In Travel

How to Prevent Bed Bugs While Traveling: The Ultimate Guide

On a late October night in Toronto, Canada, I rolled my suitcase into my Airbnb for the week and wanted nothing more than to climb into bed. But, I’d had this fear of bed bugs ever since my friend found some in her apartment in Peru.

“Maybe I should check the room for bed bugs first,” I thought. 

I lifted the sheets and did a cursory glance. I opened the nightstand drawers.

“Let’s just go to bed,” I told myself. “We can do a more thorough check in the morning, and besides, it’s way more likely that there are NO bed bugs here.”

But something told me to keep checking, just in case. Probably just that old anxiety, I assured myself, but nonetheless, I kept checking.

And lo and behold—I found bed bugs. Not one, not two, but THREE dead alongside their eggs on the floor beside the foot of the bed.

After my first bed bug scare, I bought this to heat all my luggage after every trip.

I tell this story not to scare you, but to show just how easily I might have NOT found the bed bugs until it was too late. It was BECAUSE I knew how to protect myself from bed bugs while traveling that I did NOT bring them home that trip.

I’d say is biggest non-fatal travel fear is bed bugs. I have a lot of fears, most of which never come to fruition, and for a long time bed bugs was one of them.

Bed bugs are SO common that if you travel a lot, you are BOUND to run into them. In fact, I’ll bet if you’re a frequent traveler, you probably have slept in a place with bed bugs but just didn’t realize it.

Though I’ve been traveling extensively since 2014, I didn’t start inspecting rooms for bed bugs until 2017.

What I’ve written below is the most detailed guide on how to prevent bed bugs while traveling. I’ve done an extensive amount of research on bed bugs (like, more than a normal person would do…) and here’s what I’ve learned:

How to Prevent Bed Bugs While Traveling: Pin

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Bed Bug FAQs

What are bed bugs?

Bed bugs are flat, wingless, parasitic insects that hide during the day and come out at night to feed on the blood of sleeping humans. They are brown in color and about the size of an apple seed or the size of a tick. Their eggs are tiny and slightly transparent. They look like tiny grains of white rice.

how to prevent bed bugs while traveling - bed bug on back next to bed bug egg

This is a photo of a bed bug lying on its back next to a bed bug egg. I took this photo in October 2017 in my Airbnb in Toronto.

How common are bed bugs?

Extremely common. While bed bugs were practically eradicated from the U.S. around WWII, they have been on the rise rapidly in this country in the past several years. They are most commonly found in cities because of the large amount of people and travelers.

Where can I “catch” bed bugs?

You can get bed bugs from any place that’s infested with them, such as hotels, Airbnbs, other people’s homes, used furniture and mattresses, or even used books.

Can bed bugs transmit diseases?

Some good news: no! Though bed bugs are gross and can cost you a TON of money, they do NOT, as far as we know, transmit diseases to humans through their bites. (Here’s some scientific literature backing up my claim.)

Okay, but there is some new research, as of January 2018, that suggests bed bugs can harbor Chagas disease, and some earlier research showed they could transmit the disease to MICE via bites, but we don’t have proof they can transmit it to humans.

Bottomline: Don’t get in a tizzy over diseases from bed bugs. We simply don’t have enough evidence to say it’s true.

Can bed bugs fly or jump?

No. One important piece of learning how to prevent bed bugs while traveling is understanding how they get around. They CANNOT fly or jump! That’s why these climb-ups work so well at capturing bed bugs.

What do bed bug bites look like?

You may have heard that famous adage that bed bug bites come in threes, that they’re in the shape of a triangle, or that they are three in a row. This is commonly referred to as “breakfast, lunch, dinner” bites.

BUT, here’s the crazy thing: That’s not necessarily true!

Bed bug bites can look pretty much like anything, sadly. They might be like mosquito bites, they might swell up like an allergic reaction, or—and this is wild—they may not show up on your skin AT ALL. That’s how some people never realize they have an infestation.

Also, it’s important to note that bed bugs don’t necessarily feed every night. They might go days or weeks without biting anyone. In fact, and this is super creepy, bed bugs can live for up to a year or so without food! This point is hotly debated by scientists though: https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/top-10-myths-about-bed-bugs/

What happens if I find evidence of bed bugs?

