How to Avoid Bed Bugs While Traveling

by wheretheroadforks

One of the worst experiences of my life was suffering through a bed bug infestation. I wouldn’t wish this on my worst enemy. Unfortunately, bed bugs are more common than ever. If you travel long enough, you will come into contact with these horrible creatures. This guide explains how to avoid bed bugs while traveling. I outline exactly what to do if you encounter bedbugs in your hotel or hostel. I will also explain how to get rid of bed bugs if you do suffer an infestation.

bed bug

A Bed Bug

Table of Contents- How to Avoid Bed Bugs While Traveling

What Are Bed Bugs?

Bed Bugs (Cimex lectularius) are parasitic insects that live on human blood. Their size ranges from 1-7 millimeters across. About the size of an apple seed. They have a flat, oval shape with brown or reddish-brown bodies. Some have black heads. Bed bug eggs look like a grain of uncooked rice. 

Bed bugs generally feed during the night. They can find a human through the CO2 that you exhale as well as your body heat. One good bit of news is that bedbugs do not transmit infectious diseases according to the CDC. They just leave annoying, itchy bites.

Signs and Symptoms of Bed Bug Bites

The biggest indication that you have been bitten by a bed bug is if the bites occur in groups of three. This is often called a ‘breakfast, lunch, and dinner’ bite. If you see this bit pattern on your skin, a bed bug probably caused it.

The most common reaction to bed bug bites is a small, itchy blister or rash on the skin surrounding the bites. These marks last for several days before fading away.

Some individuals experience more severe symptoms like fever or fatigue. Some people see significant swelling surrounding the site of the bite.

Prolonged exposure to bed bugs can lead to severe psychological effects such as insomnia, anxiety, and stress. Basically, the bed bugs can drive you crazy. These effects can last long after you take care of the bed bug infestation. 

If you wake up with an itch or bump, don’t jump to conclusions. A bed bug bite can look like any other insect bite. You could easily mistake it for a mosquito or spider bite. Don’t get too paranoid until you find evidence of bed bugs. More on that later. 

Tip: About 20% of the population experiences no reaction to bed bug bites. Because of this, it is possible to sleep in a bed bug infested hotel or hostel and not even realize it. You could then bring them home to your friends and family without knowing. For this reason, it is important to always check for bed bugs while traveling, even if you have no reaction.

Where Are Bed Bugs Found?

Bed Bugs live in every corner of the planet and are generally very common insects. They like dark, cool places where they can regularly access humans. They tend to live on or near the bed. 

Infestation rates have been on the rise since the 80s. The reason for this is believed to be that bed bugs have developed a resistance to most common pesticides that used to kill them. 

Because bed bugs are so easy to transport on your clothes or in your luggage, any hotel, hostel, Airbnb or home is at risk of becoming infested. Even the most upscale hotel with the best cleaning practices can become infested with bed bugs. They are a problem in both the developing and developed world. 

With that being said, bed bugs are still more common in small or lower-end hotels and hostels. The reason is that these establishments may not have the financial means to exterminate. After all, eradicating bedbugs could cost tens of thousands of dollars for a large hotel. Hygiene practices may also not be as good. 

Bed Bugs don’t just live in hotels and home. Vehicles can also become infested. Cars, taxis, buses, airplanes, ships, and trains can all found to house bed bugs on occasion. From there, they can crawl onto your clothing and make their way into your home. You may also find bed bugs in places like hospitals and theaters.

Bed bugs can survive anywhere humans exist because their only food is our blood. For more info, check out these interesting facts and statistics about bed bugs from PestWorld.org.

world map

Bed bugs live everywhere

How Do Bed Bugs Spread?

Bed bugs can easily spread from one location to another. First, they crawl from the bed onto your clothes or belongings. They are small enough that you could even be carrying them on your body without noticing. Once you move to a different location or come into contact with a different person, the bed bugs can simply walk or fall off of your body and begin reproducing.

