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What Travelers Should Know About Bed Bugs

Travel Safety
by Alex Bresler Oct 11, 2023

Bed bugs are insidious critters. The bloodsucking insects are notorious for hiding in hard-to-see places, biting at night, hitching rides on personal belongings, and invading homes and hotels alike. Bed bugs are a particular concern for travelers (as if travelers didn’t already have enough to worry about between creepy airport body scanners, germ-infested tray tables, and headache-inducing jet lag).

Whether you tend to vacation like a monarch at royalty-approved hotels, live like an A-lister at celeb-worthy Airbnbs, or stick to budget accommodations, you can never guarantee that you won’t encounter bed bugs in your travels. What you can do is equip yourself with knowledge to avoid and handle them, from what bed bugs and their bites look like to how to get compensation from a hotel if you find them.

What do bed bugs look like?

Bed bugs are small, wingless, reddish brown insects that could be mistaken for other pests such as baby cockroaches, fleas, ticks, and some species of beetle, such as carpet beetles. The oval-shaped critters have flat bodies that swell after feeding on blood. Young bed bugs, known as nymphs, appear lighter in color than adult bed bugs. Baby bed bugs can appear almost translucent and be as small as a sesame seed, which can make them virtually impossible to spot. Adult bed bugs can grow to be roughly the size of an apple seed.

What do bed bug bites look like?

Because bed bugs tend to hide in nooks and crannies away from the light — particularly around sleeping areas such as in the seams of mattresses seams and box springs or the crevices in bed frames, headboards, and footboards — many people only discover infestations after being bitten by bed bugs. Bed bug bites present as flat red welts that generally appear in clusters or zigzagging lines. Bites are typically itchy and may cause an initial burning sensation. Although bed bug bites rarely result in serious health problems, they can become infected or cause allergic reactions that may require dermatological treatment or medical attention.

How to treat bed bug bites

Bed bug bites typically clear up after a week or two without treatment. Wash the bites with soap and water to prevent skin infections and reduce itchiness. Over-the-counter corticosteroid creams (such as Cortaid) or antihistamine pills (such as Benadryl) can also help to relieve itchiness. Over-the-counter antiseptic or antibiotic ointments (such as Neosporin) can help to prevent infections due to scratching. Depending on the severity of the bites, a dermatologist may prescribe an antihistamine, corticosteroid, or epinephrine injection if you experience an allergic reaction. Infections may require prescription antibiotics.

About the Bed Bug Registry

The Bed Bug Registry is a free, public database of user-submitted bed bug reports from across the US and Canada. It was founded in 2006 and allows users to report bed bug activity in hotels, motels, condos, resorts, and apartments. The website is dedicated to reporting bed bug activity and providing up-to-date information on bed bugs in different areas. However, it’s important to note that the site does not verify or check for the accuracy of the reports, and its effectiveness has been called into question by some experts. Other sources suggest using alternative websites, such as Bedbug Reports, which lists recent reports of bedbugs at many locations. As with any internet resource, it’s important to approach the information with caution and do additional research before making decisions based on the information provided.

How to check for bed bugs in a hotel

Bed bugs are often found in and around sleeping areas, but they also live in other small, dark places. That includes furniture such as couches, chairs, and dressers; cracks in the walls, flooring, and baseboards; and electrical outlets and light switches. Another concern for travelers is the possibility of bed bugs infesting your luggage. To check for bed bugs in a hotel, start by pulling back the bed sheets and blankets to inspect the mattress and box-spring seams. Next, examine the folds and seams in the corner of the mattress, and shine a light behind your headboard and nightstand for signs of bed bugs. If you have reason to believe that your hotel may be infested, continue to check any nightstands, drawers, and outlets. If you discover bed bugs anywhere in your hotel room, wash your clothes immediately and give your luggage a thorough inspection, particularly near the seams of suitcases, backpacks, and purses.

How common are bed bugs in hotels?

It’s hard to quantify how pervasive the bed bug problem is. A 2018 study by the National Pest Management Association (NPMA) sheds some light, reporting that 97 percent of pest professionals in the US treated for bed bugs that year. According to the study, hotels and motels were the third-most common place for pest professionals to encounter bed bugs, coming in at 68 percent. A 2020 report by Orkin Pest Control that examined US cities by the number of bed-bug treatments performed the previous year found that Washington DC responded to the highest number of infestations, followed by Balitmore, Chicago, and Los Angeles.

Mattress review site Mattress Clarity conducts similar research to discover which US cities have the highest number of reported bed-bug incidents according to both treatment data and service requests. In 2023, the eight cities with the most bed-bug treatments that Orkin reported in 2019 maintained the top spots, with Baltimore now taking the lead. Cleveland saw the most service requests, followed by Detroit, Las Vegas, and Denver.

