stains in the three-star Airbnb mattress, we found no bacteria present on the mattress surface.

Surprisingly, the 4-star hotel had visible signs of bodily fluids on the sheets, and our swab results found 5,200 CFUs of bacteria on the surface of the mattress. Our team on the ground reported: “The mattress was a highly plush latex mattress and very luxurious, but we could see stains on the surface. We are not sure the hotel staff changed the sheets because they did not smell clean.”

As for the 5-star Airbnb, though there were visible stains on the mattress, our lab results came back with only 1,000 CFUs of bacteria.

You don’t always need a black light to see that something is amiss in your room. We asked 252 housekeeping staff members to weigh in on what they’ve found on mattresses during their inspections.

If you encounter a weird stain in or around the bed of your Airbnb or hotel room, it could be bodily fluids. Upon inspection, the housekeeping staff said they found vomit (45%), sweat stains (42%), cigarette or smoking burns (42%), and urine (41%).  Scientists haven’t found any evidence that coronavirus can be spread through sweat, but some studies have found the virus present in bodily fluids like blood. Although, the primary spread of coronavirus is thought to be through respiratory droplets.

When we asked our survey respondents about the grossest thing they’ve ever found in a guest’s bed, vomit made the top of the list. But there were also a few peculiar substances that made the list as well: “A big ball of earwax,” “a partially eaten pizza,” “human feces,” “tampons,” and “underwear” were commonly mentioned.

New COVID-19 Cleaning Standards for Hotels and Airbnbs

After reviewing our data, the idea of staying in a hotel or Airbnb may terrify you. Fortunately, both hotels and Airbnbs have significantly upgraded their cleaning standards to help guests feel safe during their stay, and to reduce their chances of becoming infected with COVID-19.

Unfortunately, how vigorously individual hotels and Airbnb (as well as the individual staff at said hotels and Airbnbs) adhere to these cleaning standards is unknown. Below, we bring you up to date on the latest standards you should expect when staying in a hotel or Airbnb, along with additional tips to assess the cleanliness at your accommodation when you arrive.

COVID-19 Cleaning Guidelines for Hotels

In April 2020, the American Hotel & Lodging Association launched Safe Stay, a set of Coronavirus safety standards for member hotels to follow. The guidelines, available here, include a 32-point cleaning checklist.

In addition to providing their employees with COVID-19 training, hotels designated as Safe Stay lodgings have committed to the following protections and cleaning standards.

Employee and Guest Hygiene

  • Hotel employees and guests should follow CDC guidelines at all times, including wearing face coverings, physical distancing of at least 6 feet from others, washing hands with soap and water for 20 seconds, and using hand sanitizer if soap and water are not available. In addition to good hand hygiene, employees should wear protective gloves whenever possible.
  • Face coverings should be required on property in all indoor public spaces, including elevators and lobbies, for both employees and guests.
  • Signage featuring guidance from CDC and local health authorities should be placed in both front of house areas for guests (like the lobby) and back of house areas for employees (like a break room).
  • Hotels should ensure adequate soap in restrooms, and provide hand sanitizer dispensers in contact areas like entrances, lobbies, meeting spaces, and other reception areas.
  • Hotel employees should stay home if sick and confirmed cases must be reported to local health authorities.

Enhanced Cleaning and Disinfecting Procedures

  • High-touch surfaces in public areas, like countertops, bells, elevator buttons, door handles, vending machines, and seating should be disinfected at least daily, if not more often.
  • Likewise, hard high-touch surfaces in guest rooms should be cleaned and disinfected regularly, including TV remotes, toilet seats, light switches, and more.
  • Laundry and linen should be cleaned at the highest temperature setting possible, and should not be shaken to reduce the spread of germs in the air.
  • Elevator handrails and buttons should be disinfected regularly, but at a minimum at the beginning of each housekeeping shift.
  • Back of house equipment should be cleaned at least twice daily in high-traffic areas.
  • Housekeeping staff should not enter a room without the guest’s explicit permission, and should wait a minimum of 15 minutes after checkout before cleaning.
  • In the event a guest has COVID-19, their guest room should be quarantined for at least 24 hours and receive enhanced cleaning before being used for a new guest.