Imagine you arrive home from the airport carrying bed bugs on your clothes or in your suitcase. You get into an Uber and some of the bugs stay behind. The bugs can reproduce so rapidly, when they have access to food (human blood). After a couple of days, the driver and a dozen passengers unknowingly transport bed bugs back to their own homes which inevitably become infested.

Bed bugs can also spread by themselves. For example, imagine a hotel guest brings bed bugs into the room and it becomes infested. After the bed bug population grows, they begin to spread and search for more food. Because the bugs are so small, they can crawl through cracks in the wall or under doors and make their way to another room. If left untreated, pretty soon, the whole hotel will be crawling with bed bugs. I experienced this in an apartment complex I lived in.

How to Inspect a Hotel or Hostel Room for Bed Bugs

When you enter a hotel room, hostel dorm, or Airbnb room, the first thing you should do is check for bed bugs. You should do this first thing every time you check into a new room. It doesn’t matter how new, clean, expensive, or nice the property is.

A good inspection can be made in just a minute or two and will save you the incredible stress and expense of having to deal with bringing an infestation home with you.

You can also check The Bed Bug Registry if you’re staying in the US. 

5 Things to Look For When Searching For Evidence of Bed Bugs in a Hotel Room

  1. Bed bug feces- This is a black crust which sticks to the mattress. If the infestation is new, you may not see any feces or it may be too small to notice. If the infestation is severe, the mattress can be caked with the black crust.
  2. Bed bug eggs- These are small, white sacks which are about 1 millimeter across. They look just like a grain of uncooked rice. They can be found in the sheets or in the crevices on the bottom of the mattress which I described above. The eggs are difficult to spot. You probably won’t see any unless the infestation is pretty severe.
  3. Actual bed bugs- A common misconception is that bed bugs are too small to see. This is not true. They are insects that you can clearly see with your naked eye. I have even caught them from several feet away walking across the top of my bed. They are flat and brown and measure 1-7 mm across.
  4. Bloodstains on the mattress- Small dried smears of blood can be an indication that a previous guest has been bitten.
  5. Bug shells or casings- Bed bugs molt as they grow. This means they shed their skin and leave it behind. 

Step 1: Enter the Room and Safely Store Your Luggage for the Inspection

The first thing you should do after entering your hotel or hostel room is to set your luggage down on a hard surface if possible. The bathroom is perfect for this. I recommend placing your luggage inside the bathtub or shower ideally. A tile or laminate floor will also work fine. 

If no hard surface is available, like may be the case in a hostel dorm, place your luggage in the center of the floor, near the door and away from any furniture or walls. Don’t set your luggage on or near the bed.

Bed bugs hide in dark cracks and crevices. They generally stay hidden during the day and will not just be walking around in the middle of the floor.

Step 2: Prepare Yourself and Your Bed for Inspection

Before you begin the inspection, roll up your sleeves to reduce the risk of bed bugs crawling on your clothes. Try not to let any of your clothing touch the bed or bedding.

Walk over to the foot of your bed and remove all of the bedding from one corner. This includes any comforter, sheets, and mattress covers. You want to look directly at the mattress.

Step 3: Inspect the Bed and Room for Bed Bugs

You want to look around the seems at the corners of the mattress. Do this one corner at a time. Check both the top and bottom of the mattress. Look where the material from the side of the mattress meets the material of the bottom. In my experience, this is where I have found the greatest concentration of bed bugs, feces, and eggs.

Other places you should inspect for bed bugs include:

  • Behind the headboard.
  • In and around the nightstand. Bed bugs really like wood furniture
  • On the floor around the bed.
  • Under the cushion of chairs and couches.
  • Behind any wall hangings.

Tip: Use your phone’s flashlight to get a better view. If the infestation is major, the evidence of bed bugs will be obvious. If the infestation is small, you may just see a bit of dark crust where the bed bugs live.

Person entering hotel room

Precautions to Take to Lower the Risk

Chances are if you didn’t find any evidence of bed bugs, the room is clean. Having said that, if the infestation is new or minor, you may not see any evidence of bed bugs in your hotel or hostel room. In this case, you just won’t know until you get bit.

