On a quiet summer’s day in Alexandria, Va., a AAA inspector stepped into Room 828 at the Embassy Suites in Old Town and cast a cautious eye around the tidy space. She then issued a warning to the small entourage trailing her.
“Don’t touch anything inside,” she said, as she removed a germ detection kit from her bag.
With the precision of a forensics detective, she swabbed the most criminal spots in a hotel room - the high-touch points where germs often congregate. She brushed the door handle, the wall light switch, the thermostat and the TV remote. In a different room one floor down, she checked the bathroom countertop and sink faucet.
“When we first started swabbing, the remote control was the germiest, but now it is not as much,” she said. “It’s usually the light switch at the front door that tends to fail the most for me.”
After each sample, she inserted the tube into a boxy contraption that would determine the level of adenosine triphosphate (ATP), an energy molecule and indicator of cleanliness. A clock counted down the seconds to the results.
“That’s six,” the inspector said. “All of your swabs passed.”
Henry Sanchez, the hotel’s director of rooms and guest services, relaxed his shoulders and performed a happy dance with his hands.
More than 80 years of inspections
Since 1937, the American Automobile Association, a league of motor clubs founded more than 120 years ago in Chicago, has been assessing hotels and awarding diamonds to establishments that pass its rigorous inspection. In 1985, it expanded to restaurants. Two years ago, it added a new tool to its belt: rapid ATP tests by Charm Sciences. (AAA has never used black lights, which it said do not suit its objectives.)
“It is a way to verify that the hotels are following the cleaning protocols that they claim,” said Scott Hammerle, director of the AAA Diamond Inspections Program. “The inspection is done with both the physical validation and now the scientific component to ensure that these are places we can confidently recommend.”
AAA, which boasts 63 million members, has designated 25,000 properties and 5,000 restaurants in the United States, Canada, Central America and the Caribbean. Accommodations earn their gems based on a criterion that grows more demanding and discerning higher up the ladder. From the top, the organization describes five diamonds as “ultimate luxury,” four as “refined,” three as “distinguished” and approved (formerly one and two) as “enhanced” or “budget-oriented.”
Only 151 lodgings wear the sparkliest crown, including the Hotel Bel-Air in Los Angeles, Jade Mountain Resort on St. Lucia and the Little Nell in Aspen, Colo. Four-diamond recipients are more numerous and include such new initiates as Conrad Tulum Riviera Maya in Mexico, Turtle Bay Resort in Hawaii and W Philadelphia. On the other end of the spectrum are such “approved” properties as Motel 6 Santa Fe and the San Juan Airport Hotel in Puerto Rico.
No matter the designation, all inspections are performed in-person and by experts who wield the mighty swab.
“When they first sent them to us, they said have fun, swab your house, swab your phone,” the inspector said. “I have a teenager and his room was pretty filthy.”
AAA inspectors remain anonymous. Even so, the reviewer in Old Town Alexandria said that, after more than 30 years on the job, hotel employees sometimes recognize her face. One hotel manager even told her that he can identify her high-heeled gait on the security camera.
For proprietary reasons, AAA would not provide the number of inspectors it sends into the field. However, it did allow me to shadow one of its assessors, as long as I didn’t reveal her name. But I can share her origin story.
In her early 20s, the Virginia native was scanning the help wanted ads in The Washington Post when she landed on the inspector position. She applied, enticed by the travel perks.
“I got to travel a lot. And then after two years, they sent me to Hawaii and I was like, ‘I am not going to grad school,’” the art history major said. “So I have stayed this whole time.”
She has worked in 38 states, three Canadian provinces and more Caribbean and Hawaiian islands than a serial honeymooner. She averages 650 to 680 hotels a year, a mix of first-time reviews and returns, such as the Embassy Suites, a solid three diamond.
Skip the coffee maker, and always bring slippers
Inspectors only overnight at the most luxurious properties so they can evaluate the service, a critical category for hotels hoping to gain entry into the prestigious five-diamond stratosphere. At the now-closed Woodlands Inn in South Carolina hotel, for instance, she requested the New York Times Food section during afternoon tea. The following morning, room service delivered the Wednesday section, plus the Thursday paper, a five-diamond-worthy move.
