October 1, 2023


Booking Travel

How to search for bedbugs in hotels, according to pest experts

Illustration of a bed bug wearing pajamas on a bed
(Illustration by Katty Huertas/The Washington Post)

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Welcome to your hotel room. Set your bags down. No, not where you plan to sleep. Over there, on the floor. You’re probably tired and want to lie down, but don’t take a load off yet. It’s time for an inspection. If you skip it, you could become a chew stick for bloodthirsty bedbugs.

The hotel industry is pretty used to making sure they identify bedbugs pretty quickly,” said Ben Hottel, an entomologist and technical services manager with Orkin, the international extermination company, “but I always assume that there could be a possibility.”

In Atlanta, Orkin teaches its pest control techniques in a training center outfitted with replica settings, such as a supermarket, hospital, a ranch house with a garage, and a hotel room. Last week, Hottel invited us inside Suite 2005 at the Orkin University Hotel, which came with all the amenities that human guests and cimex lectularius would need for a comfortable stay.

Although reports of bedbugs declined during the coronavirus pandemic, Hottel said the resurgence in travel has fueled an uptick in infestations. Bedbugs need people to move, and now that travelers are mobile again, the pests are proliferating. In addition, when faced with a shortage of blood, the bugs will fall into a dormant state, waiting to revive once they sense that food has entered the room. Keep this in mind when you step inside a recently reopened seasonal rental.

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“As soon as they smelled your breath, they’d start coming out of all the cracks and crevices and running around all over the place, because they’d be super hungry,” he said. “When you leave them and don’t interact with them, they can last awhile.”

A recent report by Orkin singled out Chicago as the city with the highest number of bedbug treatments performed in the country, an ignominious distinction the Windy City has won three years in a row. The top 50 list, which the company based on data compiled between December 2021 and November 2022, also included New York, Philadelphia, Cleveland-Akron and Los Angeles, which jumped seven places.

How to search for bedbugs

Hottel showed up to Orkin’s replica hotel in vacation mode, pulling a steel-gray wheeled bag. Instead of placing his suitcase on the bed or luggage rack — both bedbug hot spots — he placed it on the floor, a distance away. For an extra layer of protection, he kept the bag closed.

“Wherever you are spending most of your time, that is where the bedbugs will be,” he said. “The chair is not going to be a high-risk area as much as the bed, but the couch could be a good spot to check as well.”

Ben Hottel from Orkin shows how to look for bed bugs in a hotel room and demonstrates what a professional inspector would do. (Video: Jayne Orenstein, Andrea Sachs/The Washington Post)

Bedbugs thrive in temperatures in the 65- to 85-degree range. They are partial to rougher surfaces and malleable materials with dark hiding places, such as mattress seams, headboard cracks and box spring crevices. Similar to vampires, they abhor light and feed at night.

Because they don’t fly, they have to bum rides. For travelers, luggage, backpacks and other carriers are the main form of conveyance. Though tiny, they can cross the vast expanse of a hotel bed, scale the walls of your roller bag and hop inside.

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“They only crawl, which is good news,” Hottel said. “If they could jump and fly, we’d be in trouble.”

Also comforting, they do not transmit disease.

The strongest proof of an infestation is to find a living bug, a rusty-brown adult the size of an apple seed or a white youngster as tiny as a freckle (the babies turn red after feeding). Other evidence includes their exoskeletons, eggs, dots of blood or dark spots that represent fecal matter. However, Hottel warned of misdiagnosing the black specks. They could also be coffee stains from breakfast in bed.

Hottel started the inspection at the bed. “The best place to spend your time is on the mattress,” he said.

He removed the pillows and sheets but said to not dedicate too much time on the bedding, because housekeeping frequently changes and washes the linens. He then checked the mattress’s top and bottom seam, slowly walking around the perimeter and lifting up the thick ribbon of material to examine both sides.

“They don’t like a lot of activity, so they are going to go to places where they are the least disturbed, in those cracks,” he said. “If they are on the top of the mattress, they could get smooshed.”

If the mattress is sealed in plastic, he said to not unzip it. The cover is a defense against bedbugs.

“If it has an encasement, it doesn’t mean it’s been infested with bedbugs,” he said. “It’s a good sign that the hotel is taking precautions.”

Next step: Scan the box spring. Hottel said that he once spent 30 minutes searching for bedbugs and finally found one hiding in a wood knot on the box spring.

Overall, the search should not take more than five to 10 minutes. However, if you are still concerned, you can expand your search parameters to the nightstand drawers, bedside lamps, headboards and any framed artwork hanging by the bed.

“If you are not finding anything within this general zone area, [the room] probably doesn’t have bedbugs,” he said.

For our mock inspection, we found one drain fly but no bedbugs.

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What to do if you find a bedbug

If you uncover bedbugs, snap photos of the evidence or collect the specimen in a cup. But don’t bring the live bug to the front desk, in the off-chance it escapes.

If you feel comfortable staying at the property, ask for a new room on another floor or farther down the hall.

“You wouldn’t want to go to the room right next door or the surrounding rooms,” Hottel said, “but in hotels where people are staying a few nights or a week, generally the bedbug issue wouldn’t get bad enough to have a huge spread issue.”

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If you wake up with bites, share your concerns with hotel management but don’t immediately assume the culprit was a bedbug. Hottel said it’s nearly impossible to identify a bug by a bite. Many insect bites look similar, plus people react differently to its nips. Some folks break out in angry welts; others have no symptoms.

“Many people mistakenly believe that mosquitoes, fleas, or spiders bit them. Sometimes people mistake bed bug bites for a common skin condition such as an itchy rash, hives, or chickenpox,” the American Academy of Dermatology Association explains in an online tutorial about bedbugs.

BedBugReports.com, a crowdsourced registry founded in 2010, said it has received 1,120 submissions so far this year, surpassing 2020’s 775 total reports and inching closer to 2019’s 1,942 complaints. (The site is based on the honor system. It does not verify the claims or contact the hotels about the accusations.)

“I woke up with two bites on my arm but didn’t see anything until about 9 p.m.,” a guest wrote in a July 20 post about a Milwaukee hotel. “I was laying in bed and the bug [was] crawling on my pillow.”

According to the report, the couple hand-delivered the evidence to the front desk. The staff moved them to a new room on a different floor, gave them quarters for the laundry machines and refunded their stay.

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If you suspect the hotel where you stayed had bedbugs, leave your luggage in the garage or another room away from your bedroom. Check your bag’s seams and crannies for bugs. Immediately put your clothes in the washing machine. Then crank the dryer to high heat for 30 to 45 minutes, a death sentence for bedbugs.

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If you don’t have laundry facilities, or your clothes require dry cleaning (another means of killing bedbugs), store your garments in a sealed plastic bag for the interim.

Hottel said you can leave your bags in the garage until your next trip or less time if you live in a steamy climate.

“If it’s hot outside,” he said, “a garage could potentially cook the bedbugs.”