While most travelers will never encounter a bed bug in their lives, it is still wise to know how to avoid bed bugs when traveling and how to avoid getting bitten or bringing home your own little colony. Hotel quality, or lack thereof, has little to do with whether or not there might be a bed bug or two lurking. Consider that the Hilton in Oklahoma City recently had to apologize to NBA star player Kyrie Irving after bed bugs bit him the night before his team played.
Despite all of the alarming stories, photos and tips that are floating around out there, HI Travel Tales has to point out that we have personally never seen or experienced bed bugs. Do NOT suddenly get paranoid. Or stop traveling. As bed bug researcher Virginia Tech professor of entomology, Dini M. Miller, points out in her excellent video (watch video below), there is no reason not to travel. If you see a bed bug, don’t freak out. It really is not that big a deal. Just don’t let them hitchhike home with you.
What the heck is a bed bug?
A bed bug is a very small, wingless insect that survives by feeding on the blood of humans and animals when they sleep. They travel easily between rooms, buildings and even cities, often by hitchhiking along in belongings – suitcases are prime locations for first-class bed bug transport. Adults are up to 1/4 inch (7 mm) in length (about the size of a small apple seed) with an oval, flat, wide body and a very short, wide head. They are brown, but darken to a blood-red color after feeding. The young are minute, 1/16 of an inch (1.5 mm) or less in length; while lighter in color, they also darken to a blood-red color after a meal. Bed bug eggs are white and approximately 1/32 of an inch (1 mm) in length, making them nearly impossible to see. Fecal droppings (brown or black stains that look like pepper flakes) and exoskeletons they shed (as they grow) are evidence bed bugs are out and about.
Bed bugs are active at night, and are attracted by the carbon dioxide produced when a human or animal exhales. They hide quite effectively in very small locations – behind picture frames, in electrical outlets, inside box springs, in mattress pads, behind wallpaper, in night tables, etc.
Are bed bugs dangerous?
While the CDC and Health Canada do not consider bed bugs to be a serious health hazard, a bed bug bite can be very irritating to some. You won’t typically know you have been bitten because the bed bug injects your skin with an anticoagulant and numbing agent and then feeds (ick!) while you are sleeping.
Bite marks may appear anywhere, but most often on the face, neck, arms, legs and chest. Bite marks and subsequent skin irritation may take as long as 14 days to appear – long after you may be home and, if you are not careful, have introduced the little travelers to your home and bedroom where eradication can become problematic … and expensive.
How do I avoid bed bugs when traveling?
Bed bugs can easily hide in luggage, clothing, and other personal items, so take a few precautions while traveling to keep them from tagging along when you head home. Follow these 8 tips to avoiding bed bugs when traveling and you will at least minimize the chance of either an unpleasant night or unwelcome guests under your own roof:
- Minimize the chances of picking up hitchhiking bed bugs — Do not travel with your pillow from home since that is a perfect place for bed bugs to hide. Consider using a hard-shelled suitcase since it will have fewer folds and cozy seams than a fabric suitcase where bed bugs can hide. Pack your belongings — clothes, toiletries, shoes — in separate sealable plastic bags and open them only when accessing the items.
- Inspect the room & bed — When you enter your room, place your luggage in the bathroom on the tile floor. (Bed bugs don’t like chilly, slick tile.) The majority of the bed bugs will be within close proximity to the bed. Look under and around nightstands and lamps, and in the pleats of upholstered furniture and drapes. Look behind wall hangings, mirrors and paintings. Inspect under the telephone, alarm clock and in books, if there are any. In and around the bed, you are looking for tiny bloodstains or small black dots that look like specks of mold or flakes of ground pepper. Pull back the covers of the bed and inspect under the linens and pillows. Use a flashlight if necessary. Look in the seams and sides of the mattress, box spring, and frame, and then check behind the headboard.
- Keep luggage in the clear — Never place your luggage on the floor or directly on a bed. Be sure to inspect the fabric straps on the luggage rack in the room, if there is one, and once you have cleared that, place your luggage on top of the rack and leave it there. If there are two of you and only one luggage rack, the other person should place his or her luggage on top of a smooth, high surface like a desk or dresser.
- Do not unpack your clothes — All those dressers and shelves in hotels and apartments? Forget ’em. Leave your clothes in cubes or plastic bags in your luggage, and access clothing only when you need to wear it. Place worn and dirty clothing into plastic bags. Always place your shoes in an open area. Do not store anything at all under the bed.
- Speak up if you find signs of bed bugs — If you find signs of bed bugs, tell the hotel. The management should immediately move you. Request that your new room be at least two floors away since bed bugs are tiny enough to move from room to room via wallboards or electrical outlets. Do not be afraid to ask the hotel to launder your clothing at no cost to help ensure the annoying pests don’t spread or make themselves at home later in your own home.
- Beware the laundromat — Laundromats around the world are places where dirty clothes come to get clean. Meaning clothing that has bed bugs may leave bed bugs behind looking for a new home. Do not use a cloth laundry bag unless you are also planning on laundering the bag. Never set your laundry down on the floor, near trash cans, or near a seating area. The best alternative is to carry your laundry in a white plastic garbage bag and then dump out the clothes directly into a washer upon arrival. When done, transfer clothing directly to a dryer, and then from the dryer, return them directly into the plastic garbage bag for folding once you return where you are staying.
- Inspect and vacuum your luggage once home — Realize your luggage took a different journey than you did — in luggage compartments, next to other suitcases on the plane, sitting on the floor, etc. No matter how careful you have already been, your bag may still pickup unwelcome hitchhikers from those less careful. If you are getting off a plane and driving home, place your luggage into a garbage bag before placing your luggage in your vehicle. Once home, and before bringing luggage inside, place it on a hard surface (such as a concrete garage floor, driveway, or outside porch) away from any places bed bugs could crawl to and hide. Then check it carefully. Vacuum your luggage. Throw out the vacuum bag in a sealed garbage bag right away. Wash any vacuum cleaner brush or nozzle attachments you used in hot water with detergent. If you are using a bagless vacuum cleaner, empty the contents of the dust collector into a plastic garbage bag, seal the bag, and then throw the bag out into your trash can immediately. Also, be sure to wash the dust collector in hot water with detergent. Place your luggage into a clean garbage bag and store it well away from sleeping areas. Never store luggage under or near your bed.
- Launder your clothes immediately upon arriving home — Unpack your clothing and place it directly into your washer — even clean clothes – and then experts recommend using the highest heat possible. Then dry all your clothing on the highest heat. Delicates should be taken to the dry cleaner (or steam them with a steam cleaner), which will also kill bed bugs. It is the heat, not the washing, that kills them. Experts recommend any items that cannot be washed be placed in the dryer on the highest heat for at least 30 minutes. Now, what about cottons, wools, some synthetics or delicates that cannot take high heat? Nor do you want to pay today’s rather exorbitant dry-cleaning prices? Well, bed-bug experts of the world don’t seem to address this dilemma, so until you are sure such apparel is a bed-bug-free zone, we recommend leaving them in a white garbage bag in your garage.
To learn more about bed bug avoidance, watch this excellent video by Dini M. Miller, Ph.D., professor, department of entomology, Virginia Tech.
Avoiding bed bugs when traveling resources
- For more on the appearance and lifecycle of bed bugs go to the EPA page on bed bugs.
- Bed bugs information FAQ from the CDC
- Health Canada information publication on stopping bed bugs when traveling.
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