Q: We’re thinking of visiting the badlands near here sometime soon — Mount Rushmore, etc. But my wife has been fearful of bedbugs ever since one of our daughters brought them back from the Wisconsin Dells, and it was total hell getting rid of them. I saw last fall that you trotted around a planet redolent in parasites, so I’m wondering (pardon the pun) how in the world you have avoided them.
John Turner, of Davenport, Iowa
A: I wish I had some brilliant personal advice for your better half, but the only way I’ve steered clear of being bugged in my many travels has been through sheer, dumb luck.
Last fall, for instance, I was so worried about mosquitoes giving me yellow fever, elephants charging our safari van, and eight-hour flights causing insomnia that bedbugs didn’t even cross my mind. Besides, I was at the mercy of my travel company, which made all the arrangements. It wasn’t as if I could have pitched a tent in a hotel courtyard. I guess I hoped that if the hotels were good enough for former first lady Michelle Obama and her daughters (which the one in Morocco had been just four months earlier) they would be acceptable for me.
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And I don’t have a spotless record on this subject. In 1961, long before these critters became a massive blip on travelers’ radar screens, our family took a summer vacation in the West. My dad had just traded his 11-year-old Pontiac Chieftain for a nearly new Buick LeSabre, so we thought we were ready for a week in the Rocky Mountains and Yellowstone. Well, in addition to a leaky radiator that plagued us during our return trip through Nebraska, we woke up from our one-night stay in a Hoxie, Kan. motel scratching to beat the band. We soon realized we had been eaten alive overnight by bedbugs. Fortunately, we were able to wash all our clothes at my uncle’s house in Denver and, unlike your daughter, we avoided bringing any six-legged hitchhikers home.
So, your wife is smart to be apprehensive, because the bedbug problem has become a major headache. According to a recent poll by the National Pest Management Association, 95 percent of pest control companies surveyed had reported treating at least one bedbug infestation in the United States within the last year — up a mind-boggling 70 percent over a decade before. These invasions included not only hotels from fleabag to luxury, but also office buildings, department stores, movie theaters, college dormitories, etc., etc.
But experts say there are steps you can take to help prevent yourself from being a smorgasbord for these miserable pests. Here are a few courtesy of Frommer’s, Purdue University entomologist Gwen Pearson and Missy Henriksen at the pest management association:
Before you even leave the house, you can reduce your chances of dragging unwanted guests home by using a hard-shelled suitcase. You also might want to pack your clothes, shoes, etc., in sealable plastic bags. Or, once in a hotel, carefully wrap the entire suitcase in a huge garbage bag or a specially designed zip-up plastic bag sold by some storage and luggage stores. You might also check reviews on such sites as tripadvisor.com to see whether past guests have complained of any creepy-crawlie activity. (Unfortunately, www.bedbugregistry.com seems to have no new postings since last February.) And if you book directly with the hotel, ask what bedbug prevention measures they employ to see what they say.
Once you check in, do a little work before you relax. First, don’t throw the suitcases on a bed or put them on a carpeted floor. Instead, keep them on a table, dresser, luggage rack or tile floor of the bathroom, where bedbugs can’t hide. Immediately check the bed for not only the insects themselves (about the size and shape of an apple seed) but also for tiny blood stains or small black dots resembling mold or grains of pepper. Pull back the sheets and check under the mattress, behind the headboard and under the bed. Then expand your search to include an inspection of curtains, soft chairs, sofa and the closet. While you’re at it, you might want to keep an eye out for white powder in case the establishment has tried to treat a problem with insecticide.
If you find suspicious activity, report it immediately and demand a new room. Make sure that room is at least two floors above or below the original, advises Henriksen.
Even if you’re satisfied with a room, don’t let your guard down. Be alert for bite marks because while bedbugs aren’t active carriers of disease like ticks and mosquitoes, one Canadian study has found they may be able to carry germs from person to person, including the antibiotic-resistant MRSA.
“They often bite in a line-shaped pattern, in threes,” Henriksen told health.com. “In the industry we call that breakfast, lunch and dinner.”
When you return home — or even before to be extra safe — wash all of your clothes in hot water; bedbugs can’t survive temperatures above 125 degrees. Wipe off and carefully vacuum out your suitcases and dispose of the waste bags. And if you’ve still managed to tote some home even after all of these precautions, it is recommended you call a professional exterminator to make your home bug-free again.
If my experiences are any indication, chances are it’s not going to happen. As you obviously know, I’ve stayed in countless hotels around the country and the world (including many budget inns in my early days) and except for Hoxie, I’ve never had a problem. So don’t douse yourself in pesticides or sit around the pool in a hazmat suit.
“Panic and paranoia doesn’t help at all,” Henriksen said. “Vigilance is the most important thing — following a checklist, doing an inspection. Those are the things that are going to minimize your likelihood of an infestation.”
So have a nice trip. And, hey, don’t let the bedbugs bite.
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