For the other rankings, the inspector will drop by the hotel unannounced. The Tidewater-based inspector had checked into the Embassy Suites in Alexandria the night before, but her inspection would not officially start until the following day, when she slid her business card across the front desk and asked to see a manager.
She typically waits until after checkout time, to avoid the rush of departing guests and to increase her odds of seeing four to five clean guest rooms. To bide our time, we hung out in her suite, where she divulged her personal hotel peeves and horror stories.
“I always tell my son not to touch anything. Once he was like, ‘What’s this?’ I was like, ‘Oh my God, we have to leave now. Everybody out. Everybody out of the room,’” she said, recalling the discovery of a forgotten sex toy in a drawer.
For her own peace of mind, she will check the mattress for bedbugs and may peek behind the sofa, drapes and doors. She is still haunted by a pair of underwear left behind in a hotel bathroom.
“I thought I had checked my room well and then I went to use the bathroom,” she said. “I shut the door and started to go for the toilet when I turned around, and there they were.”
Although she does not go to such extremes as a colleague who covers the couch with a sheet before sitting down, she will ask for a new room if there’s excessive pet hair. For sanitation reasons, she said she’s “not a fan” of sleeper sofas, which may not be as thoroughly cleaned as other pieces of furniture; in-room glasses and mugs, which housekeeping may or may not run through the dishwasher; or decorative pillows. “I don’t like them,” she said. “They are super germy.”
She eschews the coffee maker because she has seen those TikTok videos of travelers cooking ramen or washing their clothes in the pot. Plus, she has high coffee standards. “I like really good coffee, so I want to go downstairs,” she said.
Her other commandments include covering the peephole if it’s bare because of privacy concerns. Don’t use the iron, because guests might press such non-clothing items as grilled cheese. Always carry slippers or flip-flops for treading on carpets, a haven for dirt and mildew. And never put your kid in a hotel’s Pack-’n-Play, a petri dish posing as a playpen.
“I do check for things, but I’m not super-paranoid after all these years,” she said. “I say that but I did get norovirus when I was pregnant. You pick it up in hotels or on cruise ships.”
Swabbing a room’s germiest culprits
AAA’s criteria has evolved over time, with inspectors now checking for USB ports, digital key capabilities and streaming services. But the touchstones remain the same.
To be considered for a designation, the hotel must demonstrate a basic level of safety and sanitation. For instance, all rooms must have smoke detectors, and entry doors must feature a primary lock and a deadbolt. On the same day as the Embassy Suites visit, the inspector flagged another Alexandria hotel for not securing a room’s patio door with a deadbolt. The property is at risk of losing its three diamonds.
“We will not bend on those safety things,” Hammerle said.
The inspector has failed only a few places, such as a small motel whose manager told her that he gives his housekeepers a meager 15 minutes to clean each room. She also jettisoned a property that had turned its lobby into a convenience store with bulletproof glass. Shady characters skulked around the parking lot.
“That was the quickest I ever saw a property go from nice to shamefully sketchy,” she said.
At the Embassy Suites, the prospects for passing looked high, even before the swab. The inspector noted some minor scuffs on the restaurant furniture but praised the ample seating in the lobby, the well-equipped gym and the entrance’s canopy covering. She documented all of her findings on a tablet, which she’d calculate later for a final score.
For the guest room critique, she performed the ATP test first, before any outsiders could contaminate the space with their microbes. The hotel must pass six swabs. If it fails one, she will test the same spot in a different room. The Embassy Suites aced the exam.
After the germ experiment, she turned her attention to the more visible elements. She peered into minifridges, tugged on bedsheets, opened closets and drawers, and poked around bathrooms.
An hour later, we were back where started, in the airy atrium by the front desk. She ran down her findings.
“I like how you secured the stairs and elevators. The swabs looked great. There was a little wear and tear in the hallways and on the furniture. It would be great if you had USB ports or wireless chargers,” she informed Sanchez.
Then, with a reassuring smile, she delivered her verdict: “We will continue your three-diamond listing.”