Like millions of other Americans, you're headed off to vacation. You’ve picked a great hotel or motel based on its perfect location, its price and maybe, its swimming pool. But even a free breakfast is no bargain if your valuables get stolen or something worse happens.

While your lodgings may start to feel like your home away from home, they pose some unique dangers, from thieves who love to target happy-go-lucky vacationers to all-too-common fires.

In an average year, one of 12 hotels and motels report a structure fire, according to the National Fire Protection Association. (Eight percent are intentionally set). Statistics on hotel and motel thefts and other incidents are harder to come by, but the risk is substantial enough that hotel and motel chains hire security consultants to reduce it.

One such expert, Chris McGoey, a Los Angeles-based security consultant who has worked for most of the major hotels, gave SafeBee his best tips for staying safe without becoming paranoid.

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Choosing your hotel and room

Go with a chain you know. While many vacationers pick a hotel primarily by price, that 's usually not a good idea if your concern is safety, McGoey says. He opts for booking with a chain you are familiar with and have stayed at before, even if it's more expensive than other options.

"You have some reasonable expectation of quality of construction and management of operation," he says. "If you go to an independent hotel, it's really a shot in the dark."

Opt for a hotel over a motel. Hotels, which typically have interior doors along a corridor, are generally safer from theft and room invasion than motels, which typically have doors opening to a parking lot or outside corridor, he says.

Specify the floor you want. Ask for a floor higher than the first, McGoey says. "If it's a high rise, ask for a floor on the fifth floor or above. ''That's because upper floors are safer from crime, he says, but worse in terms of fire rescue. He considers the fifth floor a happy medium.

High-rise hotels have other characteristics that thwart thieves, he says. With no windows opening to inside corridors, thieves have one less opening to try.

Request a room away from elevators or stairs. Thieves are most likely to target rooms closer to the stairs and elevators, ensuring a quick getaway. Rooms away from elevators and stairs are likely to be quieter, too.

Ask about CO detectors. Whether a hotel is required to have carbon monoxide detectors (or even smoke alarms, for that matter) in rooms varies by state, but you’re safer in a room that has it. Every year, more than 400 Americans die from carbon monoxide poisoning, and more than 4,000 are hospitalized, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. A USA Today investigation found that in one hotel incident, hundreds of people were evacuated after the hotel’s boiler malfunctioned, causing CO to build up. In another incident, a guest was killed when CO leaked into hotel rooms from the swimming pool heater.

The hotel should definitely have smoke alarms and fire sprinklers.

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Controlling parking lot risks

''Parking lots are the most dangerous common area around the hotel," McGoey says. Typically, you are carrying luggage back and forth, distracted and thinking about vacation activities.

If what the thieves are after is a car, the hotel parking lot is a good shopping ground. "It's like a smorgasbord for criminals," McGoey says. They can choose from a host of car makes and models.

Avoid the parking lot totally by springing for valet parking, he suggests.

In the room

As soon as you get to the room, do a sweep. "Make sure it's unoccupied," he says, by looking around, including in closets and under the beds. Consider asking the bellman to take you to you room and ask him or her to check out the room.

Other checks to do during this ''sweep":

  • Make sure the door locks work, including both the main lock and the deadbolt. (If your hotel is overseas, know that their locks may not be as up-to-date as in the U.S., McGoey says. Consider packing a rubber door stopper to put under the door as an extra safeguard.)
  • Check to see that the phone works, even if you have a cell phone.
  • Look through the peephole to be sure it has been installed properly (not backwards) and that the view is clear. If it isn't, ask for another room.
  • Try the room safe to be sure it works. If there is no safe, you can make a safe out of your luggage, McGoey says. Take along a cable with a padlock, the kind used to secure a computer to a table. Place your valuables in your luggage and attach the cable with the padlock , securing it and the luggage to a fixed object, such as a dresser, in the room. Thieves are not likely to leave with the dresser, McGoey notes.

When you leave the room, leave the radio on. If the room has already been cleaned, put the Do-Not-Disturb sign on the door. If you think you'll be returning after dark, keep a light on. (Don’t leave all the lights on, which wastes energy.)

Related: Safety Tips for Women Traveling Alone

Fire safety

Be prepared for the possibility you'll have to leave the room quickly, McGoey says. It could be a due to a fire alarm, an earthquake, a bomb threat or some other problem. To prepare for a hasty exit, place everything you may need (cell phone, car keys) in one easy-to-get-to place in the room, such as a corner of the dresser.

Most people walk into a hotel room, check to see if the bed is comfy and maybe start to unpack or kick off their shoes for a little rest. What they don’t do is study the diagram on the back of the door that shows how to get out of the building in case of a fire. That could be a deadly mistake. National Fire Protection Association suggests you review the plan and also take the time to find the exits and count the number of doors between your room and the exit, which could help you find your way out in the event that smoke obscures the view. It also recommends you make sure the exits are unlocked. If they are locked, report the problem to management right away, advises the group.

And… relax!

The payoff? If you follow these safety tips, ''you should be able to put your head on the pillow and sleep with relative comfort," McGoey says. For more of his tips, check out his webpage, Crime School.

Kathleen Doheny is a Los Angeles journalist specializing in health, behavior and fitness topics.