Using your phone as a hotel room key unlocks possibilities — and a few headaches

The process is the same. Every day, all over the world. Schlep from the airport to the hotel. Stumble to the front desk. Produce ID and credit card. Retrieve room key. If you're lucky, you'll get an RFID-style room key that you only have to tap on the lock. But more likely you'll have one of those magnetic keys that has to be inserted the right way — and it's almost never obvious which end is which.

We've all been there at some point. And we will all be there again.

But my latest trip was different.

Hotel chains have been experimenting with using smartphones as room keys for a little while now. Hilton and Starwood are the most prominent, and Hyatt's toying with a separate app (opens in new tab). The names are all slightly different. Digital Key. Keyless Entry. Mobile Entry. But the idea is the same: you use your phone to unlock your door.

I used Hilton's Digital Key system (opens in new tab) on a recent family trip to Boca Raton. And while I'm used to playing the guinea pig, I wasn't so sure about this one. I've stayed in a lot of hotel rooms. I've used a lot of room keys. Was this going to be another one of those instances in which we make things more complicated by trying to incorporate our phones? In some ways, yes. And in at least one way, it was pretty transformative.

Here's the gist: With Hilton — which is where I was staying — it's an opt-in experience, and it all takes place within their HH Honors app. (Download from Google Play (opens in new tab) or the iOS App Store (opens in new tab) When it's time to check in you'll get the option to use the Digital Key. You also can pick your exact room (a nice feature), and it's a good chance to double-check that you're going to get what you need — in my case on this trip a couple of beds.

A few taps was all it took to open my room — and to skip the check-in line.

This is where the truly magical portion of our experiment comes in. Because I've already checked in and picked out a room and am using my phone as my room key — there's no need to stop by the front desk first. That's a nice enough perk when you're traveling for business, particularly if you're at a hotel that tends to back up. But considering that I was with my wife and daughters after enduring a half-day of travel, skipping any more lines and going straight to the room was a godsend.

Once you're there, of course, you'll have to get the door open. This is where things get just a little more tricky. Or not. First, you'll need your phone, since it's your key. That means your phone will need to be charged. And I was dangerously close to not having a charged phone. Then you'll need to fire up the Hilton app. Then you'll need to be close to your door, which makes sense for any number of reasons. The app says 5 feet, and that seemed accurate enough. It generally took about 10 seconds from the time I hit the "Touch to unlock" button in the app (I didn't think to see if the app's home screen widget gives you a shortcut for that) before the door actually unlocked. The app gives you a choice of either leaving your room number visible in the app, or hiding it for security purposes. (And you can give your room any name you want.) That's smart.

All in all, things worked as expected. (And I got a chance to try it at any of the entrances, or at the gym door.) But after a half-dozen times in and out, you do start to wonder if this really was the most efficient way to enter your room. Consider:

  • Currently you can only use Digital Key on a single device. So my wife would have needed to get a physical key.
  • One time I sent her and the kids upstairs while I parked the car, telling her to keep the phone unlocked, since I use my fingerprint for security. Sure enough, when I got upstairs they were waiting on me to unlock the phone again. Whoops.
  • 10 seconds doesn't seem like a lot of time to wait for a door to unlock, but it's about 9 seconds more than it'd take a physical key to work. That starts to get a little annoying.
  • Phones are a lot larger than credit card-sized room keys.
  • Some sort of NFC-based room key could be fun — think Apple Pay or Android Pay tapping. And that could bring watches into play.

I learned a few things on this trip. One is that my wife continues to be willing to put up with just about anything I manage to throw her way. The other is that I very much could get used to skipping the check-in line. On the other hand I do like being offered water, and occasionally a glass of champagne, for the elevator ride up. (And I will never apologize for that.) Or when I'm traveling for work maybe an upgrade will happen. Or maybe someone will simply be nice to me. So maybe having to deal with the occasional human being isn't such a bad thing.

So for now, using my phone as my room key was a fun experiment. I'll probably do it again, should the opportunity arise. (It's still pretty limited no matter which chain you use.) But it's not going to replace ye olde room key anytime soon for speed and convenience.

