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What's left behind isn't necessarily lost

The housekeeper at the Mount Vernon, Va., Comfort Inn can be excused for having a Shel Silverstein moment when she was tucking in a sheet a few years ago. She saw what she thought was a walking stick, stretched out between the headboard and the mattress. But as she reached for it, she realized the "stick" was a boa constrictor.

Hotel guests are always leaving things behind, say hotel officials, ranging from a wedding dress to dentures, from single shoes to credit cards. At least one couple left behind their child.

Housekeepers frequently find books, clothing (bathing suits, underwear and sleepwear are common), PDAs, prescription medicine, personal pillows, business papers, eyeglasses, curling irons and checkbooks (I found one in the ice bucket at my room in the Marriott Inner Harbor, Baltimore).

Donna Butler of the Westin Kierland Resort & Spa in Scottsdale, Ariz., says items left fall into two categories. Leisure travelers tend to leave clothing, shoes, jewelry, laptop computers, personal photos and books. Business travelers more often leave briefcases, computers, signs and PDAs.

Far and away, the item most frequently left is a cell phone charger. Koren Lubinsky, marketing coordinator of the 1,215-guestroom Sheraton Boston Hotel, says guests leave at least 50 chargers a month.

Chad Schlehr, director of accommodations for Amelia Island Plantation, on Florida's northeast coast, says many items are found in the in-room safe when a new guest checks in and can't open the box. Hotel security is called, the safe is opened, the original guest is called to identify the found item, and the item and owner are reunited.

Experienced travelers often avoid leaving items by taking with them a list of what they brought and then checking it as they pack.

What are the odds you'll get your stray item back? Excellent, if you call to report you left it.

Most hotels keep track of the items by room number, guest name, date(s) of your stay, and the name of the person who found it. Many hotels will even pay to ship it back to you.

Generally, they keep found items from one to three months. After that, items are given to charity or returned to the employees who found them to reward them for their honesty.

Pool toys and phone chargers are kept by the hotel for future guests. But countless items are just trashed, because the owners never call the hotel to report something missing.

Why don't hotels initiate matters by calling the former guest? John Storck Maddox, owner of the Mark Addy Inn in Nellysford, Va., offers one answer. He did make such a call _ once:

While working at a Southampton, N.Y., resort some years ago, Maddox says, "I made the mistake as a "freshman' desk clerk of thinking I was doing the guest a favor by mailing back a blouse and then phoning his wife to alert her that her blouse had been found and that it had already been mailed to her.

"The wife informed me that she had never been at our property, and that her husband had been traveling alone on business."

Now about that child left behind: Nicolle Blanco, of the W hotel in San Francisco, says the boy's parents had arranged for him to stay at the hotel with his grandmother for the weekend, while the parents checked out.

The parents left the hotel, thinking their boy was with the grandmother. However, the grandmother also left, without the child. The boy was found roaming a hallway by a housekeeper. Hotel officials called the parents, who returned for the child later that day.

As for the other oddities cited: No one claimed the wedding dress left at the Westin Kierland in Scottsdale. (Was the wedding canceled? No room to pack it after stowing all the wedding presents?)

And, "No one claimed the boa," says Carmen Fierro, the Comfort Inn's general manager.

Judy Colbert is a freelance writer living in Crofton, Md.