Bed bugs, business travel, and being reasonable
August 9, 2015 5:37 PM   Subscribe

I encountered bed bugs for the first time and it majorly freaked me out. I travel regularly for work and am curious how other frequent travelers deal with this issue without succumbing to constant anxiety.

Earlier this summer I was bitten by bed bugs in a hostel while on vacation. While I managed not to bring any home with me, I have been dealing with some pretty severe anxiety and obsessive thinking about the whole thing (very unusual for me, and very upsetting). I have never taken ANY precautions while traveling before because I somehow made it to 2015 without hearing a single thing about the collective bed bug freakout that's been happening for the past decade (to be fair, I do not live in a big city), but now I've read too many horror stories online and I've become convinced I'm going to get them somehow and it's going to be the worst thing ever. I'm working on the psychological aspects of this, but I was hoping to get some wisdom on the practical side of things, particularly from frequent travelers.

The thing is, I travel regularly for work, usually a couple multi-day trips per month. This is a real highlight of the job for me, and I would like to continue to enjoy it without feeling like there's this constant danger hanging over me. I have been poring over all the bed bug-related travel tips online, but my anxiety about this is at such a high level right now that I'm having trouble sorting "reasonable precautions" from "basically just magical thinking rituals." Also, much of the advice out there seems targeted more towards paranoid families going on their one trip of the year rather than people who travel all the time.

Simple things like not putting your luggage on the bed and checking around the mattress and headboard for any suspicious spots seem very sensible and require minimal effort. I am also perfectly happy to do my laundry right away when I get home, since I have a washer/dryer in my apartment and it's feasible for me to do that. I will probably start traveling with some of those giant Ziploc bags, since that seems like a pretty good way of dealing with dirty clothes regardless of bed bug issues.

On the other hand, I'm not really willing to start lugging duffle bags all over the country just because they can be treated in the dryer, and I'm not about to spend $300 on a specialty luggage-heating box. I've also seen a lot of advice that seems totally arduous, like keeping all of your electronics and shoes and handbags encased in plastic at all times in your hotel room or storing your luggage in the bathroom or whatever. I'm usually at a hotel for four or five nights at a time and that kind of thing would get old fast. Plus, I like hotels, and I don't want to set myself up to feel like my hotel room is a hostile and dangerous place just because there's a small chance of encountering bugs.

So, business-type people and other regular travelers: how do you personally deal with the threat of bed bugs? How do I sort the reasonable precautions from the paranoia when my jerk brain is screaming at me to douse myself in rubbing alcohol and never stop panicking? Also, am I the only person in the universe who missed the memo on this whole thing, or is the danger perhaps a little overblown?
posted by catoclock to Travel & Transportation (20 answers total) 18 users marked this as a favorite
I travel a lot for work and stick with hotels that aren't on the bedbug registry. I always check the bed as soon as I arrive. I haven't encountered any bugs yet but if I did I would probably go straight to the front desk and ask for an alternative. I usually stay at chains (Westin) so I suppose worst case they could move me to a different hotel in the family.
posted by joan_holloway at 5:40 PM on August 9, 2015 [1 favorite]

The aforementioned Bedbug Registry, which I didn't even know existed until a couple of weeks ago.
posted by wintersweet at 5:47 PM on August 9, 2015 [5 favorites]

My wife travels regularly for work - she got bitten by bedbugs while staying at a lower cost hotel. She was a bit shookup, and we immediately laundered everything at high and wrapped her luggage in a garbage bag and let it sit out in the sun. No problems occurred since and we found no evidence of bedbugs being brought home.

While the incident shook her up, her solution was simple. After getting bit, she immediately asked to switch rooms. They switched her and she was fine thereafter. She now no longer stays at that lower cost hotel chain and in her next trip out to the area she switched to a more reputable nationwide brand. She does not take additional precautions past checking the bed and headboard for potential signs.

While the danger for bedbugs is there, I think it's overblown. I don't think it's as a big of a deal as the internet and media wants to make it. It's like researching health symptoms on the internet - obsess long enough and you'll convince yourself your pimple means you've got cancer. If you are the anxious type, make peace with it and stop reading about it on the internet.
posted by Karaage at 5:47 PM on August 9, 2015

when you get to your room, leave your bag outside the room and take the sheets off the corners of the bed and look for bed bug evidence. you can google what that would look like. if you find some leave the hotel! :)

Any hotel can get them but you might have more recourse if you stay in chains.
posted by jennybento at 5:48 PM on August 9, 2015

I'm only a moderately frequent traveler, but I am a self-trained expert at obsessive thinking! And I've encountered bed bugs personally in a hotel room, so I take them seriously.

