After checking into a motel in Berkeley, Calif., a few years ago, my husband and I began a well-rehearsed ritual. We left our two young kids strapped in their strollers, pulled back the bedding, and scanned the surface of the mattress. Poking into the deep seams of the mattress’s pillow-top padding, I found what we feared: a multitude of brown-black flecks.
The motel manager offered to move us to a different room, but instead we drove to a relative’s house that night. That experience taught me that it’s worthwhile to take two minutes to check the mattress before you unpack. A 2016 survey of 100 hotels in the United States, conducted by Orkin, a pest control company, found that 82 percent of them had been treated for bedbugs in the previous year. Bedbugs have also been found on airplanes, cruise ships, and public transportation in recent years. And according to research published in the Journal of Medical Entomology, bedbug infestations peak in the summer, coinciding with vacation season.
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But don’t let bedbugs, or the fear of them, ruin your summer travel. Despite the statistics, the chance of encountering bedbugs in any given hotel room is “pretty darn unlikely,” said Michael Potter, a professor of entomology at the University of Kentucky. Here are some simple steps you can take to make sure you don’t run into bedbugs on your trip.
Know your enemy
In a survey of more than 2,000 hotel visitors conducted by Dr. Potter and two other University of Kentucky entomologists, fewer than one in three could correctly identify an adult bedbug.
Look at guides published by the Environmental Protection Agency, which show the size and appearance of bedbugs at different stages in their life cycle. Bedbugs are flat, wingless, and slightly teardrop-shaped, with tan, brown, or reddish-brown coloring. They range in size from 1 mm (nymphs) to 5—7 mm (adults), and their eggs look like tiny, white grains of rice.
Bedbugs leave behind fecal stains of digested blood, which resemble “little black spots that look like they’ve been made by fine felt-tipped marker,” according to Dini Miller, an associate professor of entomology at Virginia Tech. (These were the spots I discovered in the Berkeley motel.)
Inspect the area (but don’t tear the room apart)
Whether you’ve checked into a luxury resort, a modest motel, or an Airbnb apartment, spend a few minutes inspecting the beds and surrounding areas for signs of bedbugs.
Pull back the sheets and look closely at the surface, sides, and seams of the mattress near the headboard. “That tends to be the hottest area of the bed” for bug activity, said Dr. Potter. Dr. Miller suggested running a sticky lint roller over the areas you’re checking, so you can pick up any potential evidence.
Pack a small, strong flashlight to help you see into crevices and behind the headboard if possible. (Wirecutter recommends the Mini Maglite Pro.) “We know in hotels that bedbugs like to get behind the headboard. The reason for that is it’s the least disturbed area,” Dr. Miller said.
Though small, bedbugs and their fecal spots are visible to the naked eye, so if you don’t find anything after a cursory inspection, you can rest easy. “I’m not going to yank the whole bed apart, flip the mattress,” Dr. Potter said. Dr. Miller agreed: “If you don’t see anything, nothing’s there.”
Bites or skin reactions alone are not a reliable sign of bedbugs. It can sometimes take several hours for a person’s skin to react to an insect bite, so mosquito or sand fly bites from, say, dinner may not show up till morning, Dr. Miller said.
“You can’t look at a bite that I have, and a bite that you have, and even say that they’re the same thing, because everybody’s immune response is so individual,” she explained.
Protect your luggage
Dr. Potter suggested storing your suitcase on a hard surface, such as a dresser or luggage rack, which bedbugs are unlikely to be able to reach. If you’re staying for only a night or two, avoid unpacking your clothing or spreading items around the room. Packing cubes can help you stay organized and access your clothing and belongings without having to remove everything from your suitcase. (Wirecutter recommends Eagle Creek packing cubes.)
Dr. Miller suggested using a lint roller to check for bugs on your suitcase as well, especially after air travel. “Think about your suitcase and how many other bags it meets on your trip,” she said.
If you find some, don’t panic
If you’re in a hotel and find evidence of bedbugs, alert the staff right away and request a new room, either on a different floor or several rooms away. If you’re in a vacation rental or Airbnb, you may have fewer options. A representative from Airbnb said the company has a 24-hour customer service line, which can help with refunds and rebooking in the event that an issue like bedbugs arises.
If you think you’ve been exposed, you can take steps to prevent bringing any hitchhikers home. Jeff White, an entomologist and technical director of BedBug Central, an educational resource about bedbugs, suggests keeping a few large garbage bags in your car to store your luggage in. Once home, carefully inspect the inside and outside of your suitcase (the lint roller can help.) Run your clothing and other dryer-safe belongings through a hot cycle in the dryer, which will kill any bugs and eggs (washing is unnecessary.)
It’s worth remembering that bedbugs don’t pose the public-health risk of some other pests. “Don’t let bedbugs take over your mind,” Dr. Miller said. “The housefly landing on your salad is way more dangerous than having a bedbug walk across your bed.”
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A version of this article appears at Wirecutter.com.