Attention Travelers: Is the Bedbug Threat Real?

The pests are on the rise, experts say, but there are ways to protect yourself while traveling.

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Feel like snuggling up to a bedbug or two? Sightings are on the rise nationwide at homes, schools, and—holiday travelers take note—hotels and motels. Philadelphia, Detroit, Cincinnati, and Chicago are among the worst-hit cities, according to Terminix, the pest-control company. And entomologists say the number of bedbugs continues to increase each year worldwide, likely because of the longtime ban on DDT in many countries, resistance to current pesticides, and growth of international travel.

But are the tiny bloodsuckers as big a threat as media coverage suggests? The answer seems to be yes—and no. Jody Gangloff-Kaufmann, an entomologist with the New York State Integrated Pest Management Program at Cornell University, has yet to spot a bedbug in a hotel room, but on two occasions entomologists she was traveling with encountered infestations. The risk "is very real," she says. "Everyone who travels needs to be aware and vigilant, because self-protection is important."

Early this month a Michigan woman sued the swanky Waldorf-Astoria in New York for financial and emotional distress, claiming a bedbug attack during a May visit. According to her attorney, she suffered more than 100 bites and the bugs followed her to her Midwest home; the family had to move out for six weeks and paid $4,500 in extermination bills and thousands more for other cleaning costs. In a press statement, the hotel asserted that her room had been checked and pronounced bedbug-free.

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The uncertainty concerning the scope of the problem, however, is due to the absence of a central agency that tracks and verifies hotel bedbug reports. The story is told largely through anecdotes. But in a July survey of nearly 1,000 pest-management services, 70 percent said they had identified and exterminated bedbugs in a hotel during the previous year. The bedbug-hotel issue has even caught the attention of lawmakers. Last week, Reps. G.K. Butterfield of North Carolina and Don Young of Alaska hosted a forum in Washington, D.C. to tout a bill they've dubbed the "Don't Let the Bedbugs Bite Act," which would provide government funding for hotel inspections and contribute to research toward prevention and control. When the bill was introduced to Congress in 2009, members were told that in a study of 200 hotel rooms between 2002 and 2006, 25 percent were infested with the pests.

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The "gross factor" is high, and travelers are clearly uneasy. Twenty percent of 3,000 travelers surveyed by the website TripAdvisor ranked bedbugs as their top traveling concern. The site, which permits travelers to post reviews, also reported an 11 percent jump in comments referencing bedbugs between January and August of 2009, compared to that same period in 2010. A just-launched iPhone application called Bed Bug Alert ($1.99) allows folks to track bedbug reports within a one-block radius of any U.S. location. And the Bedbug Registry, launched in 2006 as a free public database for disgruntled travelers to anonymously grumble or investigate the vermin at prospective hotels, has seen a rise in bedbug reports. At the beginning of the year, the site saw 3,000 visitors and 20 new reports of bedbug sightings a day; that's since spiked to 40,000 visitors and 100 new reports daily.

Such anonymous posts can have considerable impact, despite being unverified and possibly false, says Daniel Mount, a professor with Pennsylvania State University's School of Hospitality Management. He recalls one hotel that lost out on a 200-room group reservation, canceled because a patron was suspicious of an online review citing bedbugs. "This kind of posting can be tremendously expensive," Mount says.

Perhaps contrary to intuition, luxury hotels aren't exempt from the bedbug threat. Reports of sightings spring forth at four-star hotels just as they do at budget motels. "These are socially transmitted pests" whose presence is unrelated to poor hygiene, Gangloff-Kaufmann says. "People are bringing in a bedbug here and there every day. Hotels are particularly vulnerable because there's so much turnover, and there's no way to screen people or prevent the bugs from coming in."