Service Changes to Promote Physical Distancing

  • Meal services should limit in-person contact. Hotels are recommended to provide grab-and-go items and no-contact delivery for room service.
  • Buffet service may be allowed, but should require more enhanced cleaning and the placement of sneeze and cough screens.
  • Hotels may use floor markers to reconfigure guest flow and enable 6-feet distance between guests in shared areas.
  • Public furniture in the lobby and other areas should also be reorganized to support physical distancing.

Additional COVID-19 Efforts from Hotels

Beyond these industry guidelines, most major hotel chains have announced their own cleaning initiatives in an effort to make guests feel welcome.

For example, Hilton partnered up with the Mayo Clinic to develop their Hilton CleanStay with Lysol Protection program. In addition to enhanced cleaning protocols, features include contactless check-in, disinfectant wipe stations at entrances and elevators, the use of UV light cleaning technologies, and the Hilton CleanStay Room Seal — which indicates to guests that no one has entered the room since it was cleaned.

The Four Seasons Lead With Care initiative, created with EcoLab, requires hourly cleaning of all public areas. Food service has shifted to a la carte service with digital menus, and guests receive kits with masks, hand sanitizers, and wipes upon check-in. Additionally, a Hygiene Officer is appointed at each property to oversee that these protocols are being followed.

Many hotels, like Marriott, Best Western, and others, are encouraging use of their mobile app to allow for contact-free check in.

COVID-19 and Enhanced Clean at Airbnb

In June 2020, Airbnb announced Enhanced Clean, their new protocol for hosts. Developed in partnership with the World Trade & Tourism Council, hygiene technology firm Diversey, and medical hygiene experts, the program requires hosts follow a five-step process to clean and sanitize accommodations between bookings.

These steps include:

  1. Prepare for safer cleaning. Airbnb hosts are advised to gather necessary cleaning supplies, wash their hands for 20 seconds with soap and water, wear masks while they clean, and keep rooms ventilated by opening doors and windows and using fans. This step is designed to increase air circulation in the Airbnb and prevent the host from infecting the space while they clean.
  2. Clean dust and debris. Airbnb hosts are advised to wash all linens and all dishes (even ones that are in the cabinet) at the highest setting. Hosts are also advised to collect everything before cleaning to prevent cross-contamination, and to avoid shaking linens and dispersing germs through the air. Hard surfaces should be wiped down, the floor should be mopped from back to front, and soft surfaces should be vacuumed, picked clean, or machine washed if possible.
  3. Sanitize with disinfectant. After cleaning, Airbnb hosts are required to use chemical disinfectant to sanitize all high-touch areas, including cabinets, doorknobs, and light switches. Sanitizing of floors and electronics is also recommended, depending on the likelihood they’ve been touched by soiled linens. Airbnb advises hosts to follow the product label to understand how long to let the disinfectant stay wet before air drying.
  4. Check room-by-room checklists. Next, Airbnb hosts are advised to review each room and follow their cleaning handbook to double-check they cleaned and sanitized anything. If they missed something, they should clean and disinfect it at this time.
  5. Reset the room. Finally, Airbnb hosts can prepare the room for the next guest. First, they should dispose of their disposable cleaning supplies, wash any reusable ones at the highest heat setting possible, and empty and sanitize their vacuum cleaner. Then they can rewash their hands with soap and water and reset the room. Airbnb also recommends offering cleaning supplies for guests to use during their stay, including hand sanitizer, paper towels, soap, gloves, and disinfectant spray or wipes.

How Do You Know if an Airbnb Host is Following Enhanced Clean?

Hosts following the Airbnb cleaning protocols will receive a special shoutout on their listing that looks like the below:

In order to show this badge, hosts must read and review a comprehensive Airbnb Cleaning Handbook, take and pass a short quiz, and then commit to the protocol. If hosts do so and have a 4-star cleanliness rating or higher, the seal shows up on their listing. If hosts have a cleanliness rating below 4 stars, they must first receive three new reviews with an average cleanliness rating of 4.75 stars before the seal will display.

Airbnb Enhanced Clean is only available for private listings where guests get the entire space or an entire room to themselves. Hosts with private rooms have additional guidelines to follow. Shared room and hotel room listings are not eligible.

Independently of Enhanced Clean, Airbnb hosts can also opt into a new feature called booking buffer, which allows hosts to set a 72-hour buffer between stays. This gives the host a 24-hour window (as recommended by the CDC) to wait before entering to clean the space, another 24 hours to actually clean and prepare the space, and a final 24 hours to serve as additional buffer time before the next guest arrives.

