Hotels are in the business of make-believe. The show starts the minute a guest walks into the lobby. We see smiling staff members in uniform standing ready at front desks. What we don’t see is the hidden world behind closed doors that keeps the act afloat: housekeeping, kitchens, deliveries, storage, laundry, security, back hallways and staircases.

“Good service is invisible service,” says Curtis Crimmins, a former concierge at five-star hotels and now the founder of the hotel start-up Roomza.

But that doesn’t mean we’re not curious. Specifically about the old wives’ tales that swirl around hotels. Like, do hotels really never clean the bedspreads? And is there a magic word you can drop (or a palm you can grease) to get an upgrade?

We interviewed industry insiders – some with a lifetime of experience working in hotels – to get the truth behind lingering myths.

Myth: Housekeepers skip cleaning daily because it’s less work

Reality: False

Housekeeping may skip daily cleaning for environmental reasons, staffing shortages or lingering pandemic protocols. But this myth is wrong for a few reasons, says Giancarlo Goeta, the commercial director at two Hilton properties in Tulum, Mexico, who has worked in hotels for nearly 40 years.

First, Goeta says many housekeepers have quotas for how many rooms they clean in a day. So skipping your room doesn’t mean they get a longer lunch break. Second, skipping daily cleanings can double or triple the work for housekeepers; rooms get dirtier over time (think overflowing trash cans, mountains of towels) and require more work – and cleaning products – to get tidy. Either way, don’t forget to tip them.

Crimmins adds that it’s also in a hotel’s best interest to keep your room in shape with regular care.

“From the hotel’s perspective, we don’t look at it as cleaning your room, we see it as protecting our asset,” he says.

Myth: You can sweet talk your way to an upgrade

Reality: True

Well, sort of. Hotel upgrade systems can be as complicated as the ones for airlines, says Judson Corrie, the assistant director of guest experience and concierge service at the Waldorf Astoria Chicago.

“We’ve got a lot of parameters to honour upgrades,” says Corrie, who has worked at the luxury property for 15 years.

Hotels, particularly big name brands, must factor in loyalty program membership (Hilton Honors, Marriott Bonvoy, etc.) or whether you booked with a corporate partner like American Express Fine Hotels & Resorts. But “at the end of the day,” Corrie says, “we also are very human in the fact that we pay attention to the honeymoons and the anniversaries.”

You might not go from a basic room to a presidential suite, but you can often finagle some perks – like a bottle of wine in your room – if you ask nicely. What won’t work: being a jerk or trying to name drop your way to an upgrade, Corrie says.

Myth: Hotel star ratings are based on quality

Reality: False

Crimmins says he’s stayed at three-star independent boutiques that were better than five-star luxury hotels. How is that possible? Star ratings are based on a “confusing and inconsistent checklist that varies around the world,” Konrad Waliszewski, CEO of the hotel booking platform @hotel, said in an email.

For example, Waliszewski says, in the United States, a hotel can only reach four-star status if there’s a phone installed in the bathroom. Theoretically, a hotel can achieve a certain star rating for having specific amenities on their property – like fitness centres or a concierge – regardless of the quality.

“It’s like rating a restaurant merely for having tables with tablecloths, but not for the taste of its food,” Waliszewski says.

Hotels can have multiple star ratings, too. As an American Hotel & Lodging Association spokesperson said in an email: “Hotel rating calculations vary depending on the source of the rating, and some are based on guest testimonials.”

You may find one alongside a hotel listing in a search engine, another one given by a brand like Forbes or AAA (which each have their own rating criteria) and another on third-party booking websites like Priceline or Expedia (which also have their own secret sauce for ratings).

To get a realistic gist of a hotel’s quality, Crimmins and Waliszewski recommend looking up guest-submitted photos on review sites (like Tripadvisor) or tagged photos of the property on social media.

Myth: It’s always cheaper to book through a third-party site

Reality: False

You can find deals everywhere, from third-party vendors to a hotel’s website. But more importantly, experts say hotel rates may be more flexible than you think.

Because hotels pay a commission when you book through a third party they’d rather have you book with them direct. So cut out the middleman and negotiate.

“When you call us directly, we can try to make something work,” said Ace Hotel Brooklyn marketing consultant Mohini Merchant, who has worked in the industry since 2005.

