Have you ever wondered what that “do not disturb” or “room occupied” sign on your hotel room door actually means?
Do you have any legal protections when you place that sign on your door or is the hotel still free to enter as they please?
Below, we will take a look at what privacy rights you have as a hotel guest whenever you place a do not disturb sign on your hotel room door and look at the different ways hotels handle these privacy situations.
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What does do not disturb really mean?
Placing a do not disturb sign on your hotel room door should prevent hotel staff from knocking on your door and entering your room in the majority of cases.
However, properties have different policies in how they go about acknowledging these signs and a do not disturb sign does not mean that a staff member cannot ever enter your room.
Keep reading below to learn more about when hotel staff might still enter your room!
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Why hotel staff would enter your room
Most travelers are aware that hotel staff may enter your room to carry out some of their essential duties.
For example, housekeeping needs to get inside in order to clean rooms and maintenance needs to come in to fix things like the hot tub, air conditioning, etc.
Typically when staff members enter they do so after you have consented to their entry or agreed (implicitly or explicitly) to a time window for them to enter.
In some cases they will come in whenever you are gone as long as there is not a do not disturb sign on the door.
But is it possible for hotel staff members to enter your hotel room in other situations when you have not consented and placed a do not disturb sign on your door?
The answer is yes.
Typically, hotel staff would never enter your room unless there is a specific (and justified) reason for them to do so.
You could imagine the outcry and bad reputation a hotel would earn if their staff was known for randomly entering guests’ rooms for no reason.
I’m not entirely sure but it seems like there would be some type of legal ramifications for this as well.
Entering your hotel room without consent
But what reasons would a hotel have for entering your room without your consent?
Usually, this would occur if there was some type of urgent situation where an emergency or unlawful conduct was suspected.
For example, if the hotel suspects property damage, illegal activity, or a health emergency, there’s a good chance they would enter the room or contact their security to deal with it.
Here are a few different examples provided by a hotel manager:
Phone called 911
If the front desk picks up that your phone was used to call 911 that could be an immediate indicator that they need to check on your welfare.
Loud commotion coming from your room
If someone hears loud commotion coming from your room it could mean someone in the room is damaging property or perhaps throwing a huge party.
And if there are screams or sounds of fighting or intense arguing, there could even be a domestic abuse situation which could involve a call to police.
Consequently, these actions could get you kicked out of the hotel room and force you to lose out on your right to privacy (mentioned below).
Suspicious traffic in and out of your room
If there are a lot of people, especially suspicious looking people, going in and out of your room that could be a sign of illicit activity happening.
If that’s combined with loud noises or perhaps the smell of people smoking marijuana, that could also be a justified reason for a hotel staff member checking on your room or kicking you out.
Having a gun on you in a hotel that does not permit them could also get you the boot.
If water is dripping into the room below that could be a sign of property damage or even some type of medical emergency.
If any of the above situations apply and you have a do not disturb sign on your door, don’t expect that to keep hotel personnel from entering the room to investigate the situation.
Police entering your hotel room and your right to privacy
Be aware that when it comes to police entering your room it’s a very different equation.
As a hotel guest you have a reasonable expectation of privacy while staying in a hotel room.
This right to privacy, based on the Fourth Amendment, has more to do with the police than it does with hotel staff, though.
When it comes to police, they still have to abide by the law when entering your hotel room similar to what they would have to do when entering your home. For example, they would need a warrant to enter your hotel room unless some type of exception applies.
And while the hotel staff can enter your room, they generally cannot give consent for the police to search your room.
Be aware that after checkout, you lose out on your expectation of privacy and the police could enter your room. It gets a little bit murky with things like late check out so just be aware of that.
Also, if you get evicted from a hotel room, perhaps for one of the reasons mentioned above, you will lose your expectation of privacy.
How hotels handle the do not disturb sign on doors
Assuming that you don’t have one of the situations above applying, below are a few different ways that most hotels would handle a do not disturb sign on your door.
A strict no knock policy
Some hotels instruct their employees to abide by a strict no knock policy if a do not disturb sign is hanging on the door.
Aside from true emergencies like a fire raging in the hallway or some type of important billing issue, there are no exceptions to this type of policy.
