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Is it acceptable to keep your hotel key? The surprising controversy behind those little plastic cards

Feb. 04, 2022
7 min read
hotel key cards on bed
Is it acceptable to keep your hotel key? The surprising controversy behind those little plastic cards
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A recent conversation at TPG turned into a rather unexpected debate — albeit a fun one.

The question: Is it OK to keep your hotel keycard after you check out?

The answer: Well, it turns out there are many schools of thought here, ranging from people who take every single key as a souvenir to others who think it’s straight-up stealing.

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Among travel experts, it appears that there’s no right or wrong answer. In fact, off the top of our heads, nobody could point to a specific policy saying you are required to return your used keycards, though some mentioned that they’ve seen receptacles specifically designed to return the keys, oftentimes with a sign claiming they’re recycled.

I scoured the websites of the major hotel chains to see if there were any official policies and couldn’t find any definitive answer. I then reached out directly to Hyatt, Hilton, IHG and Marriott to see if they could point me in the direction of a policy or give an official statement on the issue. Of the four, only Hyatt responded saying that they didn’t have anything to share.

While I was hoping the question could be easily answered by some fine print and legal jargon tucked away in the terms of service, that simply wasn’t the case.

Determined to get more perspective on the matter, I decided to poll readers on the TPG Instagram account and in our TPG Facebook group for their thoughts about whether or not it’s acceptable to keep hotel cards.

(Photo by Tanner Saunders/The Points Guy)

I started by asking a simple question: Do you keep your hotel keycard when you check out? Of the 3,966 people who responded on Instagram, roughly 61% (2,436 people) said no, while 39% (1,530 people) said yes.

Next, I asked people to comment about why they do or do not take hotel keys when checking out. I got hundreds of responses, both on Instagram and on Facebook, further proving that people really do have a lot of thoughts about this normally unspoken topic.

Like the conversation with my colleagues, our readers’ thoughts ran the gamut, but I was quickly able to identify a few trends.

First, the majority of people who keep hotel keycards on purpose tend to do so because they save them as mementos from really great trips and use them to track their travels. “I write down where I stayed, the date and the reason and bring them out to think of memories,” one person responded. Another said they collect them like Pokemon cards.

A major trend for people who keep the keys is that it simply happens by mistake.

“I just forget I have it,” many people responded. That’s easy to understand, as so many hotels now offer digital checkout, allowing for guests to be on their way without ever thinking about the key in their wallet.

Another reason people keep room keys is because they believe that the cards have personal information stored on them that could be misused in the wrong hands.

Generally speaking, hotel keycards contain very little information and essentially nothing about your personal identity or payment details. The data stored is pretty much limited to the room number, a timeframe for which the key should unlock that door and maybe a guest number that helps track your stay in the hotel’s computer system, according to an investigation by USA Today.

With that in mind, it’s important to keep track of your hotel keycard — especially when the card could still unlock your door — but nobody can steal your identity or credit card number if you do lose it.

(Photo by Tanner Saunders/The Points Guy)

On the other side of the debate, folks had some strong reasons for giving them back, starting with the most environmentally friendly reason: recycling.

“If they can keep using them for the next guests, I’d leave it rather than it being useless,” one person shared. And that’s true. Many hotels do recycle keycards, as they can often be reprogrammed over and over again. "Reduce. Reuse. Recycle," was a common response.

But a trend that I found in these responses was that a lot of people who return their keys for recycling seem to be unsure if that’s actually the case. A lot of these comments started with “I think” or “I assume,” which leads me to believe that hotels could probably get even more keys back to be reused if they were more upfront about what happens with them after the fact.

Like I mentioned above, many hotels have return boxes, but maybe it's time to make those more visible and include more information about how keys are recycled and what happens to the data stored on a key after it’s returned.

Wishful thinking, perhaps, but maybe hotels could even reward people who return keys with a small points bonus or farewell amenity.

Or, to truly simplify the situation, guests could just leave the key on the nightstand, as someone suggested. "If the hotel actually wants them back, I’m sure housekeeping can collect them."

