Originally, I started writing this post back in February last year. I read about the sad death of a V Australia crew member in Phuket, after he fell from a hotel balcony during a room mix-up. However, a blogger glitch erased the post that I had worked on for hours and frustrated, I decided to continue it later. As often happens, other things took over and it was soon forgotten. Recently I found the half-draft in my archives & decided to finish the post to share with you.
The Phuket story got me thinking about how sometimes crew can take hotel safety for granted, and ways to make sure you stay safe in hotels.
For most flight attendants, spending time in hotels on layovers is common. We spend almost as much time in hotels as at home, if not more. Hotels become like a second home- especially if we layover in the same cities on a regular basis. We have our favourite rooms, make friends with the hotel staff and seek out the best places to eat and shop.
However, being away from home and often travelling solo has a darker side. Being in a strange city, around people you don't know and in unfamiliar locations can be dangerous to a flight attendant's personal safety in the wrong circumstances.
In 2010, an Australian flight attendant was killed when he fell from a hotel balcony/walkway while on a layover in Phuket. It appears he mixed up the room numbers and somehow, while trying to either find his room or gain entry to a room, fell from the balcony or walkway & fell five floors to his death.
I'm no stranger to odd hotel layouts- one hotel I used to stay at had an 'open plan' garden layout similar to the Phuket hotel where V Australia stayed. We'd frequently come back from a night out, tripping over plants or other things in the dark and losing our way between blocks of rooms.
Other hotels had complicated stairways, dimly lit walkways and were sometimes located in dodgy neighbourhoods if it couldn't be avoided.
Flight crew safety has recently been put in the spotlight again with concerns from Cathay Pacific flight attendants staying in Riyadh, Saudia Arabia reporting interference during layovers.
Here's a few things I do to make things that little bit safer in hotels.
Check It Out
On arriving, I always make a quick check of my room- inside the closet, the bathroom and under the bed. These are all known places for an assailant to hide until you've locked that door behind you. While checking, I'll close the door but not latch it until my check is complete, so I can open it quickly if needed.
I'll also have a quick look to see whether I have a balcony with a sliding door, a normal door or a window. It's important to know not only if your window locks, but if it opens enough for you to use if you can't get out of the door.
If the room is a joining one, I move something in front of the door- a chair, desk or other item which makes it difficult to open from the other room. At the very least, it'll make a noise to let me know someone is coming in.
Lock It Up
Most hotels I stay in have either a chain or one of those door limiters on it so that you can open the door without it being able to be forced open. If you don't have one of these chains, or are staying somewhere where you don't trust that staff don't access rooms, you can find plenty of door security gadgets online. I had one a few years ago which worked well, the plus points were that it was made of plastic so I could carry it in my hand luggage and it barely weighed a thing. Sadly, I can't recall the name of it or seem to find it online.
Of course if the fire department are trying to get in for whatever reason, it's not enough to completely stop them, for obvious reasons, but is enough to warn me that someone is coming in if they do. All-metal models might sound like a good idea, but remember in a fire situation that it may get too hot to handle & be difficult to remove without injury.
If someone knocks on your door saying they are from maintenance, you don't have to open the door. Hotels don't usually do any work at night (unless it's an emergency) and genuine hotel employees are happy for you to wait to call the front desk and verify that they DID send someone to your room. The same goes for room service or porters. If you don't feel right about it, check with the concierge or reception.
If I'm approaching my room and there's someone walking behind me, I wait until they've passed before I open my door. I've heard of crew members who have been followed into rooms and been robbed -or worse.
Just because you're inside a building, don't let your guard down. Again, it sounds paranoid, but would-be thieves take advantage of the sense of security a hotel gives people to get them when they least expect it. Especially as women, we can 'feel bad' that we'll offend someone by acting as though they're up to no good- would-be attackers can use this to their advantage. ALWAYS follow your intuition and remember- it's better to be thought rude than to have something happen to you.