Replacements for existing tech are inevitably clunky at first — we used to be issued physical metal keys for hotel rooms, and when magnetic stripe cards first rolled out they were finicky and confusing and prone to failure. Now magnetic key cards are the standard.

We're in the earliest days of trying out phones and smartwatches as replacements for access cards. They could be the new standard in years to come, but for now there's still some work to be done.

And do smartwatches make flying easier?

OK, so we're not quite sold on using our smartphone as a hotel room key. But we've all probably used one as a boarding pass for a flight. That's more of a one-time thing, and while airport gate agents might not like it quite as much as we do, it's certainly more elegant than a paper boarding pass.

But then there are smartwatches. These things definitely go in the column of tech that doesn't yet help us as much as we might have thought. And the watches themselves might not even be to blame here.

Read: Using your smartwatch as a boarding pass isn't first class

  • I think this could be very useful as long as all of the hotels use the same app, and not a different app for each freaking hotel...
  • I second that!
  • Security issue not to mention hotels and companies all have different systems. it's not like mobile payments, this requires access to a customers room info which i wouldn't want being shared in a system accessed by several hotel chains.
  • Well, we know that's not going to happen. Hotel groups are particularly interested in keeping you coming back to their properties, not switching around to competitors.
  • Yes, you should be apple to store your key in your Android/Apple pay wallet. Posted via the Android Central App
  • Not going to happen. having this digital key requires access to personal files for that specific hotel, why would hotels share that not to mention not every hotel takes care of your info as good as others.
  • Wow solution for a problem that decent exist. Posted from my Nexus 6/Nexus 7 2013/Surface Pro 3
  • I disagree. Keeping up with a hotel key card can be really annoying. A digital key would be awesome if secure.
  • Is it that hard to keep it in your wallet? Google Nexus 6P
  • It's a pain in the ass when you travel on a regular basis and have a wallet with a magnetic money clip in it that erases the info the low power encoding machine puts on it. Especially when it's 2am and you're on the 19th floor. Or worse, you're on the 40th floor in Vegas and you're drunk as a skunk. Posted via the Android Central App
  • Well now that you know your problem, you also know your solution.
  • It can be if you are on vacation and have to juggle keys between family members and remembering to take it with you, plus sometimes you don't take your wallet like when you go to pool or hotel bar. Disney solved this by using rfid in a waterproof and sweatproof arm band which also serves as a payment system also.
  • No, its not. Not any more difficult than keeping up with ANY key. You simply have to pay attention.
  • Agreed. Wait until they get hacked. Google Nexus 6P
  • You think that the current system is very secure?
  • Can you repeat that?
  • The ability to book a hotel online and walk right to your room without having to check in is a huge benefit.
  • Nice piece! I'd def try this when traveling solo for business (I'm probably not going to pay for a Hilton on my own dime hahaha)
  • NFC would be a lot more practical, but iOS currently doesn't allow access to an API for it. There's no way they'd exclude Apple from this. It Apple get around to supporting NFC, I imagine it will stay to be used more in situations like this.
  • Once again, progress has to wait on Apple. Posted via the Android Central App
  • Sometimes I wonder why folks don't do a little research before they post crap online. You have been able to do that since the iphone 6 launch in 2014, then the watch.
  • You are half correct. They don't use nfc, they use bluetooth. But yea, they've had it before but disney had it first with rfid wristbands.
  • Google "ios nfc api". There isn't one, so developers can't currently access it.
  • PS, thanks for the downvote on my original comment, toukale, when it was correct and you need to do your research instead.
  • I'm a fan of technology, but I do miss the good ol' days too... Posted via the Android Central App
  • Why? Posted via the Android Central App
  • Go back to calling hotels, paying for pay per view, and looking at TV guides then.
  • Phil, I haven't had the chance to try the Hilton app with their Digital Key, but I have used the SPG app and Keyless Entry. Does Hilton use WiFi or Bluetooth to unlock the door? I know with the SPG app it's NFC based, and you put your phone (or key) right up to the reader on the door. Posted via the Android Central App
  • That seems much more useful than waiting for it to connect wirelessly. Also probably a lot simpler to set up (and probably cheaper for the hotels). NFC is fantastic (although I'd take an NFC card too, I'm not picky) Posted via the Android Central App
