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You can’t spend your life in a bubble. When we venture out, the best we can hope to do is take proper precautions to stay as safe and hygienic as possible. There’s a reason people often get sick during or after a vacation — in fact, there are lots of reasons, and they range from benign to stomach-turning. It’s up to you whether or not you’d rather stay blissfully ignorant. If you’re feeling brave, keep reading — hopefully by the end, you won’t want to cancel your next trip.
Air quality in planes is awful
It’s hard to call this one a secret, since everyone seems to complain about it. However, despite these complaints, which are typically voiced by airline employees and their union representatives, very little has been done to address these concerns. The air we breathe on airplanes is a combination of recycled cabin air and “bleed air,” which is outside air compressed by the engine.
Obviously, recycled cabin air is concerning due to the prevalence of airborne viruses that spread easily on airplanes, but “bleed air” is dangerous for other reasons. While you would assume the air that passes through the engine is filtered before it enters the cabin, this is rarely the case. This means toxic fumes can potentially be pumped in, carrying carcinogens and other harmful chemicals.
Air quality in hotels isn’t much better
Ideally, the air filter in your hotel room HVAC system gets swapped out regularly. But that’s ideally. There’s also the question of whether that vent gets dusted and wiped down frequently. If not, turning on the AC might do more harm than good.
Fortunately, many hotels have taken note of visitors’ complaints about feeling stuffy following an overnight stay and have begun providing air purifiers and filters as part of the accommodation.
Your cup of hotel coffee is a veritable petri dish
When you rise in the morning after a late night on the town in whatever your vacation destination, a cup of coffee is almost mandatory. But if you’re tempted to reach for that “fresh” pot of hotel coffee, you may want to think twice …
The University of Valencia performed a study of nine Nespresso coffee makers found in hotel rooms that had been used for at least a year. “All the machines revealed a significant bacterial diversity, with the total number of identified genera ranging from 35 to 67,” the report concluded. In a separate investigation, a maid was observed using the same towel she used on the bathroom floor to wipe down the coffee pot. Yuck.
Don’t set your toothbrush down on the bathroom counter
Just don’t. It doesn’t take a genius to ascertain why — the bathroom is a great place to find germs. According to a Travelmath study, the bathroom counter consistently had the most germs of any surface in hotel rooms.
When you need to set your toothbrush down after you finish brushing your teeth, consider putting it back in your bag of toiletries instead of on the counter. While the bathroom counter may be the worst location in terms of germs, it’s far from the only place you’ll find them …
Wipe down that remote
If you’ve never thought about this, you must be thrilled to have it brought to your attention: The remote controls in hotel rooms are absolutely teeming with germs. Travelmath says that on average, 2,002,300 colony-forming units can be found on hotel remotes — and that’s just in five-star hotels.
If you ever wondered why you seem to get sick following a vacation, there’s a decent chance the television remote is to blame. It may be prudent to invest in some disinfecting wipes to clean off those buttons before you settle in for the evening and flip on the TV.
People often use the tray tables on flights to change diapers
It seems pretty obvious that those tables are for eating off of, but apparently some people didn’t get the memo. Fortunately, a cleaning crew comes in and cleans everything thoroughly between flights. But could you imagine sitting next to someone that uses the tray table to change a baby’s diaper?
According to flight staff, this is a fairly regular occurrence. Not only is it unsightly, but it’s unsanitary, too. Most airplanes have changing tables in the restrooms. If they don’t, ask the staff for some advice. If worse comes to worst, you can change Junior’s diaper on a closed toilet seat — it’s not ideal, but investing in a few changing pads will make the process much smoother.
The dreaded ‘HUM’
There is one code word that makes cargo crew members’ stomachs turn — HUM. This is the handling code for human remains. “There is more often than not a lot of horrific things in the cargo,” an anonymous crew member wrote in to the New Zealand Herald.
You never know what or who you might be sharing your flight with. “Dead bodies, organs, blood are obvious ones, but we also carry everything right up to Formula One car parts, exotic animals, marble tables, oversized televisions … everything.” One crew member even described seeing a mysterious fluid leaking out of an item marked “HUM” on several occasions.
