The Truth About Bed Bugs (and How to Deal While Traveling)

what to do about bed bugs when traveling

Encountering bed bugs while traveling can be a nightmare. It’s right up there with getting robbed and contracting a tropical disease as one of the things we all hope will never happen to us. But just like other risks that come with travel, there are ways to reduce your chances and prevent these awful critters from getting the best of you.

Where You Find Bed Bugs

A common misconception is that bed bugs are only found in cheap, dirty hotels or hostels. This is not true! In fact, bed bugs actually prefer cleaner environments, and they do not discriminate between budget accommodations and luxury properties. And it doesn’t stop there – bed bugs are sometimes found in office buildings, movie theaters, other people’s homes, and many other places. Not much is off limits.

Beg bugs are like little vampires – they feed off of human blood. They usually do this at night while we’re sleeping, which is why they’re most commonly found in and near mattresses. But they can also be on the walls, in the headboard, in the carpet, or in other furniture like a couch or that dresser in your hotel room.

the dreaded bed bugs while traveling

How to Spot Bed Bugs

It might feel a little paranoid, but a few minutes spent checking your room can prevent a lot of pain and annoyance. Unfortunately bed bugs are small – usually 4 to 5mm at most – so they’re easy to miss. They are about the size and shape of an apple seed. But you don’t have to see the actual bug to have a good idea that there’s an infestation.

Here are two main things to look for, other than the bugs themselves, to determine if your room has a bed bug problem:

Stains: Bed bugs leave behind tiny black or brown stains as small as the period at the end of this sentence. And if the bug gets squashed, you could see slightly bigger, rust-colored stains. Look for these stains on the sheets and on the mattress itself.

Shells: Bed bugs usually lay their eggs in the mattress, so you could find tiny eggs and eggshells, about 1mm small. They also shed pale yellow skins as they grow larger, which will stick around on the mattress as well.

bed bug spots on a mattress
This image from Pest Hacks shows what bed bug feces spots look like on a mattress.

How to Inspect Your Room for Bed Bugs

The important thing to remember is the sizes you’re dealing with. Bed bugs and the incriminating evidence they leave behind are all really small, so you have to look closely. Here’s what to do as soon as you get into your hotel or hostel room:

  1. Put your suitcase or backpack in the bathroom. If you can prop it on the tub or counter instead of on the floor, even better. Obviously this won’t work if you’re staying in a dorm room or even a private room with a shared bathroom. But do the best you can to keep your luggage off the bed and off the floor, especially carpets.
  2. Look very closely at the sheets for tiny stains, eggs, and shedded skins. You should pull back the blankets and look at the entire length of the sheets as well as the blankets themselves.
  3. Take the sheets off the bed and inspect the mattress. Use a credit card or something similar to check out the crevices and seams where the tiny bugs are likely to hide.
  4. If possible, flip the mattress to check the other side, and inspect the boxspring, bed frame, and headboard.
  5. If there is other furniture in your room, like a couch, night table, etc., it’s worth taking a close look and repeating these steps to make sure there aren’t any bugs or signs of bed bugs.

If you suspect bed bugs, ask for another room or even consider switching hotels. Just because one room is infested doesn’t mean the entire hotel is, but it’s also not so hard for the bugs to move from one room to another.

Packing for a Bed Bug Ridden World

Before you even leave home, there are certain things you can do to reduce your chances of having bed bugs hitch a ride. Because as awful as the bites are, bringing the bugs home with you could lead to an all out nightmare.

When choosing hotels or hostels, check BedBugRegistry.com. Hopefully any hotel on the list has dealt with the problem, but if there are multiple complaints or something recent, it’s best to stay somewhere else.

If you’re flying and checking luggage, wrap your bag in plastic. Bed bugs can live on other people’s luggage and migrate over to yours, but if your bag is sealed up in plastic (obviously make sure what you use is approved by security regulations) the bugs can’t get in.

When choosing luggage, consider hard-sided suitcases instead of soft-sided suitcases. Bed bugs can get into the tiniest of places, and the fabric of a soft suitcase provides plenty of hiding places. If you must have a soft suitcase, choose lighter colors rather than dark ones because it will be easier to find bugs.