  • Nah, just use the damn key. Posted via Nexus 6 running on any data plan I want
  • Yup, K.I.S.S. principal!
  • I've tried this with Hilton also; I had mixed results with the single biggest issue having been delayed entry trying to get the key to activate... Naturally my hands were pretty full at the time. Still, it's beta and off to a good overall start. Posted via the Android Central App
  • Very cool! Need to give you some HHonors points! I have quite a bit even though I prefer Marriott!
  • Thanks for writing this article. I've used the digital key reliably at two different hotels and had similar experiences. It does feel weird not having a physical key, though. Posted via the Android Central App
  • All the hotel rooms at Disney World unlock with NFC on wristbands they give out.
  • Disney uses rfid not nfc. They keep all their info on their servers and the bands are also used in park and also to track traffic around the parks.
  • Wyndham experimented but nixed it a few years ago. Posted via the Android Central App
  • I'm trying to imagine being given a real metal key for hotels. :) I feel like a baby.
  • It's pretty old school, but there are tons of places around that still use them. Posted via the Android Central App
  • And you rent them by the hour :) Posted via the Android Central App
  • Yep, stayed in a hotel in San Juan last year that had them. In fact, they were WAY old school in that they asked you to leave your key at the front desk when you left for the day. The only other place I've seen that does that was in the UK.. In both places, the key was attached to a fairly large rectangular piece of wood so it wouldn't be easy to lose. Old tech, but it works well, and visiting the front desk gives you a chance to chat with the staff and ask about interesting things to do that day. BTW, the hotel in San Juan was the Gallery Inn. Fantastic place! No TV at all, only limited wi-fi in one courtyard, and plenty of cool people to sit and talk with, many of whom are regular visitors. We're on Verizon, and their roaming partner in Puerto Rico has an abysmal data network, which meant we were mostly offline while we were there. Man, that was refreshing!
  • A lot of hotels use NFC cards. Why not use an NFC phone.
    Then it would just be a simple tap. I have an electronic lock on my door and its really cool being able to go out for a walk without my keys and having the door automatically lock and unlock for me. So fighting technology people. This stuff is great. Posted via the Android Central App
  • I think NFC would be a great way to implement this, Android or Apple Pay. But I wonder if with the current technology of magnetic cards, if a variation of Samsung Pay would work too in this instance. I know Sammy owns all of the patents for MST but it could be an option and most hotels would have little to no expense to implement.
  • I stay at hotels as a part of my job and this could be handy. But I don't want to stand there for 10 seconds waiting for the door to open every time.
  • I guess it will be quicker when the tech improves. Soft and sweet Marshmallow
  • Exactly my thought. I stay all the time for business and pleasure and so far the best system is the one at Disney which uses rfid. Those 10 seconds are just too long. Especially since it doesn't work like android pay that will automatically start the app when it senses you are trying to use it.
  • 10 seconds seems like forever to us these days. We have grown impatient, myself included. Seriously 10 seconds is not forever. How technology has changed us.
  • After playing MOBA'S I've grown to notice how long a second is. 10 seconds is a long time when the old system took 3 to get a door open. Posted via the Android Central App
  • If this takes off, lockscreen security should be mandatory. This grants access to a place where you'd be staying and likely storing most of your stuff at. It's imperative that your phone is as secure as possible. And don't give me that "I don't need a lockscreen security thing. I always have my phone with me and I will never lose it" BS. No matter how careful you are, someday, your phone will go missing or you'll misplace it. Better be safe than sorry. I have never lost any of my devices, but I put a security lock because it's best to do so, and frankly, everyone should. Honestly, I still prefer the conventional key card because it's simple, idiot-proof and quick. Though I'll be willing to give this a go and I'm eager to see how it evolves. Soft and sweet Marshmallow
  • You have a lockscreen on your key card? Posted via the Android Central App
  • On your phone.... Soft and sweet Marshmallow
  • Why should it be so important to enforce that on the phone given that no other form of key needs it? Posted via the Android Central App
