This FAQ gives tips on how to avoid bed bugs when you travel and how to search a hotel room for bed bugs and their signs. (The same techniques work for searching other rooms too.)
First, learn specific steps for checking a room for bed bugs. Check every room you sleep in.
This FAQ on searching a hotel room (from New York State Integrated Pest Management’s bed bug FAQs) is brief and excellent. NYSIPM also provides a printable Travel Card on this topic (click for a PDF) which you can carry with you.
Here’s a video of David Cain (of Bed Bugs Ltd. in London) very carefully searching a hotel room:
To check a room, you have to know what you’re looking for. See our photos of bed bugs signs of bed bugs, and photos of fecal stains on a hotel headboard and hotel mattress for examples.
Before you search the room, put your luggage in the bathtub or shower (assuming it’s dry) as the bathroom is less likely to be infested than other parts of the room. Check the mattress, headboard, frame and pictures (as much as possible), following these instructions. Check the backs and undersides of chairs and under/inside the desk. Carefully check to see the luggage rack is free of pests (look at it from top to bottom, and under the straps), then you can keep your luggage on the luggage rack (avoiding the bed or floor).
Many of us search the room with much less detail than David does in the video above. It may not be possible or feasible for you to take apart a hotel room in this manner. You may, for example, choose not to disassemble the entire bed, or remove the headboard. However, by doing a 5-10 minute search of the furniture (bed, table and chairs), baseboards, etc., you should be able to reassure yourself that there are no obvious visible signs of bed bugs. You should always still assume there may still be bed bugs present which you did not see, and take steps accordingly.
For more helpful tips, read this comprehensive article by entomologists Steven Kells and Jeff Hahn of the University of Minnesota, which describes the steps you should take if you’ve been exposed to bedbugs (but is also helpful on how to search for and avoid them in the first place).
Before you book a room, Google your hotel’s name and “bedbugs” and “bed bugs”; if you haven’t chosen one yet, look them up on tripadvisor.com. There, customers review hotels. If they had bad service, a small, outdated room, or (gasp!) bedbugs, you’ll hear about it. If you see one nasty report, of course, take it with a grain of salt. But multiple bad reviews, or reviews which repeat a particular critique, can be bad news. I have used tripadvisor many times and find the reviews useful not just to reassure me there are no bed bug reports at a hotel, but also to find good, moderately priced hotels, and a real insight into what rooms and service and location are like. Their highest ranked hotels are not always expensive and I have been very pleased when I have chosen them.
Canadian, US and UK hotels may also have complaints listed on bedbugregistry.com, but keep in mind, as with Tripadvisor.com, not everyone reports bed bugs (or even notices them).
Some sufferers suggest purchasing a bottle of a contact kill spray and using it in your hotel (spray mattress, etc.) I personally would not do this; a contact kill spray will kill bed bugs you can see–if they’re sprayed directly. But it does nothing for bedbugs that are hiding, as they tend to do.
If you can see bed bugs, you should not be in the room! Leave! Insist on a bed bug free room, and take precautions when you get home to make sure you did not bring any hitchhikers home.
Remember: the idea behind searching a hotel room is not that you will necessarily see bed bugs if present. If there is a small infestation, you may not see them. You may still be bitten. However, your chances of having a bad hotel experience (read: lots of bed bug bites in the room) or of taking bed bugs home with you will be smaller if there are few bed bugs present. For this reason, it’s worth taking time to search.
Because you can never be 100% sure you were not exposed, consider taking some steps below to lessen your chance of infesting your home if you do happen to pick up a few hitchhikers.
A Packtite can be used once you get home to heat treat your luggage and many items you take with you on a trip. Read about Packtites and Packtite Closets. It is an investment, but can help you avoid an infestation if you heat items which may have been exposed to bed bugs. And if you ever get bed bugs, as we hope you won’t, it is a useful tool during treatment. The Packtite should not be used on electronics or other heat-sensitive items.
Luggage can go in the Packtite, and so can your belongings. The manufacturer recommends unpacking the luggage and treating it separately from the other items. (Keep items sealed in an airtight bag until they’re treated.)
While in the hotel room, you may want to seal smaller items in Ziploc Big Bags (Large, XL, XXL) inside the suitcase; in the hotel, keep the Ziplocs sealed.
Another option is to seal your entire suitcase, garment bag or other luggage item in a Ziplocs or in a BugZip luggage encasement while you’re in the hotel. BugZip encasements are specially-designed for the purpose of sealing in luggage during your hotel stay. There are also drawer liners which you can use if you want to pack items into a hotel or cruiseship drawer.
On BedBugBeware.com, David Cain recommends using a BugZip and treating items in a Packtite when you get home. I use a Packtite Closet when coming home to treat the empty luggage and then the clothing, and other contents which can be heated.
If you don’t have access to a Packtite, consider washing your clothing and drying on hot before returning it to your home. For luggage, consider a cheap duffel bag or other soft luggage which might be run through a dryer. Alternatively, bags can be kept sealed in a plastic case while in the room, in a BugZip, XL Ziploc or even a garbage bag closed in an airtight seal. Non-dryable items should be carefully inspected.
When you get home, visually inspect your suitcase and contents. Do not unpack your suitcase on the bed. Choose a light colored table or even the tub, so you can see what you’ve got. Do it quickly, in case there are any bed bugs inside. Remove all clothes into XL ziplocs and seal them until they can be put through a Packtite or washed and dried on hot or dry cleaned. You should do this when you come home from a trip whether you’ve encountered bed bugs or not.
If you haven’t seen signs of bugs, you can unpack directly into a washing machine (wash and dry on hot; dry items can simply be dried on hot for 20 minutes or so unless you are dealing with extremely thick items). Deal with the case, too: you may not see young bed bugs hiding in seams.
Most of all, don’t stay home. The world is a beautiful place. You can get bedbugs without leaving your home if someone else’s home is attached. So get out there and enjoy the world. But be careful out there.
See these FAQs for more tips on How to get rid of bed bugs in your stuff, what to do if you are exposed to bed bugs, and how to kill bed bugs using washers and dryers. You can also see this discussion on Metafilter.
If you have tips for avoiding bedbugs while traveling, or a story you want to share, please fill out the contact form!
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Last updated 11/2012.