On one occasion, I did an inspection and found nothing. I woke up in the middle of the night with the telltale three-bite pattern. After tearing off the sheets and taking a closer look, I found a big, fat bed bug crawling across the top of the mattress.

Luckily, there are a few precautions you can take to reduce the risk of your luggage getting infested or transporting bed bugs with you. You can:

  • Store your luggage on a luggage rack- Bed bugs can’t easily climb metal surfaces. They can’t climb up the rack as long as you keep it away from walls and wood furniture.
  • Never place your clothing or belongings on the bed or floor- They can easily climb into your suitcase or on your clothing.
  • Store your luggage in the bath tub or shower- Again, bedbugs can’t crawl up hard surfaces easily.
  • Store your luggage in a plastic bag- A garbage bag works well for this. Make sure you seal it up completely so the bugs can’t crawl in. 
  • Hang your clothes- putting your clothes in drawers is an unnecessary risk. Bed bugs are less likely to crawl onto your clothes if they are hanging.

What to do if You Find Evidence of Bed Bugs in a Hotel or Hostel Room

If you find that your hotel or hostel has a bed bug problem, you should leave immediately. Notify the staff that they have a bed bug infestation and try your best to get a refund.

Moving to another room is an option but isn’t a great solution. Chances are if one room is infested with bed bugs, the whole property is. 

If the hotel won’t give you your money back, you can:

  • Do a chargeback on your credit card- If you paid with a credit card, you can simply call your credit card company and ask for your money back. Tell them that you didn’t sleep in the room because of the bed bug problem and they will most likely issue you a refund. This doesn’t cost you or the credit card company anything. The money will be taken out by the hotel or hostel’s credit card processing company. For card recommendations, check out my article: The Best Debit Card and Credit Card for International Travel.
  • Leave a negative review- This gives other travelers a fair warning. I always read reviews before I book a room if they are available. If I see a couple of reports of bed bugs on a review, I will not stay there. Unfortunately, I have read that hostelworld.com has been known to remove reviews that mention bed bugs. Check out this Reddit thread for evidence. If this is true, it removes all credibility of Hostelworld reviews which is a real shame. I wouldn’t be surprised if other booking sites also censor reviews.
  • Ask for a refund from the booking company if you used one- For example, Hostelworld, Booking.com, Tripadvisor, etc. may be able to help you get your money back.
  • Warn other guests before you leave- Bed bugs are such an extreme hassle and are costly to get rid of if they are brought back home. It is nice to give your dorm mates a heads up. Some may even choose to leave with you. If multiple people report the problem to management, they will be more likely to do something. It could also make getting a refund easier.
Always pay with a credit card so you can do a chargeback if you have to

Always pay with a credit card so you can do a chargeback if you have to

What to Do If You Must Sleep in a Bed Bug Infested Room

This may sound crazy but sometimes you have no option but to stay in a hotel room with bed bugs. For example, while traveling in Ethiopia, I found that most hotels had a bed bug problem. It was a rarity to find a clean room.

In Guatemala City, I woke up in the middle of the night to a fresh bed bug bite. After further inspection, I found a bed bug. I wasn’t about to go out wandering around a dangerous city for another hotel room at 3 in the morning. If you are in a room with bed bugs, you can:

  • Store your luggage in a bed bug free place- The best way to do this is to place your entire backpack or suitcase with all of your belongings into a plastic garbage bag. Tie the bag up and don’t open it. I always travel with a garbage bag for this reason. Another option is to store your luggage in the bathtub or shower. Remember, bed bugs don’t like hard surfaces. 
  • Sleep with the lights on- You probably won’t get a very good nights sleep but bed bugs are less likely to come out in a light room. They prefer the dark.
  • Sleep on top of the sheets and blankets- Because bed bugs like to stay in dark, covered areas, they are less likely to come out and bite you on top of the bed.
  • Be cautious where you set down your belongings- Don’t put anything on the bed or floor, particularly clothing.
backpack sitting near bed

Don’t set your backpack too close to the bed like this person

Tip: Pitch your tent on top of your bed and sleep inside it

I learned this little trick while traveling in Africa. If you travel with a tent, just sleep inside of it on top of your bed and sleep in it. The mesh should be small enough to keep bed bugs out. It will also help you avoid mosquitoes and malaria. If you don’t want to carry a tent, a lighter weight option is a bivy sack. Be careful when setting up your sleeping bag or blanket inside of the tent so that you don’t let any bed bugs in.

