Did you know that choosing the right key entry system can save you thousands of dollars in the long-run?
Especially when you’re starting out you’ll be confronted with the question about how you grant access to your hostel and your guests’ rooms.
But which key entry system should you choose?
Let’s dig in.
How To Choose The Best Key Entry System For Your Hostel
There are basically three different key systems you can choose from for your hostel.
Understanding how they work and what the advantages and drawbacks are is the basis for making the right decision.
Let’s take a closer look at how they work and what benefits they entail.
#1 Traditional Metal Key System
A traditional key system is typically the one you’re most familiar with. It’s still the standard for private homes and is often used in hostels as well.
Guests can access your hostel and their room by using a corresponding metal key.
- Immune to computer hacking
- Low installation costs
- High reliability
- Less secure: can be easily duplicated at a local hardware shop for a few bucks. Replacing the cylinders is the only way to maintain the level of security but comes with a juicy price tag
- Most expensive type of key
- Physical key: Guests have to take it wherever they go, can lock themselves out, and lose it easily
- High running costs due to many lost keys. Can be compensated with a key deposit which adds more administration work
Additional note on key deposits:
A common magnitude for key deposits is between $10-20. That said, many small hostels find the logistics of a key deposit to be very difficult.
Since most smaller hostels can’t offer a 24/7 front desk, guests who leave early might not have the opportunity to get the deposit back. Hence, some hostels who tried to implement a key deposit switched back to the “honor system” after a few weeks.
Vikki Matsis, manager of the NotSo Hostel in Charleston, USA, and author of “Inside an American Hostel” (recommended read) experienced this first-hand.
In her book, she says that she spends about $300 every year for replacing keys. Each of her key costs about $2. According to TripAdvisor,3 her hostel has a capacity of 21 rooms. [Source]
If you do the math, you come to the conclusion that around 7 keys get lost per room every year! Phew, that’s a lot! It also means additional administration to always have enough keys at hand and messaging the guests to bring the keys back.
All in all, a key deposit is not as easy as it might sound.
Since the installation costs are pretty low, a traditional metal key system is most suitable for small hostels (< 40 beds). Especially if you’re located in a rural area where security isn’t a big issue, you can greatly benefit from this “old school” system.
Just make sure you have a system in place for counting your keys (e.g. a spreadsheet). There’s nothing more embarrassing than realizing that there are no keys available while in the process of checking in your guest.
That said, the bigger your hostel is the higher the costs for replacing the keys and organizing key deposits. There will come a point when other systems will be more efficient. More on that later.
#2 Keypad System
As the name implies, these systems typically work with a predetermined access code that people punch into the keypad. There are mechanical (no batteries or electricity required) and electronic keypad systems.
That said, mechanical locks only allow for one code and hence are typically not suitable for hostels.
- No physical key required: guests don’t have to wear a key and thus can’t lose it. Hence, no extra organization for key replacements or deposits
- Convenient: no searching for keys or fidgeting at the door
- To maintain security, you’ll have to change the code weekly or at least monthly. As long as the same code applies, previous guests can enter your establishment
- Your access code can be easily shared with hundreds of people
- Can potentially be hacked since a digital system is in use
- “Shoulder surfing” possible: people could look over someone else’s shoulder while they enter the code into the keypad
- People have to remember a code. Now think of your drunk party animals – will they remember their code at 3 am?
A more advanced form of keypad systems is a fingerprint lock. Instead of punching in a code you have to press your thumb against a biometric reader. Since your fingerprint is unique, it’s the most secure form of access control.
If you watch the same movies like me, you’ve probably seen this technology most often in action movies, when the villains cut off someone’s thumb in order to…..okay, enough 😅
As cool as it might sound, this technology comes with a huge price tag. Furthermore, some people have privacy concerns when getting fingerprinted which can cause further issues.
Since keypad systems don’t require a physical key, they’re best suited for large areas that you want all your guests to have access to (e.g. a front door, pool area, common rooms, etc.).
One hostel owner learned this the hard way by installing a traditional key system for the outer door before switching to a keypad system. In my survey about the worst investment hostel managers ever made, he ranked this on place 1.
A keypad system is especially great for late check-ins after staff hours to send people an email with the code and instructions on how to find their room key. However, the low security makes it not the best choice for general room access.
Whenever you change the code on your keypad system, make sure everyone will get notified! A simple sign with “New Code! Take A Photo Of Me!” can do wonders.
Lastly, using a fingerprint system in a hostel is like offering a pickup service in a Lamborghini. Nice, but maybe a little too much.
#3 Keycard System
Keycard systems work with an electrically-powered door that grants access through a keycard. The keycards can be easily programmed through a software and a corresponding device.
- Handy and lightweight: fits in a wallet or credit card holder
- Inexpensive to replace (= low running costs)
- High security: Can be programmed to delete access after checkout time and deny access to specific rooms (e.g. kitchen) after a certain time. Furthermore, you can check the history of who opened the door at what time in case of emergencies (e.g. criminal acts like theft)
- A customized card can be used for branding, advertisement and as a souvenir
- Each card can be programmed to access several doors (e.g. front door, private room, locker, free breakfast area, etc.)