Those hotel glasses aren’t clean
No one wants to be wasteful, but no one wants to get sick either. When it comes to your hotel water glass, you may be better off with a paper cup or water bottle. Investigative research uncovered some disturbing details.
In some hotels, those glasses never see the inside of a dishwasher. Sometimes, cleaning crews just wipe them down with a sponge or towel and put them right back on the shelf. Worse, some workers even used the same towels to dry their hands. This isn’t just gross, it’s dangerous.
People pee in the hotel swimming pool
Well, that’s not surprising, I guess. What is surprising is how many people pee in the pool. Americans, apparently, are the absolute worst offenders. According to Travelzoo, 64% of Americans admitted to urinating in the pool or ocean, a statistic we really wish they’d narrowed down — who cares if someone pees in the ocean, anyway?
“Perhaps the carefree nature of holidays makes people behave in ways they wouldn’t ordinarily, but the findings are certainly food for thought when it comes to splashing up and down the pool,” said Travelzoo spokeswoman Louise Hodges.
A study performed by the Journal of the American Chemical Society concluded that a large swimming pool contains about 20 gallons of urine on average. It’s not enough to get you sick, but you should definitely rinse off once you get out.
The hot tub is worse
Most people can testify to the relaxing qualities of a hot tub. Evidently, many people find it so relaxing they can’t be bothered to get up and go to the bathroom. Of all the swimming pools surveyed, hot tubs had the highest pee-to-water ratio.
This may make you want to gag, but scientists claim you shouldn’t be concerned about the urine you’re swimming in — but just to be clear, you are definitely swimming in urine.
The actual pool might be the least of your worries
According to some hotel employee confessions, you shouldn’t worry too much about how clean the pools are. After all, they’re generally full of enough chlorine to kill off any microorganisms you can imagine. However, the pool furniture — that’s another story.
Some hotel employees confess that they rarely, if ever, clean off those lounge chairs — you know, the ones that everyone sits on when they’re practically naked. With that in mind, next time you feel compelled to sunbathe, you may want to sit on the edge of the pool instead of the chairs.
The duvets in hotel rooms are often unwashed
Cleaning a comforter is a lot more work than washing sheets and pillowcases and requires considerably more resources. This has led many establishments to forgo the process, washing their comforters only several times a year, if at all. Many guests have heard these rumors and preemptively strip the duvet off the bed upon arrival.
Microbiologists have confirmed that the cleanliness of many hotel comforters leaves much to be desired. Some hotels have seen this as an opportunity, leaving sticky notes assuring guests that the duvets were cleaned recently.
Bedbugs are common in hotels
When people stay in hotels, they come from all corners of the world. They often pick up a few stowaways along the journey. Many travelers fear bedbugs and, unfortunately, this fear is justified: Exterminators report that hotels are the third-most-likely place to find an infestation.
Bedbugs are not only gross and potentially disease-carrying, they are notoriously hard to exterminate permanently. If you spend any amount of time in the company of these creepy-crawlies, there’s a good chance they’ll be hitching a ride home with you and staying a while.
Don’t use that seat pocket
The seat pocket in airplanes seems like a great place to place your book, magazine, laptop, or tablet. It’s conveniently located for quick access and secure enough to keep your items from sliding underneath your seat. Unfortunately, your prized items are guaranteed to pick up a considerable amount of germs if you store them there.
While there’s at least a chance the tray tables and seats will get spritzed and/or wiped down with disinfectant, the same can’t be said about the trusty seat pocket. “I ALWAYS recommend you never, ever, ever, EVER use or put anything in the seat pocket,” a flight attendant posted on Reddit. “They are cleared of rubbish but are never ‘cleaned.’ I have pulled out and seen all sorts (of things have) been pulled out from there.” These items include dirty tissues, half-eaten food, underwear, and even toenail clippings.
