Do You Have to Return Hotel Room Key Cards?

At a lot of hotels, you can’t get very far without your room key card.

You’ll want to always keep them by your side throughout your stay so that you can get in and out of your room, up the elevators, into the gym, etc.

But what should happen to these key cards at the end of your stay?

Can you get penalized for not returning them, or even worse, is there a real security risk with turning in these cards?

Below, we will take a look at how to best go about disposing of your hotel room key cards.

Do you have to return hotel room key cards?

At most hotels it’s not a major problem to not return your room key to the hotel.

However, lots of hotels reuse or recycle room key cards so it’s always a good practice to leave the key card in your hotel room or to return it to the front desk at the end of your stay.

Keep reading below for more about the potential security threats and some insight into different ways to discard your key card!

Front desk key card exchange

How much do the key cards cost at the hotel?

To better understand why discarding your hotel key card may not be a big deal it helps to start off with understanding the cost of these cards.

Your average hotel room key card that uses a magstripe key card (a card that you swipe) is not going to cost the hotel very much at all.

For example, many of these hotel room keys only cost a hotel about five to ten cents, depending on the size of the order.

Some hotels use radio-frequency identification (RFID) cards (the contactless cards) which can be a bit more expensive, although still relatively cheap. At the low end these will cost around $.30 per card but the higher quality versions may run closer to $1.

Some hotels even get key cards for free.

If you’ve ever seen advertisements (like Pizza Hut) on the hotel key card, there’s a very high chance that the advertiser paid for the key card and the hotel got it for free.

The low cost of these key cards means that many hotels don’t care if guests don’t return them because it’s not a major expense.

Plus, lots of guests do return the key cards so it typically does not become an issue for a hotel unless they have had some type of unexpected shortage.

Different ways hotel guests discard hotel room keys

Hotel guests have several different ways that they go about disposing or discarding hotel room keys.

Returning the key card to the front desk

The most “traditional” way to dispose of your key card is to return it to the front desk.

Often there is a dropbox or slot that you can drop the key card in so that you don’t have to wait.

Unless you need to talk to an agent about something regarding your check out, that’s often the way to go.

This is especially true if the lobby is busy because you’re basically just getting in the way of a front desk agent if you cause them to stop what they are doing to take your card.

Simply dropping off your card and waving goodbye is good enough in these scenarios.

Related: Do You Have to Check Out of Your Hotel?

Leaving the card in the room [the best method]

In the majority of my hotel visits, I just leave the key card inside my hotel room on the dresser or on some other type of furniture in plain sight.

I like this method the best because it:

  • 1) reduces the odds of me leaving the key card in my wallet
  • 2) reduces any need to interact with the front desk when I’m leaving (streamlines my exit)
  • 3) allows the hotel to easily retrieve their key cards
  • 4) avoids waste

If I’m leaving a tip for housekeeping, I usually put the key cards right by the tip so that it’s easy to spot.

Throwing away the card

Some people just throw the key card in the trash when they are ready to check out.

I think this is wasteful because lots of hotels reuse the same key cards. It’s much better to at least give the hotel the opportunity to reuse the key card rather than throwing away more plastic.

The only time I would throw away a key card is if it became clearly damaged or got really dirty.

Related: Hotel Room Key Lost or Not Working? Here’s What to Do

Keeping the hotel room key cards

People have different reasons for why they keep their hotel cards on them when they leave.

Lots of travelers, including myself, often just forget that they have the hotel key card in their wallet or elsewhere. You may not discover that you have the hotel key card until days, weeks, or let’s be honest even months later.

Some good Samaritan travelers have mailed the key cards back to the hotel upon discovery but that’s unnecessary in the vast majority of cases and probably not even worth the postage.

Other times, the hotel may issue a beautifully designed key card that you want to keep with you because it just looks cool. Taking these pieces of artwork with you can help you reflect on your prior travels and inspire you to take on future travels.

Sometimes you might be on the monumental trip like a honeymoon or anticipated anniversary trip and so you might think about keeping the hotel room key card as a souvenir or momento.

Hotels know that many guests will keep the cards as a souvenir and some hotels might even think of their key cards as a sort of marketing strategy like allowing guests to take the branded stationary found in the room.

Based on my own personal experience with keeping hotel key cards as souvenirs, I will say that I usually just end up throwing them away within a year or so.

So unless you have some type of specific need or goal for the key card like making a shadowbox, scrapbook, or setting a world record, think twice about if you really need your key card as a keepsake.

Chances are it’s just going to be another piece of dresser-drawer clutter that you end up throwing away at some point.

Hotels that charge for losing or not returning key cards

There are some reports of hotels charging for guests who don’t return their key cards. This, in my experience, would be a very rare thing to encounter, especially in the US.

I’ve done a lot of traveling over the past decade and not returned many hotel room keys but have never been charged for one.

Obviously, you want to be mindful of whether or not a hotel will charge you for not returning the key card but this will definitely not be the norm so usually you don’t have to worry about it.

And remember, we were just talking about key cards here. If you are issued a physical (metal) key you definitely want to return that!

Security concerns: personal information on hotel key cards?

A lot of hotel guests want to throw away their hotel key card or cut it up because they are worried that their personal information is stored on the card.

While some people mock travelers for being paranoid or out of touch with technology when they have these concerns, I think they are completely valid given how pervasive data collection is these days.

But the good news is you mostly don’t have anything to worry about.

For the vast majority of hotels the only information found on the key card is the room number, authorization type, and possibly a date and time for expiration (aka check out).

The room number and date/time are self-explanatory but the authorization type will tell the lock how to treat other key cards.

For example, if a new key card is made and swiped in the lock, the code on the new key card could tell the lock to not accept other key cards.

It’s possible that some key cards could have a guest tracker number that keeps track of the movement of guests.

This could be used to prove if someone was actually inside of a room or other facility in the event something happened.

For example, someone enters the gym at night and steals a piece of equipment. The hotel could be able to trace who accessed the gym based on the key card used.

It could also be used for things like hotel shopping, managing pool access, etc.

But the guest tracker number is just an encoded number and does not include your name or credit card number, for example.

So all of this means that there is none of your personal information stored on the card such as your phone number, loyalty number, address, name, or credit card account information.

Therefore, you shouldn’t have to worry about throwing the key card away for security reasons.

However, it is worth noting that in some regions of the world personal information could be stored on key cards. So when traveling outside the US always be mindful of that.

Time to switch to mobile keys?

If you don’t want to bother with a physical key or don’t like the pressure that comes along with keeping track of the key then keep in mind some hotels offer mobile keys.

These allow you to check into the hotel via your mobile device and you can even unlock your door using the hotel’s app and NFC technology.

Mobile keys are still a relatively new technology for some hotels so they don’t always work as well as you would like.

And people like myself find using mobile keys a little bit annoying because you have to pull up the app and rely on connectivity to get inside your room rather than just slipping a key card out of your pocket.

But this is definitely something to consider for people who are not a fan of hotel key cards for whatever reason.

Final word

Hopefully, you can breathe a little easier knowing that in the vast majority of cases, there is not an issue with failing to return your room key to the front desk.

However, I would still say it’s good practice to try to make it easy for the hotel to retrieve their hotel room key cards because some of them do re-use them and there shouldn’t be any security concerns.