Know Your Exits
As a flight attendant, this sort of goes without saying, but you'd be surprised just how many flight crews have no idea where the fire exits are. This goes for the fire fighting equipment as well. Check the plan on the back of your door, and make sure it's correct. When you go to the lobby for your night out, have a look on the way past where the fire stairs are and where you can grab a fire extinguishers. It's a bit of a silly habit picked up on the job, but I just can't help checking that a fire extinguisher is actually serviceable when I walk past one.
Speaking of safety equipment, I always think it's a good idea to carry a small torch in my bag. It's come in useful so many times that it's more than paid for itself. Mine is just a small LED job I got for less than $10 at a Kmart. The batteries last a long time and the light is much better than conventional globes. Some hotels supply a flashlight in the closet. One hotel in Asia I stayed at even had smoke hoods- I wasn't sure to be reassured that one was there if I needed it, or worried that they were there in the first place!
This is also where your earlier window check will help. Now you'll know if you can use your window to escape a fire as a last resort. How high is your room? Is there a balcony? Can you reach some other structure like the roof of the garage easily? At least you'll know this in advance, and it will only take you a few seconds to work this out when you're doing your room check.
In the article posted above, some of the Cathay Pacific crew reported receiving nonsense calls in their rooms, firstly from outside the hotel and then from other rooms.
Personally, unless I'm expecting another crew member to call my room, I don't pick up the phone. If it's an important schedule change or other work issue, there'll shortly be a note under the door. My supervisor and captain have the crew's numbers or can get them from crew scheduling if it's urgent. Also, my family will send me a text if they're going to call, or just call me on my cell. If you don't want roaming charges, you can always arrange to text them when you want them to call you.
It's also good to know how to contact various departments in the hotel. Know how to dial room-to-room. Check whether you have to dial an actual number, or just push a button to reach Reception or Hotel Security. This is especially good to know if you have to dial in the dark. If it's not noted on the phone, find out what the local police & fire numbers are. That way if your phone doesn't work you can at least try from your cell phone (make sure you know the dialling codes as well).
Other good numbers to know include your airline or company's security department. Crew scheduling can be a good help, but security is a better option in the event of something major going down. Crew who were caught up in the Mumbai terror attacks reported getting assistance from their airline security department when they couldn't get through to the police.
At the least, they can probably advise whether to stay put or leave in a security-type situation. Program these numbers into your phone: Scheduling, Security & your international help line if your company gives it. Every traveller should have an "ICE" (in case of emergency) contact in their phone.
Out on the Town
There's nothing wrong with a good night out on the town- it's a great way to relax and let off steam after a tiring flight, or to bond with your crew. Having said that, you should take some reasonable steps when heading out to ensure a safe night for all. Try to swap numbers with at least one other person in your group, if you don't already know them. This way if you get separated, or someone's phone gets stolen, you can still keep in touch. (Remember, you also wrote down the hotel's phone number, didn't you?)
Keep an eye on each other's drinks- especially if one of you goes off to dance. In some countries thieves work together to distract one member of the group while the other makes off with the valuables. Keep watch on bags and purses. Girls, if you're in a slightly dodgy area, make sure you visit the ladies' room together (This usually happens anyway!) ESPECIALLY if one of you suddenly feels unwell. You just never know what someone might have put in your drink, and you do NOT want her to be alone if that is the case!
Ideally, make sure everyone gets back to their rooms safely, especially in hotels that are dimly lit or have tricky layouts. This might sound sexist but I often ask one of the guys on the crew to walk me back if we're in a dodgy part of town or failing that, we girls make sure at a minimum, we're in pairs if not a group.
If you're heading out in a foreign city on your own, be sure to let someone know where you're going & when you expect to be back. This can be as simple as leaving a note on your bed- "Gone shopping in Mongkok, back by 1800". If you're not there for the crew pickup, at least that gives everyone an idea of where to start looking.
I don't mean to come across as paranoid, but it is a reality of the travelling life that we can face risks to our safety on the move. Implementing ways to keep yourself safe should be an important part of any traveller's routine.
We all go off on our trips not thinking that we might not come home. While having fun seeing the world and meeting new people, be sure to take care so that your family can welcome you home again, safely & soon.