When I was sixteen years old, bed bugs weren’t the common travel fear that they are today. In fact, I considered them as mythical as unicorns and leprechauns, nothing more than a placeholder in the rhyme “good night, sleep tight, don’t let the bed bugs bite”.
But I did let the bed bugs bite. My bed in Peru appeared to be bug-free. Then my friend and her roommates asked me to spend the night in their room. I woke up that morning with hundreds of marks all over my legs. (The bugs left my friend alone- not fair!) The weeks that followed included itching, scratching, bleeding, and dozens of people concerned that the scabs on my legs meant that I contracted some sort of infection.
I returned to that same Peruvian hotel two years later and managed to remain bed bug-free. In fact, in all the cities and all the countries I’ve visited, I only have that one bed bug story to tell. Here’s my advice for preventing- and dealing with- bed bugs.
- Know that bed bugs aren’t classist. I’ve heard a few stories from people getting bed bugs at hostels. But I’ve heard more from people who stayed in nice hotels. My friends who told me stories purposely avoided cheap motels because they were concerned about the cleanliness. In reality, I’ve heard more of a response from the hostel industry regarding cleanliness standards to avoid infestations. The price tag on your room is no indication of likelihood for bed bugs, but there are a few other factors to look at before booking.
- Don’t BYOB (bring your own bedding). At first this seems counterintuitive. Providing your own bedding means you’re sure the linens are clean, right? True, but you don’t know how clean the bedding was with the person who slept on that bed before you, or the person before that, or the person before that. When I’m looking at hostels or AirBnBs, I eliminate any that allow me to bring my own bedding, no matter how nice the rest of the lodging may seem. Accommodations that enforce a “no outside bedding” rule have taken great strides in reducing bed bugs. I think it’s worth it to support these lodging options. Even if I’m staying at someone’s home, I only bring my own blankets if they ask me to. The only place I bring my own bedding is camping cabins. These backwoods locations often don’t have adequate laundry facilities to provide linen service, but I do make sure that their mattresses have a bug-resistant cover. And just for a peace of mind, hostels and other accommodations have to adhere to their location’s government requirements of cleaning between guests, so you can expect clean sheets.
- Keep luggage away from furniture. Why do so many people set their suitcase on their hotel bed? Metal furniture can still harbor bed bugs, but it’s not as likely as mattresses, couches, or other surfaces with lots of hiding places, so set your luggage there to prevent tiny hitchhikers. Also make sure to keep your luggage away from anyone else’s luggage. If a hostel offers personal storage lockers, that’s usually a good way to avoid cross-contamination.
- Do an inspection. There are a few techniques to scan a room for bed bugs. It’s not foolproof, but if you find anything suspicious when you first enter a room, you can leave immediately and save tons of trouble. First, lift the sheets off the corner of the bed and inspect the mattress for any small dots (which could be feces, blood, or bug carcasses). While you’re at the bed, tear the comforter off and toss it in a corner. Those are hardly ever washed and have no business being on the same surface where you’ll sleep. If the bed has a box spring, move the mattress slightly so you can inspect one corner of the box spring for the same signs you were looking for on the mattress. Next, grab a flashlight and turn out all the room lights. Shine your flashlight in power outlets, furniture screws, and other small, dark openings. You’re looking for any movement inside these.
- Notify the accommodation staff of any concerns. A good hospitality business should be more concerned about bed bugs than you are. If you find any sign indicating bed bugs, notify staff so they can change your room (to another building if necessary) and thoroughly clean your former one. If you get bitten overnight, you may be entitled to some sort of compensation.
- Be wary of bed bugs outside of your room. Looking back to my bed bug experience, I feel bad for doing some activities after I was bitten. (Back then, I didn’t realize how easily they could spread.) The furniture I sat on, the bus I rode, the wool stores I shopped at, and the airplane I flew home on all unknowingly increased their risk of bed bugs with my presence. Because I haven’t heard of industries outside of lodging hospitality doing anything to prevent bed bugs, I try to be extra careful. Now, on days that I fly, I always wear long pants. I also wrap my hair in a scarf if I’m going to sleep on a plane or bus. There may not be much that I can do in these situations, but a barrier of fabric can sometimes deter bedbugs. I also carry all my own luggage so that it stays separate from other traveler’s bags.
- Keep your travel gear outside your home. Whether I was gone for one night or one year, my suitcase stays on the porch for my first night back home. If you think you caught bed bugs, take off the clothes you’re wearing before you even step inside. (But don’t scare the neighbors; strip in your garage or backyard.) The next day, everything that can be washed goes straight to the washing machine. Everything else gets wiped down and inspected before being stored. Getting bed bugs while traveling is bad enough; you don’t want to invite them into your home!