Dealing With Bed Bugs When You Travel

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Close up of bed bud infestation

Fresh from my third encounter with bedbugs in as many days (three out of my last five beds had the critters – a bad ratio by any standards), it seemed an appropriate time to share my tips on dealing with bed bugs when you travel.

Some facts about bed bugs

Most people have heard of bed bugs but few know much more beyond the fact that they’re not something you want. Unfortunately, travel for any extended period of time and you’re likely to meet these biting beasts sooner or later.

What are bed bugs?

It’s not a pretty answer – they are parasites that live off blood (human or animal – they’re not fussy diners). Although their primary residence is beds (hence the name), they will live in other places such as carpets but have been found residing in books and furniture.

Are they only found in dirty places and suffered by unclean people?

As unconcerned about the blood they suck, bed bugs equally don’t have a preference for human cleanliness (dirty or squeaky clean) or bed types. In fact, a few years ago there was a boom in reports about top hotels in cities like London and New York that were riddled with bed bugs. So, simply paying more money or taking a few extra minutes in the shower (or just stepping in the shower!) won’t make a difference.

Can you ‘catch’ them?

Bed bugs aren’t like head lice, or a cold – they can’t be caught. However, they do like to travel. So, if you have them in your accommodation, there is a risk they will hitchhike in your bag or clothes to your next place or follow you home.

Can they infect you?

Current research suggests that apart from a reaction to the bites (or more specifically the secretion of the bug’s saliva when it tucks into you as supper, yum!), you are not otherwise at risk of infection or disease.

Can you get rid of them?

Yes, but not without effort. Heat is one of the best, most natural ways to kill bed bugs, but it’s not as simple as taking your stuff to a beach for the day. You need to hit specific temperatures for certain periods of time depending on the type of infestation (age of the bugs, presence of eggs, etc.), so if you end up with bed bugs, do proper research to ensure you eradicate them properly and permanently.

7 Steps for spotting bed bugs when you travel

Of course, the best option is always going to be avoiding meeting bed bugs in the first place, but that isn’t always an option when you’re moving from one unknown guesthouse, hotel or hostel to another. The good news is that, contrary to popular myth, you can see bed bugs, and even if they are hiding when you check, there are a number of other good indicators to look out for, too.

After having had a scrape with these biters a fair number of times, here’s what I’ve learned about how to spot bed bugs.

1. Look for dander and eggs

bed bug eggs and dander

Look for what? Dander – the skin of bed bugs that is shed over time. If bed bugs are present, dander may be on top of the sheets or under the sheets, on the mattress. Don’t just rely on sight – run your hand over the sheet/mattress to see if you feel anything crumb-like (gross, but you can wash your hands afterwards).

In a room that has recently been made-up, any dander may have been brushed away so re-check after an hour or two. If your bed seems to be getting gritty for reasons you can’t explain (you already took a shower after the beach), it’s possible bugs are on the move.

2. Check for mattress stains

bed bugs in crease of mattress

Photo by: lou_bugs_pics.

Another grim fact – bed bugs comprise mainly blood. Consequently, when they get squashed (they’re ultimately no match for a person rolling over on them), they bleed out. This results in red/brown stains that tend to be focused around the mattress seams where the bugs get trapped.

3. Give the mattress and bed a shake

As it is possible to see bed bugs, one of the most obvious ways to bring them out of their hiding place is to give the bed and mattress a shake. The bugs may not oblige, but more than once I’ve seen them scurry when confronted with the bed bug equivalent of an earthquake.

4. Tune into your inner-itch

Ok, not the most scientific method for checking for bed bug presence, but before I’d figured out the other indicators of bed bugs, I woke more than once in the night feeling itchy. I didn’t have a huge number of bites, but my inner-itch instinct told me something wasn’t right.

5. Look for bites

 This is a tough one, particularly when you’re in a tropical country with a number of pests vying for your blood including mosquitoes and fleas. All three bite types will leave you with a red welt that itches, so it can be difficult to distinguish between the bites. As well as looking for the other signs of bed bugs, generally I find that, unlike flea or mosquito bites, bed bug bites tend to feel itchy yet tender when scratched, unlike mosquito and flea bites, where relief usually come from scratching (at least at first).

Equally, bed bug bites broadly follow a line and are grouped in threes – commonly referred to as breakfast, lunch and dinner as the bugs feast on your flesh!

6. Look for blood smears

As well as mattress stains, it’s common to see marks on sheets that look like you might have dropped a red/brown marker pen on the bed. Gross warning: this is basically squashed excrement that is mainly comprised of blood. More than once I have seen this as an early indicator of bugs after I’ve sat on the bed for a while.

7. Look for the bugs themselves

bed bug on a coin for size comparison

Photo by: medilldc.

They’re pretty fast movers and are human shy (despite biting you) so won’t hang around too quickly, but bed bugs are visible. They are a dark/red colour often best described as mahogany, but I have seen then looking more translucent if they haven’t fed for a while. While size will depend on age, the ones I’ve spotted have been between a quarter to half of a little fingernail in size.

If the above checks don’t show any bed bug signs, you can probably sleep peacefully. However, if you do discover the presence of bed bugs…

What to do when you find bed bugs

1. Isolate your belongings

The most important thing to do when you find bed bugs is to isolate your belongings – you don’t want to take the problem with you. Put all clothes and items that have come into contact with the bed into a plastic bag and seal it. Equally, close up your bag sealing safe all of your non-contaminated items.