Immediately alert the hotel or your host. DO NOT stay in that room or house. Bed bugs can hitch a ride on your belongings. If you’re at a hotel, they should move you to a room on a different FLOOR of the hotel.

If you’ve found bed bugs in your own home (I’m so sorry!), then you need to hire a professional exterminator ASAP.

How do bed bug infestations spread?

Typically, bed bugs spread by crawling into the luggage of travelers and hitching a ride to the next destination. They also might lay their eggs inside a luggage and spread that way.

It’s VERY rare that a bed bug will actually hitch a ride ON a person or on a person’s clothes.

In some cases, bed bugs may spread through library books, secondhand clothing, or used furniture. This is why I would never buy a used mattress or box spring from someone.

How do I know if I have bed bugs?

Unless you find an actual bed bug, don’t just assume you have them. There are some tell-tale signs, though, that indicate you should start trying to locate potential the bed bug infestation in your home, hotel, or rental:

  • Inexplicable bug bites on your body
  • Dried blood stains in your bedsheets
  • Dark, pepper-like spots on your bedsheets or mattress
  • The shedded skins of a bed bug
  • Bed bug eggs, which are whitish-clear and look like tiny grains of rice

A very popular service is bed-bug-sniffing dogs. These dogs are trained to sniff out bed bugs and can find them more easily then an exterminator can.

How can I get rid of bed bugs?

While there are certain chemicals that can be used to kill bed bugs, the number one most effective way to kill bed bugs is to use high heat treatment.

How much does it cost to exterminate bed bugs?

HomeAdvisor says you could pay anywhere from $300 to $5,000 to get rid of bed bugs, depending on the level of infestation and the size of your house.

What kills bed bugs?

GREAT question! Okay, so here’s the thing: Back in the day, they used to kill bed bugs with insecticides such as DEET, but the darn bugs became RESISTANT to insecticides! Though some pest control companies till offer to spray insecticide, DO NOT DO THAT. IT IS NOT EFFECTIVE. Neither are those bed bug sprays you find at the store effective.

As of March 2017, Penn State researchers had high hopes for a new biopesticide, a sort of fungal spore that infected bed bugs at a rate of 100% and killed them in the laboratory. We’ll see if this goes to market.

Freezing might kill bed bugs too, but it’s not as effective as heat.

The number one bed bug killer is HIGH HEAT. Heat treatment is safe for YOU because it doesn’t leave harmful chemicals behind. Get the heat treatment.

Here is an excerpt from research by Dr. Dini M. Miller, Department of Entomology at Virginia Tech:

Bed bugs exposed to 113°F will die if they receive constant exposure to that temperature for 90 minutes or more. However, they will die within 20 minutes if exposed to 118°F. Interestingly, bed bug eggs must be exposed to 118°F for 90 minutes to reach 100% mortality. Note that whole room heat treatments (see below) are based on a thermal death point of 113°F, yet these treatments have been very successful. This is due to the use of powerful fans to create convection currents within the heated room. These currents heat the bed bugs very rapidly, thus increasing their mortality.”

BUT, the latest research indicates that the temperatures may need to be even higher. Here’s a study by Stephen A. Kells of the University of Minnesota Department of Entomology:

“Based on these results, eggs are more heat resistant than adults, and minimum exposure times for a whole-room heat treatment should be 48 °C for 71.5 min or cessation once ≥50 °C is achieved in all sites where bed bugs may hide.”

So, basically, you NEED to heat all infested items at AT LEAST 118 degrees Fahrenheit for AT LEAST 71.5 minutes. 

 

How can I prevent bed bugs while traveling?

  • The number one thing you can do is to thoroughly check your room for bed bugs before settling in for the night. Catching them early is key.
  • Another thing you can do is place your belongings inside sealed plastic bags during the duration of your stay. I use these bags to protect my luggage from bed bugs crawling inside.
  • Lastly, when you return home, you can place your luggage inside this bed bug heater to exterminate any bed bugs that may have hitched a ride on your luggage.

How can I prevent bringing bed bugs home with me?

After my bed bug incident, I always throw my luggage inside a bed bug heater BEFORE bringing the luggage into the house. Call me crazy, but I love the peace of mind (plus, they WORK).