The flight crew is judging you — but for a good reason
As you board the flight, an attendant typically glances at your boarding pass and points you in the direction of your seat. This isn’t just to make sure no one gets lost — the crew makes a note of your physique and behavior. If you look strong and are traveling alone, you may be asked to help during a potential evacuation.
If you’re rude or difficult, the crew will flag you as someone who may present a problem in these situations. “The commander is informed in the flight deck pre-departure of anything — no matter how slight — that could threaten the safety of the flight,” writes former flight attendant Simon J. Marton in his book, Journey of a Reluctant Air Steward.
Those beds have gotten a lot of use
This one’s pretty obvious — when you check into a hotel, the place you lay your head has had many visitors before you. But just how many may shock you. According to a U.K. survey, the average hotel mattress has slept around 2,100 people.
A separate study reveals something a bit more disturbing. An average of 537 people have probably slept naked on your hotel mattress, which typically gets changed every five to seven years. There are probably some more details we could uncover, but some mysteries are best left unsolved.
The coffee on your flight is probably decaf and not very clean
No one wants to be seated next to a fidgety passenger, and flight attendants prefer not to have to deal with them. For this reason, much of the coffee you get on a flight will be decaffeinated. Rather than have you darting around the cabin and making frequent trips to the restroom, the crew prefers you sleep.
Just like the coffee in hotels, no one gets around to cleaning the pots out very often. The same goes for the plane’s large water tanks, though those almost never get cleaned. Which brings us to our next point …
The airplane water is disgusting
Flight attendants confess that they have doubts about the cleanliness of the water they serve the passengers. In fact, these tanks hold the same water that gets pumped through the toilets. Sometimes referred to as the “galley springs,” the water is so questionable that some flight staff refuse to drink it themselves.
There’s good reason for their concern — a 2015 study published by the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health found that the water tanks are “conducive for microbial growth.” Worse, a 2004 study by the Environmental Protection Agency that sampled water from over 300 planes found that 15% of the water contained coliform bacteria. Coliform is typically found in feces, which makes it a good indicator of how sanitary a water supply is.
If you die in your seat, the flight crew will pretend you’re sleeping
Announcing that a passenger is dead could cause a panic mid-flight. Rather than take this risk, flight attendants would rather pretend that it never happened. Telling people the corpse next to them is just drunk, strapping the body into a seat, and covering them with a blanket is the preferred course of action.
Of course, this is uncommon. However, this information is sure to have us studying the guy in the seat next to us on our next flight — watching for signs of breathing as he sleeps through breakfast.
Travel really does bring out the worst in some people. Taking your shoes and socks off on a plane is already gross enough, but some travelers seem to have no shame or regard for the people around them, pressing their bare feet against the tray table, or setting them on the armrest or headrest in front of them.
Of course, it doesn’t help that the feet in the above photo look like they haven’t seen the inside of a bathtub in days. We can only hope someone put a stop to this immediately after this photo was taken.
Flight attendants can open the restroom doors when they’re locked
There’s a good reason behind this — medical emergencies sometimes happen, and if a passenger passes out or needs assistance, the crew needs to be able to get in to help them. Of course, the ability to open the door comes in handy in other instances, too.
Every once in a while, a pair of passengers may get a little bold and feel compelled to take advantage of the privacy afforded them by the totally-not-revolting-and-stinky public restrooms. Usually just the threat of opening the door is enough to send them back to their seats, red-faced.
Buffets are breeding grounds for germs and bacteria
That sneeze guard won’t save you.
The breakfast buffet is popular among travelers looking to save a few bucks, but plenty of evidence — both empirical and anecdotal — suggests it’s not the cleanest and safest option. Unfortunately, buffet food often sits out for a while, and when food remains at room temperature for too long, it begins to spoil.
There’s also a disturbing lack of regulation when it comes to buffets. For example, hotels and restaurants are required to change the serving utensil only when it falls to the floor. You’d better hope your fellow dinner guests all washed their hands.
If you’re in the mood to be disgusted and mortified, take a look at this Reddit thread full of buffet horror stories.