Since bed bugs die in high heat, pack clothing that can be washed at high temperatures and put in the dryer. Don’t pack clothing that has to be washed at cooler temperatures or can only be hand-washed.

(Unfortunately, this means our beloved merino wool is not a great fit if you should get bed bugs.)

While you’re traveling, don’t put your clothes on the floor or on the bed in your hotel room. Even if you’ve inspected the room and don’t see any signs of bed bugs, you can’t be 100% sure. It’s possible to miss small signs, and it’s possible for bed bugs to come into your room a day or two later.

At the end of your trip, wash all of your clothing before coming home. If this isn’t an option, put all your clothes in plastic bags, and don’t open the bags until you’re home in front of your washing machine. You don’t want to give those bugs any window of opportunity to take over your house.

These posts are also helpful:

the truth about bed bugs while traveling

How to Treat Bed Bugs

If you do unfortunately come in contact with bed bugs, there are several things you need to do to stop the problem from spreading. This includes treating your luggage and belongings as well as the bites themselves.

Treating with heat
Wash all of your clothing in the highest temperature possible, and then put everything through a hot cycle in the dryer. The heat kills the bugs and their eggs.

For things that can’t be put in the washing machine, seal them up in black plastic bags and leave in the sun for several days. This isn’t as good a method, but the temperature inside the bag should get hot enough to kill any bugs or eggs.

Treating with cold
Freezing temperatures can kill bed bugs too, but this isn’t as effective as high temperatures. If you have something that can’t withstand high heat, it will need to stay in the freezer for several days.

Treating your home
If you bring bed bugs back to your home, you’ll need to do some serious damage control. Vacuum everything: the carpets, the couches, under furniture, every little crack and crevice where a bug could hide. It’s worth calling an exterminator for further advice and possible services.

Treating the bites
Everyone reacts differently to bed bug bites. They often don’t show up right away (making it all the more difficult to know exactly where you got them from) and some people don’t react at all. They look like any other bug bite, but they’re usually in lines or clusters.

If you do react badly, anti-itch creams like calamine lotion should help. Antihistamines can help reduce the itching and discomfort as well. Like anything that makes you itch, resist scratching! The bites usually get better within a few days to a week or so.

My Personal Experience with Bed Bugs While Traveling

After years of travel to all different parts of the world, my luck with bed bugs ran out in Prague last summer. My husband and I sprung for a nicer hotel than normal because it was our anniversary, but as I mentioned earlier, the quality of the hotel does not affect its chances of having bed bugs.

On our first day there, I saw a bug on the bed. We had the window open and it was June, so I wasn’t surprised a bug might be in there. But I should’ve paid more attention to what the bug looked like.

There were a couple tiny pin-point sized stains on the sheets, but years of traveling in low-end places have made me less picky about things like this. Again, this was another sign of bed bugs I ignored.

After sleeping there for a few nights, I woke up with a few bites. I’m one of those people mosquitoes find from miles away, so this didn’t alarm me.

bed bugs while traveling
Just a few of Ali’s bed bug bites on her face, neck, shoulder, and arm

It wasn’t until we got home, after sleeping at this hotel for four nights, than I started seeing enough bites to be concerned. The bites were in lines up and down my arms, face, neck, shoulders, back, legs, feet, and even a line of bites along my hip and bikini line. Yeah, those were fun. Overall I counted more than 50 bug bites.

My husband ended up with maybe a dozen tiny bites that showed up after mine did. His barely itched and they went away quickly. Mine left me in tears they itched so badly, and I had to get calamine lotion and antihistamine drops to deal with the pain and itchiness.

Lesson learned: Always know what the signs are and check your hotel room to avoid a painful encounter with bed bugs while traveling.

the truth about bed bugs while traveling

Written by Ali

Ali Garland is a freelance writer, blogger, and travel addict who made it to all 7 continents before her 30th birthday. She enjoys travel planning, encouraging others to see the world, and packing carry-on only. She and her husband are expats living in Berlin. You can find Ali at Ali's Adventures and Travel Made Simple.

Add your voice & leave a comment!

Gear We Use

Organization

Packing Cubes – Organize your luggage with the lightweight, durable and compressible Eagle Creek Pack-It Specter Compression Cubes.


Backpacks + Daypacks

Pacsafe – Since they come with extra theft-resisting features, Pacsafe bags make you a more confident traveler. We especially love this bag.

