If you're sleeping somewhere other than home, beware. Bedbug prevalence is on the rise, and hotels and motels are some of their favorite hangouts.
These pesky critters can cause severe itching and welt-like bites, and it's costly to get rid of them if they follow you home. What's more, research suggests they can cause financial distress, anxiety, and social isolation.
But no need to get depressed just yet. With these easy tips, you can cut your chances of critter trouble while on the road.
1. Head straight for the bathroom
Before you check out your hotel room's minibar or oceanfront view, give it a thorough bedbug inspection. Until you've done that, stash your luggage in the bathtub.
"Bedbugs are least likely to be found in the bathroom," says Missy Henriksen, vice president of public affairs for the National Pest Management Association. "They don't like the tile floors and there aren't as many hiding places. They like to be closer to where people may be sleeping or sitting."
2. Inspect the bed
Here's how to check for a bedbug infestation: Pull back the linens, and check all the way around and under the mattress and behind the headboard.
Look for blood stains or small black dots that look like mold or ground pepper, says Christine Johnson, PhD, a behavioral ecologist in the American Museum of Natural History's Division of Invertebrate Zoology, in New York City. Check for the critters too. Bedbugs are about the size and shape of an apple seed, and you may find them hiding in corners or seams of the bedding.
If you see any suspicious signs, alert the hotel staff immediately.
3. Check the room
Next, broaden your bedbug search to the area immediately surrounding the bed: behind picture frames, under the telephone and alarm clock, and even in books, says Johnson.
Studies have shown that most bedbugs are found in or within 15 feet of a bed, but some may still be further away. Check in the cushions and seams of any couches or soft chairs, and in the closet before putting your clothes away.
4. Keep the luggage off the ground
Leaving suitcases and bags on the floor or on a second spare bed may be one way to bring home an unwanted souvenir, says Henriksen.
"Bedbugs can travel (from) room to room, so even if initially you don't have them, they could be in the room next to yours and they may come looking for meal sources," she says.
For the duration of your trip, keep your bags on the desktop, on top of the dresser, or on a luggage rack in the room. (Don't leave clothing lying out, either!)
5. Wrap suitcases in plastic
For extra protection, keep your suitcase encased in plastic during your trip, says Henriksen. Storage and luggage retailers also sell zip-up bags specifically for this purpose.
"I've even seen people traveling with garbage bags wrapped around their suitcases," Henriksen says.
This precaution can protect your belongings not only in your hotel room, but also in transit; bedbugs can also hide in airplanes, trains, and taxis.
6. Teach kids hotel protocol
Tell your children why you're inspecting the hotel room and what you're looking for. "We teach kids our concerns about other insects, like bees and mosquitoes; bedbugs should be on that list as well," says Henriksen.
Also watch for traces of white powder, says Johnson; it could be a pesticide used to treat a previous problem.
"Insecticides aren't good for anyone, especially young children, and you might want to ask for another room or switch hotels if you think you're being exposed."
7. Move two floors away
Any suspicious marking or evidence of bugs should be enough to warrant a new room, and when it comes to a bedbug scare, hotel staff should be more than willing to oblige.
Request that your new room be at least two floors away from the initial room, says Henriksen, since chances are good that the bugs may spread via the wallboards or electrical sockets.
8. Speak up
If you don't like to make waves, it may be tempting to stick with the room you've got, despite a little dirt on the mattress.
But there are potential consequences. Bedbugs, unlike mosquitoes and ticks, do not actively transmit diseases, but a 2011 Canadian study found that they could carry germs from one person to another—including the antibiotic-resistant germ, MRSA.
"Now's the time to be a little bolder and ask the right questions," says Henriksen. "You do not want to be a victim, especially when most hotels will move you without question and will do a proper inspection right away. They don't want their guests to leave the hotel with bedbugs and they don't want the problem to go untreated, either."
9. Ask about bedbug prevention plans
Prior to check-in, ask the hotel what practices they've put in place to deal with bedbug prevention and treatment.
"The overwhelming majority of businesses in the hospitality industry are doing a great job in having an action plan in place to protect themselves and their guests," says Henriksen. Many hotels conduct proactive inspections and work with pest management companies to quickly remedy any problems.
10. Read reviews cautiously
With a little Internet research, it's easy to find out if bedbugs have been reported at your hotel: The Bed Bug Registry, for example, is a free online database of user-submitted reports across North America. Travel sites like TripAdvisor and Yelp may also offer clues in their customer reviews.
Don't put too much stock in these resources, though, warns Henriksen. "There's no accountability for what people are posting," she says. "It could be a disgruntled employee or a competing property. And even if the hotel does have a room with a problem, they will jump on it right away. Just because one guest room has a problem on Saturday, it certainly doesn't mean they'll be there on Wednesday or that it's a hotel-wide problem."
11. Pitch a tent
One way to make sure bugs aren't lurking in your bed on vacation? Bring your lodging with you. "Bedbugs are hitchhikers," says Henriksen. "They come into your life based on you being somewhere else where they are." Because of this, there's little chance you'll come in contact with them if you're pitching a tent in the woods, for example, or traveling in your own mobile home.
Don't feel compelled to avoid hotels forever, though. Wherever you are, there's a chance you could pick up and bring home bedbugs while you're out and about, Henriksen adds.
But if you've planned a camping trip, your chances of encountering bedbugs will likely be lower.
12. Have a post-vacation plan
When you return home from vacation, wash all your clothing—even the items you didn't wear—in hot water. Bedbugs can't survive in temperatures above 122 degrees Fahrenheit, says Henriksen, so this will assure they don't take up residence in your drawers and closets. (Sending delicates to the dry cleaner will work, too.)
Inspect and vacuum out your suitcases before storing them away, as well—and if you've invested in a plastic luggage case, keep it sealed up until you need it next.
13. Watch for Bed Bug marks
Bite marks are one sign that you may have brought bedbugs home with you, says Henriksen. "They often bite in a line-shaped pattern, in threes: In the industry we call that breakfast, lunch, and dinner."
Itching or bites alone aren't enough to confirm an infestation, however. If you experience these symptoms, you'll need a professional home evaluation before you can seek treatment.
14. Call a professional
"Bedbugs are not a do-it-yourself pest," says Henriksen. If you suspect that you've brought home bedbugs from a recent vacation, call a pest-management service to conduct an inspection.
A professional will look around your bed for signs of the insects, and may use a bedbug-sniffing dog if he can't identify the source. Once an infestation is confirmed, he may use heat, freezing, vacuuming, or steaming methods to clear your home.
15. Don't make yourself crazy
Bedbugs have been found in all 50 states, in many locations - rural, urban, and suburban. "They're an equal opportunity pest," says Henriksen. "They can be in budget properties as well as four-star resorts."
But there's no reason to douse yourself, your kids, or your home with insecticides, says Johnson.
"Panic and paranoia doesn't help at all," adds Henriksen. "Vigilance is the most important thing—following the checklist and doing an inspection. Those are the things that are going to minimize your likelihood of an infestation."