As a preventative measure, try not to place your clothes on a bed until you’re confident it is devoid of bugs.

2. Get out of the room

So, it’s a nice hotel in a good location at the price you want? So what. Get out – bed bugs can seriously hinder your fun and are rarely worth the risk. Don’t worry if you’ve already paid – most places will refund your charges if you point out the issue, and if they don’t, persist and complain.

Unfortunately, there may be times when it is the middle of the night and it is not practical to move accommodation. In that case, ask for a change of room, find a hammock if there is one or an alternative place to sleep and get out as soon as you can the next day.

3. Notify the hostel or hotel

bed bug infection sign

Photo by: grenade.

There will always be exceptions, but most hotel managers and owners are mortified at the idea of bed bugs and there is nothing more likely to kill custom than a review that utters the ‘B’ word. Sadly for hotel businesses, it is usually people who bring bugs into their establishment and unless you tell them that they have them, they won’t know to act.

Unfortunately, there are some also places that simply don’t care and in that case, feel free to go online and leave an informative review.

4. Get heat treatment

As mentioned above, heat treatment is one of the most effective ways to deal with bed bug. When you’re on the road, the easiest way to do this is to take your clothes to a launderette and subject them to an hour-long stint in the tumble drier at the hottest heat setting. If this is not an option, you can investigate chemical treatments and sprays, but these aren’t so kind on the environment or your clothes.

5. Check and spray your bag

As well as decontaminating your clothes, it’s important to inspect your bag and other belongings. Although it is not ideal, giving your bag a spritz with bug spray is likely to be your best option.

6. Pack bed bug killer

After my brother ended up spending a ridiculous and un-budgeted amount of money on high end hotels after two bed bug incidents on his recent holiday in Italy, I’ve given more thought to the idea of travelling with a portable bug spray. The bottles are large so I’d probably decant and put a copy of the label in my bag/on the bottle. I’ve not tried it but it would definitely give me some peace of mind.

What NOT to do when you have bed bugs

1. Freak out

Bed begs are unpleasant, they bite, they itch and they can get into your stuff, which is all pretty horrid stuff, but they do not kill you. Freaking out is a natural instinct but try to keep calm and you will be better able to deal with the situation rationally.

2. Take it out on the hostel/hotel owner

As I mentioned above, the presence of bed bugs is often the result of travellers bringing the critters with them, not the property, and  it is sadly one of the hazards of running such a business. Most property owners will deal with the problem quickly and effectively  when they are alerted to the problem and shouting at them will not help. Sadly, there will be times that the issue isn’t dealt with effectively, but all shouting will do in those circumstances is make you more stressed and angry. A follow-up email to the hotel or complaint or honest review online is likely to be more effective.

3. Throw everything away

rubbish bags sealed with bed bugs note

Photo by: hooliaf.

When spotted quickly and before bed bugs have had a chance to come into contact with your belongings, you may not need to do anything other than move accommodation. Even if you think there is a risk the bugs have transferred to your belongings, it is possible to treat bedbugs (see above), so don’t react by throwing everything away.

4. Stay put

The longer you stay at an infested location, the more likely you will take bed bugs with you on the rest of your trip or home. Get out as soon as you can and do not go back – there are plenty of places to stay around the world, you don’t need to tolerate bed bugs.

How to minimise your chance of bed bugs

1. Get a Bed Bug Travel Protection Kit

Bed bug protection kit what to do when you have bed bugs

I’ve just discovered they have travel protection kits on Amazon. It includes bed bug traps so you can tell if you have bugs within an hour and a protection spray. The kit includes chemicals but they’re plane safe, which helps me justify the price. If you’re paranoid (as we can easily become when we feel that inner itch), it might be a good investment.

2. Check reviews

Before you turn up at a new location, check out your intended hostel or hotel online. Reviewers on sites like Hostelworld are usually pretty frank, but otherwise searching the name of your accommodation plus bed bugs should provide you with some valuable information.

3. Eye up other guests

Itching, red and blotchy guests might be a sign that bed bugs are present. It’s possible any bites were gained in a previous place so the best way to find out is to (subtly) ask. Try not  to freak your fellow travellers out – they may not know what is causing their itch.

4. Try baby oil

I know some travellers swear by baby oil to keep bed bugs away. Rubbed onto the skin before bed time, the theory is that the oiled skin keeps the bugs from getting sufficient traction to bite. Now, I’ve not tested this myself so don’t know if it will work, but at least you will  wake up with super soft skin (just make sure you don’t stain the sheets with too much oil, especially if you’re likely to be charged).

Now, suitably itchy and disgusted, feel free to go take a shower…or share your own bed bug horror stories in the comments below.

Main photo by: voltrader.

Author - Jo Fitzsimons

Hi, I'm Jo, the writer behind Indiana Jo. In 2010 I quit my job as a lawyer and booked an around the world ticket. As a solo female traveller, I hopped from South America to Central America, across Asia, the Middle East and Europe. It was supposed to be a one-year trip but over a decade later, it's yet to end. I've lived in a cave, climbed down a volcano barefoot, spent years as a digital nomad, worked as a freelance travel writer, and eaten deadly Fugu. Now I'm home, back in the UK, but still travelling far and wide. You can find out more About Me.