Bedbugs have been snacking on humans for centuries, but had become very rare in the U.S. by the time Mrs. Cleaver started vacuuming in pearls. Because of the widespread use of pesticides like DDT as well as the vacuums wielded by more and more housewives, most Americans grew up without even knowing that they were a real insect. Perhaps due to the regulation of pesticides (for good reason!), an increase in global travel, and a reduced awareness about how to identify and prevent bedbug infestations, this ancient pest has made a comeback. Around the time we were panicking about Y2K, bedbugs started becoming a problem in cities like New York, Miami, Los Angeles, and San Francisco. By 2010 bedbugs had become an epidemic, and not just in these “gateway cities.” They’ve hopped rides on suitcases and made themselves comfortable in dorm rooms, motels, and five-star hotels all over the country.
Just thinking about the subject is enough to make one’s skin crawl, so here’s a quick and dirty guide to avoid bringing them home. With a few precautions, travelers can once again “sleep tight” in that hotel room, and enjoy a worry-free vacation.
1. Do Your Research
When choosing a hotel, look at reviews, and keep an eye out for any report of bedbugs. The bedbug registry can be a good resource. Keep in mind that there is no way to tell if someone misinterpreted mosquito bites from last night’s rooftop dinner, or wanted to spread malicious rumors about the hotel — so take reviews with a grain of salt. Also, most hotels will take every measure to eliminate bedbugs, once discovered. It’s possible that a problem last year, or even last week, has now been resolved. Before booking a room, it may be a good idea to ask about the hotel’s bedbug prevention practices.
2. Inspect the Room
After finally getting that keycard to work, a savvy traveler should temporarily stash their luggage in the bathroom (the least likely place for bedbugs) and do a quick inspection. It can be helpful to bring a small flashlight along for this purpose. To check the bed, un-tuck the sheets and look all the way around the perimeter of the mattress and box spring, as well as along and behind the headboard. If the bed looks okay, check out potential hiding places near the bed. Look in drawers and crevices in the bedside table and under the lamp, telephone, and notepads. Also check under picture frames above the bed. If all is clear, do a final inspection under cushions on other furniture, in cracks in the luggage rack, and along the baseboards in the closet.
3. Look for Clues
Bedbugs look roughly like apple seeds, and like to hang out in crevices of mattresses and bedding. There are also other telltale signs that bedbugs are present — even if the critters themselves are not visible. Look for rusty spots or little black specks that may look like pepper or mold. Bedbugs also leave behind dark lines, especially in the seams of mattresses. Be on the lookout for white powder, as well. This could be an insecticide, and might indicate a previous problem in the room. Hotel guests who do become a bedbug’s snack may notice itchy bug bites the next day, often occurring in a line of three or four.
4. Take Action
If the search turns up any of these signs, call hotel staff right away. In many states, hotels are not legally allowed to have guests stay in a room or a bed with a bedbug problem, so if staff are not accommodating, it may help to be familiar with state bedbug laws. For example, in California, hotels are required by law to provide bedding that is free of bedbugs, and in Kansas, lodging establishments cannot rent out guest rooms that have been infested. When you move, be sure to request a new room at least 2 floors away, in case the infestation has spread.
5. Protect Your Luggage
If this simple inspection doesn’t uncover anything suspicious, weary jet setters can go ahead and bring their suitcases into the room. To be on the safe side, however, don’t leave them on the floor or on a bed. Use luggage racks or a hard surface, such as a desk. For an added layer of protection, keep luggage encased in plastic (like a garbage bag or zip-up bag made especially for suitcases). This will ward off bedbugs not only in the hotel, but also in transit. If it seems like overkill, just bring a plastic bag to use for dirty laundry. Bedbugs are attracted to the clothing we have worn, so keep it wrapped up.
6. When You Return
Back home, either dry clean or wash all clothes (even unworn items) in hot water. The water should be at least 122°F in order to kill any of these bugs that might have somehow followed you home. Wipe down shoes with a hot, damp cloth. Vacuum suitcases inside and out, and store them in plastic. Afterward, change the vacuum bags and take out the trash. Finally, make yourself comfortable to look nostalgically at photos and purchases from the trip, then sleep tight knowing bedbugs are not among your souvenirs.