By Gina Rich
Washington - As the pandemic eases, the prospect of staying in unfamiliar places has become both exciting and unnerving for many former travel enthusiasts.
It's important to feel safe, especially when it's time to rest after a packed day of sightseeing or adventuring.
One way to add an extra layer of protection against unwanted intrusions is to purchase a portable door lock.
Unlike exterior locks that open with a key, portable door locks can be used only inside a room and come in a variety of forms, including keyed contraptions, metal plates, door stoppers and noise alarms.
These devices are marketed to people who want extra security but don't have control over what kind of locking mechanism is used on a door: apartment renters, dorm dwellers and travellers. Before you purchase one, experts say, you should consider why you want it and what kind will meet your needs.
"There's a lot of psychology and emotion involved in feeling safe," says Rebecca Edwards, a security expert with SafeWise, which analyzes national crime and safety trends and reviews related products.
The pandemic has made us more proactive about protecting ourselves in general, she says: "We're already thinking about taking more control over the environment and the threat that it presents to us."
And if you've had a specific experience "that makes you feel worried, or afraid, or more vulnerable, having the extra thing sometimes just helps you relax and get some sleep, Edwards says. People who have experienced a crime or know someone who has "are astronomically more likely to employ extra security measures."
Where you stay matters, too. In a large hotel, you probably don't need a portable door lock because the rooms probably have deadbolts on the inside, says Leyla Giray Alyanak, a journalist and avid explorer who lives in rural eastern France and created a website, Women on the Road, to share tips and resources with other solo female travelers.
Over the years, Alyanak has visited 96 countries and stayed in all types of accommodations, including luxury hotels, secluded Airbnbs and a guesthouse in Tanzania where, due to high rates of neighbourhood theft, the owner locked the doors at night and went to sleep with the master key.
So far, Alyanak has not used a portable door lock in a major hotel, and she hasn't experienced a problem.
But hotels are falling out of favour with some travellers because of coronavirus concerns. Even if you're fully vaccinated, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention still recommends vacation rentals as a "safer" option than hotels because they pose a lower risk of coming into contact with people outside your household. Airbnb CEO Brian Chesky is expecting a surge in summer 2021 bookings.
While Airbnbs, Vrbos and other private rental units can feel safer from an infection standpoint, they carry other security risks. These units don't always have the heavy-duty deadbolts that are standard at most hotels.
Also, Airbnbs often employ smart locks linked to a specific code, and you can't be sure the owner has updated the code between guests, says Derek Kiser, a Houston construction professional who has worked with doors, locks and associated hardware for more than a decade.
Kiser established a website called Door Security Group to help consumers understand home security products.
Even if a room has secondary locking mechanisms - such as security chains or swinging latches attached to the door and frame - Kiser cautions against relying on them. Because these pieces are held in place only by screws, they're easy to dislodge with some force if a door is cracked open.
And if you're renting a single room in a house where other guests are coming and going, "you're definitely going to want more security," says Kiser.
Although hostels, bed-and-breakfasts, Vrbos and Airbnbs present a higher break-in risk than a large hotel - where in addition to deadbolts, the building might have cameras and other security measures to deter criminals - the chance of an incident is small, Edwards says.
The bigger risk is that someone can access your room when you're not there and steal your valuables. This, too, is relatively rare, but "that kind of crime is far more common than someone coming in to attack you," Edwards says.
The bottom line, security experts say, is that unless you're staying in a big hotel, it's smart to bring along a portable door lock just in case - even if you don't end up using it. And regardless of your accommodation, packing a lock is a good idea for any international travel.
"You're usually going to be far less familiar with the type of area, and you're not going to know if you picked a safe part of town or not," Edwards says. Plus, it may be more difficult to find and purchase a lock once you arrive at your destination.
Though portable door lock options are numerous, it's important to focus on ease of use - both for installation and removal in case of an emergency.
Alyanak advises travellers to keep it simple. One low-tech strategy that has worked for her: bringing a plastic doorstop to wedge underneath the door when she turns in for the evening. "They're light; they don't weigh anything. You can stick it in a shoe," she says.
Whatever product you choose, it's best if it comes in one piece, Kiser says.