Prepare to get diarrhea whenever you travel
Attack rates of travelers’ diarrhea are disturbingly high, ranging from between 30% and 70% depending on where and when you travel. Conventional wisdom advises you to boil, cook, and peel your food, but studies show that even strict adherence to the rule won’t keep you from getting the runs.
Researchers believe bacterial pathogens are to blame for 80%-90% of the cases of travelers’ diarrhea, with intestinal viruses, protozoan pathogens (like malaria, dysentery, and toxoplasmosis), and common food poisoning making up the rest of the causes.
If you avoid raw and undercooked food, wash your hands often, thoroughly clean any produce, and carry hand sanitizer, you may stand a chance.
Trains and buses are full of germs
Do you know what kind of bacteria you picked up when you grabbed the pole to steady yourself as the train started moving? Neither do scientists. Swabs taken in the New York subway system detected a variety of bacteria — 48% of which were unidentifiable to researchers.
A staggering 20% of the bacteria found was associated with the human genital area, meaning some of you passengers aren’t washing your hands after using the restroom.
If you need further proof that trains are disgusting, consider that Britain still allows some trains to flush their passengers’ excrement on the tracks.
The carpet in your hotel room has seen better days
Why do hotels always seem to have dark carpets with such loud patterns? It’s so you won’t notice how filthy they are. Most hotels are pretty good about vacuuming often, but that Hoover is no match for years of foot traffic.
Replacing carpets is an expensive task, so hotel owners will often push it off as far as they can. It may be worth investing in some slippers while planning your next trip.
The desk in your hotel room is pretty germy, too
Is anywhere safe? Probably not. We’d all like to think the room is fully wiped down and disinfected every time the housekeeping staff makes their rounds, but this isn’t always the case. Interestingly, in a Travelmath study, desks in three-star hotel rooms tested cleaner than those found in both four-star and five-star hotels.
On average, desks in three-star hotel rooms were home to 4,687 colony-forming units (CFU) per square inch, while their more upscale four-star counterparts hosted an average of 1,800,003 CFU per square inch. Five-star hotel desks split the difference with 40,030 CFU per square inch.
To avoid norovirus, consider taking a longer cruise
While this seems a little counterintuitive — it seems like the longer you’re out at sea, the more at risk you’ll be — it actually makes perfect sense. Almost always, other passengers are to blame for an outbreak of norovirus, and not poor hygiene by the cruise employees. Short cruises attract guests that are more susceptible to spreading the illness.
For one, short cruises are more attractive to older passengers, who contract and spread illness more frequently. They also attract younger passengers, who neglect hygiene in favor of drunken debauchery. When you take a cruise, heed the advice of the staff and wash your hands as regularly as possible.
They probably aren’t cleaning the couch that often
You probably vacuum your couch semi-regularly. But odds are, you don’t give it a deep clean unless something out of the ordinary makes it necessary. Same goes for that hotel sofa. Based on how many people confess to sleeping in their hotel bed naked, we can only assume that habit extends to the couch in some instances.
To guard yourself, consider bringing a spray bottle full of disinfectant to spritz on the couch before you give your feet some rest — your immune system will thank you. Speaking of spray …
Don’t bring a black light into your hotel room
Unless you’re in the right headspace to see something that may hurt you, leave your black light at home. Sometimes you’re better off not knowing certain things. But if you’re possessed by a sense of morbid curiosity, there have been numerous studies done regarding the inside of hotel rooms. Their findings: not good.
In fact, one ABC investigation found urine stains in literally every room they surveyed. Don’t you wish you could go back in time to before you knew that?
The last guests may have died in your hotel room
Life goes on. But even when it doesn’t, the business must. Therefore, after the police and paramedics are done, the cleaning crew will clean up (hopefully) thoroughly and as quickly as possible. New guests will be in there in record time, none the wiser.
But it must be pretty rare that someone dies in a hotel room, right? Wrong. People die in hotel rooms all the time. Worse, they often die “unnatural” deaths. Consider how many people stay in hotels during turbulent times in their marriage and you’ll begin to see the picture.
This article was originally published on Vacation 101: Disgusting travel secrets that will make you gag