Vacationing last summer in Rome, several members of an American tour group heeded a hotel clerk's anxious warning to store valuables in the hotel's safe-deposit boxes.
Days later masked gunmen seized three of the American guests in the hotel lobby, tied them and the desk clerks in a back room and looted the boxes of jewelry, cash and other valuables.
The guests were relatively lucky. The hotel was insured, and so far 20 people have received $240,000 in claims. But travelers can't depend on that. In the United States, for example, hotel liability for items in a safe is limited in most states to $100 to $500. Florida requires a $1,000 liability.
So even though hotels recommend that guests use safe-deposit boxes -- they generally aren't liable at all if items are kept in a room -- the only way travelers can be sure their valuables are protected is by making sure they have a homeowner's policy with enough coverage.
Most standard policies only cover a maximum of $100 in cash and $500 in jewelry. Such valuable items as fine jewelry and cameras could be covered on "floaters" for an additional premium. The floaters offer proof that these items actually exist.
Hotel theft isn't common. Only about 1 percent of Allstate Insurance Co.'s property claims are from losses in hotels and motels. Most big city and resort hotels have improved security, mainly by using cards instead of keys that allow the hotel to change the room locks for every visitor.
Several hotel chains, like Marriott Hotels & Resorts and Best Western Hotels Inc., have installed safes in the rooms of selected hotels, placing them in closet and bathroom walls and behind wall pictures.
Mosler Co., which makes safes and security devices, says that travelers often prefer the privacy of hotel room safes. They are also roomy, some big enough to store a camera, a fur coat or a small suitcase.
But the same privacy would allow an intruder solitude while breaking into a safe virtually unnoticed. "You still wouldn't want to put anything overly valuable in the room safe," says Robert Barry, Mosler's bank product manger.
The hotel's safe-deposit boxes are considered more secure. The metal boxes, similar to those used by banks, require two keys to open, are hooked up to the hotel's alarm system and are in view of electronic cameras.
Nevertheless, hotels say that no more than 20 percent of guests, mostly those on longer stays and foreign travelers, use the boxes.
If a robbery does occur, travelers with extensive losses might consider going to court to get more compensation than statutes permit.
In New York, for instance, the state's hotel liability limit of $500 was tested in a lawsuit following a 1979 burglary of safe-deposit boxes at the Mayfair Regent Hotel, a luxury Park Avenue hotel.
Two guests claimed that each lost $1 million in jewelry and sued the hotel, charging that the hotel safes weren't secure. The boxes were in a room with plasterboard walls and two hollow-wood doors, and one of the doors had an ordinary doorknob lock.
A jury awarded the women $600,000 each. In the state court of appeals, the judge questioned whether the hotel had "provided adequate protection against fire, theft and other reasonable foreseeable risks."
As with all insurance claims, travelers could best prove their case with detailed documentation and appraisals of valuable items placed in a safe.
Jo Ann Fannin, a victim in the Rome hotel robbery, lost several pieces of antique heirloom jewelry, which she insisted couldn't be replaced. She was unable to accurately describe some of the stolen pieces, like small brooches that had a variety of stones and intricate sets.
Settlement negotiations dragged on for a year until the insurer was able to piece together her descriptions using appraisers. As it turned out, Fannin says her estimate of the jewelry's value was below the appraiser's valuation.