Once again, bedbugs are in the news — this time, due to reports that multiple big-name hotels on the Las Vegas Strip have had reports of bedbugs in the last few years. This should hardly be surprising as bedbugs are an unfortunate, but not uncommon, byproduct of travel.
I have a personal hatred of bedbugs as they invaded my suitcase — and subsequently, my life — back in 2019, and it was an experience I wouldn’t wish on anyone. The bites you get on the trip itself quickly become the least of your concerns if the bugs come home with you and take up residence in your own bed.
Our battle against the bedbugs stretched for several months, cost thousands of dollars, and resulted in countless lost hours of sleep. It was a truly awful experience that was a mental, physical, emotional and financial drain that is hard to convey to someone who hasn’t lived it.
The best way to deal with bedbugs is to avoid bringing them home in the first place. So while they are a more prevalent issue in hotels and other common travel touchpoints than travelers likely wish, there are very concrete things you can do to reduce the chances that you’ll end up on the losing side of a battle with them.
How we caught bedbugs
Because I know you may be curious, I’ll cut to the chase: I’m not going to name the hotel where we got bedbugs a few years ago. At this point, it’s been a long time, and the hotel was responsive to our concerns at that time, owned up to our room “testing positive” for bedbugs after our stay and did help with the treatment of our home afterward.
With that out of the way, our stay started like any other. After sleeping in the several-hundred-dollar-per-night hotel the first night, I woke up with a bite or two on my legs, but other than being mildly annoying and itchy, I didn’t think anything of it.
The number of bites increased during our stay, though almost always on the back of my thighs. It was bothersome and itched, but I thought perhaps I was having an allergic reaction based on the location of the bumps. I’m the kind of person who reacts to bites, plants and everything else far more than the average person, and we had spent a fair amount of time outdoors on this trip. No one else in the family had any noticeable bites or issues though they were staying in the same room.
After the trip, we flew home, unpacked our clothes, washed the dirty laundry and piled the unworn clothes on the couch overnight. Our unpacked luggage sat in the corner of our bedroom for a day or two before being put away.
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Unfortunately, all of that was the perfect recipe for giving the bedbugs we had unknowingly brought home a chance to move in.
The first full day I was home, I took pictures of my bites from the trip as they were now becoming much more bothersome and as itchy as poison ivy.
I searched online for information on bedbugs and began to worry. My bites, however, didn’t look like the large welts appearing in my (disturbing) internet photo searches. They were just small, red, itchy bumps that looked more like acne breakouts than traditional bug bites. Additionally, everyone else in the family continued to have no issues, which mistakenly made me believe this couldn’t be bedbugs and was more likely an issue isolated to something I touched or was exposed to on my own.
I left home for a few brief trips, and the bites started to heal. But, over time, new bites started appearing.
How we discovered the bedbugs
Back home, another bite or two would appear every day or so — still almost all on me. Eventually, in desperation, I called a bedbug company and begged them to send a bedbug-sniffing dog as soon as possible to inspect the house, as I hadn’t seen anything myself other than mysterious, itchy bites. However, by this time, I was pretty certain we had an infestation through the process of elimination of other potential causes.
A bedbug-sniffing dog wasn’t available for another week after my initial call, so a human exterminator came over instead. Within minutes, my bedroom was torn apart, and a bedbug exoskeleton and excrement were found by a pro who knew what to look for.
It was confirmed. We had bedbugs.
How we treated our house for bedbugs
Between the time I decided we almost certainly had bedbugs to the time this was confirmed, I called the hotel and asked them to examine our former room for pests.
A claim was opened, and eventually, the property confirmed the room tested positive for bedbugs. As much as a month had passed between the time we first stayed in that room and when the property found the bedbugs, so just think of how many travelers may have been exposed.
But we’ll come back to that.
The night we discovered the bedbugs, we packed essentials in plastic grocery sacks, heated some clothes in the dryer to kill any potential bugs or eggs and moved into a local hotel. I probably had 20 to 30 visible and itchy bites at this point, and couldn’t sleep in our house another minute.
Less than 24 hours after receiving the bedbug diagnosis, our entire house was heated to 140 degrees with propane-powered heaters, powerful fans and various devices that reminded me of the scene when the government comes for E.T. because bedbugs and their eggs can’t survive more than an hour at that temperature.
It was a massive ordeal to heat a house, room by room, to that temperature, but we were told that doing anything short of this was unlikely to work. The heat, we were told, was the best defense against the bugs, not chemicals.
We had to remove things that couldn’t stand that heat, but the more we removed, the greater the likelihood something with bugs or eggs wasn’t going to be treated, so most things stayed. Some toys and items were damaged or melted. Ultimately, the first try didn’t work.
And in the end, we had the house treated at temperatures upward of 170 degrees, three separate times, by two different companies because the bites continued.
Apparently, just enough bugs or eggs were missed the first time — and again the second — that we’d have to start all over when the bites would slowly start to appear again and again.
Each time, we had to get a hotel, board the dog and have our house torn completely apart.
How to tell if you have bedbugs
For better or worse, I, apparently, react quickly to bedbug bites.
It took my eldest daughter three weeks to begin to react, and it took my youngest nearly a month to start having visible reactions. Even on someone who does react, bedbug bites can take up to two weeks to appear. Some people do not develop a visible reaction at all, making it very hard to even know there’s a problem. In my family of four, it took three weeks for anyone other than me to have a definitive reaction to the bugs, and one person never reacted.
