Bed bugs are no laughing matter. There are some alarming stats being thrown around about the number of infestations recorded around the UK, Europe, Asia and North America. But what exactly are bed bugs and is an infestation as bad as it sounds - especially while you’re travelling? This month we’re discussing the matter and giving you all the facts.
What Are Bed Bugs?
Bedbugs are small, reddish-brown, wingless insects that live in (you guessed it) beds, box-springs, couches, walls, suitcases and linen cupboards. They feed on blood and lay eggs quickly, meaning that epidemics aren’t uncommon once a few take up residence. Contrary to popular opinion, they’re not indigenous to dodgy hostels and cheap motels - five-star hotels and fancy resorts have been known to face infestations.
Please don’t be freaked out though - no self-respecting accommodation facility takes bed bugs lightly. If you’re unlucky enough to discover them in your room, you can probably expect a night on the house, plus a free meal and a genuine apology from the manager or hotel staff. This will increase leaps and bounds if you end up getting bitten to pieces.
Look For Signs
Don’t worry: they’re not invisible. You can see bed bugs with the naked eye, clear as the day is long. A full-sized specimen is roughly as big as an apple seed and once they’ve fed they’ll leave tiny black droppings or old skin on the sheets (they shed as they grow). That sounds gross, but better the devil you know...
Check out the premises: if you’re uneasy about the possibility of bed bugs in your room, conduct a thorough investigation. Check behind the headboard and curtains, under the sheet, between the box-spring if possible, between creases in the furniture and inside any storage space. This is a cautionary measure and not a license to turn every hotel room you come across upside down. Again, I don’t want to stir paranoia here - if you’re staying at a reputable lodge, hostel or hotel the staff probably check after every guest leaves.
The other (somewhat more problematic) sign of bed bugs is waking up in the morning with bites on your body. These will resemble the work of a juvenile mosquito on crack. The bites are smaller and tend to show up in rows, and can be painful and worrisome. It can also take up to nine days for the bite marks to appear, so moving to new accommodation doesn't guarantee that you'll make it out bite-free.
If You Do Find Bed Bugs
Stay calm. This is not a life-threatening situation, nor is it any reason to torch everything you arrived with. Getting rid of bed bugs is inconvenient and annoyingly expensive, but you’ll pull through.
Step 1: Notify management immediately. They will be the only people as upset as (if not more than) you. In today’s world of online transparency and social media fires, one customer with good connections and a complaint can mean a PR disaster for any hotel. Trust me - they’ll care, unless you’re staying at a backpacker hostel that is so unholy and foul it has worse things to worry about.
When offered a new room, ask for one that is far away from the one you found the bugs in. By putting some distance between yourself and the old room you’ll hopefully avoid another incident and give yourself a fighting chance of forgetting all about them. Especially if you still have a holiday to think about.
Step 2: Move your bags and belongings somewhere safe. The bathroom floor is a good place to start. Bed bugs don’t like tiles and water - they’re attracted to heat, which is why they live in beds and heated vents. The lobby is another good place to bring your stuff - it also builds the drama in front of staff and might sweeten the deal you’ll get for this hairy inconvenience.
Step 3: Take your clothing, bag and shoes to the Laundromat and throw it all in. Wash it twice. Maybe once more for good measure. Hop inside if the machine is big enough. If not, go swim in the sea, river or lake and then scrub yourself clean.
Bed bugs are prolific hitch-hikers - make sure that you don’t bring any home by cleaning everything you had with you. When you fly home, wrap your luggage in a plastic bag to protect others from any bugs that may have survived the soap tsunami - it’s the right thing to do.
When you get home: it’s best to call an entomologist or pest control company to do an assessment of your house and ensure that you didn’t bring any back with you - or that you weren’t the one who started the cycle. If you’re anxious to get cracking, do the basic checks listed above around your home and be sure to peek inside any holes in your walls, skirting boards and furniture.
Last Updated: August 2013
Clayton is a comfortable traveller, having grown up in a small city that was far away from everything. He spent lots of time in the car as a child, driving up and down the coast of South Africa on surfing trips with his family. After studying abroad in the United States and spending a year working in London, he moved to Cape Town, where he completed a Master's Degree in Creative Writing. He now works as a freelance writer for various travel, surfing and action sports publications.