If you’re a frequent traveler, you’ve probably wondered how to avoid bed bugs while traveling.
I’m terrified of bed bugs. Before I book any hotel or hostel (or even before I sign a lease for a new apartment), I do extensive research to find out if that address – or any neighboring ones – has had recent bed bug outbreaks.
I’ve been the victim of bed bugs in my home, and it was not pretty. The extermination process is lengthy, costly, and incredibly inconvenient. Here are some tips from personal experience that can help you avoid bed bugs while traveling in hotels, hostels, Airbnbs, or any other type of lodging.
How to avoid bed bugs while traveling: Where bed bugs live
These critters are all over cities like New York City, Seattle, Chicago, Vancouver, Boston, and many others throughout North America and Europe. Many people still aren’t aware of the problem – at least until they become infested.
If you stay in a hotel, hostel, Airbnb, or even a friend’s house who has bed bugs, it’s easy to pick them up. They camp out in backpacks, purses, and on clothing, so all it takes is one bug to jump in your suitcase before you head home, and you could be in trouble.
A common misconception is that only run-down or dirty establishments have bed bugs. They are just after blood and don’t care about how clean a place is. Bed bugs have been found in the most high-end, exclusive hotels. Hotels have no real way to keep the bugs from coming in via the suitcase of a frequent traveler. Once inside, they hide out under mattresses, in closets, behind cracks in walls, or behind outlet covers.
What are bed bugs? How to spot bed bug behavior and activity while traveling
Bed bugs are small creatures less than half an inch long that feed on human blood after you’re asleep. Some people wake up with itchy, red spots on their skin, while others show no symptoms. If you don’t have any symptoms, the only way you’ll know the bugs are present is to see dark stains on your bedding – that’s bug poo, containing your blood. Gross!
Bed bugs know when to strike because they can actually sense when you’re in a deep sleep. The oxygen you give off in a deep rest is slightly different than the oxygen you give off in a light sleep, and, amazingly, the bugs are programmed to tell the difference. This allows them to come out and bite while you’re off in dreamland, and return to their hiding places before you wake up.
Avoiding bed bugs in hotels: Do your research in advance
The best place to search is bedbugregistry.com. This website relies on users to report outbreaks, then collects them in a nationwide database for the U.S. and parts of Canada. (Note: as of 2020, this website is often down. Here’s another site to try.)
Enter the address of your hotel or destination, and the site will tell you where the closest bug report was filed, the date, and any relevant details about the infestation (i.e., “Bed bug infestation in 2018, exterminated and eliminated.”) Obviously, if the hotel has had recent bed bug problems, choose a different place to stay.
When travel day arrives, pack up each outfit inside an airtight bag. Ziploc makes large airtight bags that are perfect for this purpose. Bed bugs love to travel on clothing, but they can’t get inside those bags.
How to avoid bed bugs while traveling: Examine your hotel room
When you arrive at your room, examine the sheets for the small dark stains (bed bug poo) that are sure signs of an infestation. Check underneath the corners of the mattress and box spring to look for bugs or their eggs, which are little white spots the size of grains of salt.
If you see signs of bed bugs, don’t just ask to be moved to a different room, because chances are the entire hotel is infested. Ask for your money back and find another place to stay. Occasionally, hotel managers may play dumb and blame you for bringing the bugs. But most experienced hotel managers are aware of the bed bug issue and are willing to accommodate refund requests, especially if you make it known that you’d be willing to go on the internet and spread the word about their infestation.
Even if you don’t see signs, they could still be present. Always elevate your bags and shoes. Don’t leave them on the floor. Instead, choose a table or dresser, where it’s harder (but not impossible) for the bugs to get up there.
Even the bathtub (when it’s dry, of course) is a good spot to keep your suitcase if you’re worried about picking up bugs. Finally, when heading back home, do a quick visual check of your bags and again look for bugs, eggs, or stains that might indicate they have gotten inside your bags.
A few extra minutes spent taking these preventative measures will go along way toward making sure you never experience an outbreak in your home.
How to treat a bed bug infestation
Hopefully, you won’t find yourself with an infestation, but if you do, you’ll need to hire an exterminator, who will provide at least 3 or 4 treatments a couple weeks apart.
UPDATE: These days, some companies also have super-hot treatments where they can heat the entire house to 130 degrees, which kills all living bugs and eggs. So it’s possible to wipe out your infestation much quicker than it used to be. Thank goodness!
The treatments kill live bugs, but not their eggs, which is why the repeated visits are necessary after the eggs have hatched. Some exterminators are still learning about the bed bug issue themselves – do not trust any exterminators who say they can solve the problem with only one treatment.
My outbreak was around ten years ago. I’m still not sure where they came from. Based on the time frame, I believe they must have followed me home from a trip to Portland and Seattle. Or possibly a quick trip to New York City shortly after that. Then again, they just as easily could have come from our next-door neighbor.
When you have a home outbreak, you have to wash all your clothes on extreme hot, then immediately seal them in airtight plastic bags for weeks until the extermination process has finished. It’s a huge pain and the repeated treatments can cost a few hundred dollars.
AirBnb bed bugs: Can you get a refund if your host has an infestation?
Hotels and hostels will pretty much give you a refund if you find bed bugs there. But what if you find bed bugs in your Airbnb?
It’s difficult for hosts to monitor their properties for these bugs, since any guest can bring them in and they can quickly multiply. I used to be an Airbnb host, and it was just good fortune that I never had an infestation.
I do admit that I used to decline requests from potential guests who lived in Brooklyn, because back then Brooklyn and specifically the Williamsburg neighborhood of NYC were going through a brutal bed bug outbreak, and I didn’t want to take any chances. Maybe that was rude of me, but as an Airbnb host, you can control who stays at your property, so I exercised that right.
If you find bed bugs in your Airbnb, it’s best to inform your host and call the company right away. It’s not clear whether the company has a specific policy for dealing with bed bugs in its properties. But anecdotally, travelers have reported that they were given refunds when they informed the company of bugs in the properties they were staying in.
Airbnb hosts who have to deal with bed bugs also face challenges. As this article and this forum make clear, hosts can face several hundred dollars worth of exterminator bills (not to mention the lost revenue from canceled bookings) if one of their guests bring in bed bugs.
How to avoid bed bugs while traveling: Summary
There’s a great element of chance in all this. Some people who don’t even think about bed bugs will never get them, while those who take precautions could still become victims. Be vigilant, do your research, and if you do get bed bugs, go all-out with the treatment process so you definitely kill them all and don’t end up spreading them around to someone else.
Don’t let the bed bugs bite!