That could make it very hard to detect a problem quickly, and it also means you can’t believe you’re staying in a bedbug-free room just because you don’t wake up with bites.
The mistakes we made that led to bringing home bedbugs
Looking back, we did everything wrong in terms of travel and bedbugs. Here are a few of our errors:
- I didn’t inspect the hotel bed and room where we caught bedbugs. If I’m being completely honest, until this happened to us, I’d really never inspected a bed for bedbugs.
- When I started getting bitten on the trip, I still didn’t inspect the room for bedbugs. This was a combination of blissful ignorance and denial.
- Our luggage and dirty clothes were, in large part, stored on the floor of the closet in the hotel room. This made it very easy for the bugs to move in and get scooped into our luggage.
- When we got home from the trip, we unpacked on the couch and stored the luggage in the house.
Even if we did the first three things wrong, we likely could have stopped an infestation just by leaving the luggage outside the house and putting the dirty clothes promptly into a hot dryer.
How to avoid getting bedbugs on your trips
Bedbugs are, unfortunately, an ever-present issue for travelers. They don’t discriminate and aren’t only found in rundown hotels — in fact, we acquired these pests at a very nice hotel. And if you look at a list of Vegas hotels that have dealt with them in recent years, you’ll see some fancy high-end names.
But the risk isn’t even limited to only beds or hotels. Bedbugs can be found in airports and even on airplanes. Earlier this year, the Honolulu airport was dealing with an infestation that caused them to stop using some gates while they underwent treatment.
And remember, the room we stayed in continued to have bedbugs for at least another month after our visit. Just think of how many more travelers encountered them and potentially brought them home, into their next hotel or onto a flight.
Our luggage that we flew home with had the stowaway bugs, and that meant we dragged them through ground transportation, through an airport and onto an airplane. It’s easy to imagine how easily these awful critters spread.
If you want to avoid getting bedbugs, you have to assume they are everywhere and treat your luggage as if it’s always contaminated. This sounds extreme, but it’s not.
Here are tips to reduce the risk of bringing home bedbugs from your trip:
- Never store your luggage or dirty clothes on the floor (whether your room has hardwood or carpet), the bed or another similar surface in a hotel. Instead, use the metal luggage racks and the bathtub, and do whatever you can to keep your items away from bedbug-friendly habitats in the room, including but not limited to beds and sofas.
- Inspect the room for bedbugs. It’s hard to get used to, but pulling back the covers and the mattress pad and looking in crevices and along seams for bugs or evidence of bugs, such as dark streaks, will help. However, it’s not the most important step in avoiding them. I never once saw a live bug in my house, and I looked every day, so you can’t rely only on your eyes, but it’s a good place to start.
- If you start experiencing bites on your trip that could be bedbug bites, inspect the bed again and ask the hotel staff to help with the inspection.
- Never bring your luggage into your home. Ever. This is also annoying, but doable in many cases. Store your luggage in a sealable plastic bin in the garage when not in use. If you don’t have a garage or elsewhere to keep your luggage outside your home, you still want to store it in a sealable plastic bin.
- Heat the luggage and clothing brought on the trip. Stick with me here: Bedbugs die in extreme heat, so if you can heat your bag and belongings, you will reduce your chances of getting them. Put your clothes straight into a hot dryer cycle, if possible, when you return home. During the summer, you can use the sun and black trash bags to heat your bags in your backyard. Or, you can buy a luggage heater. Once you’ve lived through the nightmare of a bedbug infestation, spending between $300 and $400 on an electric heater designed to raise the temperature of your suitcase and belongings to a temperature where bedbugs can’t survive won’t sound unreasonable.
- Use bedbug covers for your mattress and box springs at home. This won’t actually prevent bedbugs, but it will stop them from burrowing deep into your mattress, or contain them if they’re already there.
- Place insect interceptors beneath the legs of your bed. Again, this won’t stop you from bringing bedbugs home, but it makes it much harder for them to climb into bed with you — and you can periodically check to see if any are stuck in there.
Our direct bedbug treatment expenses totaled nearly $5,000. The indirect costs were higher than that. But that’s not even the worst part.
Bedbugs are maddening. You inspect every bump and bite on yourself and perhaps even your kids. You use flashlights and magnifying glasses to examine your bed before going to sleep. You start to doubt yourself since bedbugs are so hard to find, and you so badly hope it isn’t true. You think you beat them, then get depressed when you realize you have to start all over again when an invasive treatment doesn’t work.
If hotel management, a pest control company or any other person doesn’t believe you, or simply can’t find the source of the bugs, it’s an even tougher, more exhausting fight against an enemy you may not ever see.
Going into a deep sleep at night when you know you and your children will be bitten before morning is just borderline impossible.
Our experience years ago with bedbugs didn’t stop us from traveling, but it forever changed how we travel. Packing and unpacking is harder now since it is done outside. Packing cubes help immensely as we can heat them in the dryer immediately upon return, so they can come inside and make it easier to pack outside by just tossing the packed cubes in the luggage. (But you need packing cubes that can withstand the heat of a dryer — here are my favorites.)
Treating my family’s suitcases and belongings as if they’re always contaminated is stressful and time-consuming, but if that keeps my family from enduring another bedbug attack, it’s all worth it.