- Physical key: Guests have to take it wherever they go, can lock themselves out, and lose it easily
- High installation costs
- Electrical card reader can get broken but any good system comes with an emergency opening option
Hostel manager and author Vikki Matsis further explains in her book that even her small hostel with around 21 rooms could have profited from switching to a keycard system:
“Considering the amount of money I have spent, I could have bought digital locks and put them on each door and be able to change the code much more easily than having to replace locks.”
Depending on the actual system, you can access a door in two different ways:
- 1) Swiping or inserting your card (“magnetic stripe card system”)
- 2) Tapping your card (“RFID key system”)
Both systems entail unique advantages and disadvantages. Therefore, let’s dig a bit deeper.
Magnetic Stripe Card System vs. RFID Key System
To open a door with a magnetic stripe card you either need to insert the card into a card reader or swipe it through.
RFID stands for Radio Frequency IDentification and uses tiny radio waves to read your card. It’s also known as “proximity card” or “chip card” and has been around for quite some time.
Ever set off an alarm when leaving Target? – That’s RFID at work. Retail stores commonly use it to prevent shoplifting.
Did you receive a key fob from your local gym to enter the facility? – Again, that’s RFID at work.
Magnetic Stripe Card
- Slightly Cheaper
- Unreliable: Magnetic stripes are prone to get damaged or dirty which makes them unreadable – especially when they come in contact with magnets. We’ve all experienced that one card that needed to be swiped ten times until it worked, right?
- Less secure: magnetic keycards can be easily copied by simple $10 devices
- You have to get them out of your wallet or pocket to use it
- More handy: Works within 4 inches (~10 cm) range
- Remote deactivation capability: If someone lost their card, you can remotely deactivate it (more secure)
- Difficult to copy and hack → a radio signal can’t be copied
- Not limited to a card: can come as a key fob or bracelet
- Smartphones can be programmed through an app to give access
- Tend to be more expensive
And the clear winner is…
Since keycard systems require higher installation costs, they’re rather a solution for medium (40-80 beds) to large hostels (>80 beds).
The bigger your hostel and the higher the crime in your area the more you profit from the economies of scale by using a keycard system.
That said, small hostels can also profit financially from a keycard system in the long run since replacing the cylinder lock is costly.
If you decide to use a keycard system, I highly recommend you stick to an RFID key system. They are not only more convenient for guests but also save you from unnecessary headaches when magnetic cards get broken in the middle of the night.
I haven’t met a hostel owner yet who regrets installing an RFID key system, but I did come across several managers who regret choosing the traditional key system only to switch within a few months.
Additional tip: Have a second card-programming device as a backup. Otherwise, if your front desk computer dies on Saturday, you’re unable to check-in guests until Monday!
If you’ve opted for a keycard system, you might wonder: How much will it actually cost? And where you can get one?
How To Get A Keycard System For Your Hostel
Let’s start with the part you’re probably most interested in.
Keycard System Costs
The actual costs of your keycard system mainly consist of 3 components:
- 1) Installation costs: It’s cheaper to install them in a new door than to replace old locks.
- 2) Software & programming devices costs: In order to program your cards you need a software and an encoding machine. Depending on the provider the costs might be either subscription-based or a one-time fee.
- 3) Door lock costs: If you opt for a standard, non-fancy version you will probably pay something around 150-250 USD per lock. However, there are massive differences between the suppliers and the actual models. In general, the more locks you buy the lower the price per lock will be (“economies of scale”).
Since all three factors are highly dependent upon your individual hostel, it’s not possible to give you exact prices.
In fact, I’ve been in contact with eight different companies and all told the same story. They can’t even give price ranges – that’s the kind of variety we’re talking about.
Keycard System Supplier
The major challenge of finding a suitable keycard supplier is that most cater to hotels. Hence, their systems are programmed towards rooms instead of single beds. However, there are a few companies that also offer solutions for hostels.
By far the most well-known supplier among hostel owners is called “ASSA ABLOY Global Solutions”. If this name sounds unfamiliar, you might have heard the name “VingCard Elsafe”. These two companies have merged in 2015 and VingCard Elsafe is now a product brand within ASSA Abloy.
Their keycard system VingCard Classic RFID is the most popular among hostel owners and the corresponding software is called “Vision”.
Both operate globally. However, some hostel managers found ASSA ABLOY to be the cheaper option. Hence, I recommend you get a quote from both of them.
Note that I do not have any relationship with these companies. I am NOT an affiliate and I do not have any advantage if you opt for one of the two companies.
The primary reason why I limited my recommendation on two companies is that I know several hostel managers who actually use their system and further recommend it.
How Does It Work?
The first step is to contact the company. They’ll ask you for specific information and will generate a quote. If you decide in favor of them, it’s a matter of
- a) scheduling the delivery of the locks as well as
- b) scheduling the installation.
They typically stock all their locks to ensure fast deliverability.
The actual installation is the longest part of the process. It’s easy to do when you’re starting a new hostel and haven’t opened your doors yet. However, installing the locks during a time when you accommodate guests demands further planning.
Typically, each door can take anywhere from 30 minutes to 1 hour depending on if the mortise needs to be cut. Exchanging locks takes longer than installing new ones right from the start.
Okay, now you’re ready to go! Let’s quickly summarize what we’ve covered.
Conclusion: Hostel Key Entry System Matrix
Before you leave: Answer this quick question and help our community.
Which key entry system did you decide upon for your hostel and why?
Share your opinion in the comment section below!