Last Updated Jul 7, 2010 3:30 PM EDT
In case you haven't heard, bed bugs are back. And one of the most popular places they like to hang out and "feed" is in hotel rooms. So if you travel -- and who doesn't? -- you need to take some precautions to make sure you don't bring any little critters home with you. I can tell you from personal experience that getting rid of these pests is both a hassle and extremely expensive. Better to avoid the problem in the first place.
I decided to call Louis Sorkin, an entomologist with New York's American Museum of Natural History, for some travel advice. He's one of the nation's most knowledgeable bed bug experts and has been studying these insects for more than a decade.
It turns out that Sorkin keeps close quarters with these blood-suckers. Yet despite maintaining colonies of these pests at work, he goes to great lengths while traveling to avoid bringing them into his own home. Here are his recommendations for keeping the bed bugs away:
1. Check for Complaints
Before you book any hotel, go online and check for bed bug complaints from other travelers. Sorkin's favorite sites for this include TripAdvisor, The Bedbug Registry and Bedbugger.com. Just keep in mind that researching a property before your trip won't guarantee you a pest-free stay since many infestations go unreported.
2. Inspect the Room
Once you get your room key and step over the threshold, it's time to get to work. At a bare minimum, you should inspect the mattress (you'll need to remove the sheets and carefully check the seams), headboard (try removing it from the wall if you can), and side tables by the bed. If there's a sofa bed, you'll need to open that up too. You're looking for everything from live bed bugs and their eggs to blood spots and fecal matter.
If you happen to notice a white powder residue in the drawers or around the circumference of the room, chances are the hotel has recently treated for bed bugs.
3. Keep Luggage Away from the Bed
The biggest mistake you can make is to lay your suitcase on the bed and start unpacking your clothes. In fact, you don't even want to store your bag on the floor. Instead, use the luggage stand. Just make sure to inspect the wooden legs and cloth straps before doing so.
Really cautious travelers will even keep their suitcases in the bathroom (and the tub, if possible) since bed bugs don't tend to sleep in the powder room, says Sorkin.
4. Use Plastic Bags for Laundry
Anything you wear in the hotel room, especially your pajamas, could come in contact with bed bugs. The smartest thing to do is to place all of your dirty laundry in a sealed plastic bag so it doesn't contaminate your other clothing or your suitcase.
5. Wash Everything
Once you get home, you should wash and dry (preferably on hot) all of your dirty laundry. For your clean clothing, you can skip the washer and just pop it in the drier.
Here's a bonus tip that most people probably won't follow, but something that Sorkin always does. He also treats his suitcase for bed bugs. He bought himself something called a PackTite Portable Heat Unit so that he can heat his luggage and kill any potential critters. Bed bugs can't live in extremely hot temperatures so he knows that if an insect did manage to hitch a ride on his bag, he can get to it before the blood-sucker has an opportunity to start laying eggs in his home.
Since most travelers aren't going to go out and buy one of these heaters, Sorkin says you could also spray your luggage with a pesticide designed for bed bugs.
Does this list seem too extreme? If so, what precautions are you willing to take to avoid introducing a bed bug infestation into your home?
Bedbugs image by Oldmaison, courtesy of CC 2.0.
Stacey Bradford is the author of The Wall Street Journal. Financial Guidebook for New Parents.