Ben Pundole, the executive vice president of brand culture and experience for Public Hotels and founder of A Hotel Life, agrees.

“Unless it’s a huge blackout moment, like Fashion Week in September in New York or what have you – there’s often a better deal you can get,” he says.

At the very least, they should match whatever price you saw on another website, or throw in a perk like a room upgrade, complimentary cocktail or late checkout.

Myth: All hotels in a brand’s chain are the same

Reality: False

You might assume a hotel is owned and operated by the brand name on the front of the building. But according to some estimates, more than 80% of the hotels in the United States are franchised. So while you may think you’re staying at a Hilton run by Hilton, you’re probably staying at a Hilton run by a franchisee. That’s true of lots of the biggest names in hotels, from Marriotts to the InterContinental. “At its heart, they’re just a logo rental business,” Crimmins says.

Brands may have recommended standards, but day-to-day operations ultimately fall to the discretion of individual franchisees, so your experience may vary from property to property.

Myth: Hotel minibars are booby trapped with sensors

Reality: It depends

When you do find the dying relic that is the minibar, there are a few ways a hotel may track its usage. Some properties have housekeeping do in-person checks on what you’ve used so they can replenish it (and charge you). Others follow the “very old standard,” Corrie says, of having minibars with weighted sensors that alert staff when an item has been removed past a certain time limit. Those still persist today, as well as minibars with items tagged with tracking technology to notify staff when something leaves the fridge. Those sensors can lead to rogue charges – maybe you moved the soda to stash your leftovers – so comb your itemised receipt at checkout.

Myth: Bedspreads and glassware are never cleaned

Reality: It depends

Fortunately, many hotels have done away with the old-school heavy, patterned comforters that didn’t get cleaned after every guest, opting instead for duvets with washable covers.

But when it comes to how well a room gets reset between guests, “it depends on the hotel brand,” Pundole says. “I know for a fact that some hotels are more thorough than others.”

“Always avoid the fluffy bed throw or cushions,” he adds. “You never know – that’s all I’m saying.”

However, Goeta says the trend in hotels is to have fewer items like that in the first place. There was a time hotel rooms had “a whole bunch of magazines, acrylic cards … all kinds of stuff,” he said. “That’s not the case anymore, particularly when you’re talking about a luxury property like Conrad.”

As a result, there are fewer items to be worried about. Goeta added that his properties have strict cleaning procedures to follow, and supervisors conduct spot checks in rooms.

Crimmins says a rule of thumb is the more you pay, the cleaner the room should be.

Myth: Everyone’s doing weird stuff with the coffee maker

Reality: False

According to the internet, some travellers go to great lengths to cook food in their hotel rooms (the worst offender has to be the guy who regularly uses hotel and motel bathrooms as his kitchen). Is coffee maker-seared chicken the new norm? While all of our experts have seen these viral videos, none have had issues with such behaviour at any of their properties. “Thankfully,” Pundole adds.

Myth: Hotels are a bedbug’s favourite

Reality: False

Michelle Zwirek, director of sales and marketing at Omni La Costa in Carlsbad, California, says a common myth is that hotels are the most susceptible place for bedbugs. But while bedbugs love to travel, they’re not partial to hotels over other destinations. They’re prevalent in any densely populated area where there is quick turnover, like apartment buildings, hospitals, libraries, prisons and offices, as well as hostels and hotels.

So just to be on the safe side, here’s how to look for bed bugs when you get to your room.

Myth: Rock stars trash their hotel rooms

Reality: It depends

When Crimmins was working as a concierge, he says he saw the stereotype play out many times. “You see a tour bus roll up, you just get out the Lysol,” he says.

In his experience, the more famous the musician, the better they would leave the room. Like the time a hotel where Crimmins worked had to have its carpets professionally cleaned after a band past its prime kept emptying chewing tobacco spit cups onto the floor during their stay. On the other hand, Crimmins says he’s had Grammy-winning, A-list guests without any problems – some going so far as to make their own beds.

Pundole says “there used to be “a lot of partying and a lot of trashing of hotel rooms” and “rock stars and rappers were the biggest culprits”.

But now, the lifestyle of the rich and the famous appear to have changed. “The majority of [musicians] – especially the big ones – are super healthy,” Pundole says. “It’s more about green juice, a good sleeping environment and a workout routine they can stick to.”