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We caught bedbugs from traveling — and then the nightmare began

Dec. 20, 2019
13 min read
A single bed bug on a blanket fiber
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Before going to sleep at night, I would tear my bed apart — removing one layer of bedding at a time to examine every fold and indentation. I'd lift the mattress, rip off the pillowcases, inspect around the box springs and in the bug traps set around the house. I'd repeat the process again in the morning and expand my hunt to other locations around the house.

I wish I could say I'd simply lost my mind, but the reality is almost worse: Earlier this year, we brought bedbugs into our house after a hotel stay.

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Disgusting, biting, bloodsucking bedbugs crawled into our luggage, came home with us and moved in without us noticing. And no, these evil creatures were not from a seedy motel or hostel.

Our battle against the bedbugs stretched for several months, and while I'd do my best to make light of the situation, it was truly awful. It was a mental, physical, emotional and financial drain to have an enemy in your home you rarely see, despite your best efforts. But, not seeing them didn't stop them from easily finding and biting us (and our kids) while we slept.

How we caught bedbugs

I'll cut to the chase: I'm not going to name the hotel where we got bedbugs, though I know with 100% confirmed certainty when and where it happened.

I made the decision early on in this journey not to call out the location, as it largely defeats the purpose of the story since it can happen at any hotel. I don't want you to feel false security by avoiding that one specific property, because the reality is that bedbugs are on the rise and it's smart to take bedbug precautions no matter where you stay. Also, the hotel was responsive to our concerns once we called them and handled the matter as well as one could hope after the fact. I did not identify myself as a TPG employee. To the hotel, I was a guest like any other.

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 each morning over the course of our stay. For me, almost all of the bites were 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.)

After the trip was over, we flew home, unpacked our clothes, washed the dirty laundry and piled the still-clean clothes on the couch overnight. Our unpacked luggage sat in the corner of our bedroom for a day or two before it was put away.

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That was more than enough time for the bugs to settle in to their new home.

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The first full day I was home, I took pictures of my bites from the trip as they were now much more bothersome, and as itchy as poison ivy. I Googled bedbugs and began to worry. My bites, however, didn't look like the welts appearing in my (disturbing) internet photo searches. And, no one else in the family had this kind of rash. I mistakenly thought if it was bedbugs, we would all have a similar reaction.

(Photo by Summer Hull/The Points Guy)
Blurry, but you get the idea (Photo by Summer Hull/The Points Guy.)

I left home for a few brief trips, and the bites started to heal. And then I returned, and new bites started appearing.

How we discovered the bedbugs

Most mornings back at home, another bite (or two, or three) would appear — 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. But by this time, I was pretty certain we had an infestation.

A 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 bedbug excrement were found.

It was confirmed. We had bedbugs. (And yes, this is all as gross as it sounds.)

(Photo by Summer Hull/The Points Guy.)

How we fought the bugs

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.

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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 ET, because bedbugs and their eggs can't survive more than an hour at that temperature.

(Photo by Summer Hull/The Points Guy.)
(Photo by Summer Hull/The Points Guy.)

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, we had the house treated at temperatures upwards of 170 degrees, three separate times, by two different companies.

Apparently, just enough bugs or eggs were missed the first time — and 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.

(Photo by Summer Hull/The Points Guy.)

How to tell if you have bedbugs

I, apparently, react quickly to bedbug bites. It took my eldest daughter three weeks 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 simply 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.

That could make it very hard to detect a problem, and means you can't believe you're staying in a bedbug-free room just because you don't wake up with bites. Sorry.

What not to do if you have 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. (While some will cast stones at this admission, I've had lots of these bedbug discussions in the ensuing months and most frequent travelers I talk to admit they rarely — or never — inspect their rooms either.)
  • When I started getting bit 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 bedbugs

Bedbugs are, unfortunately, on the rise. They don't discriminate and aren't only found in rundown hotels — in fact, we acquired these pests at a very nice hotel. But the risk isn't even limited to only beds or hotels. Bedbugs can be found in airports and even on airplanes. 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, or into their next hotel or onto a flight.

And of course, who knows how long the pests were there before our stay.

Our bags had stowaways, and on our way home we dragged them through an airport and loaded them 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 really not.

Sadly, there's no foolproof way to avoid getting bedbugs, but you can reduce the risk:

  • 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, 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 every single room you stay in for bedbugs. It's hard to get used to, but you can do it. Pull back the covers and the mattress pad and look in crevices and along seams for bugs or evidence of bugs, such as dark streaks. 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.
Mattress folds are a great place to look for evidence of bedbugs (Photo by Summer Hull/The Points Guy.)
  • If you start experiencing bites on your trip that could be bedbug bites, inspect the bed again and ask 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, that's great. 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. 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 doesn't sound crazy at all.
  • 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 climb-up 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.

Bottom line

Our bedbug treatment expenses totaled nearly $5,000. The indirect costs were higher than that. But that's not even the worst part.

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You see, bedbugs make you crazy. You inspect every bump and bite. You use flashlights and magnifying glasses to examine your bed before going to sleep. You start to doubt your own mind, 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. If hotel management, a pest control company or any other person doesn't believe you, it's an ever tougher, more exhausting fight against an enemy you may not ever see.

Just try going to sleep when you know you, and your children, will be bitten during the night.

It's just not going to happen.

Bedbugs have not, and will not, stop me from traveling. But this experience has forever changed how I travel. Packing and unpacking is harder now. Treating my family's suitcases and belongings as if they're contaminated is stressful and time consuming. If that keeps my family from enduring a bedbug attack again, however, it's all worth it.

Please, learn from my errors. Don't assume bedbugs won't happen to you because you stay in upscale hotels. They can, and do, live anywhere and everywhere. That's why it's important to implement a smart strategy for managing your luggage, so you can hopefully prevent bedbugs from hitching a ride to your home — even if you have the misfortunate of sharing a hotel room with them.

Featured image by Getty Images
Editorial disclaimer: Opinions expressed here are the author’s alone, not those of any bank, credit card issuer, airline or hotel chain, and have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of these entities.