If evolution really worked in our favor, bedbugs would be as large as melons, with neon carapaces and a courteous deportment, announcing their presence every time a newcomer entered a hotel room. Alas, the vampirish insects are neither obvious nor polite: They're tiny and reddish-brown like freckles, and masters of subterfuge.
At hotels haute to low, exposure to the pests can be higher than at home, because of the rapid turnover of guests. In addition, the guaranteed food source encourages the insects to stay. The bed bug-traveler cycle is endless. But it can be broken.
"People need to be proactive," said Joseph McInerney, president of the American Hotel and Lodging Association. "This is something that we're
After a dormant period following World War II, Cimex lectularius is back. In the 1990s, the insects started re-emerging in overcrowded urban settings and of late have catapulted to star bugdom status, surfacing in hotels nationwide, in Manhattan retail stores and in Broadway theaters.
"They're all around," said Wayne White, a board-certified entomologist with American Pest in Takoma Park, Md., who attributes the rise in bedbugs to the uptick in international travel and a shift in pesticide usage. "They're just finally showing up in places that are more public."
In late August, pest control company Terminix released a list of the 15 bedbuggiest cities in the United States. New York,
"We have 3.5 million people in the United States staying in hotels every night, and the number of people bitten is minuscule," said McInerney. "But when it happens to you, it's a big deal."
To learn how to detect and repel bedbugs on the road, I met with White at the company's office, then later in a hotel room where he performed a live bedbug inspection.
White explained that the insects are nocturnal and typically cluster in dark, cavelike shelters, such as the seams of mattresses and the corners of headboards. They are drawn to the body heat, scent and carbon dioxide exhalation of animals and prefer crawling along humans' hairless surface. They work best in undisturbed areas, such as your bed when you are deep in sleep. Able to crawl 14 inches in five minutes, the bugs will travel for food. For greater distances, they rely on hitchhiking in luggage, shipping containers and your child's teddy bear.
"The more you travel," said White, "the higher the likelihood that you will bring them home."
To help you avoid unwanted souvenirs -- red welts and/or six-legged stowaways -- White laid out a multipart strategy that covers the before, during and after periods of your vacation. The battle against bedbugs starts now.
Before your trip
Prevention starts at home. Even if you've never seen bugs in your boudoir, White recommends sealing your mattress and box spring in clear plastic or vinyl coverings. Choose a mattress model without handles or seams. He also suggests placing the legs of the bed inside an insect interceptor, a ringed plastic saucer that creates a slippery surface. The container traps the bugs so that they can't venture to your mattress.
Also, before booking a hotel, check the Bed Bug Registry (www.bedbugregistry.com) for reports. A recent submission for the Trump Plaza and Casino in Atlantic City, for instance, stated, "Got bit to death here."
At the hotel
Upon arrival, conduct a bed inspection. Slip on disposable plastic gloves and keep a strong flashlight at the ready. A magnifying glass with LED illumination will also help; the eggs are pinprick-small.
Start with the headboard, a favorite hiding spot. Many hotel headboards hang on brackets like a utilitarian piece of art. Lay the piece on the bed and inspect the wall for the telltale signs of infestation: black specks (the -- ick -- fecal matter), molten sheddings (like pencil shavings) or the bugs themselves (in their various stages of life).
If the board does not disassemble easily, run a piece of white paper along the wall and board. The idea is to scrape up some bugs or force them out of their redoubt.
Now, it's time to attack the bed.
Start with the duvet and the sheets, studying them top to bottom before pulling them back to reveal the next layer. Inspect the seams, edges and any pleated fabric.
When you reach the mattress, remove the cover, paying special attention to the folds, seams, piping and other sneaky hide-outs.
Next, slide off the mattress and inspect the box spring. (If it's too heavy, push it aside enough to expose as much of the bottom foundation as possible.) Check the underside, and don't forget the corner protectors.
Finally, remove the dust ruffles or, if they're stapled to the bed, flash your light in the folds and along the edges.
At this point, your bed will look as if it has been mauled by a mercurial Sandman. On a more positive note: If you haven't uncovered any evidence of uninvited guests, they're most likely not inhabiting your lair.
If you do find evidence, go to the front desk and ask for a room change. Also, inquire about the property's pest-management plan. If they don't have one, the whole hotel could be infested.
Unpacking and storage
Create some distance between the bed and your luggage. Store your bag atop the armoire, for instance, or in the main room of a suite. Avoid the luggage rack, which White calls "a way station" for bugs, because of the constant transference of guests' bags. The middle of the room is also preferable to the periphery.
To really safeguard your belongings, slip your luggage into a plastic or vinyl cover, preferably one with a small-toothed zipper (harder for them to slip through) and a latch to secure the closure. Avoid products with seams and handles, which bugs can burrow into. Another option: Store your clothes in Ziploc bags. You can keep them in your luggage or in the bureau, just remember to always zip that loc after use.
The closet is also a potential hazard, thanks to those dark, cozy corners. If you want to leave your shoes on the floor, encase them in sealed plastic bags. For clothes that need to stay vertical, hang them on the shower rod.
After checking out
Whether you're returning home or moving on to another hotel, it's wise to hit the laundry room -- the dryer specifically. Bed bugs can't survive the heat.
White suggests tossing your clothes into a dryer set on low or medium. Let it spin for 15 to 30 minutes. (Washing, by the way, won't do the deed: 33 percent of bedbugs and a whopping 98 percent of eggs survive a normal cycle.) In the heat of summer, you can also leave your bag roasting in the car.
Rest assured that those bed bugs' traveling days are not just numbered but over.