By Christopher Elliott

Where's the line?

When you're staying at a hotel, is it OK to pocket the bottles of shampoo and lotion? How about the magazines? Bathrobes? Furniture?

It depends on the traveler. A recent Travelocity survey found 86 percent of hotel guests admitted to taking toiletries, like oatmeal soap and lavender body gel. About 3 percent said they swiped a bathrobe or slippers, and 1 percent said they stole dishes, silverware, electronics and -- I'm not making this up -- Bibles.

Not to get all theological, but for anyone who filched God's Holy Word from their room (at least the ones that weren't meant to be taken), I would advise you to return it at your earliest convenience. I don't even want to think about the punishment that awaits you now -- or in the hereafter.

The point is -- we can all agree that there is a line. We can't necessarily agree where the line is.

"There are gray areas," admits Dominique Marty, the general manager of the Millennium Bostonian, a 201-room upscale property with its fair share of swipe-able amenities, including soaps, gels, lotions, bathrobes and ... TVs.

"Yes," he sighs. "It was a smaller, flat-screen TV. One day it was there, the next day it was gone."

In case you were wondering what happens next, Marty's staff contacted the guest who had occupied the room during the disappearance and asked about the whereabouts of the hotel's TV. They were polite. They were persistent. "But you can only push so far," he says. In the end, the hotel took the loss.

I don't know exactly where the line is, either, but I can tell you that taking TVs -- and Bibles -- crosses the line. I asked frequent hotel guests where they thought it was. Here are their thoughts:

If there's a price tag on it, it's off limits.

Seems pretty obvious, right? Hang on. The bathrobes in your room may have a price tag, but they're also there to be used during your stay. Off goes the tag. And from there, it's not much of a leap to your unpacked bag. Brenda Rivera, a finance systems specialist from Cedar Park, Texas, says she thinks twice before folding away a hotel bathrobe. "When you know you are going to get charged $125," she says, "you leave it." But she wonders about the amenities that don't have price tags, like towels. It's a gray area, since some hotels have given away towels as a promotion in the past.

If you can consume it, it's yours.

"I take all toiletries every time I go to a hotel," says Lori Brawner, an airline sales supervisor in Lutz, Fla. "This includes the shower caps and the shoe-shine cloths, too. There is no sign on them that indicates there is a fee or charge to me if I take them and something about the little basket in the bathroom brings out the hoarder in me." My hotel sources tell me it's fine to take something that can be used only once, like a shower cap, or that can't be recycled once it's opened, like a bottle of lotion. One manager even said it was OK to take the slippers. But there are a few notable exceptions. The bottled water in your room can be consumed, but unless you're staying on the concierge floor, you'll probably be charged for it. Ditto for anything in the minibar. So consume with caution.

Don't take more than you're supposed to.

In other words, hands off those carts stocked with soaps and lotions. Those are meant for someone else's room. "I know someone obsessed with hotel shampoo and soap, and he even stalks the housekeeping carts to steal handfuls," says Marianne Cushing, a vice president for an ad agency in Fort Myers, Fla. "I told him I think he has a problem and needs to seek professional help." I agree with her -- raiding the cart crosses the line. There's a reason why each hotel room gets just one set of toiletries, as opposed to a bucket full of soap containers.

Card keys are OK.

Magnetic card keys may be recyclable, but no one is going to think twice if you don't return yours. (I've tried, and the hotel clerk is never impressed by my honesty.) "That's one thing I take consistently -- the room keys," says Scott Friedman, a sales manager for a pet accessory company in Muscatine, Iowa. "I have this fantasy of making a collage all out of hotel room keys. It will be huge -- maybe 4 feet by 6 feet long. I envision selling it to an art gallery in Soho." Friedman is serious. He's even got the color of the sky selected ("Hampton Inn blue"). Friedman and others who have a key card collection are in the clear. Unless they grab a handful of card keys from behind the desk, the hotel won't mind.

Hotels aren't charities (despite their low rates).

Some hotel guests -- not you, I'm sure -- justify taking generous handfuls of soaps and lotions off the cart with the idea that at some point, they'll donate it to a homeless shelter or some other charity. This, too, is problematic. Catherine Banks, a vice president for a travel agency in Plano, Texas, used to collect toiletries from the hotels she visited, which, as I've already noted, is completely acceptable. "I donated them to a women's shelter," she told me. However, raiding the housekeeping cart, even if it's for a good cause, is questionable.

There are exceptions to every rule. Mark Bolster, a photographer and avid soap collector from Pittsburgh, Pa., admits to swiping "one or two" soaps from the cart for his project. Although he's modest about it, he may have one of the most impressive hotel and airline soap collections anywhere (yes, airlines used to have little bars of soap before they switched to the liquid -- I think I still have a few with the Eastern Airlines logo in my attic). His bars include extinct airlines like Pan Am, obscure ones, like Air Afrique, and hotels from Motel 6 to Ritz-Carlton.

But he always does it with permission from a housekeeper. After years of collecting, he adds, "no one has had a problem with it."

So where's the line? It's there -- not always clearly visible -- but look hard and you might see it.

Please let me know when you do.

Christopher Elliott is the ombudsman for National Geographic Traveler magazine.


© Christopher Elliott

Travel | Honest Guest's Guide to Free Hotel Amenities