  • Simple. Unless you set the app to not display your room #, it grants whoever got the phone access to your room. I'm not saying it will happen, but given that the phone now stores quite a lot of sensitive data in one spot, it's imperative that it is secured. You could say the same thing for the conventional key card, but frankly, crooks are more interested in phones since they hold more valuable data.
  • its jus like android pay. u have to have a lock on ur phone for the app to work so that u can verify before u pay.
  • Nice rant.
  • I don't want to install an app. I already get enough spam from Hilton, etc. I'll happily keep using the plastic cards. They aren't nearly as burdensome as the article portrays them.
  • It's not spam if you signed up for it. Hilton is very good at stopping if you ask them to.
  • NFC would be so much better. Those 10 seconds can feel like a long time when you're coming in with kids after a long day out. Plus having those rfid keys or the magic band system like disney is faster.
  • It's the reason I don't use my phone for are just faster. Sorry, but I can grab my card out of my wallet much faster than I can fumble with my phone, unlock it and hold it up to the POS (not even counting the fact that sometimes it doesn't even work at all!). When I want to get into my hotel room, I want it to be a smooth, quick action. I'd rather have voice recognition or fingerprint scanners than have to pull out my damn phone!
  • We should NEVER allow our fingerprints to be used in this manner. Your fingerprint is like your permanent unalterable password. Once you give it out to a company like Hilton, you have lost control of it. If the Hilton database is hacked, you can change your cc number and your password, but your fingerprint is lost forever. A better solution might be a smart watch or smart ring that could simply be waved in front of an NFC scanner on the door. Your phone containing the app and the eKey could remain in your pocket, where it would control your wearable to negotiate the unlocking. The challenge is to provide ease of use while preserving security.
  • i use fingerprint scanner for android pay. pretty damn fast since i have my phone already in hand most of the time
  • guys pls help me. what shud i do. my flare cherry mobile is asking for privacy protection. i forgot the unlock pin. what shud i do guys. hope some1 can help me fix my problem. thanks
  • This sounds interesting, but it does sound like an NFC solution would be better than the current implementation (Android Pay seems like a perfect solution for this). I do have to say about mobile boarding passes, as someone who works for an airline at the gate from time to time the only "annoying" part from our end is explaining to surprisingly upset customers that since the gate reader doesn't have a wrist size gap people can't use their smart watches to board (and no I can't adjust it/ignore the laws of physics). Otherwise it doesn't make a difference to me if someone uses a pass printed at the ticket counter, printed at home, or mobile on their phone. Posted via something running something it's not supposed to...
  • One downside that I see is the swimming pool. I can keep a card in my swim trunks pocket, which would probably not turn out so well with a phone. Aside from that, the app feature of picking the exact room is nice. Do they give you a floor plan? My wife likes the rooms that are in a corner or next to the stairs so we don't get noise complaints. Posted via the Android Central App
  • I like the credit card style keys if i'm going to be using the pool. Just stick it in the pocket of my suit and grab a towel. doesn't matter if it gets wet or anything. Would be a pain to keep track of my phone while swimming, etc.... if it's just hit the room and sleep and leave, then it would be ok.
  • I wouldn't mind having it as an option if I have a physical card too as a backup. That seems redundant, I know. But as other said for the pool or to give to the kid when they are running to the room. I haven't used the wrist bands at Disney but that seems like it would work best.
  • I know someone who works for aloft (SPG) and was doing the retrofit on those "damn phone door locks." I had assumed that they were NFC or mayyyyyybe BTle. Stupid if they chose something more complicated or semi-proprietary.
    Ideally it should work even if the phone is dead, though current phones don't have passive NFC tech.
    I completely agree with the whole "going to the pool" scenario. You should always have a "dumb" key if you want one, whether for simplicity or water resistance. Posted via the Android Central App
  • Ohh.. how much I suffered because of the 10 second delay... unless you are being followed by an ax-murderer (or really need to use the restroom) I don't see the big trouble. And of course interacting with humans is good.. it's what has keep humanity moving forward in a thing called society. Technology sometimes seems to be spoiling us instead of helping. Yes, I'm 42 and probably grumpy already. Starting to sound like my grandfather when I was 20.