A handful of people responded that they assume hotel keys are expensive for hotels to replace. That might be true to an extent, but my research found that these keycards usually cost around 10 to 15 cents each. I don’t believe the burden of that cost belongs to the guest, especially in the current climate of hotels tacking on fees every chance they get. If cost really played such a major factor, shouldn’t hotels have more defined policies about returning keycards?

As one reader shared on Facebook, "Cost savings of a business, especially airlines and hotels, never transfer to customers. If not, there wouldn't be all these hotels adding daily destination [fees] on top of the room rate."

The responses that shocked me the most, though, were from people who think taking hotel keycards is wrong on a criminal level. "On what planet is it OK to keep the card? Do you also keep the pillows or the TV remote?" asked one person. Others got right to the point and called it stealing.

(Photo by Tanner Saunders/The Points Guy)

It appears that this question is a lot more existential than I ever expected.

Is taking a hotel keycard on purpose stealing? What if, like so many people who responded, you simply forgot to return it? What kind of offense is that, if any?

Are my framed hotel keycards hanging on the wall a sign that I’m a criminal or that I don’t care about the environment, or does it mean I just love to travel and want to remember the moments I spent in and out of the room the key opened up?

Frankly, I don’t think it matters, and plenty of people expressed shock that this was a conversation in the first place. Like everything else on this dear, dear planet we share, though, everyone has an opinion.

Now, the only question that remains is how much longer we can even have this debate as major hotel chains and boutique properties adopt new technology that transforms our cellphones into room keys. Getting rid of plastic keycards will open a whole new world of possibilities (and controversies) that I’ll talk about at another time.

As long as I have a physical keycard, you can bet your bottom dollar I’m going to take it home. Whether it ends up framed on the wall, used as a bookmark or tucked into my shoebox full of personal mementos, I’ll look back at them at some point and temporarily get “entrance” back into a special time and place in my life.

Featured image by (Photo by Tanner Saunders/The Points Guy)
Editorial disclaimer: Opinions expressed here are the author’s alone, not those of any bank, credit card issuer, airline or hotel chain, and have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of these entities.

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  • Earn 3 Points per $1 spent at Gas Stations, Air Travel and Hotels
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Card Rating is based on the opinion of TPG‘s editors and is not influenced by the card issuer.
4 / 5
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3XEarn 3 Points per $1 spent at Restaurants and Supermarkets
3XEarn 3 Points per $1 spent at Gas Stations, Air Travel and Hotels
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  • Intro Offer
    For a limited time, earn 80,000 bonus ThankYou® Points after you spend $4,000 in purchases within the first 3 months of account opening

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  • Annual Fee

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  • Recommended Credit
    Credit ranges are a variation of FICO© Score 8, one of many types of credit scores lenders may use when considering your credit card application.

    670-850
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Why We Chose It

The Citi Premier’s 3 points per dollar spent across a wide range of popular categories is one of the more lucrative offerings in the world of points and miles. The Citi Premier comes with a $95 annual fee and is currently offering a solid sign up bonus of 80,000 points after you spend $4,000 on purchases within the first three months. It also has some valuable transfer partners to make the most of your rewards. Add in access to Citi Entertainment plus a $100 hotel credit for any single-stay hotel booking that exceeds $500 or more, excluding taxes and fees, booked through the Citi travel website, there are few reasons why the Citi Premier should not be in every traveler’s wallet.

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  • $100 annual hotel savings benefit (on single hotel stay bookings of $500 or more, excluding taxes and fees, booked through thankyou.com)
  • Points transfer to 16 airline programs, from JetBlue to Virgin Atlantic.
  • World Elite Mastercard benefits, extended warranty, damage and theft protection.

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  • $95 annual fee
  • Lacks travel protections that other travel rewards cards come with
  • For a limited time, earn 80,000 bonus ThankYou® Points after you spend $4,000 in purchases within the first 3 months of account opening
  • Earn 3 Points per $1 spent at Restaurants and Supermarkets
  • Earn 3 Points per $1 spent at Gas Stations, Air Travel and Hotels
  • Earn 1 Point per $1 spent on all other purchases
  • Annual Hotel Savings Benefit
  • 80,000 Points are redeemable for $800 in gift cards when redeemed at thankyou.com
  • No expiration and no limit to the amount of points you can earn with this card
  • No Foreign Transaction Fees on purchases