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Bedbugged! Avoid picking up unwanted souvenirs when traveling

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Bedbugged! is a weekly column by journalist and bed bug survivor Theresa Braine. For more, click here.

Those of us who follow bed bug news noted the recent discovery of bed bugs at the Ritz-Carlton hotel on Central Park South. 

Around the same time, a friend wrote asking me about avoiding bed bugs during a road trip. He would be staying in various hotels along the route over a few days, so he was wise to seek counsel. 

“Is there some kind of online resource that you know of that lists bedbug-free hotels along certain highways?” my friend asked. “Even better, is there a bedbug-free registry for hotels throughout the country if not the world?”

I am always thrilled when people seek out commonsense advice instead of going hysterically off the deep end. However I must emphasize that there are no easy answers. 

Bed bugs, I explained, are a pest of exposure. Thus any hotel, residence, office or movie theater can have a bed bug deposited in it any time.

The problems arise when people are not on the lookout for them and an infestation has time to become full-blown. Of course, it’s difficult to discover just a couple of them, so it’s rare that even the best vigilance will find one pregnant female, say, or her eggs.

It's important to remember that bed bugs themselves are not harmful. Getting some isolated bites is not a cause for concern health-wise, except in rare circumstances. It's more about whether they come home with you.

Thus your primary goal is to guard your luggage and your clothes. I let my friend know about the Bed Bug Registry that lists hotels whose guests have sighted or been bitten by bed bugs, but had to break it to him that compiling a list of unaffected hotels would be like listing people who don't have the flu. 

Hotels do not have control over their bed bug exposure. They only have control over their business practices and inspection protocols. So good management of those two things is what you're looking for when studying bed bug reports.

Also, the reporting is voluntary, so an omission from the list doesn't necessarily mean that bed bugs are not present.

Likewise, a hotel with a report on the registry is not necessarily one you should steer clear of. What you're looking for is a description of the manager's response. If management takes the person's concern seriously, gives them a new room, takes precautions (such as heat-treating and/or washing the guest's clothes at the hotel's expense), then that is a good sign.

If the manager pooh-poohs the guest's allegations without sending anyone to investigate, and brushes off the person's concerns, it's a sign that the hotel is simply not vigilant and not to be trusted.

If the management were proactive, you could ask them what their policy is, how they approach this issue. Any hotel worth its salt will have a plan. And there is plenty that one can do to guard against taking bed bugs home.

• The first line of defense is to NEVER put your luggage on the bed. It's so common, and tempting, to come into the room and swing your suitcase onto the second bed, if there is one, and open it up for easy access to your stuff. 

The farther from the bed your stuff is, the better. In fact, I told my friend, I tend to keep mine in the bathroom, especially for short stays. 

• It's a good idea to inspect your hotel room when you get there, looking for little black dots (feces), cast skins and, of course, bugs themselves.

Ideally one would flip the mattress and inspect thoroughly behind the headboard (and truly thorough would be to radiate out from there to nightstand, etc.). 

This level of scrutiny might not be feasible, however. I had a king-size mattress in Montreal this past summer, and there was no way I was going to flip it. But a once-over of the underside, and the bed skirt and around the perimeters inside the mattress cover should show you anything egregious. 

And if you can, flip the mattress to check for poop stains underneath and on the box spring. Looking underneath, moving the thing over a foot or two without flipping, would be better than nothing.

• In a column I wrote awhile back on the ins and outs of traveling in the bed bug era, I linked to some inspection videos and tips. Since then I’ve taken a few trips and realized that the degree of inspection that would be necessary to rip apart a room isn’t always possible, especially when one is tired after a day of traveling. But the videos give a good idea of what to look for and where the bugs are most likely to hide. 

• It's not a bad idea to put your things, especially any clothes that you wore in and/or around the bed, into a hot dryer before moving on, if possible.

• When I was being uber-careful I would put my luggage in big plastic ziplocks in the bathroom, but if you've got more than a duffel, that may not be an option. 

• If you see a bug in or near the bed, or wake up with bites, don't assume it's bed bugs. The hairs on carpet beetle larvae can leave bite-like allergic reactions. Those bugs look like mini fuzzy caterpillars. I've been startled many a time by them myself. 

If you do realize you've been exposed to bed bugs despite your best efforts, do not necessarily feel bamboozled. It can happen to the best of us, as witness the travails of bed bug slayer extraordinaire John Furman, who got nipped in a hotel room at Walt Disney World a couple of months ago and lived to tell about it. Furman's tale is revealed episodically in a string of comments posted under the handle KillerQueen—scroll all the way through the thread to find them. (I promise you will find it well worth the trip.)

I link to his account on Bedbugger.com with his permission by way of illustrating how to handle it when you do find them, and what can happen when even the best of us let our guard down. 

Walt Disney World's reaction to his find is also instructive on two fronts: On the one hand, they did right by him and could serve as a shining example of how hotels can help guests deal with a problem. On the other, they were great at reacting but could have avoided the incident in the first place if they had had better safeguards in place. Who knows how many people less bed bug savvy than Furman (which is pretty much all of us laypeople) brought them home unwittingly. 

Hopefully my friend will have better luck than Furman did. I eagerly await his report. 


Theresa Braine is a NYC-based journalist and bed bug survivor whose work has appeared in the NY Daily News, People, Newsday and other outlets. Bedbugged! is her bi-weekly column about life in the trenches and climbing out with your sanity intact.

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