My travel system is:
- enter
- put luggage in bathroom or entryway
- pull back sheets, check mattress (including bottom and particularly around the edge piping) and around headboard before doing anything
- if clear, then I'll deem the room okay and put my luggage and laptop on top of the desk or anywhere non-fabric away from the bed
- put dirty clothes in zip locks
- upon returning, dry dirty clothes in dryer for approx 40 minutes before washing them (that's because I wouldn't dry them at that heat while they were wet, for fear they'd shrink. This might be bad for laundry, but so far it's worked okay for me.) I always feel like I "should" heat treat everything I brought, including the clean clothes, but I usually can't bring myself to do that and rationalize that I'd have noticed a bug bite by now if there were bugs there (nevermind the possibility that I'd be immune).

Also, at home, I have a bed bug proof mattress cover, so in case of the worst, I won't have to buy a new mattress.
posted by salvia at 5:52 PM on August 9, 2015 [3 favorites]

I recently encountered bed bugs while traveling for work and staying at a "nice" hotel. They moved me to another floor, and toasted all of my clothes and suitcase in the hot box. When I got back my suitcase I gave them the clothes I was wearing, and they toasted those. They also brought in a bed-bug-sniffing dog to the new room, who supposedly found no bugs. In the new room, I kept all of my possessions on top of wooden surfaces. Later I did learn that my hotel was on the bedbug registry.

So -- I guess -- the worst thing happened to me, in that I did encounter bed bugs while I was traveling for work, and it was super gross, but it wasn't the end of the world. And if I had checked the registry, I could have avoided the hotel.
posted by ClaudiaCenter at 5:55 PM on August 9, 2015 [5 favorites]

All hotels have bedbug issues from time to time. Better hotels exterminate them immediately and effectively. Good management rarely lets them move beyond a the infestation of a single room before eliminating them.

Checking the registry is going to be a waste of time, unless there are a ridiculous number of reports from the same hotel.
posted by builderofscience at 6:17 PM on August 9, 2015 [5 favorites]

I just read a thing about how in most infestations the bedbugs are all very closely genetically related. Meaning that you most likely have to pick up a live, pregnant female bedbug, carry it all the way home, and let it flourish in order to transfer the infestation to your own home. This happens, of course, but it's not as simple as bedbugs in hotel > rando gets on suitcase > BEDBUG-O-RAMA

I am also an anxious person who freaks out over this while traveling, but after a few years I started to let it go and decide that if the mattress looks fine (and believe me, I know ALL the signs), I like traveling too much to freak out about it. It's hard to ~live your best life~ when you're worried about picking up some harmless bugs all the time. (I know it's disgusting, but the bugs are basically harmless and while it's difficult, you can get rid of them.)
posted by easter queen at 6:28 PM on August 9, 2015 [2 favorites]

Here's the article. I can't vouch for all the information being accurate, but it was enough to make me stop worrying about something dumb that could happen no matter how careful I am.

Kind of the way herpes really freaks people out, even though the majority of people have it anyway!
posted by easter queen at 6:35 PM on August 9, 2015 [3 favorites]

I assume that they're endemic everywhere. They're one of our longest established parasites, and they are very subtle in where they can hide. You'll likely do yourself more harm with the toxic bug spray that people use than get the occasional bite. The damage is more psychological (and the occurrence highly marketing-related), so I try not to think about them.
posted by scruss at 6:59 PM on August 9, 2015

One of the things to keep in mind is that, like, 99% of the writing online about bedbugs is Total Woo, or starts out as real facts and drifts in to woo. People get so ridiculously superstitious and weird about this and make up all kinds of stuff that has no backing in reality. It's like trying to read about issues with vaccinations, or something.

My partner works at a library, which is a common bedbug transmission method(in the spines of books). We've had them, most of her coworkers have had them. Some of them have gone off the woo deep end with it, or thrown out all their clothes and furniture(seriously) and moved.

The basic suitcase in bathtub>bed check has been enough to never get them again, along with some discipline on books that get brought home.

When we did have them, they went away with one treatment because we followed the instructions from the pest control company to the letter, and called and asked if something wasn't clearly defined. The reality is that a lot of people have trouble getting rid of them because they bend the rules or cheat because keeping all your clothes sealed up in bags for like over a month is annoying and stuff. I just bought the cheapest duvet+pillows set i could find on clearance, sealed everything up, and toughed it out for a few weeks. Gone.

I also think that bedbug registry is somewhere between useless and harmful, and probably worse than yelp. That a place did have them doesn't mean they still do, and it doesn't help you with whether they're actually responsive in dealing with it when it comes up. Even the higher end hotels have issues with it sometimes. Just don't stay at really shady places, and be vigilant about the bathtub+bed check thing.

