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What should you do if your jewellery was stolen from your hotel room?

Who is liable if your personal items disappear from a hotel room? The action you can take depends on a dizzying list of factors, ranging from where in the world you are to the hotel policy.

What should you do if your jewellery was stolen from your hotel room?

(Art: NYT/Rachelle Baker)

A reader recently wrote in: “My friend and I recently stayed in a posh hotel in London. Five days after checking out, my friend discovered several pieces of jewellery missing and realised they had been stolen while she was at the hotel. I am horrified that this would happen. I have a journal entry from my grandmother’s trip to Paris in 1936 in which she describes having earrings stolen from her hotel room – I know theft happens, but I don’t know what consumers are supposed to do about it. Hannah.”

This was my reply: Dear Hannah, I empathise with your friend (and your grandma!) and I especially relate to the feeling of being horrified.

About three years ago, one of my rings disappeared from a Paris hotel where my husband and I were babymooning at the time. I had left all of my jewellery out in plain view – foolish, I know. The hotel had physical room keys (versus key cards), making it impossible to track who had entered. Hotel management insisted that I had misplaced the ring (I didn’t) and denied any fault.

Take it from me: Pregnancy hormones and missing diamonds don’t mix well. But even as I (unsuccessfully) explored the possibility of restitution, I confronted a reality that even most experts agree on: “This is a very convoluted area of the law,” said Stephen Barth, a Houston, Texas-based attorney who specialises in the hospitality industry. Who’s to blame, legally, and the action you can take depends on a dizzying list of factors, ranging from where in the world you are to the vicissitudes of decades-old innkeeper statutes.

Barth stressed the importance of using the hotel-provided safe – either the in-room safe or the front-desk safe deposit box – not only from the obvious practical standpoint, but from a legal one as well. In the United States, he said, a hotel may be liable for the entire value of items stolen from the safe if there is clear complicity or negligence. A hotel’s liability for items left out of the safe varies by state, with generally unfavourable limits: Around US$300 to US$500 (S$430 to S$717).

Things get even more complicated when travellers – like your friend who remained unaware of a potential incident until days after checkout – don’t act in the moment.

“The first and most important step is to report the theft or loss – first to hotel management and then to the police. You’ll most likely need to provide a formal police report to file with a travel insurance claim,” said Stan Sandberg, the co-founder of travel insurance comparison website TravelInsurance.com.

“The first and most important step is to report the theft or loss – first to hotel management and then to the police.” – Stan Sandberg

So although I wouldn’t have luck going to bat for your friend so far after the fact, I’d like to use my remaining column space to lay out other guardrails. Most people do as I did: Wait until something bad happens. Having been through it, I wish I had been more proactive up front.

First, take the time to look at what’s covered – or not – by your current insurance, and note that general travel insurance doesn’t always cover the full value of fine jewellery. “While the total coverage limits range from US$1,000 to US$3,000 on standard and premium plans, they may have per-item limits for jewellery or high-value items of US$500,” Sandberg said.

Home or rental insurance may also fall short – we learned that the hard way after returning from Paris and realising our policy had an extremely low limit for valuables. Nearly immediately, we switched to Chubb home insurance with a carved-out valuables article policy. Now, regardless of where I am in the world, my jewellery is protected against loss or theft.

The new policy provides an enormous peace of mind. But these days, I rarely travel with jewellery anyway – a strategy endorsed by Barth. “The most valuable thing I ever travel with is my passport, then once I get to the hotel I leave it in the safe. I set a reminder on my phone to access the safe before I check out,” he said.

It’s no surprise that the Paris hotel ultimately refused to pony up. But I’m a big believer in upsides, and if there’s a tiny one to be found, it’s that the experience also forced me to whip my own travel habits into shape; now, the safe is the first thing I do when I enter a hotel room and the last thing I do before checking out. There’s no question that the feeling of being robbed is among the worst, but hopefully it can be just as motivating for your friend as it was for me.

“The most valuable thing I ever travel with is my passport, then once I get to the hotel I leave it in the safe. I set a reminder on my phone to access the safe before I check out.” – Stephen Barth

By Sarah Firshein © 2020 The New York Times

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