These tips will help you reduce the risk of being bitten but you are still at risk of carrying the bugs with you. If you have slept in a room that you have confirmed to be infested with bed bugs, you must assume that you are carrying the bugs in your belongings and properly clean everything before returning home.

What to Do After Bed Bug Exposure

If there is any chance whatsoever that you were exposed to bed bugs and are still carrying around bed bugs in your luggage, you want to take every precaution possible to prevent bringing them back to your home or infecting another hotel.

Treating a home or business requires the help of a professional exterminator and could cost thousands of dollars. Treating your luggage for bed bugs is easy and affordable. It only requires a trip to the laundromat.

The Best Way to Kill Bed Bugs: Heat

Exposing the bed bugs to high temperatures is the most effective and reliable way to kill them. You want to run all of your clothing through the dryer on the highest heat setting. This includes your backpack itself and your shoes. Anything that can go into the dryer, should.

According to the article “Using Heat to Kill Bedbugs” by Dr. Dini M. Miller

“Bed bugs exposed to 113°F will die if they receive constant exposure to that temperature for 90 minutes or more. However, they will die within 20 minutes if exposed to 118°F. Interestingly, bed bug eggs must be exposed to 118°F for 90 minutes
to reach 100% mortality.”

Luckily, these temperatures are easily achievable in a modern clothes dryer. Just throw in everything that you can and run it at the highest setting. 

Steps to Take to Avoid Bringing Bed Bugs Into Your Home or Another Hotel:

  1. Go to a laundromat and dry all of your clothes, shoes, and any items that can run through a dryer- Make sure the dryer gets to at least 48 degrees Celsius or 118 degrees Fahrenheit. Let it dry at this temperature for at least an hour to make sure that the bed bugs and their eggs are all dead. When you’re finished, seal the clothes in a plastic bag so no bedbugs can get in.
  2. When you return to your hotel, take off all of the clothes that you were wearing as well as your shoes and pack them in a different plastic bag- Put all of your contaminated luggage including the entire backpack, suitcase, and day pack into plastic trash bags and seal it up. Everything inside the bag is contaminated and must be treated or thrown out before you take it into your home or another hotel. 
  3. Take a shower- When you get out, put on a clean set of clothes and shoes that you just washed at the laundromat. Leave the hotel with all of your belongings sealed in bags. 
  4. Return to the laundromat and wash any other potentially contaminated items that you can wash- Make sure the dryer gets to at least 48 degrees Celsius or 118 degrees Fahrenheit. Let it dry at this temperature for at least an hour to make sure that the bed bugs and their eggs are all dead.
  5. Throw out any items that you can’t wash- This may include your backpack or suitcase. If you have travel insurance, they may cover any items that can’t be treated. 
  6. Once you arrive at home, don’t bring your luggage into your house- Leave it outside or in your garage. When transporting it, keep it in the trunk of the vehicle. Treat it like it’s hazardous waste.
  7. Dry everything again just to be safe- Inspect all of your luggage for eggs, bed bugs, and feces. You don’t want to contaminate your home.

Depending on where you are, it may be easier to do the cleaning before you return home.

launtromat

The best way to kill bed bugs. Run them through the dryer on high

A Note About Electronics and Bed Bugs

Because they are so small, bed bugs can crawl into heat vents and ports of electronic devices and live inside. Laptops are the biggest risk for this. Particularly if the infestation is severe Some professional exterminators recommend that you throw out any computers that could potentially be infested. This decision is up to you. 

If you are concerned that bed bugs are living in your laptop, you could open the case and try to visually inspect the inside. If the computer is infested, you could clean it out and hope that you got all of the bugs. This, however, is risky.

When my apartment was infested, my roommate decided to throw away her laptop and all of her furniture before she moved because she became so paranoid about carrying the bug to her new apartment.