I place things like the plastic-bag-everything and duffel bags stuff over towards the woo side of the BS meter. And seriously, a luggage heater?
posted by emptythought at 7:39 PM on August 9, 2015

Oh man, I've totally been where you are right now. It's SO anxiety inducing! Several years later, here's how I have adjusted.

In a hotel: Put my suitcase off the floor, don't leave my clothes on the floor or bed (or anywhere but in my suitcase), sleep naked.

Only use other precautions (like the immediate laundry of all clothes when I get home) if I get bug bites that seem like bed bug bites while traveling. (Has actually only happened while in sketchy developing-country hostels)
posted by amaire at 7:56 PM on August 9, 2015 [1 favorite]

I was an extremely frequent traveler (every week, sometimes 2-3 cities or hotels per week) for years, and I basically do what people have said above - enter room, put luggage in bathroom, pull sheets off, check bed for bedbug signs (stains, other bug stuff), then chill out. I put my suitcase on the desk or other non-fabric location. In 15 years of semi-frequent to extremely frequent travel, I found bedbugs one time. Big, fat, freshly fed ones. We told management, they moved us to a different floor, and we took every bit of clothing we had with us and put it through the dryer when we got home. We never had bites, and we didn't get an infestation.

I actually like the Bedbug Registry because most of the posts have some detailed comments and a date, so I can read them and see if they have a recent report or something from 2011. Also, people will report stuff like seeing a bug run across their shoe (which is totally not a bedbug). So check the registry, but take what people say with a grain of salt.
posted by bedhead at 7:57 PM on August 9, 2015 [6 favorites]

I avoid the bedbug registry because that way leads to anxietyland for me (much like how googling my random medical symptoms always comes up with cancer). So YMMV with that one--definitely think about whether it will make you freak out more. As people have said, pretty much every hotel will end up with this at some point.

So I try not to say in motels that we generally think of as "fleabags," I do a check of the bed, and I remind myself that even if I did bring bedbugs home, they can be treated without actually burning my house down.
posted by TwoStride at 8:02 PM on August 9, 2015 [1 favorite]

I work for a hotel management company and yes, every hotel gets bedbugs from time to time. For every case of actual bedbugs we have there are probably 2 or 3 complaints that are NOT actually bedbugs.

When we have bedbugs we call in our contracted pest control company. They come in and treat the room along with any rooms that share walls with the infected room including the one directly above and directly below.

We have the rooms treated thoroughly and effectively to rid the bedbugs because it would be extremely bad for business not to. We also take preventative measures to keep them out but due to the nature of the business it is literally impossible to keep them out 100%.

When we get complaints that are not actually bedbugs (which happens more often and omg these people can be so insistent) many times we have the pest control company come out and do an inspection anyway to get a certified report saying there are no bedbugs. We may provide this report to the guest and the brand (Hilton, Choice, IHG, etc.) if the guest has logged a complaint with them.
posted by ZabeLeeZoo at 8:44 PM on August 9, 2015

I don't check the sheets (but maybe now I will) but I do put my luggage on the desk and hang everything else up. Everything is thoroughly washed and drier and 40+ minutes on high when I return home.
posted by Toddles at 8:48 PM on August 9, 2015

There is nothing "woo" about the pack tight luggage heater; heat kills bedbugs and their eggs and you can't easily heat treat your luggage and their contents any other way. If I traveled regularly, I would invest in one since it is way less expensive, in terms of time and money, than treatment. And I imagine that it would make travel much more pleasant knowing that I could quickly deal with potential hitchhikers without any nasty chemicals or taking over the dryer.

I check the bed, wash my clothes immediately upon return, and keep my luggage in the bathroom. This all strikes me a reasonable level of precaution. I also bring big ziplock bags and keep my items in them while in the hotel. This doesn't inconvenience me too much, but I recognize that this is probably crossing the line you don't want to cross.

You are right to note that concerns about bedbugs can be crazy-making; I actually feel my blood pressure going up just reading this thread!
posted by girl flaneur at 11:19 PM on August 9, 2015 [2 favorites]

They freak me out, too. I have a flashlight I use to check around the mattress and headboard and such immediately upon arriving. If I see nothing, I deem it ok.

I also check Yelp and Trip Advisor and look for bedbug reports. Also the registry above.
posted by persona au gratin at 4:59 AM on August 10, 2015

Response by poster: Thanks everyone! This is all very comforting. I am going to try very hard to chill out from now on!
posted by catoclock at 10:56 AM on August 10, 2015

In addition to not putting your luggage on the bed, don't put any coats/jackets/etc. there either. I once had bedbugs living in the elbow of a leather jacket and biting me throughout the day. Took forever to figure out WTF was going on.
posted by Jacqueline at 8:17 AM on August 11, 2015 [1 favorite]

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