How to avoid bed bugs while travelling

The blood-sucking parasites are found even in top hotels and on airplanes and can follow you home in your luggage

Singaporean Adrian Khong, 47, has been bitten by bedbugs twice.

Both times occurred when he was travelling - while trekking in Nepal in 1994 and again in San Francisco last year.

Bedbug populations have reportedly multiplied since the 1990s, according to the website BedBug Central, which tracks their spread, and the blood-sucking critters can now be found in almost every country and region.

Although the reason for their surge is unconfirmed, one contributing factor could be the rise of international travel, suggests a publication by the United States Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The parasites thrive in places with a frequent turnover of people, such as hotel rooms, airplanes and taxis.

  • Bedbug 101

  • What are bedbugs?
    They are blood-sucking parasites found worldwide. They come out of their hiding places at night and feed on the exposed skin of the host, usually without the knowledge of the person. They feed on blood, but are generally not believed to be transmitters of any infections. Adult bedbugs are about the size of an apple seed, up to 5mm long, and can survive up to a year without feeding.

    Here is how to avoid bringing bedbugs home with you:

    Do your research
    When planning where to stay, check for recent complaints of hotel infestations on or

    Check reviews before booking a hotel room as guests who have encountered bedbugs are likely to mention this in their hotel review.

    Inspect the room
    Check the surface of the mattress and under the blankets, especially in the corners, mattress seams and around the headboard. Pay particular attention to cracks, crevices, seams and folds.

    Look for dried blackish spots, skin sheddings and even live bugs. Use a torch or the light from your smartphone to help you spot them more easily.

    If you want to be extra careful, use a hairdryer and run it across the surfaces you are inspecting. The heat should send any bedbugs scurrying out.

    Do not let them get into your luggage
    When inspecting the room, place your luggage in the bathtub. Bedbugs generally do not like smooth, hard surfaces as they are difficult to hide in.

    When packing or unpacking your luggage, place it on the luggage rack away from walls, the bed or the couch - places where bedbugs commonly reside. But before doing this, check that there are no bedbugs on the luggage rack.

    Pack your dirty clothes in sealable bags if you think you have been in bedbug-infested quarters.

    There are several anti-bedbug sprays on the market, but experts have given them mixed reviews.

    If bitten, do not scratch
    Instead, wash the bites and treat them with an anti-itch cream or apply calamine lotion. Then seek advice from a medical professional.

    If an insect has burrowed into your skin, you are not dealing with a bedbug. Seek medical help immediately as it may be a tick, which can be a carrier of various diseases.

    Upon your return, destroy any bugs or eggs in your luggage
    Place your bags on the hard surface floor, not the sofa or the bed.

    Wash dirty clothes in warm or hot water, then dry them in a dryer on a hot setting. This is sufficient to kill bedbugs in clothing or linens.

    Then, sun your bags under direct sunlight for at least 30 minutes.

    If the infestation is localised, cleaning the area with a vacuum cleaner that produces hot steam is enough. But if the whole house is affected, it is advisable to engage a pest control company.

    Source: Chan Brothers Travel, Dr Michael Chiam, Dr Sue-Ann Ho, Dr Yew Yik Weng, Lonely Planet website

Cafe owner Mr Khong says his first encounter with bedbugs was not unexpected, as he had stayed in a teahouse which provided only basic accommodation and was not very clean.

His second encounter was more surprising as it happened in a fourstar hotel in San Francisco, where he stayed for three nights during a work trip last year.

After the first night, he found red bite marks on the right side of his torso. By the second night, he was convinced of a bedbug infestation and demanded that the hotel move him to another room.

He says: "I was surprised there were bugs even in a reputable fourstar hotel. There was otherwise nothing else wrong with the room."

In hotel rooms, bedbugs have been found not just on beds, but also on walls and in blankets and pillows, according to a New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene document.

The insects are a nasty inconvenience for travellers as they are notoriously difficult to eliminate., a free public database of user-submitted bedbug reports from across the US and Canada, has collected about 20,000 reports across 12,000 locations so far. The site was founded in 2006.

On airplanes, bedbugs "hitchhiking" on a tourist's luggage in a plane's cargo hold have been known to hop onto other bags and lay eggs, exacerbating the problem.

Reports of infestations in homes, apartments, hotel rooms, hospitals and hostels in developed countries appear to be on the rise, says Dr Yew Yik Weng, a consultant at the National Skin Centre here.

A Daily Mail Online report in February, for instance, noted that the Waldorf Astoria and Marriott Marquis hotels - among the most prestigious hotels in New York - were "infested" with the bugs.

Dr Michael Chiam, 55, a senior tourism lecturer at Ngee Ann Polytechnic, says: "Bedbugs can happen anywhere. Even good and reputable hotels sometimes face such a problem."

The problem lies in "the transient nature of the hotel business" and the fact that bedbugs can hide and travel in clothes and luggage, says Mr Gevin Png, 42, course manager of Temasek Polytechnic's diploma in hospitality and tourism management.

"This makes hotels highly susceptible to bedbugs," he says, adding that they can make a swift dent on a hotel's reputation these days, with the popularity of social media platforms.

From his research, negative bedbug-related reviews could mean a fall in occupancy rates for the affected hotel. And if not addressed, the damage to the hotel's reputation could be permanent.

"Half of the guests who find bedbugs in a room will likely switch hotels immediately and probably never go back to that hotel," he says, adding that guests can make claims against the hotel for medical bills or even take legal action for "pain and suffering" encountered during the stay.

The bug's bark, however, may be worse than its bite.

Dr Sue-Ann Ho, a consultant at the National University Hospital's division of dermatology, explains that most of the time, treatment is not required for bedbug bites.

"If the areas bitten are not scratched, they may resolve in a week or two," she says, adding that topical steroids and antihistamines can help with the itch.

It is recommended, she adds, that victims consult a dermatologist for the bites, especially if they have many bites, and these develop into blisters or skin infections.

Singaporean Mona Ang also encountered bedbugs during a one night hotel staycation in Sentosa two years ago.

The adjunct lecturer in a private education institute, who is in her 40s, brought along her own pillow, on which, she believes, the bedbugs followed her home.

After reaching home, she noticed tiny bites on her neck, arms and the back of her thighs. A doctor prescribed her anti-itch cream and oral medication.

Alarmed, she quickly hired a pest exterminator, who found the bugs - and their eggs - on her mattress and bed frame.

"They sprayed insecticides all over them and in the rest of the house. Their equipment reminded me of the one used in the Ghostbusters movie," she says, referring to the 1984 classic.

After the episode, her home had to be aired for a few hours and she also had to sun her blanket and pillows to get rid of the smell of the insecticides.

She says: "Nowadays, I do a quick check of every hotel bed before I lie on it. I also clean my luggage more carefully after returning from a trip."

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on December 25, 2016, with the headline How to avoid bed bugs while travelling. Subscribe