After checking into a motel in Berkeley, California several years ago, my husband and I embarked on a well-rehearsed ritual. We left our two young children strapped into their strollers, pulled back the sheets, and scanned the surface of the mattress. I poked the deep seams of the pillow-top padding on the mattress and found what we feared: a multitude of brown-black stains.
The motel manager offered to move us to another room, but instead we drove to a relative’s house that evening. This experience taught me that it is worth taking two minutes to check the mattress before unpacking. A 2016 survey of 100 U.S. hotels by Orkin found that 82 percent of them had been treated for bedbugs the previous year. Bed bugs have also been found on airplanes, cruise ships, and public transportation in recent years. And according to a study published in the Journal of Medical Entomology, bedbug infestation peaks in summer and coincides with the holiday season.
But don’t let bed bugs or the fear of them ruin your summer trip. Despite the statistics, the likelihood of encountering bed bugs in a given hotel room is “damned unlikely,” said Michael Potter, professor of entomology at the University of Kentucky. Here are some simple steps you can take to make sure you don’t run into bed bugs on your trip.
Know your enemy
In a survey of more than 2,000 hotel guests, conducted by Potter and two other University of Kentucky entomologists, fewer than one in three correctly identified an adult bug.
Check out the guides published by the Environmental Protection Agency that show the size and appearance of bedbugs at different stages in their life cycle. Bugs are flat, wingless and slightly teardrop-shaped with brown, brown or reddish brown coloring. They range in size from 1 mm (nymphs) to 5–7 mm (adults) and their eggs look like tiny white grains of rice.
Bedbugs leave stains from digested blood that “resemble small black spots that look like a fine felt-tip pen,” said Dini Miller, associate professor of entomology at Virginia Tech. (These were the places I discovered at the Berkeley Motel.)
Examine the area (but don’t tear the space apart)
Whether you’ve checked into a luxury resort, modest motel, or Airbnb apartment, spend a few minutes examining the beds and surrounding area for any sign of bed bugs.
Pull back the sheets and examine the surface, sides, and seams of the mattress near the headboard. “This is usually the hottest area of the bed,” said Potter. Miller suggests running a sticky roll of lint over the areas you’re checking so you can track down any evidence.
Pack a small, strong flashlight so that you can see in crevices and behind the headboard as much as possible. (Wirecutter recommends the Mini Maglite Pro.) “We know in hotels that bed bugs like to get behind the headboard. The reason for this is that it’s the least disturbed area, ”Miller said.
Although small bed bugs and their poop stains are visible to the naked eye, if you don’t find anything after a cursory examination, you can rest easy. “I’m not going to pull the whole bed apart, turn the mattress,” said Potter. Miller agreed, “If you don’t see anything, there’s nothing there.”
Bites or skin reactions alone are not a reliable sign of bed bugs. It can sometimes take several hours for a person’s skin to react to an insect bite, so mosquito or sand fly bites from dinner might not show up until the morning, Miller said.
“You can’t look at a bite I have and a bite you have and even say they are the same because everyone’s immune response is so individual,” Miller said.
Protect your luggage
Potter says it is advisable to keep your suitcase on a hard surface, such as a dresser or luggage rack, that bed bugs are unlikely to reach. If you are only staying a night or two, avoid unpacking your clothes or scattering items around the room. Packing cubes can help you stay organized and access your clothes and belongings without taking everything out of your suitcase. (Wirecutter recommends Eagle Creek packing cubes.)
Miller suggests using a lint roller to check your suitcase for defects as well, especially after air travel. “Think about your suitcase and how many other bags it will hit on your trip,” she said.
If you find any, don’t panic
If you are in a hotel and find evidence of bed bugs, notify staff immediately and request a new room, either on a different floor or in multiple rooms. If you’re in a vacation rental or on Airbnb, you may have fewer options. An Airbnb representative said the company has a 24-hour customer service team that can help with refunds and rebooking in case a problem like bedbugs occurs.
If you think you may be exposed, there are steps you can take to prevent hitchhikers from being brought home. Jeff White, entomologist and technical director of BedBug Central, a source of information about bedbugs, suggests keeping a couple of large garbage bags in your car to store your luggage in. At home, carefully inspecting the inside and outside of your suitcase (the lint roller may help). Put your clothes and other tumble-proof items through a hot cycle in the tumble dryer that kills all insects and eggs (no washing required).
It is worth remembering that bedbugs do not pose the public health risk of some other pests. “Don’t let bed bugs surprise you,” Miller said. “The housefly that lands on your lettuce is far more dangerous than running a bedbug across your bed.”