Tips for a Clean Night’s Sleep During COVID-19 Travel

Hotels and Airbnbs have committed to making their accommodations cleaner, but what else can you do to ensure an even cleaner — and safer — night’s stay during your pandemic travels? Follow these tips.

1. Choose a Nice Hotel, or an Average Airbnb.

According to our research, 3-star Airbnbs and 4- or 5-star hotels were your safest bet for sanitary sleep in a pre-COVID world. 1- and 2-star hotels were also quite clean, but your dirtiest accommodation options are the top-rated Airbnbs, so you may be better off avoiding them.

2. Stay Away From the Nightstand.

If our research revealed anything, it’s that nightstands are filthy! Avoid putting your personal belongings on these, and dont touch them unless you’ve wiped them down with a disinfectant spray first.

3. Bring Your Own Cleaning Kit.

Speaking of disinfectant, consider packing your own cleaning supplies in case the hotel or Airbnb is running low (or doesn’t offer them at all). Pack disinfectant wipes or spray, hand sanitizer, face masks, and gloves.

4. Pack Your Own Bed Linens.

Experts think the coronavirus can live on fabrics for 2 to 3 days, so if you’re worried your bed linens haven’t been clean, don’t be shy about bringing your own pillowcase and bed sheets.

5. Research the Hotel or Airbnb’s Cleaning Guidelines.

Before you book your hotel or Airbnb, review their updated cleaning protocols. For Airbnbs, check for the Enhanced Clean seal, 72-hour booking buffer, and read the listing details. Does the host describe their cleaning protocols? Do they provide extra cleaning supplies for guests?

For hotels, search their website for an overview of their cleaning guidelines. Feel free to contact your host or the hotel directly for more details.

6. Get Info From Others.

It’s optional for Airbnb hosts to opt in to the Enhanced Clean and booking buffer features, and employees and housekeeping staff sometimes “forget” the rules (again, like our research shows). Read online reviews on travel sites, and search social media for updates from recent guests on how clean your hotel or Airbnb really is.

7. Follow the CDC Guidelines.

Finally, protect yourself and others by following the CDC recommendations for safe travel during the COVID-19 pandemic. Wash your hands frequently with soap and water for at least 20 minutes, disinfect frequently touched surfaces, wear a mask in public, and maintain at least 6 feet from others.

A Better Sleeping Standard

As we all know, a place can look clean, but you may not know what germs and bacteria are hiding under the surface. When you book a hotel or Airbnb, what you see isn’t always what you get, and even the star rating of your accommodation may not paint the entire picture. Unfortunately, that’s still probably true during the COVID-19 pandemic, even with updated cleaning standards.

At Tuck, we don’t believe in second-guessing where you put your head at night. Our commitment to sleep research means we understand sleep hygiene and the importance of having the right products, so you wake up feeling rested. From our sleep guides to unbiased mattress reviews and expert pillow recommendations, we’ll help you find the perfect night’s rest.

Methodology and Limitations

We explored the cleanliness of beds in hotels and Airbnbs by swabbing mattresses, headboards, and nightstands at three hotels and three Airbnbs ranging from 1 to 5 stars. Then, we examined bare mattresses using a black light to examine mattress hygiene. We sent our swabs to a lab, and they were analyzed for bacteria CFUs and types.

For the initial analysis, we averaged CFUs to explore overall bacteria counts by type of stay, star rating, and item. All swabs were conducted in 1 square inch areas of each object’s surface to provide a control for our study. We removed one outlier from the data to reduce skewing in our averages. We used a black light to analyze each mattress closely and photographed them.

We also surveyed 252 current and former employees who had worked as housekeeping staff and/or cleaning crews for hotels and Airbnbs to get their insight into cleaning protocols regarding beds to supplement our findings.

Survey data have limitations due to self-reporting, including exaggeration, telescoping, and selective memory. We did not statistically test our hypotheses, as this was a purely exploratory look at bed cleanliness in hotels and Airbnbs.

Fair Use Statement

There’s nothing sinister under our sheets, but your readers might be worried about what’s waiting for them on their next vacation. Share the findings of our analysis for any noncommercial use by including a link to this page in your story so that your readers can see the full scope of our report.

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