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Travel’s signature scents — and how to avoid them

These days, smells are being used to make people feel safer. And that seems to be working — except when it doesn’t. (iStock)
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Travel smells.

It isn’t just your resort’s signature fragrance wafting through the lobby or the aromatherapy kit in your bathroom. During the seemingly endless pandemic, it’s also the solutions used to clean the public areas in airports, train stations and hotel lobbies. They’re giving us a headache.

Airlines, car rental companies, cruise lines and hotels added many of these smelly solutions during the pandemic to make customers feel safer, says consumer psychologist Michal Strahilevitz, who teaches marketing at St. Mary’s College of California. Reassuring passengers with the scent of cleansers, she says, makes perfect sense, because many of us have been taught since childhood that this is what clean and safe smells like. In reality, it has nothing to do with either.

“And personally,” she adds, “these artificial fragrances make me gag.”

That makes two of us. During the past two years, travel companies have created and promoted programs in conjunction with cleaning brands. Initially, experts thought the smells would fade as the pandemic did. But the pandemic lingers — and so do all of the annoying, headache-inducing chemical odors.

There are ways to avoid the smells, but for now, at least, it’s hard to escape them entirely.

Patti Wood checked into a hotel room in Birmingham, Ala., recently that reeked of disinfectant. It triggered an immediate asthma attack.

“The smell was overpowering,” says Wood, a body language consultant from Atlanta whose clients include hotel companies. “I went down to the front desk to see if there were any rooms that had been cleaned and deodorized the day before, so the scent would not be as strong.”

The travel industry knows the power of smell.

Many hotels have begun to create signature scents that they hope will enhance the experience. At the Boulders Resort & Spa Scottsdale, for example, you can catch a whiff of the “perfume of the desert,” a signature scent of mesquite and shaggy bark juniper. CitizenM, a boutique hotel chain, pipes an “invigorating” (its words) scent of “petitgrain, fresh fig, and orange blossom contrasted with creamy sandalwood and soft musk.” It even has a scent sommelier on staff.

But that approach can be taken to the extreme. I recently stayed at a resort in Portugal’s Alentejo region that also had a signature scent. It plopped a generous vial of the essential oil next to the desk where I was trying to write a story. Within a few minutes, I had a searing headache. Fortunately, I could move the rose-scented decanter to the bathroom, where it probably belonged, anyway.

Businesses also know that smells can be profitable. A 2012 study by Washington State University researchers tied the presence of a simple orange scent in a home decor store to increased guest spending, which rose, on average, by about 20 percent. Researchers have found that the principle applies in the hospitality industry, too. Alan Hirsch, director of the Smell & Taste Treatment and Research Foundation in Chicago, published a research paper in 1995 that found that visitors at a Las Vegas casino gambled an average of 45 percent more on a floor with a pleasant scent.

These days, smells are being used to make people feel safer. And that seems to be working — except when it doesn’t.

Anne Markowski, who works for a museum in New Haven, Conn., has multiple chemical sensitivities, which causes her to react to low levels of commonly used chemicals. She has long avoided boutique hotels because of their signature scents, but during the pandemic, she says, “travel is very stressful.”

The worst are restrooms, Markowski says, some of which have motion-triggered deodorizers that emit a thick floral odor. “What they are actually doing is contributing to indoor air pollution.”

She says she also avoids airports with chemical sprayers, such as Phoenix Sky Harbor. “I do my best not to connect there,” she says.

That brings us to the first way to avoid travel’s smells: You can book around them. Airlines, hotels and car rental companies have highly publicized cleaning programs with brands known for their distinctive smells. For example, Hilton’s CleanStay program partners with Reckitt, makers of Lysol and Dettol, so if you’re extra sensitive to smells and would rather avoid the odors of cleaning products, you might want to bypass a just-cleaned room at a Hilton property.

Some hotels also have commercial-grade ozone machines, which can get rid of unpleasant smells without the use of artificial scents. Someone at your hotel should be able to tell you whether it has one.

Another strategy is wearing your face covering, even if you don’t have to. “If scents are causing you discomfort, masks can definitely help,” says Kalliope Amorphous, owner of the perfume house Black Baccara. A mask will block some of the odors. If you’d rather smell something else, you can add a few drops of your favorite scent to the mask.

“Scents like lavender and chamomile can be especially soothing and calming,” she says.

Nicole Villegas, an occupational therapist who specializes in treating anxiety and sensory sensitivities, says travelers bothered by strong scents should be proactive.

“The best way to deal with a situation where a smell may be causing you discomfort is to actively respond to the issue,” Villegas says. “When it comes to smell or uncomfortable scents, many people take a passive approach and simply wait for the smell to pass. While a passive approach can be necessary at times, it means that you may be around the scent longer and feel the discomfort or pain for longer as well.”

Villegas recommends moving, opening a window or wearing a scent-blocking mask.

But there’s a larger issue at play here: The travel industry as a whole needs to rethink its use of scents. There are already so many things that companies use to manipulate travelers. Smells shouldn’t be one of them.


PLEASE NOTE

Potential travelers should take local and national public health directives regarding the pandemic into consideration before planning any trips. Travel health notice information can be found on the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s interactive map showing travel recommendations by destination and the CDC’s travel health notice webpage.

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