For more info, check out this article about bed bugs and electronics from bedbuginsider.com. 

A Few More Bed Bug Extermination Methods Include:

  1. Freezing cold temperatures- If you are traveling in an extremely cold climate where temperatures drop below -17 degrees Celsius or 1 degree Fahrenheit for more than two hours, leave your luggage outside and the bed bugs may die. This is not as effective as killing the bed bugs with heat. They may still survive. 
  2. Some pesticides can be used to kill bed bugs- Unfortunately, it has been found that bed bugs have developed resistance to the most commonly used pesticides. This includes most bed bug spray treatments that are available at hardware stores. 
  3. Diatomaceous earth- This is another product that has been found to kill bed bugs. It is a white powder made from a particular type of sedimentary rock. It is completely harmless to humans. Diatomaceous earth works by drying out the bugs that come into contact with it. The problem is that it is not very effective and the bugs actually have to walk right through it in order for it to kill them. It is still a valuable tool to use to help you get rid of the bed bugs. I bought a bag of Harris Diatomaceous Earth. Make sure you buy the food grade variety. 

Bed Bug Myth: Many people believe that if you bag up your luggage and leave it for 2 weeks, the bugs will starve and die. This is false. Adult bed bugs can lay dormant for up to a year without feeding. Possibly longer.

Professional Bed Bug Extermination

Professional exterminators will use a variety of the methods described above to kill the bed bugs. The most effective method is to seal up the entire building and use a series of high powered heaters to raise the temperature of the entire house up to around 50 degrees Celsius or 122 degrees Fahrenheit. The goal is to raise every part of the house and everything inside up to this temperature in order to kill all of the bed bugs and eggs.

In addition to heat, they will treat the walls and hard to reach places with a number of different pesticides. Several different treatments may be required to kill all of the bugs.

Many people choose to throw out some of their belongings like mattresses, couches, and chairs. It can be nearly impossible to kill every bed bug in these items.

Bed Bugs and Psychology

Bed bugs really do a number on people’s psychology. There is even a name for this phenomenon. It’s called ‘bed bug psychosis.’ A prolonged infestation can cause you to pretty much lose your mind.

For example, you suddenly obsess over every little itch, checking for bite marks and tearing the house apart in search of bed bugs. Even seeing a spot of dirt on the floor can trigger a reaction. This can cause severe anxiety and stress. You can be affected by this problem for years after the bed bug infestation is taken care of.

If you’ve never had a bed bug problem, this may sound funny or unbelievable but it is 100% true. When I was dealing with my own bed bug problem, every little itch was a bed bug until proven otherwise. The same was true about anything that looked even remotely like a bed bug such as a speck of dust on the floor.

A Few More Bed Bug Tips

  • Try your hardest not to spread bed bugs on to someone else- As I said earlier, bed bugs are a horrible, expensive problem. They cling on to clothing and can survive without food for up to one year. Spreading them to someone’s business or home is one of the worst things you can do to someone.
  • Don’t be afraid to throw away some of your belongings if you come into contact with bed bugs- Some items can’t be properly cleaned. It will be much cheaper to buy a new suitcase than to hire an exterminator if your house gets infested. 
  • Don’t get too paranoid- If you travel long enough, this is a problem that you will have to deal with. Bed bugs are common insects and are becoming more common as the years go by, unfortunately.
  • Hire a professional if you bring bed bugs home with you- If it’s too late and you’ve already introduced bed bugs into your home, it’s time to call an exterminator. This is a problem that you probably can’t solve on your own. In fact, you can make matters worse if you don’t know what you’re doing. 

My Experience Dealing With Bed Bugs

I’ll wrap this article up by telling my story about my three encounters with bed bugs.

Isla Vista, California

Money was tight while I was in college so I decided to split a room with a friend in the cheapest apartment complex in the city. (If you’re moving to Isla Vista, the place was called Garden Court Apartments. Don’t move there. I wouldn’t be surprised if they still haven’t solved the problem. Even 7 years later.)

