Bedbugs, rust-colored insects the size of an apple seed, are themselves travelers, hitching rides on clothing, backpacks, and luggage. They hide in cracks, crevices, seams, and folds of material, and emerge at night to feast on human blood. They don't spread disease and their bites are painless, says Missy Henriksen, vice president of public affairs for the National Pest Management Association; their saliva contains an anesthetic, which numbs the skin. But red, itchy welts typically appear within 24 to 48 hours of being bitten. Bedbugs can survive a year without feeding, and each female produces about 350 eggs during her lifespan.
While there's no reason to panic or cancel vacation plans, travelers can take steps to protect themselves, starting with a thorough once-over of the hotel room. Flood the room with light and strip the sheets from the bed, and then scan the mattress, box spring, and bed frame for bedbug droppings—dark stains that are actually drips of digested blood. A travel-size flashlight is helpful for peering into crevices. Some travelers even remove wall-mounted headboards, Gangloff-Kaufmann says. While she doesn't take her own inspection to such an extent, she recalls several friends who have indeed spotted bedbugs hiding behind headboards. And consider bringing along drawer liner encasements, similar to large Ziploc bags, or hanging clothing in the closet rather than using hotel furniture. As a precaution, keep luggage in a plastic trash bag, but don't set it on the floor. The top of the dresser is a smarter choice, as is the bathroom floor, since bedbugs dislike linoleum and tile.
If a bedbug is spotted, report it to the front desk immediately A room change should be automatic—but not to a room above, below, or adjacent to the one that is suspect, since the pests tend to spread to the closest areas. And don't try to resolve the problem alone."This isn't a do-it-yourself pest," Henriksen says. "You can certainly squash one with your finger—and that will kill one bedbug, but it won't eliminate the problem."
And remain cautious when returning home. Even if you dodged hotel bedbugs, the pests can also fester in taxi cab trunks and airplane cargo holds, crawling among luggage. Wash and dry all clothing in hot water, and vacuum suitcases to kill any "unwanted souvenirs," Henriksen says. "Everyone has equal opportunity to have these bugs come into their lives," she says. "They're impossible to totally prevent—the problem is real, it's pervasive, and it's growing. But there's no reason to be paranoid. Be vigilant, but enjoy your travels."