How To Deal With Bed Bugs While Traveling

**Warning: Do not read on if you're squeamish about bed bugs and/or their bites.**

Bed Bugs. Cimex Lectularius. Little parasites that live in beds and bite you while you're sleeping. If you're like me, that sounds like a nightmare. But it's not. Unfortunately, it's a very real possibility, and one that I've dealt with myself on numerous occasions.

The more you move around from place-to-place, the more your likelihood of an encounter with these pesky creatures increases. Many people may associate bed bugs with a dirty, gross, or poorly-kept hostel but I can tell you that's not always an indicator. In fact, one of the most clean-looking dorms that I saw in Europe ended up being infested with bed bugs. It's not always easy to tell if they're there - especially if you've never encountered them before. With my bad luck, I've now dealt with the crimson ramblers (as some call them) three times in my international travels. The first time around, I was utterly clueless. Hopefully this post will serve as a helpful resource for any of you who might have the same concerns I did when my first bites appeared on that fateful day in 2014.

This is my right arm at the peak of the worst of our bed bug infestation in Eastern Europe. I know, right? Bad. They were also on my face, back, and legs. It was unbearable and unsightly.

This is my right arm at the peak of the worst of our bed bug infestation in Eastern Europe. I know, right? Bad. They were also on my face, back, and legs. It was unbearable and unsightly.

How do I know that my bites are from bed bugs?

1) The bites appear in clusters of two or three (but can be in clusters of even more, see photo on the right) on skin that would have been exposed while you were sleeping, usually your arms or legs.
2) They don't go away as quickly as a mosquito bite would.
3) In my experience, they are more persistently itchy than a mosquito bite would be as well. Furthermore, if you share my sensitivity to bites, they may become welts. 

Think your bites might be scabies? That's happened to me too - read more about dealing with scabies here.


What are some signs that there might be bed bugs on my bed?

Bed bug poo on our mattress in Nadi, Fiji.

There are a few ways you can tell if there are bed bugs at your accommodation. I highly recommend checking your mattress before you stay somewhere. Don't make the same mistakes I've made.

1) There may be little brown, dot-like stains on the sides of the mattress, especially along the seams. These stains are bed bug feces.

A dead bed bug, also in Nadi. Click for more detail.

2) You might see little dead bed bugs on the bed frame or around the mattress.

3) If you've already gotten a few bites and want to double-check whether they're from bed bugs, look for little bloody dots on your sheet from where you may have rolled over and crushed a bug in your sleep.

4) I have read that, in some cases, you can enter your darkened hotel or hostel room and throw open the covers as you shine a flashlight (torch) on the bed. Then you may see the bugs scurrying along under the covers. This has never worked for me personally, but it's worth a shot if you suspect bugs. 

I'm covered in bites that seem like they might be from bed bugs, but I don't see any signs of them on the mattress.

Unfortunately, you may see no signs of bugs on your bed even if they are there. It's possible that you slept in a bed that's not truly infested and there are only a few bugs about. Most bed bugs are barely visible and there are a myriad of places they could be hiding - along the seams of your pillowcase, for instance.

Another possibility is that you stayed somewhere with bed bugs a few weeks ago, and your body is just now reacting to the bites. Not everybody will react to a bed bug bite the same way. For instance, bites tend to show up on me right away whereas Emmett didn't notice any until almost two weeks after we'd stayed somewhere that was infested.

Bed bugs bit me and I can't stop itching. How can I get some relief?

This is always my biggest concern when I've dealt with bed bugs. I've found out the hard way that my skin is quite sensitive to their saliva (ick) and my bites are usually welt-like, incredibly itchy, and can last for weeks at a time. You may not be as sensitive as I am but bed bug bites can still be unbearably itchy for even a short time.

The best solution for itchy bed bug bites is an antihistamine pill with diphenhydramine (like Benadryl, Dimedrol, or Nytol) and a 1 % hyrdrocortisone cream. When I was in Slovakia dealing with over 70 bites after having unknowingly stayed in an infested hostel, I actually had neither a pill or anti-itch cream. I tried your basic over-the-counter antihistamines like Claritin and Allegra but they offered no relief. Neither did the Fenistil topical cream that they gave me. I really wanted a cortisone cream or a benadryl but they were only available from the apothecary with a prescription from a doctor & I couldn't afford a doctor's appointment at that time. I now always make sure to pack benadryl pills and hyrdrocortisone cream just in case. Having these items in my bag made me prepared on this current trip when dealing with bed bugs in Nadi, Fiji and in Hamilton, New Zealand.

