Recently in this column, we discussed kosher locusts. This week I will address a bug that is absolutely not kosher under any circumstances, not literally and not figuratively, either.
I am talking about bedbugs.
The itchy, bloodsucking critters are on the rise, despite years of heightened awareness — OK, total hysteria — about infestations in places swanky (haute hotels) and quotidian (the subway — yikes!). They can ruin a traveler’s life more effectively than any other non-disease-causing bug I know.
Before we go any further, a cautionary tale: I know someone who brought bedbugs home from vacation to her apartment in Fort Greene. Seven thousand dollars worth of extermination later, she was done with the ordeal. She also had to live, for various weeks at a time, without cookware, laptops, phones…and forget the Tempur-Pedic. That $7,000 figure was just to get rid of the bugs; the cost of replacing items and scrambling for lodging was considerable as well.
For me, $7,000 justifies a certain level of paranoia. So it’s time to share my own hotel protocol — which has kept me bug-free so far, despite several close shaves.
I no longer rely on the Internet for guidance. There are online bedbug registries, where travelers report sightings at specific lodgings, and plenty of online hotel reviews citing bugs. In reality, no website can ever truly be up to date with a microscopic pest that hops from coat to mattress in seconds and has Rasputin-like powers of survival; conversely, lodgings that have addressed problems can be the cleanest bets.
Don’t think you’re safe in private homes, either. My first bedbug run-in was an itchy awakening in the long-neglected guest room of friends who were out of town. This was Boston in early March, and the place was sealed up tight, so when I saw a line of itchy red bumps down my thigh, I knew it wasn’t a mosquito.
I marched downstairs in my bare feet, and then unceremoniously dumped every item of clothing into the washer on the hot cycle. From there, they went directly into a hot dryer. My favorite jeans shrank, but I kept thinking: $7,000. That’s a lot of denim.
I emptied out my backpack, threw the contents (papers, chargers, lotions, odds and ends) into Ziploc bags, and tossed the backpack into hot water, too. I wrapped my shoes in plastic, sealed the bag tight, and tiptoed to the car for another pair. Then I took a hot shower, dressed, tossed the laundered goods and Ziploc bags into the laundered backpack, and left.
What about the unwashable items? Back at home, I kept the Ziplocs sealed for six months, enough time for bugs to die; the shoes went into the freezer for a week.
After that, I started inspecting every unfamiliar bed. Here is where 15 minutes of paranoid Internet research pays off: See enough close-up photos of bedbugs, bedbug feces and bedbug blood in mattress crevices (and headboards, and night-table lamp bases), and you have a decent idea of what to look for. I told you this wasn’t a kosher column.
When I get to a hotel, I ask politely to inspect the room. Rarely have I encountered an argument; usually I’m handed a key. Upon entering, I put nothing down. I roll up my sleeves and approach the head of a bed, taking care not to let any part of me touch the bedspread except my hands, which I will wash. I gently remove the pillow, pull the blankets and sheets aside, and lift the corner of the mattress cover to inspect the seams.
Most of the time, it’s either reassuringly clean or dotted with tiny particles that, on closer inspection, are benign dirt. Occasionally I have found suspicious stains that could be bug blood. Once I found dirty enough seams that I marched back up front, handed in the key, and told the clerk in a calm, polite tone that I had seen evidence of bugs and wanted a refund. No clerk will argue with you — trust me.
It doesn’t hurt to ask them, either. I’ve found proprietors to be surprisingly honest about the challenges of keeping rooms clean, the measures they’ve taken, and the risk involved when so many people come and go.
You can minimize that risk by storing your luggage in the bathroom, as many experts advise, though I personally feel that a good mattress inspection is your best weapon; if bugs aren’t there, they probably aren’t hiding on top of the dresser, either.
If, like me, you travel with an oblivious spouse who plunks down on one bed while you inspect the other and find suspicious stains, you do have options. Many hotels have on-site laundry: Strip, change, toss your stuff in the hot cycle or dryer then and there before getting back in the car. I drove to the gas station and vacuumed the seats thoroughly, for good measure. Then I wiped down our shoes and the steering wheel with alcohol.
Paranoid? Maybe. But for $7,000, I’ll risk the ridicule.