So even if you called the front desk and requested towels or some other type of assistance (including room service), when a hotel staff member arrives at your door they will not knock.
They may or may not leave your items outside your door if they can.
(In some situations, they will leave you a note letting you know that they came by for your service but chose not to bother you because of your sign.)
This can be frustrating for some guests who forget that they have a do not disturb sign on the door but it probably is one of the best ways to for the hotel staff to avoid intruding on guests on any level.
Knock but no entry policy
Another policy for do not disturb signs is that hotel staff members can knock on the door but they cannot enter unless given permission.
This is a decent compromise but doesn’t actually keep with the spirit of do not disturb since knocking on the door is the definition of disturbing someone.
For that reason, a lot of people don’t care for this policy.
However, some people may prefer this policy because if they have made a request for a service but forgot about the do not disturb sign, it still allows them to receive the requested services.
Knock and entry policy
Some hotels will allow their employees to first knock and then enter if there is no response, even if there is a do not disturb sign posted on the door.
This most commonly happens close to check out if the hotel is trying to clear out rooms during a time of high occupancy. They may assume that you have already departed the hotel and that you simply left your do not disturb sign on the door.
It’s still a risky move on the hotel’s part because you may just not have heard them knocking and you could be in a compromised position inside your hotel room when someone comes in.
So if you have late check out putting the do not disturb sign on may not be enough and you should consider using the secondary slide lock/latch to secure your door.
I’ve definitely had housekeeping try to enter my room without even knocking during times of late check out. And for that reason I basically always latch the door when I’m inside.
Hotel guest welfare checks
At a certain point, a hotel will have to check on the condition of a room to make sure that everything is okay.
They also might want to just ensure that whoever is staying in that room is also doing all right.
These are often known as “welfare” checks.
If you keep your do not disturb sign on your door for multiple days in a row, there is a good chance that a hotel staff member will have to perform one of these checks at some point.
Some hotels set the threshold at 24 hours while others may be 48 or 72 hours.
Some hotels publish their policy such as Hilton which stated:
“We understand and respect your need for privacy. The hotel reserves the right to visually inspect all guest rooms every 24 hours to ensure the well-being of our guests and confirm the condition of the room. If service is refused for this length of time, a member of hotel management will check on the guest room.”
After the 2017 Las Vegas shooting it seems that the timeframe for checking hotel rooms was shortened to closer to 24 hours but since the pandemic it also seems like hotels are less aggressive with sending people into your room.
So this can be a very property specific thing but expect someone to come in to check on you and the room every 72 hours.
Do not disturb and the phone
Some hotels will not bother calling your room if you have a do not disturb sign on your door but chances are they will not know that unless they have already came by your room.
For that reason, if you don’t want to be bothered over the phone you can notify the front desk that you do not want to receive any phone calls.
If they need to get a hold of you, they will simply slip a note under your door or post it to your door depending on the type of room you have.
What to do if a hotel staff member enters your room
If you have a do not disturb sign posted on your door and a hotel room staff member enters your room you should first just politely ask them to get out.
There’s always the possibility that this was just a misunderstanding or accident so try not to get overly worked up.
Feel free to talk to hotel management about the situation, though.
You might be able to get some type of compensation out of the mishap but at the very least you can let them know that they need to do a better job.
If you were up to no good or causing a disturbance and someone enters the room, there is a good chance that they were justified and you basically were just asking for that to happen.
If nothing shady was going on then try to explain that but be prepared that the police may get involved.
Placing a do not disturb sign on your door should keep hotel staff from knocking on your door and definitely from entering your hotel room in most cases.
However, some hotels have a more lax policy that allows staff members to enter your room in order to do their jobs or to check up on the status of the room.
Also, in certain situations related to the welfare of the guests or protection of hotel property, the do not disturb sign will not keep hotel staff members from entering a room.
Daniel Gillaspia is the Founder of UponArriving.com and creator of the credit card app, WalletFlo. He is a former attorney turned full-time travel expert covering destinations along with TSA, airline, and hotel policies. Since 2014, his content has been featured in major publications such as National Geographic, Smithsonian Magazine, Forbes, CNBC, US News, and Business Insider. Find his full bio here.