Bed bugs are probably/definitely on my clothes or luggage. How do I get rid of them?

1) Pesticide. Ask your hostel to lend you some pesticide to spray the outside of your luggage, your boots, or anything else you can't throw in the washing machine.
2) Heat. Wash everything you own in hot water. OR if it's already clean, you could throw it in the drier on the hottest setting and run it twice. I've also heard that you can put everything you own in a garbage bag, tie it up and leave it in the sun for a day or two.

Who is responsible for the bed bugs?!?

It's the fault of the other travelers who stayed there before you and/or the hostel's fault for not keeping track of their arrival. If it's just a few bugs or bites and the hostel staff is apologetic and helpful in getting rid of the bugs, I wouldn't worry about it too much. This is a common problem and most hostels or hotels can't help it if a guest brings bugs. However, I would write (and have written) a bad review of a hostel if they're rude or unconcerned about the fact that I picked up a literal parasite at their establishment. I've had four encounters with hostel staff regarding bed bugs and half of them were positive. The other half, not so much. I'll contrast the good with the bad.

Story Time: My Experience With Bed Bugs

Daydreaming of bite-free skin at the Castle Devin ruins outside of Bratislava. If you look closely, you can see three bites on my cheek.

My experience, the good: a hostel in Bratislava, Slovakia. They were so helpful that I'm not going to name them just so that their reputation won't be unfairly tarnished online. Also, this happened two years ago and they most definitely solved the problem. How were they helpful? Seeing my arm covered in bites like the picture I included in the beginning of the post, the staff reacted with horror. They immediately went out and got me a mentholated lotion which actually brought me some relief (unfortunately I used it up within a couple of days because it was a small size and my bites were plentiful). Then they told us to shower and that they would bug-bomb our dorm room with all of our stuff in it. They got me a room at a hostel across town, along with Emmett and another guy who had the misfortune of staying in the same dorm as I did. They also washed all of our clothes for us on the hottest setting. They treated us so well and were incredibly apologetic.

Our bed in Nadi which only looked perfectly innocent and otherwise clean.   Lies.

Our bed in Nadi which only looked perfectly innocent and otherwise clean. Lies.

My experience, the bad: Tropic of Capricorn Hostel in Nadi, Fiji. We stayed there for four days this past August before I got my first tell-tale three-bite cluster. That's when we began to mentally kick ourselves for not having checked the mattress. Once I saw that I had bites, we did check the mattress and lo & behold: there were all the tell-tale signs. Poo, dead bugs, etc. We told the hostel staff about the bites and bugs but they were unconcerned. The front desk lady told me "okay, a maid will talk to you about it." The maid showed up ages later and then had the audacity to suggest that we probably brought them with us. This was highly unlikely because Nadi was our first destination after leaving home and there were clearly dead bugs and poop on the mattress! Obviously they had a bed bug issue! They insisted that those dead bugs were "from a while ago." Even so, that doesn't prove we brought new ones. And doesn't that show that you've done a bad job cleaning up a past infestation if there are still dead bugs along the mattress? Maybe they could have thrown the old, infested mattress away? They didn't care, though. And didn't offer any help. After a few more hours, management arrived and we begged them to let us use some pesticide to spray the outside of our bags so we wouldn't bring them to New Zealand, our next destination. Finally they relented. But we had to pay to wash all of our clothes in hot water which I thought was ridiculous because it was most definitely their fault. They didn't want to work with us at all. I thought it was terrible customer service, yikes. Compared to Bratislava, it was a world of difference.

I hope this post was helpful for anyone out there who is worried about bed bugs or already dealing with the discomfort of having them around. If you have any more questions, feel free to leave them in the comments section below. Also, for a final reminder: don't forget to do a quick check of your mattresses everywhere you go and pack some hydrocortisone cream just in case.

Dealing with Bed Bugs while Traveling // Bed Bug Help