Oh Sh*t! How to Deal With Bed Bugs While Traveling

Long-term travelers tend to be fairly cool-headed folks. From missing a flight to falling prey to pick-pockets, most have had to deal with a fair share of stress while on the road. Even so, nothing can set off a panic attack in the mind of a traveler like the word bed bugs.

Bed bugs have been infesting homes and inns for thousands of years. These little vampires like to live in dark places, like the seams of a mattress or behind a wooden headboard, wherever is closest to their food source (us, duh). No destination is safe from these bloodthirsty creatures and a tidy room doesn’t always mean that it’s pest-free.

Hostel bunks, hotel beds, couches, train cars, motor coaches, or airports – each could be your temporary home while traveling. And this constant moving comes with some risks. Okay, so, even though it was kind of bound to happen and even though I had accepted the riskiness of sleeping in a bunch of random beds, it was still quite alarming and awful when it actually did happen to me in Sofia.

What do you do when the you’re the subject of a full-scale bed bug attack?

First, make sure that it is in fact bed bugs.

bed bug bites
First morning after the nighttime attack. The bed bug bites are hardly visible yet.

When we woke up after our first night in Sofia, I was already itchy all over. At the time I didn’t think much of it. Mosquitos love me and I just assumed that a little mosquito family had visited our room during the night. It wasn’t until later that afternoon, when the bites began to reveal themselves, that I realized that these were not mosquito bites. I had red welts, almost like hives, spread across my arms, chest, back, and stomach. It felt chicken pox all over again.

Most of the literature out there on how to deal with bed bugs says that bed bug bites can be hard to confirm. The bites can look like regular mosquito or flea bites, a severe allergic reaction can even cause blisters. On the other hand though, some folks may not have any reaction to the bug bites at all. (This explains how Chris was able to escape our shared bed unscathed.)

However, if you’re bites appear in a line pattern, then it’s no doubt bed bugs. Bed bugs are quite gluttonous. So, many times, bites will form a line. (The pros call groups of three “breakfast, lunch, and dinner” because they must have a sick sense of humor.) However, the line may be longer, like the unbroken chain I had running down my back, or shorter, like, just one or two bites.

Definitive proof of an infestation is to find a bug itself, of course. And Chris spotted definitive proof (a little red dot) walking across his arm after our second night in the room.

Yep, it’s bed bugs. Now what…

+ Change rooms, inspect luggage, and wash clothes on high heat: Once Chris had accepted our unfortunate fate, we contacted the hostel staff right away. Fortunately, their response was wonderful. They moved us to a new room, gave us two free nights, doused our luggage with bug spray, and washed and dried all of our clothes.

  • Many times bed bug infestations are limited to just one or two rooms. It should be safe to change rooms while still in the same hotel or hostel. Just make sure that the new room doesn’t share a wall with the old one and check the beds of your new room! (More on that below.)
  • Bed bugs are nomadic and will hitch a ride in your luggage if you’re not careful. Inspect every piece of your luggage, check all seams and pockets for these bothersome blood-suckers before packing up again.
  • Bed bugs are also notoriously hard to get rid of because (a) they hide and (b) they can live up to a year without food. One of the best way to kill bed bugs is heat. Throw all clothing items into the washer, and dry on high heat. Leaving luggage in a car, parked in full sunlight, can also an effective way to rid your stuff of the bugs.
Mysterious Bulgarian anti-itch cream.
Mysterious Bulgarian anti-itch cream.

+ Make a trip to the pharmacy: If you’re bug bites are as bad as mine, you won’t need to do much explaining at the pharmacy. Just show them the bites, and make an itching motion and a sad face. They’ll understand and then they’ll hand you various creams and pills. They’ll also implore you to visit a doctor, because “those bites look bad. It is not normal.” You may choose to ignore that advice if you wish. (Honestly, ain’t nobody got time for that.)

Pro-tip: Pack some Benadryl in your first aid kit. it’s not available over the counter in all countries (learned that the hard way). It will help if you ever do have the misfortune of dealing with bed bugs.

bed bug bites
Four days after first bites. Definitely got worse before they got better. At least the itching had stopped!

+ Do not scratch!: Not constantly scratching the bites was probably the biggest test to my willpower since I discovered froyo. I actually didn’t hardly leave the room for two days because if I wasn’t constantly focused on not-scratching, I would absent-mindedly scratch. But scratching only makes the itch worse. So, just wash the bites with soap and water, and keep applying that anti-itch cream.

+ It will heal, eventually: It took about three, maybe four, days for the worst of the itching to subside. After that I was just left with the horribly disfiguring red bumps all over my body. But those went away too, after about three weeks.

Of Course it’s always better to just not get bit

The best way to avoid a run-in with these little monsters is to thoroughly inspect your hotel or hostel room. Check the bed first by pulling back the sheets to inspect the mattress seams, especially at the corners. Look for telltale signs like black spots, blood stains, or an actual bug. Also check the bed frame, behind the headboard, curtain rails, floor boards, door frames, and any hotel furniture. If you see anything suspect, notify management and change rooms immediately.

At the time, this experience was one of the lowest on the trip for me. It was pretty miserable. Thankfully the itching eventually stopped and I could live like a normal person again. Well, a normal person who obsessively checks all rooms for bed bugs. And we haven’t had a bed bug incident since.

Do you have any bed bug stories? Or advice?

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