Getting bedbugs from baggage handling – and everywhere else you travel

Image: U.S. Air Force graphic by Staff Sgt. Joseph McKee

Bed bugs can be found in any hotel or motel – from a hotel motel to a swanky five-star resort. They hitch rides in luggage. They pass through airports, cargo holds, plane seats, rental cars, bus cushions – you name it.

What signs should you look for? With any large infestation of bed bugs you will notice a sweet, musty, odor, it’s been described as like soda pop syrup. They leave small brown or red spots on the sheets. They are tiny until they feast on you and then they can really swell up.

Ideally, you should vacuum-pack your suitcase when you travel but TSA could rip it open. A better approach is to spray your suitcase and pack all your items in vacuum bags (there are vacuum sets with bags and handheld vacuum on Amazon for under $40 which means you don’t have to find a vacuum cleaner before you come home!) There are also travel-size non-toxic sprays for your suitcase and for any room you stay in.

Bed bugs are nocturnal insects and disappear into the crevices of mattresses (pay particular attention to the seams and crevasses), box springs, sheets, furniture, upholstery and hollow bedposts during the day. That’s because they want to be close to you.

According to Orkin Canada, other hiding spots include behind baseboards or pictures and even in any wallpaper that might be cracked or torn. You can lift and look around all these possible hiding spots in order to check for bed bugs in a hotel room. (Check here for reports of hotels with bedbugs.)

To avoid infestation and the very real possibility of bring these buggers home, make sure to elevate your luggage and any other personal items. Always inspect the luggage rack carefully for any signs of bed bugs. Bring a LED flashlight for this purpose (just don’t shine it in anyone’s eyes). If it appears free of bed bug signs use it to keep your suitcase off the floor and away from the bed. Moving the luggage rack away from the wall will help reduce the risk of bed bugs crawling up the wall and into your belongings.

When you are packing to check out always examine your luggage to make sure you have not picked up any unwelcome guests. Since bed bugs are such great hitch hikers be sure to check your luggage and clothing upon your return home. Many recommend unpacking and checking in your garage or utility room. (This is not as crazy as it seems – getting rid of these bugs is very hard. Prevention is very definitely better than a cure.)

Airports: It is believed that many airport baggage handling facilities are super-infested and the bedbugs climb inside suitcases awaiting removal into the hold.

When you return home, leave your luggage in the garage, and immediately launder all cloth items. The first places bed bugs typically encounter are bags and suitcases so keeping your luggage outside may help keep them out of your home. Depending on where you live, keeping luggage outdoors may also leave bed bugs outside their comfortable range of temperatures. You can also eliminate bed bugs that may have gotten into clothing by laundering (washing and drying) all fabric items in hot water, although recent studies show that 20 minutes in a clothes dryer is all that is needed to ensure 100% control.

Efficiently treating and detecting for a bed bug infestation requires the use of a licensed, professional Pest Control Operator with specific experience dealing with these pests. And it can be expensive. “Structural pasteurization” – a method that heats your home can be thousands of dollars and way more than the trip that brought the infestation home.

Heat kills bedbugs. Sustained heat like a tumble drier, or a hot wash will eliminate bedbugs from fabrics. Cars get them less in summer because a parked car gets hot. But a large infestation is going to mean a great deal of items will be thrown away, as well as possibly multiple applications of chemicals.


Some things you can do to reduce the risk of picking up bed bugs as you travel include:

  • Do not put your clothing or luggage directly on the bed. If bed bugs are present in the bed, they can climb into bags, suitcases or any laundry left on the bed.
  • Use metal luggage racks at all times. Bed bugs cannot easily climb metal surfaces, so they make an ideal overnight spot for your suitcase. Keep the rack away from the walls and any wooden furniture.
  • Use small plastic bags to pack clothing, shoes and other personal items. This will help prevent any bed bugs that climb into your suitcase from getting into your house with your clothing. Bed bugs can also hide in books, cloth toiletry kits and other non-metal personal items.
  • Hotels aren’t the only bed bug travel threats. Bed bugs thrive in dark, cool places with long-term access to humans. They can also be found on airplane and train seats, buses or in rental cars. It’s rare but it is possible to pick up bed bugs in places like these.