Fair compensation for bed bugs in a hotel

Bed bugs are a tricky business. So, too, can be the process of getting fair compensation for bed bugs in a hotel. The good news is that compensation is possible if you’ve been bitten or experienced damages as a result of a bed bug infestation. However, the amount and type of compensation you may be able to receive can vary depending on the circumstances of your case, such as the number and severity of the bites or damages and the impact the encounter has had on your physical, emotional, and financial well-being.

Hotels have a duty to promote the health and safety of their guests. Common law may require hotels to take action to address bed bug infestations on the premises, and more than 20 states are subject to specific laws and regulations that hold property owners and managers accountable for bed bugs. If you find yourself in the unfortunate position of discovering bed bugs in a hotel room, the first steps to take are documenting the infestation and reporting the problem to the front desk or management. You can request a change of room or a full refund. If the hotel refuses to provide a refund, you may consider pursuing legal action.

According to Bed Bug Legal Group, a law firm specializing in bed-bug lawsuits and injuries, hotel guests who have been bitten by bed bugs may be entitled to a full refund if they report the infestation and ask for compensation. You may also be able to receive compensation by filing a claim or lawsuit against the hotel or its insurance company. Fair compensation beyond a refund may include reimbursement for medical expenses, lost wages, property damage, and emotional distress, as well as punitive damages. The exact amount of compensation will depend on the specific details of your case and the laws of the state where the incident occurred.

If you decide to take legal action after discovering bed bugs in a hotel, consult with a qualified attorney to determine your legal options and pursue fair compensation.

Airbnb and bed bugs

Airbnb requires hosts to abide by cleanliness standards that ensure their listings are free of pests and rodents. According to the Airbnb Help Center, guests should contact the host and Airbnb Resolution Center immediately if they discover bed bugs in their rental, as well as document the issue to provide proof and convey the extent of the infestation. The host is responsible for addressing the issue, including scheduling professional pest extermination services to fumigate the space. If the host does not address the issue, the guest can file a claim for a refund or relocation. Note that it’s important to handle all communication and complaints through the Airbnb website so that the company has a record of the incident.

However, Airbnb provides neither insurance coverage nor compensation for damages or injuries that result from a bed-bug infestation. Moreover, Airbnb’s message boards are full of complaints from guests whose encounters with bed bugs were poorly managed or left unresolved. Unfortunately, this means that the best safeguard against dealing with bed bugs in Airbnbs is to avoid them altogether. Always check reviews and ratings that reflect a rental’s cleanliness.

How do bed bugs travel?

Bed bugs are creepy crawlers in the literal sense. Although bed bugs have no wings, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) says that they can move more than 100 feet over the course of a night. This provides plenty of opportunity for the insects to burrow in your luggage, carry-ons, clothes, and other dark places while you sleep. Because bed bugs tend to live closest to places where humans sleep — within eight feet, according to the CDC — they’re most likely to hitch a ride in personal belongings that you keep by the bed.

How to avoid getting bed bugs in your luggage

One of the easiest ways to avoid getting bed bugs in your luggage is to place your bags on a luggage rack and move the rack away from the bed. There are also other measures you can take to help protect against bringing bed bugs home with you. Here are a few tips:

  • Inspect your hotel room, Airbnb, or other accommodation for bed bugs before settling in. This includes the luggage rack. Use a bright flashlight to look for signs of bed bugs or their exoskeletons, paying close attention to the small, dark places where they like to hide.
  • Travel with a hard-shelled suitcase that has fewer folds and seams where bed bugs can hide. Place your luggage in plastic trash bags or protective covers.
  • Pack your clothes and toiletries in resealable plastic bags to make it harder for bed bugs to latch onto your belongings. Keep all dirty clothes in sealed plastic bags to create a physical barrier against them and prevent the odor from attracting bed bugs.
  • Before returning home, or bringing your luggage inside, vacuum your suitcase using a brush and crevice tool attachment to remove any bed bugs or eggs that may be inside.

How do you wash clothes after hotel bed bugs?

Washing your clothes after a possible bed bug infestation in a hotel room or Airbnb is essential to prevent bringing bed bugs into your home. Be sure to wash your clothes outside of your home, and follow these recommended steps:

  • Remove your clothes and put them into a plastic bag. Avoid shaking the clothes as this can cause bed bugs to fall off and spread.
  • Empty the plastic bag directly into the washing machine. Wash all clothes, bedding, and other washable items in hot water (at least 120°F or higher) for at least 30 minutes.
  • Dry everything on high heat for at least 30 minutes. If you have clothes that can’t be washed, such as dry-clean-only items, skip washing and follow this step, or put the items in a sealed plastic bag and leave them for several weeks to starve the bed bugs to death.
  • After washing, store your clean clothes in a new plastic bag or large ziplock bag until you can place them back in your suitcase.
  • Vacuum out the empty suitcase with a brush and crevice tool attachment, or wipe it down with rubbing alcohol to kill any bed bugs or eggs that may be hiding inside.

