In the summer of 2020, right around the time that bed bug high season usually starts, the New York Times accurately predicted that pandemic lockdowns would thwart the six-legged scourge of hotels, rental properties, and other places people lay themselves down to sleep. And, for nearly two years, the risk of a bed bug infestation has been one of the few things that hasn’t kept people up at night. Since bed bugs migrate by hitchhiking on travelers and their belongings, they simply had no way to get around while most people were grounded.
But even in the insect population’s leanest times, industry experts warned that the bugs would be back — after all, they can live a year without eating. Since it’s been a while and travel season is beginning to pick up again, here’s what you need to know to avoid bringing them home.
Bed bugs like to hang out at hotels, and on airplanes, cruise ships and public transportation, which is why infestations tend to peak during key travel seasons.
They are not class-conscious: they’re just as likely to hole up at a luxury resort as they are a budget motel. In rooms, they favor the surface, sides and seams of mattresses near the headboard, as well as behind the headboard.
On public transportation, they prefer wood or upholstery to plastic, and their favorite stomping grounds are in and around the crevices of the seat back cushions. On planes, they’re more common on red-eyes and international flights.
According to a survey of nearly 2,000 hotel guests conducted by University of Kentucky entomologists, more than two-thirds of respondents couldn’t identify a bed bug. So here’s your crash course: If you see a tiny (anywhere from poppy seed-sized to apple seed-sized), flat, teardrop-shaped wingless insect that’s either tan, brown or reddish brown, or a fecal trail of digested blood that looks like little black spots, it’s time to change rooms.
Both the bugs and their telltale trail are visible to the naked eye, so go ahead and check your hotel rooms and ship bunks, as well as any seating on transportation. If you don’t see proof of life, you can probably rest assured.
It never hurts to take precautions, particularly in hotels. Because of their twin affinities for mattresses and luggage, putting a suitcase on the bed in a hotel room is essentially an invitation to all the local bed bugs to come on back to your place with you when you leave. What the little fecal-trail-leaving critters don’t like are slippery surfaces like smooth metal and plastic, so use a chrome luggage rack instead.
For hotels, cruise ships and planes, it helps to keep your belongings in airtight bags within your luggage or even keep your luggage wrapped in a bag. You can also stow your laundry in a washable laundry bag and put the bag, still closed with the laundry in it, right in the washing machine at a high temperature as soon as you get home. Then, run a garment steamer or lint roller all over your suitcase or spray it everywhere with rubbing alcohol.
As for public transportation, most experts recommend standing rather than sitting whenever possible.
No one knows how the post-pandemic era will affect bed bug travel patterns. Both Orkin and Terminex publish lists every year of bed bug hot spots, and even those rankings aren’t the same. But knowing they’re out there, means you can at least be on the lookout and try to avoid them.