Bed Bugs: How to Avoid Being Eaten Alive


Without doubt, one of the worst experiences you can have as a traveller is waking in a hotel bed to find you’re covered in a red rash and itchy welts.

I was eaten alive by bed bugs on three different occasions while travelling in the UK in the 1990s and I have to say it’s made me a more fastidious (some might say paranoid) traveller.

Usually the size of an apple seed when mature, the common bed bug, Cimex lectularius, can gorge on seven times its own weight in blood in a single feeding, while leaving nasty, itchy bumps and rashes that can linger for weeks.

Despite their name, bed bugs don’t just live between the sheets: you can find them in curtains and crevices, wall hangings and lamp shades.

And depending whether you believe recent reports, many of which are based on data provided by commercial pest controllers, there appears to have been a global explosion in these nasty little parasites.

Once a common pest, they declined in the mid-20th century and have only recently rebounded.

It’s inevitable that anyone who provides tourist accommodation – from Airbnb to luxury hotels – is susceptible to these unwelcome guests, particularly in the warmer months, as thousands of travellers pass through their doors.


They can breed in every crevice and cranny, including picture frames, carpets and clothing, and are notoriously difficult to treat because their eggs lie dormant for months.

So how big is the problem? The bedbug problem is part of a worldwide pandemic that affects the UK, Europe, North America, Asia and Australia.

Only in more recent years has it become a problem in the United States, with cities like Baltimore, Washington DC, Chicago and Los Angeles all ranked in the top four for infestations.

New York, which seems to get a lot of attention probably due to its popularity with global visitors, ranked 8th overall.

Fifteen years ago, around 25 per cent of pest management experts in the US had reported treating hotels for bed bugs. By 2015, a staggering 99.6 per cent of respondents in the biennial Bugs Without Borders survey admitted to treating hotel rooms for the pests.

The problem has fuelled lucrative new revenue streams for savvy businesses, from law firms that pursue compensation for victims to organisations that provide specially trained bed bug sniffer dogs.

Amazon even sells a bed bug protection kit for wary travellers.

So worrying has the problem become in the US in recent years, that there’s even a bed bug symposium to help the hospitality industry tackle the issue.

Brand Damage

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Hotels can’t afford to ignore the problem or blame the customer, like they often did before social media and online reviews.

A single reported incidence of bed bugs – like this – can massively impact a hotel’s business and brand reputation, and that goes for Airbnb as well.

One online review mentioning bed bugs, according to a study by the University of Kentucky, can lower hotel room value by $US38 for business travellers and $US23 for leisure travellers.

Three Times A Fool

I had three separate encounters with bed bugs in London in the 1990s, well before social media, when I was a cash-poor young journalist. I’d decided to stay at one of London’s many cheap but respectable two-star B&Bs that cost around £25 a night.

On one occasion at a B&B on Cromwell Road in 1993, I woke covered in bites, and found swollen bugs crawling on my forehead.

The hotel management blamed me for bringing them with me (a common response to a high-stakes problem) when in fact the mattress was crawling with the critters.

At another B&B in Chelsea a year or two later they rushed to “grab the medicine”, which turned out to be an insecticide spray for the bugs, not a treatment for me, after I was mauled in my sleep.

It just happened to be in easy reach, no doubt because they’d experienced this problem many times before.

Needless to say, I couldn’t get out of those hotels fast enough. I successfully demanded a refund and went in search of more upscale digs.

It took almost two weeks for the bites to finally heal, but because they were all over my forehead, neck and arms, people would constantly stare at the bites and ask questions or give me strange looks.

As you can imagine, these experiences turned me into a complete paranoid hotel dweller who wakes in the night thinking every little itch is a bed bug.

To this day I refuse to stay in a hotel room below three stars (not that that’s any guarantee), and I always scour online reviews before I book.


Tips For A Good Night’s Sleep

Even if you are staying in a luxury, five star hotel, there’s no guarantee you won’t encounter these blood-sucking pests on your travels.

Here are a few simple tips to ensure there are no unwanted guests in your hotel bed at night.

 Before booking a room:

  • Read reviews carefully and search specifically using ‘bed bug’ as a keyword;
  • If you’re worried, contact the hotel directly and ask about their bed bug action plan. Good hotels should have one or take your inquiries seriously;
  • If travelling to North America, check out the Bed Bug Registry at


How to check your room:

  • Leave your luggage in the bathroom while you scour the room. Bed bugs don’t like tiles and there are fewer crevices in the bathroom;
  • Closely examine the folds and seams in the corner of the mattress for signs of bed bugs. They also hide in the cracks and crevices of furniture, curtains, carpets and even electrical appliances;
  • One of the most obvious ways to bring them out of their hiding place is to give the bed and mattress a really good shake;
  • Also look for blood droplets on the sheets.



What to do if you spot an infestation:

  • Report the discovery of bed bugs to the hotel manager immediately. Don’t settle for junior members of staff who might disregard your complaint;
  • Make sure you have some evidence to support your claims later by taking photographs or the critters or any bites you might have suffered;
  • Make it clear that you find the presence of bed bugs in your room completely unacceptable;
  • If you’re offered an alternative room, refuse it. There’s a good chance other rooms in the same building will also be infested;
  • Request a full refund for any nights you’ve already stayed, and a full refund if you’ve pre-paid your entire stay. ;
  • Insist on being compensated for any medication you’ve had to buy to treat bed bug bites.


When you get home:

  • Bed bug bites sometimes don’t show up for several days, so remain vigilant;
  • Make a habit of vacuuming and inspecting suitcases before storing them;
  • Wash your clothes with hot water. Bed bugs can’t survive in temperatures at 60c or higher.

Have you experienced a bed bug problem on your travels?

Leave a comment to assist other travellers.

© 2019 Bernard O’Riordan (Travel Instinct). All Rights Reserved 


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