About using bed bug spray

Bed bugs are notoriously hard to terminate. It’s not that they’re as difficult to kill as cockroaches; it’s that they’re hard to find and multiple quickly. One solution to getting rid of bed bugs is to use an insecticide designed to kill bed bugs on contact. There are several bed bug sprays on the market, but the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) warns against trusting just any product or home solution you read about online, as many can be harmful or illegal.

If you’re considering using bed bug spray, be sure to find an EPA-registered product and follow the instructions carefully. (For example, you should never use an insecticide designed for outside use inside your home.) The EPA has created a bed-bug-pesticide search tool that can help you find an approved product that’s a good fit for your needs by determining where you plan to spray (such as your mattress, cracks or surfaces, an entire room, or your whole house) and what specific product or active ingredient you may be interested in using.

Note that in the case of a severe infestation, you should enlist the help of a pest professional.

Alternatives to bed bug spray

Even if you intend to use a pesticide to treat your infestation, it’s important to know that bed bug sprays work best in conjunction with non-chemical management strategies. These are the same measures you should take if you’re averse to chemical treatments, depending on the severity of your infestation. Note that many of these treatment options require the help of a pest professional. The EPA refers to a non-chemical bed-bug management strategy published by Dr. Dini M. Miller from Virginia Tech’s Department of Entomology, outlined below:

  • Set up a bed-bug detection device. Improving your chances of eliminating bed bugs begins with identifying early signs of bed bugs. If you suspect that you have bed bugs, use an early-detection bed-bug monitoring device such as the ClimbUp Insect Interceptor. To use the device, move your bed away from the wall and place an interceptor under each leg of the bed. While these devices aren’t designed to eliminate infestations entirely, they’ll trap bed bugs and give you a sense of how severe your infestation is.
  • Declutter your home. The next step in stopping the spread of bed bugs is to give them fewer places to hide. Reduce clutter by bagging piles of clothes, removing items from under your bed, going through your closets, bagging and discarding any items that you no longer use, and stacking them in front of the closet door to be inspected.
  • Encase your mattress and box spring. Mattress encasements have become a standard component of top-quality bed-bug management programs. These encasements are designed to seal the mattress, preventing bed bugs from biting through and spreading. Buy encasements with a zipper that can close completely to prevent bed bugs from escaping. Zippers must also be tight enough to prevent newly hatched bed bugs from slipping through. Some covers may not be effective in containing bed bugs, so it’s essential to check the label for information on how the product has been tested for bed-bug containment.
  • Invest in dissolvable laundry bags. Dissolvable laundry bags such as GreenClean are water soluble, meaning you can put your clothes directly into the wash without having to open or dispose of a potentially infested bag.
  • Vacuum. Vacuuming serves two functions: It helps to control bed bugs and makes inspections easier. In the case of severe infestations, your house will become littered with both living bugs and their byproducts, such as exoskeletons, molted skins, hatched egg shells, and feces. Use a high-powered vacuum to remove these byproducts, making it easier to identify active infestations. Discard the vacuum bag outside of your home.
  • Steam and heat. Heat treatments starting around 114-115°F are deadly to bed bugs and their eggs. This includes using a hot dryer for infested clothing, enlisting the help of a pest professional to use steam cleaners, or finding a pest management company that uses superheaters such as ThermaPureHeat or the Temp-Air Heat Remediation System to kill bed bugs. Such heating systems use propane or electric heaters to raise the temperature of a room to 135°F while sensors monitor temperatures in hard-to-reach places. Most infestations can be cured in a single treatment, as well as avoid the hassle of bagging or removing your belongings. However, heat treatment can be expensive and time-consuming.
  • Pressurized carbon dioxide snow. Some pest management companies specialize in freezing, rather than heating, bed bugs to death using Cryonite technology. This method involves exposing bed bugs to pressurized carbon dioxide snow at -108°F. However, like steam cleaning, this method alone won’t completely eliminate an infestation.
  • Diatomaceous Earth. Diatomaceous Earth (DE) is a powder-like substance made of the fossilized remains of diatoms, which are microscopic, single-celled organisms that have hard, silica-based shells. DE sticks to bed bugs and absorbs the wax layer that prevents moisture loss, thereby drying out bed bugs. It’s a safe option that can be used in places where insecticidal dusts cannot. However, you note that there are different types of DE on the market, such as those intended for insects, those used as animal food additives that also work well in killing bed bugs, and those that contain pyrethrins, which have more restrictive labels regarding where the product can be applied. Swimming pool filters also use a different form of DE that’s dangerous to inhale and should never be used for bed-bug treatment.

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