One morning I awoke with three giant, itchy boils on the side of my face. These were each an inch wide, very red, and very noticeable. I didn’t even know what a bed bug was at the time. I just assumed that I had a reaction to something or was bitten in the night by some unknown insect.

Class started about an hour later. Even though I felt embarrassed, I went anyway. When I returned home, I began researching what was wrong with my face. The first result I found on Google told me that I had bed bugs.

After a brief search, I found my first bug in a seam on the bottom of my mattress. I spent the rest of my evening obsessively researching everything about bed bugs including how to get rid of them.

Self Treating for Bed Bugs

The following day, I went down to Home Depot and bought some diatomaceous earth and a pesticide designed to kill bed bugs. I washed my bedding and applied the spray to my mattress. I did this several times per week for about a month. It worked for a day or two then I just woke up with more bites every time. Occasionally, I would find a bed bug crawling on my mattress and I knew that my treatment didn’t work.

Slowly, I began to feel like I was going crazy. Every time I had an itch, I blamed the bed bugs. I felt compelled to inspect every spot of dirt or lint to check whether or not it was a bed bug. The anxiety and stress began to drive me mad.

The strangest part was that, during this month, my roommate was not showing any signs of bites. He thought I was crazy and didn’t believe my bed bug theory even though I was getting new bites almost every night. I even showed him a bug that I killed.

I later found out that the reason he wasn’t having a reaction was because about 20% of people affected by bed bug bites. He was being bitten, he just didn’t know it. When we inspected his mattress, we found dozens of bed bugs crawling all over each other. The seams were absolutely caked in feces. Disgusted, he believed me.

The Solution

We went to management but they, being the slum lords that they were, dismissed our claim. They wouldn’t pay for an exterminator.

After suffering for another month, the only option was to move. I dried the hell out of all my clothes, threw out my mattress, and moved to another apartment. Luckily I didn’t bring any bed bugs with me. I lived the remainder of the year in peace. I believe my roommate’s mattress was the source of the infestation.

Bed Bugs in Guatemala City

I was staying in a hostel dorm. When I went to extend my stay, I was informed that the dorms were fully booked. Luckily, they had a private room that was vacant. The hostel manager kindly offered me the private room for the same price as the dorm for one night. I was thrilled.

I spent the rest of the afternoon laying around watching movies, eating, and enjoying the first bit of privacy I had had in months. Shortly after turning off the lights, I felt an itch on my hip. I scratched at it for a couple of minutes but it just wouldn’t go away. I felt the skin begin to swell up.

After switching the lights back on, I saw the telltale three bites clumped together. I immediately knew that bed bugs were present. I threw off the top sheet and caught a single bug crawling across the top of the bed. My blood flowed out of the bug when I squished it between my fingers.

As it was around 3 am, I had no choice but to stay the rest of the night in the infested room. I slept on the bed with no covers and the lights on. No more bed bugs bit during the night. The following day, I left for another hostel.

Bed Bugs in Ethiopia

For whatever reason, bed bugs are really bad in Ethiopia. It is more common for a hotel to be infested than to be bed bug free. Many other travelers that I met had the same experience.

I was given one useful tip: If you are traveling with a tent (which you should be in Africa), pitch it on top of your bed. Sleep inside the tent on the bed. As long as you keep your tent zipped up, the bed bugs should not be able to enter through the mesh bug net. Be very careful when setting up your sleeping bag or blanket inside of your tent as to not let bed bugs in. As an added bonus, your tent will keep mosquitoes out as well. Kill two birds with one stone.

For more Africa travel health and safety tips, check out my article: Is Travel in Africa Safe? Avoiding Crime, Disease, Injury, and Scams.

Final Thoughts About Dealing With Bed Bugs While Traveling

Bed bugs are absolute hell if your home gets infested. Dealing with them while traveling is not quite so bad. You may get a few bites but it is much easier to clean your travel gear than it is your whole house.

If you take the proper precautions, you will not bring them into your home but you may also suffer some minor loss in terms of travel gear that you have to dispose of.

Have you ever encountered bed bugs while traveling? Share your experience and tips in the comments below!

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