When it comes to insects, few are as insidious as the bed bug.
They can live for more than a year without food. Their bodies are slim and flat, allowing them to squeeze into tiny spaces and hide. When they bite, many humans don’t have a visible reaction, so they can freely multiply and spread until the problem is more out of control.
In short, they’re survivors and the last thing you want to bring home from vacation.
USA TODAY spoke to experts on the subject to help travelers avoid them on the road and to figure out what to do in the worst-case scenario: they infest the home.
Here’s what you should do to avoid bed bugs:
Learn more: Best travel insurance
Preventing bed bugs ahead of time
One myth many people have about bed bugs is that they’re only a problem at cheap motels and rentals with low ratings.
That’s simply not true, said Michael Bentley, director of training and education at the National Pest Management Association.
“Bed bugs don’t see dollar signs,” he said. “It could be the top-of-the-line, five star hotel. It can be the one-star, in-and-out hotel that you’re stopping at for a quick overnight while you’re making a cross-country trip. Bed bugs don’t care.”
Bentley and other experts recommend scouring through recent reviews of any potential lodging.
“I usually go two or three months deep and see what the cleanliness situation’s been looking like,” said Halee Whiting, owner of a hotel sales support company and a popular TikToker who created a viral video about how to check your lodging for bed bugs.
Whiting prefers the reviews on TripAdvisor and recommends looking at brand websites for reviews because those are written by loyalty members.
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How to look for bed bugs
Anytime a traveler walks into a new hotel or a rental like Airbnb or VRBO, either leave the luggage outside or put it in the bathroom, ideally the bathtub, according to experts.
Bed bugs gravitate toward places with fabric where humans like to lounge, like beds and sofas.
“There’s likely no place where bedbugs are infesting the bathtub,” Bentley said. “If they’re in the bathtub, we’ve got a bigger problem and we’re not we’re not making it any further into the bedroom.”
Keep the luggage away from the rest of the property until after it is thoroughly inspected it for bed bugs.
How to find bed bugs in hotels
To find out if a hotel or Airbnb has bed bugs, it’s going to take more than a cursory inspection.
Don’t just pull back the bed’s fitted sheet and eyeball it.
First, turn off all the lights and close the shades and turn on the flashlight on your phone, Whiting recommends.
Shine the flashlight on the beds during inspection. Pull the sheets back and check under the creases of the mattress.
“They’re pretty cryptic insects,” Bentley said. “Their body is flattened, kind of like business cards, so they can tuck themselves into these tiny nooks and crannies inside of beds and bed sheets and a little seams along the bedspread.”
You’re not only looking for bugs but also, “tiny brownish, blackish red spots,” he said.
“As bedbugs feed, they pass a lot of that undigested blood that they’re feeding on straight through its feces,” he said. “So they defecate a lot while they’re feeding. So if you happen to see little black spots, that could clearly be an indication that bedbugs are there or have been there and have been feeding.”
Bed bugs can also create a sweet, musty odor akin to sweaty gym socks, said Ron Harrison, an entomologist and global director of technical services for Orkin.
“If you have one or two you won’t smell it,” Harrison said. “But if you have a bad infestation you can smell it when you walk in the room.”
What to do if you find bed bugs in a hotel
If you find bed bugs or any sign of them, like their feces, document what you’ve found in photos and video and contact your hotel or rental host immediately.
Most good hotels will refund the stay and put the room you found them in and every room around it out of order until the bed bugs can be exterminated, Whiting said.
One property, however, only put the room in question out of order, which allowed the bugs to spread and eventually forced the closure of 24 rooms until the problem could be solved, Whiting said.
Airbnb’s policy is to refund guests if they come across bed bugs but it doesn’t always mean there won’t be extra costs.
Andrew Forcier of Columbus, Montana, said Airbnb refunded him when he found bed bugs in his apartment rental in Montreal earlier this year, but only covered 30 percent of the more expensive hotel he had to book at the last minute instead. That cost him $500.
What kills bed bugs
Even if travelers don’t believe they have been exposed to bed bugs, experts provided best practices to avoid spreading an infestation.
Experts recommend washing the clothes you packed in hot water and putting them in the dryer upon returning home because heat kills bed bugs. They also recommend storing luggage in the attic where it’s warmer, or at least away from bedrooms if possible.
If the worst-case scenario happens and bed bugs infest a house, experts agree that it’s not the time for home remedies.
“There really are no over-the-counter, do-it-yourself solutions, because these are such incredibly effective, cryptic insects,” Bentley said. “When it comes to hide and seek, there is no better player in the game out there than bedbugs.”
Using less-effective home methods could allow a population to thrive and spread, he said.
“The safest solution is to go with a pest management professional.”