Hotel security has become one of the industry's most important—and least discussed—issues. What are hotels doing, and how can you ensure peace of mind?

In February, when the Department of Homeland Security warned that hotels in the United States were potential targets for terrorist attacks, travelers once again became concerned for their safety, not just in the air, but on the ground. Although that particular warning turned out to be partially based on dubious intelligence, the question remained: What are hotels actually doing to improve security?

Properties both at home and abroad have been tight-lipped about their recent terrorism-related security initiatives, for the obvious reason that they don't want to tip their hand to anyone with less-than-honorable intentions. Many companies, such as Marriott, acknowledged that they do calibrate security to the government's color-coded warning system but declined to tell us more. Others, such as Starwood Hotels & Resorts, are breaking the mold. "We are releasing information on security that should make people more comfortable," says Starwood spokeswoman K. C. Kavanagh. "To the extent that we can discuss details without jeopardizing security, we think it's the right thing to do."

Starwood's security measures may include inspecting vendors entering the hotel as well as searching trucks and vans entering their parking garages. If there is a specific warning, hotels might stop holding checked luggage before check-in and after checkout, or even have armed guards patrol the property.

Another reason most hotels don't divulge more information is the absence of national guidelines. The Department of Homeland Security has not issued standards for commercial buildings, including hotels. And there's no independent auditor monitoring terrorism-related security.

That said, security-conscious travelers can take action. "Ask questions," advises John C. Fannin, president and CEO of SafePlace Corporation, a Delaware-based firm that accredits commercial buildings for safety. "You ask questions before you purchase an automobile—you should ask questions before making a hotel reservation." Included on Fannin's checklist:

• Does the hotel employ round-the-clock security personnel?"A hotel can have closed-circuit TV," he says, "but if there's no one to respond, it's not a comprehensive security program."

• Does the hotel require all guests to present a government-issued photo ID, driver's license, or passport when registering?

• Does the hotel restrict access to guest-room floors to those staying there?If so, how is this enforced?

• Has the staff received security and emergency-management training?

Only two hotels have been accredited by SafePlace so far—the Sagamore in upstate New York and the Hotel du Pont in Wilmington, Delaware—and Fannin says that roughly 100 top hotels, properties that have long been concerned with traditional safety issues such as theft and fire, are now stepping up their terrorist-related security measures and seeking accreditation.

If a hotel is reluctant to detail its practices over the phone, inquire about security when you check in, advises Fred Prassack, chairman of the American Hotel & Lodging Association's security committee. (Hotels are often more forthcoming once you're in-house.) Prassack also points out that, in addition to being alert and reporting any suspicious activity, you should always read in-room security information and review the property's emergency evacuation plan. During uncertain times, being informed—and prepared—can be the greatest comfort of all.