How to Check Your Hotel Room for Bed Bugs

Okay, bear with me because this is pretty detailed:

IMPORTANT NOTE: Besides the actual bed bug itself, it’s important to check for SIGNS of bed bugs, such as

  • Black, pepper-like spots on the mattress or box spring (this is their fecal matter)
  • Dried blood stains on the mattress
  • Casings or shells. Bed bugs shed their skin as they grow, leaving behind their in-tact shells
  • Bed bug eggs, which look like tiny grains of rice

Step 1: When you get inside the hotel room, IMMEDIATELY place your luggage inside the bathtub.

Bed bugs have difficulty climbing smooth surfaces. Plus, they’re unlikely to live in the bathroom, as they tend to be within 5 feet of the bed, where they feed on the people who sleep there. DO NOT put your luggage on the bed!

Step 2: Go to the bed and remove ALL the covers. 

Yes, all the covers. Next, lift up the mattress and look underneath. Bed bugs might be in the box spring. Also, run your fingers along the edges of the mattress, making sure to lift the little lip up and check if the bed bugs are living underneath the folds of the mattress seam.

Step 3: Check behind the headboard.

Step 4: Check along the floor around the bed.

Step 5: Open up the drawers of the nightstand.

Bed bugs LOVE wood, so they often live or lay eggs in the nightstand drawers. The drawer of the nightstand is actually where I found my first sign of a bed bug infestation: there was a tiny bed bug skin molt inside one of the drawers.

Step 6: Look behind anything hanging on the wall.

Bed bugs might be hanging out behind picture frames.

How to Prevent Bed Bugs While Traveling

  • Thoroughly inspect your hotel room before settling in, as we talked about above.
  • Keep your luggage inside the bathtub for the duration of your stay.
  • Okay, that’s a hassle. Instead, keep your luggage inside sealed plastic bags during your stay. Easy peasy!
  • When you return home from your travels, throw your luggage into this heater BEFORE bringing it back inside your house.
  • Alternatively, carefully inspect your luggage before bringing it inside your house and throw all your clothes into the washing machine on HOT water and dry it on HIGH heat.

If you want to prevent bed bugs from coming home with you, I highly recommend getting a bed bug heater! After my first bed bug scare, I bought this to heat all my luggage after every trip: the ThermalStrike Bed Bug Heater. But sadly, ThermalStrike has stopped manufacturing their bed bug heater. :(

Some good news, though! Thankfully, ZappBug makes this excellent bed bug heater—and it gets rave reviews!

The reason I strongly suggest a bed bug heater is that, yes, you can place your luggage inside zip-up bags while you’re at your hotel, BUT, bed bugs can also hitch a ride on your luggage while it’s on the airplane. And you can’t really place your backpack in a ziplock bag before stowing it in the overhead bin (I mean, you could try, but it would look super weird).

So the only way to really ensure you’re bed bug free is to invest in a heater.

Alternatively, you COULD wash all your clothes in hot water when you return home, carefully inspect all other items and your suitcase, and then get a steamer to steam clean your luggage. Some of the Amazon reviews are from people who successfully used that steamer to kill bed bugs.

Your Shopping List to Prevent Bed Bugs

  • Extra large, sealable plastic bags to protect your luggage while traveling. It depends on how large your luggage is, of course. I travel with this backpack and it fits perfectly inside with plenty of room to spare!
  • Zippered vinyl mattress encasement to “seal in” any potential bed bugs in the mattress. I bought this one.
  • Bed bug climbups to capture any bed bugs that are either trying to climb up your bed legs or down them. This is really only for if you suspect you have bed bugs in your home. I guess you could travel with them if you want to check your hotel or Airbnb for them, but I haven’t started doing that (yet. Haha.).
  • Bed bug heaterto make sure your luggage is bed-bug-free BEFORE you bring it back in the house after traveling.
  • Bed bug heating luggage if you want an all-in-one solution.

Don’t Stop Traveling! Just Know How to Prevent Bed Bugs From Traveling With You!

Again, I do NOT want this post to scare you off from ever traveling again. While bed bugs are creepy and EXPENSIVE to get rid of, they don’t kill you and, as far as we know, they don’t transmit any diseases.

The easiest thing is prevention. Knowing how to prevent bed bugs while you’re traveling is KEY to preventing an infestation (and a huge extermination bill).

Now, you’re armed and ready. Get out there and see the world!

Read next: My 9 Worst Travel Moments of 2017

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