"Wherever there are humans, there will be bedbugs," says Dr. Changlu Wang, assistant professor, Rutgers University School of Environmental and Biological Sciences. And how right he is—in recent years, cases of bedbug infestation have exploded, and the critters don't discriminate. You can find bedbugs in high-end luxury hotels, budget motels, remote cabins, and even cruise ships. Planes, trains, and automobiles offer places where these creepy-crawlies can hitch a ride, too.
Just because bedbugs are prevalent, though, doesn't mean you have to take them home with you. Follow our expert advice to make sure you're safe and bug-free, both on the road and at home.
Before You Leave the House
Safeguard your suitcase before you get to the airport. "In the cargo hold of an airliner, your bag is right in there with other suitcases," says Missy Henriksen, vice president, public affairs, National Pest Management Association. "Bedbugs are referred to as 'hitchhikers,' they can be on a red suitcase to city A, but can jump onto a blue suitcase to city B."
To prevent any bugs from hitching a ride on your baggage, put your suitcase or duffel inside a sealed plastic bag before you drop it off at the ticket counter. "[This] will minimize bugs coming into contact with other suitcases that have been exposed," says Henriksen.
"There are some over-the-counter travel sprays that are helpful. Basically, they will enable bugs to avoid the luggage and suitcase, but they can't be depended upon altogether," says Jennifer Erdogan, director of the bedbug division at Bell Environmental Services, Parsippany, New Jersey.
"Alternatively, you can spray [your suitcase with] an insect repellent that contains DEET, which will prevent bedbugs from hiding on the luggage," says Wang. If you're not averse to chemicals, this may be a good option; in either case, a plastic covering is a good first line of defense.
At Your Hotel
"The term bedbug can be a misnomer," says Henriksen. "Travelers need to understand that they're 'bedbugs' because they're often found in the bed area, but are also found around the bed and in other rooms, the living room, for example."
"Any three-dimensional surface in a room with a crack or crevice [bedbugs] can find harbor in," says Erdogan. "They prefer to squeeze in cracks and crevices. They'll live inside the box springs, or line up along folds and seams of mattresses, inside couches, easy chairs, headboards, baseboards."
"When you first get into your room, store your suitcase in the bathroom or room with a linoleum floor," says Henriksen. "You can see [bugs] on the linoleum, [there's] less chance of exposure. Then go and do an inspection of the bed. Pull back the sheet and the bed linens, and look on the mattress pad cover and under the dust ruffle. What you're looking for is a bug the size of a lentil or an apple seed. Look for anything that [seems] out of place, like those seeds, [and] signs of blood, little droplets of blood, that would indicate the bugs have been eating from humans. If you see signs, there may be reason to suspect there's a problem."
"You may see fecal droppings that look like pen dots, [and] molted skins," says Erdogan. "Look at the box spring. Make your way out from there, inspect the head board, base moldings, end tables, any kind of sofa or chairs."
"It's useful to have a flashlight to help with the inspection," says Wang. In addition to the bed and soft furnishings, "check anything on the wall, any decorations such as picture frames."
"Check your drawers before putting any clothing in and also the luggage rack," says Henriksen. "If all looks OK, [you] should feel comfortable moving into the room. We also recommend keeping your luggage off the floor. Bedbugs can travel from room to room; if someone else is having trouble in their room, bedbugs can come through the wall."
If all these steps seem like too much to remember, you can download Bell Environmental's mobile app, Roscoe's Tips, free for your iPhone, which features a step-by-step guide for inspecting your hotel room.
If you suspect you've been bit by a bedbug, for the most part, the bites will be harmless—more a nuisance than anything serious. "Usually it's like a mosquito bite," says Wang. "It depends on the person; each person reacts differently. In most cases, you'll just see a little bump, [which] will disappear within three to five days. Some people may have itchiness or redness for more than one week or two ... You don't really need any treatment unless in some cases you feel very itchy; buy and apply anti-itching cream."
Before you enter your house, take a few minutes to do a sanity check and make sure you haven't transported any bugs home.
"You can purchase dissolvable plastic bags, so as soon as you get home, put your clothes right in the wash and launder them," says Erdogan. You won't even have to take your clothes out of the bag before putting them in your washing machine. "Heat and plastic bags really are your friend. You may want to schedule a dog inspection, have the [bug-detecting dogs] sniff the luggage before even going in the house."
"Any item you've brought with you on your travels should be laundered," says Henriksen. "Take those clothes to the dry cleaners or wash everything in hot water, whether you've worn it or not. Look at your suitcase before bringing it inside to see if there are any signs of bugs, droppings, anything that doesn't look right. If so, vacuum out your suitcase prior to coming in to the house."
If you get settled at home and suspect that you may have brought bedbugs inside with you, always contact a pest control professional. "This is not a do-it-yourself pest," says Henriksen. "[A professional] knows how to identify and treat [bedbugs] and it will take several different visits to take care of the problem. This is something that travelers should not be embarrassed about—it's not a hygiene or socioeconomic pest, it's an equal opportunity pest and you will need to bring in help."
Have you ever come into contact with bedbugs while traveling? Share your experiences by submitting a comment below!