The number of bedbug calls to pest-control companies is up a whopping 500 percent, and the little bloodsuckers are infiltrating hotels nationwide. Avoid an itchy run-in by conducting a CSI-like investigation of your room before you get settled. The best defense against these creepy crawlers is a good offense.
Bedbugs have marched into shops, movie theaters, offices, and even opera houses, but their favorite breeding ground remains their namesake. As soon as you enter your hotel room (don't sprawl out on that plush bed just yet) inspect the sheets, mattress, and box spring, especially around the seams. You're looking for old skins (bedbugs shed papery layers that look like popcorn-kernel shells), black spots (bedbug poop), or the live insects themselves. If possible, stick your head under the bed and shine a flashlight on the bottom of the box spring.
One thing to know: An infested room can sometimes have a scent similar to coriander; bedbugs release a pheromone that can smell like the pungent herb, says Susan Jones, Ph.D., an associate professor of entomology at Ohio State University.
COUCH AND CURTAINS
Bedbugs love to hide in upholstered furniture. Wood chairs may be safer, but be wary of those with visible cracks. The critters can fit into any space that a credit card can be slipped into, says Jody Gangloff-Kaufmann, Ph.D., an entomologist at Cornell University. Pay particular attention to the seams as you carefully look between and beneath all cushions for bugs, empty skins, or feces. (Never pick up a "free" sofa you find on the street—it may be teeming with the little suckers!)
Close quarters in big cities like New York, Detroit, Denver, and Los Angeles mean more bedbugs for all: The creatures can easily crawl from one apartment or hotel room to the next. Baseboards are a possible entry point, so get down low and investigate the crevices between the baseboard and the wall, and the baseboard and the carpet, as well as around electrical outlets.
When it comes to art, these parasites don't discriminate--they've been found around elegant oil paintings in expensive hotels and cheesy prints in seedy motels. If any art is hanging in your room, examine the frame closely and peer behind it for telltale signs.
These nocturnal beings thrive in dark, dry areas (they're afraid of direct sunlight). Whip out a credit card and run the edge of it along every accessible surface of the headboard, paying special attention to any seams or cracks, says Andy Linares, president of Bug Off Pest Control Center in New York City. If you dislodge any bugs or bug debris, you know your room has been compromised, so hightail it out of there.
Body heat is a bedbug magnet, and the pests have two hooklike claws on each of their six legs that allow them to hitch a ride on your clothes, says entomologist Jeffrey White. Never set your luggage on a hotel bed or floor; instead, give the suitcase rack a onceover before setting your bag on it as far from the bed as possible (it's best not to put it against a wall either). But don't unzip anything until you've checked out the rest of the room. Applying Rest Easy Bedbug luggage spray to the outside and inside lining of your bags before traveling may keep bedbugs away, but the product hasn't been scientifically proven to work, so just consider it a possible layer of protection.
The safest place for your luggage? The bathtub. If that sounds too crazy, hang your clothes in the closet or leave them in your suitcase on the luggage rack after you've inspected it. Avoid using the dresser drawers, which are harder to inspect, says entomologist Dini Miller, Ph.D., of Virginia Tech University.
The flat, reddish-brown pests measure three-sixteenths of an inch long—about the size of an apple seed. Females can lay up to five barely visible eggs a day (which they then glue in place, so the eggs can stick to mattresses, headboards, and suitcases, among other things). The resulting straw-colored babies thrive in 70°F to 80°F environments and reach maturity in about 30 to 45 days, provided they're well nourished…by human blood. Bedbugs can survive unfed for six months or more, sometimes much longer, depending on their living conditions, says Jeffrey White, an entomologist with BedBug Central in New Jersey. And you can't avoid them by being superclean: Unlike roaches or ants, bedbugs are not seduced by filth or food.
Bedbugs' saliva contains a built-in anesthetic, so when they feed on you—repeatedly, for up to 10 minutes at a time—you typically won't feel anything. Some people don't have any reaction to the bites, but about 70 percent do, mostly in the form of red, itchy bumps, says White. Those bumps will often appear all in a row, a phenomenon some victims refer to as "breakfast, lunch, and dinner."
What to Do If You Find One
1/ Request an immediate room swap. Just because your room has bugs doesn't mean the entire hotel has been hit. Ask to be moved to a different floor, and then scrutinize your new digs. If you've been in your room for a few hours before you spot an insect, run a hot iron over the outside of your suitcase before you bolt, says pest-control expert Andy Linares. Or request that the hotel steam clean all of your stuff, adds Susan Jones, Ph.D. Preventive strategy: Before you book a room, go to bedbugregistry.com, which tracks bedbug reports at hotels. But keep in mind that the site isn't checked for accuracy.
2/ Protect your stuff. Put all the clothing you brought on the trip into a plastic trash bag in your suitcase, then empty it into the clothes dryer when you get home. Thirty minutes of 120°F heat will annihilate any pests. Or get some dissolvable laundry bags. Before you check out, seal your clothes into the sacks and pack them in your suitcase. Once home, toss the water-soluble bags into the washing machine, then hot-dry your clothes, says entomologist Jeffrey White.
3/ Don't drag your suitcase over your threshold. Buy high-power pesticide strips and drop them into a large trash bag along with your luggage. Leave it tied up tight for at least two weeks (preferably outside) to kill off any hitchhiking critters, says White. Really paranoid? Invest in a PackTite Portable Heating Unit . It's like a duffel bag with a grill at the bottom, and it kills bedbugs on items you can't launder, like your suitcase or dry-clean-only clothes.