Sea to Summit – Of all the Sea to Summit products, our most recommended is the fits-in-your-palm, super packable Ultra-Sil Daypack.


Personal Care

Nalgene Toiletry Bottles – These leak-free toiletry bottles and tubs come in all sizes – even super tiny, helping minimalists pack it all without bulk.

Turkish Towels – They’re thinner than most travel towels, and they actually cover your body! We can’t get enough of Turkish towels for travel.


Clothing

Speakeasy Supply Co. – They make the awesome hidden pocket infinity scarves that are perfect for stashing secret cash, lip balms, and passports.

Anatomie – Anatomie travel pants come with luxury prices, but they offer many benefits for travelers. See our review of the famous Skyler pants.

Travel Resources

Booking Airfare

Dollar Flight Club – Get flight deal alerts for your preferred departure airport. There is both a free and premium version (recommended for more sweet deals). Members save on average $500 USD per flight!

Skyscanner – Skyscanner is our preferred site for searching flights. They offer unbiased search results and are free from hidden fees. You can also book your hotels and rental cars.


Accommodation

Airbnb – Airbnb is the best place to book out apartments around the world. Sign up using this link to get $37 USD off your first stay booking + $14 USD towards an experience booking!

Booking.com – Search for hotels, hostels, and apartments using this one resource. Use it for flights, car rentals, and airport taxis as well.

Hostelworld – For hostels, Hostelworld remains our number one source for booking stays. Choose from straight up hostels, budget hotels and bed and breakfasts.

Trusted Housesitters – Save money on travel accommodation by becoming a housesitter. Housesitters often have extra duties, like caring for pets and gardens.

Reader Interactions

Comments

  1. Sarah says

    Great info! Do you know if bed bugs have any preference with climate? Are they more often found in dry or humid weather?

  2. Kandie says

    If you have room to pack a small hand held clothes steamer, the heat from the steam can kill them as well. Bonus, it’s chemical free & can safely be used on your clothes.

  3. Jessica says

    My boyfriend and I ended up with bed bugs in our home. He barely reacted at all to their bites, but my bites got very swollen and itchy, just like yours. They are a terrible pain to get rid of when they’re in your home, so I am very diligent when it comes to checking for any signs of bed bugs while I’m traveling. The giant XL size ziplock bags are great for putting small luggage, backpacks, and purses in while on planes, in cars, or in hotels/hostels.

  4. Kathryn says

    My sister got bed bugs when travelling and it’s made me totally paranoid about putting my case on beds. The bathroom thing is a great idea.

  5. Jeni says

    I have travelled all over and never had an issue with bedbugs until I took a short weekend trip to San Diego. I stayed in a very nice hotel on the beach. It’s true, bedbugs don’t discriminate.

  6. chanteuse says

    2001 I stayed a week in Miami in Miami’s Fontainebleau Hotel (a 4-star I think). I brought back ONE bedbug (it did not procreate). It terrorized me for 6 months. I sprayed my bed with bug spray and had really bad sleep nightly (kept waking up) but I kept getting bitten, until I spent a week away from home in spring time. The night I got back I had a hunch that it might be hungry. I got in bed not moving but the light was on and my eyes open and scanning. I got lucky that I saw it moved across the back of my hand that was resting on top of the comforter. I actually caught it (it ran fast!). From that day on, I had not had a single bite at home.

    Since then I travel with several sheets of jumbo semi clear garbage bags. They weight nothing. I put my luggage inside the bag and tie it u tight at night and when I leave the room. I also don’t put out clothing items. Whatever I am not wearing, they go back to the luggage that’s shielded inside trash bag. These bags are not the most durable that’s why I bring several in case of breakage or holes by squeezing my luggage into lockers etc..

    • Brenda says

      When I have travel I often spray and keep spraying my luggage with pure lavender oil. I also spray the bed I am sleeping in as well.

      Peppermint oil can ward off spiders.

      Teetree oil can ward off mosquitos.

  7. Gwen says

    Put a soap bar under the bottom sheet. Wait an hour and then inspect. If there are bed bugs they will be on the soap. Keep the soap bar under the sheet and occasionally check. We travel with soap bars every trip. That soap bar also cures restless and cramping legs

Leave A Reply