Bedbugged! Hotel nights and the travails of travel

By Theresa Braine  | July 21, 2011 - 11:06AM

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

Back when I had just gotten rid of infestation number two, I had to travel to Philadelphia on business. I stayed in a hotel just outside the city and duly undertook my bed bug protocol, checking under the mattress and around the bed for signs of bugs such as fecal stains, cast skins or the bugs themselves.

Inspecting around the headboard, I found a tiny, sharpie-like dot on the wall that smeared when I wet my finger and swept it across. I didn’t find any other evidence, and that dot alone was not an indicator of bed bugs. It could have been any speck of smearable dirt.

My luggage was in the bathroom in a giant ziplock, so I was not worried about picking anything up. Nevertheless I called the hotel desk and asked whether the room had ever been treated for bed bugs.

“No,” the receptionist said after a pause. “But we will get you a new room.”

I packed up and moved, finding nothing at all suspect in the new room. I fell asleep and proceeded to dream that my bed was covered with bugs and that I was sitting there surveying the quilt, trying to figure out if they were bed bugs. One of them suddenly grew quite large and then turned green, with a flat back, though still with telltale ridges.

I was relieved to wake up and realize the bugs were not real.

There are ways to guard against picking up bed bugs when you travel. The professionals advise inspecting your hotel room and then being careful about where you put your luggage (i.e. NEVER on the bed!).

Youtube has some inspection videos, such as this one from entomologist and pest-control guy Jeffrey White (though his advice of putting luggage on the hotel floor rather than in the bathtub doesn't make sense to me). This FAQ at Cornell University’s Integrated Pest Management Program website gives a good primer on how to avoid bed bugs when traveling. A much fuller description, with links to Cornell and other resources, is at David Cain of Bed Bugs Limited has a good travel tips section, complete with video of him inspecting a Chicago hotel room.

To inspect thoroughly, leave your luggage in the (hopefully dry) shower/bath, since bed bugs are less likely to lurk there. A small flashlight is a must, Cornell advises, suggesting gloves as well. I'm not sure why gloves are recommended, but all the inspection videos suggest them.

Start with the headboard (though Cain did mattress and boxspring first), which Cornell says should be lifted up a couple of inches and leaned forward. This isn’t as easy as it sounds, since the headboards can be heavy and unwieldy. I did that with a headboard one time and had a heck of a time getting it back into place.

Cornell says that you should be able to enlist hotel staff in an inspection, but I have never heard of that being done. Either way, what you’re doing is checking the piping of the mattress and box spring, then looking in and around the bedside table and drawer.

Cornell also says to check the sheets for blood spots before you go to sleep, but that makes no sense to me given that the sheets would be fresh if you were only just checking in. But the bedding that does not get changed, such as the mattress cover, is a definite must. 

“If all these places are clear, enjoy the night,” Cornell says. “The next morning, look for blood spots on the sheets.”

Other professionals go further, suggesting an inspection of the curtains, since bed bugs have been known to harbor in them. [Note: If your place has bed bugs and you are traveling, this FAQ on has a lot of great advice on how to avoid spreading them.]

Don’t freak out if you find bed-bug evidence. Keep in mind that any hotel can have them. Even a hotel that is vigilant all the time, such as this one in San Francisco, can be clean one minute and have a pregnant bed bug deposited there the next.

All you need is for her to lay a couple of opposite-sex eggs on your suitcase—almost undetectable, even by pros—and you’ve got an infestation. Alternatively, the evidence could be from a prior infestation.

I recently advised a friend who was attending a conference. She called me because there had been bed-bug reports at the hotel in which participants were staying, and when she'd asked about their bed bug protocol, all she'd gotten was a frosty, “We don’t have a problem with that here.”

The response seemed strange, since the hotel is in the heart of New York City. I suggested my friend keep her bags sealed in giant ziplocks in the bathroom and instructed her to leave her pajamas on the bed and not walk in them to the bathroom, to keep from transferring any potential bugs to other parts of the hotel room. It's also a good idea to seal them in a plastic bag upon leaving, and throwing them into a hot dryer for at least half an hour before taking them out at home. Ideally you would do this with all your gear.

Next time we talked she told me she had broadcast that information to conference participants. “I sent it out over the listserv,” she reported. “Everybody brought giant ziplocks and kept their luggage in them in the bathroom.”

In the end, what you’re looking for is the way the hotel manages the problem and responds to complaints or queries about bed bugs.

The first hotel went well beyond the call of duty, to my mind. In fact, I protested leaving the first room, because I didn’t think it had bed bugs. The front desk insisted.The second hotel, by professing no knowledge of bed bugs, is the one more likely to have a problem and not be dealing with it.

Granted, there is so much ignorance out there that many people would be scared off by the mere mention of a bed bug, so hotels are afraid of being open about it. Still, hotel management should inform employees and anticipate problems as best it can.

Of course, if you see live bed bugs, tell management, get a new room whose wall does not adjoin the afflicted space, and try to get the hotel to steam-clean your luggage. (Good luck with that.)

Next week: Don't try this at home: extreme examples of DIY and other treatment gone awry


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 weekly column about life in the trenches and climbing out with your sanity intact. 



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