As Coronavirus (COVID-19) forces us indoors, we’ve turned to all types of activities to keep ourselves occupied and uplifted. But all those TV shows and movies still tell a story of a not-so-distant past; one where we could see our neighbors, shake hands, attend concerts, eat at restaurants, and travel.
Of course, travel and hospitality are changing in the wake of COVID-19. Crossing paths with people from distant cities, touching elevator buttons, and sleeping in shared beds (even expensive ones) aren’t the leisurely behaviors they once were. That said, essential travel is still a part of people’s lives, so we wanted to shed some light on how to travel safely and securely both during global pandemics and on regular trips.
To do this, we analyzed the bacteria present on 2 hotel surfaces that get a lot of contact: elevator buttons and stairwell door handles. Each point of contact was swabbed and tested multiple times. After visiting 2-, 3-, 4-, and 5-star hotels, we sent our cultures off to a lab to discover the specific bacteria on each surface. Here’s what we found:
Bacteria Counts: Hotel vs. Home
We started our research by comparing some of the most touched objects in hotels to common household items. The results were staggering. Even if you don’t keep an immaculate house, hotel objects are likely much dirtier than those in your home.
The average hotel elevator button has 1,477 times more germs than a household bathroom door handle and 737 times more germs than a household toilet seat.
What is shocking is that you come into contact with an average of 186,168 CFUs per square inch just by touching a hotel stairwell door handle. By pushing a hotel elevator button, you’re exposing yourself to 149,470 CFUs per square inch.
If you do come into contact with a highly contaminated surface, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) says that not touching your face can mitigate the risk. Hotel elevator buttons and door handles, as our study revealed, are 2 such examples of highly contaminated surfaces. If these things have to be touched, remember to wash your hands afterward and avoid touching your face.
Star Rating and Cleanliness
The next question we explored was how hotel star rating might affect the number of bacteria a person comes into contact with just by riding the elevator or taking the stairs. If you pay more to stay in a fancier hotel, is it more hygienic?
You may think a higher-end hotel corresponds with cleaner surfaces, but the bacteria cultures tell us otherwise. The average 5-star hotel elevator button had nearly 7 times more germs than the average 4-star hotel elevator button and 1,000 times the amount of germs as a 3-star hotel elevator button. Stairwell door handles at 4-star hotels also had more bacteria, on average, than other rated hotels.
In some cases, nicer hotels had dirtier surfaces, which may have something to do with the number of guests coming and going. Luxury hotels typically operate with higher costs and higher occupancy rates, meaning more people travel in their elevators and touch their door handles.
While cleanliness and housekeeping may receive higher ratings in upscale hotels, the number of people they have to clean up after may undo some of the cleaning staff’s hard work. Even in 5-star hotels, don’t let your guard down: maintain the same high standards for your personal hygiene.
Lastly, we analyzed which types of bacteria were present in the samples we took from inside hotels. Gram-positive cocci were the most common bacteria on hotel surfaces swabbed; these organisms can cause upper respiratory infections.
Unfortunately, gram-positive cocci can be harmful germs. This type of bacteria can cause respiratory problems (like pneumonia), blood poisoning, and dental, abdominal, pelvic, and skin infections.
Less-threatening forms of bacteria, like bacillus and gram-positive rods, were also found in some of the hotels we visited. Bacillus were particularly common in 2-star hotels on our itinerary. This type of bacteria causes some diseases but is more typically associated with causing food to spoil. Bacillus can also be used for health reasons and are found in probiotics.
Spread Knowledge, Not Germs
We’re living in times of unprecedented danger, but our findings are not intended to scare you. Instead, we hope this serves as a reminder to be vigilant about germs in shared spaces, both at home and while traveling. COVID-19 won’t always be an issue, but the best practices for limiting the spread of germs are timeless.
If there’s anything we’re passionate about, it’s learning how to travel well. We’re on a mission to show travelers the true value of points and miles. We work to achieve this goal by publishing highly researched content to give those interested in exploration the knowledge and content they need.
The travel industry is constantly evolving; we review and update our site diligently, so you can be on top of the trends. As soon as the borders for travel open again, we are ready to help you afford smarter, better trips.
Methodology and Limitations
We conducted 24 gram-and-stain culture swab tests at 12 hotels:
|Hotel Star Rating||Number of Hotels Tested|
At each hotel, we swabbed an elevator button and stairwell door handle. We then compared these hotel results with the household surface results from the NSF Household Germ Study.
Colony-forming units per square inch were averaged for each surface type. Individual surfaces were chosen based on perceived traffic and accessibility. We excluded an outlier, a hotel that had 17 million CFUs on its elevator buttons, from averages.
Lab analysis was performed by Eurofins EMLab P&K Laboratories.
It is possible that with a larger sample size of surfaces, we could have gained more insight into CFU levels. No statistical testing was performed, so the claims listed above are based on means alone. As such, this content is exploratory.
Fair Use Statement
Especially during these times, knowledge (not germs) is meant to be spread. Feel free to share this article online, but be sure your purposes are non-commercial, and you link back to this page.