Listen. It happened. I got bed bugs while traveling. Do I want to be writing this post? Not really. Do I wish I had never accrued the life experience necessary to write this post? Yes, 100%. But now that my bed bugs hostel PTSD has largely subsided, I feel it is my duty to share this experience with the world at large.
I have backpacked around the world for well over a year, all told, and never encountered these demons while traveling… until I did. While I am fairly sure I technically got bed bugs in Cambodia, I warred with and finally eradicated those bed bugs Vietnam. Those motherf*ckers really follow you.
And also, I know how that sounds, that I am a nasty backpacker carrying bed bugs around from place to place, but I can assure you I am Type A as all get-out and was incredibly anal about the whole process and basically carried my belongings in plastic everywhere.
So whether you’ve encountered bed bugs while traveling, or just want to learn how to avoid getting bed bugs while traveling, read on.
Bed Bug Facts
In other words, KNOW THY ENEMY. Facts about bed bugs will not rid the world of hostel bed bugs (or hotel bed bugs, or any species of bed bugs), but knowledge is power, and to be honest I have rarely felt more powerless than when I had them.
Some of us combat powerlessness by lashing out, some of us ignore it, and some of us… spend hours on WebMD’s bed bug page.
I realize if you’re already in the cruel embrace of bed bugs, knowing whether your looking at Cimex lectularius or Cimex hemipterus is… unhelpful. But, as I learned dealing with bed bugs in Vietnam, they aren’t like other creepy crawlies, and some things I learned about them throughout this nightmare were pretty counterintuitive.
Bed bugs are tiny reddish brown parasites.
So, okay, this one isn’t counterintuitive in the slightest.
If you’re wondering what bed bugs look like, I find them to be almost flea-like in appearance, but wider and flatter. They are red, to copper colored, to almost black.
They’re also super quick, because of course they are.
You may already know this, but they drink your blood. It’s gross. They are drawn to carbon dioxide and body heat, so a warm, sleeping body is their catnip. Bed bug-nip. Blech.
Also, I have a theory thoroughly unsupported by current science that they develop a taste for specific individuals’ blood, so if they’ve already fed on you they’ll flock to you/your belongings that smell like you. Maybe this is just the bed bugs in Cambodia, but just some food for thought.
Bed bugs are really good at hiding.
Unless an infestation is super duper bad, a room full of bed bugs could actually look perfectly fine. They can hide in the crevices of mattresses and other furniture, sometimes for long periods of time.
Often, you’ll see signs of bed bugs before you see the actual critters. These “signs” are often in the form of red bed bug poop (yes, it’s blood poop) (yes, I’m gagging as I write this). If the sheets aren’t light/white, you could miss that so easily!
In other words, just casually visually inspecting a bed or your backpack, certainly doesn’t guarantee you’ll spot them, their tiny eggs, or their bloody skidmarks. There are some really sneaky methods we can use to outsmart them at their own game, though—more on that later.
Bed bugs do not carry disease.
Thank you, lord. This would just be the absolute horrible icing on the horrible cake, but thankfully bed bugs do not carry known diseases.
AKA once you get rid of them (which you will! I promise!) you can stop worrying about them. This is the one way they’re better than, say, mosquitos or rodents, who can infect you weeks before you show symptoms.
Their bites aren’t difficult to identify.
Okay, so, obviously I’m no doctor, but when I noticed the bites I just… knew.
Bed bugs bite at night, first of all, so waking up covered in bites (I think I had a dozen or so) is a pretty damn clear indicator. To make a generalization, they’re bigger and splotchier than flea bites, and redder and more numerous than mosquito bites.
They’ll be slightly different for everyone depending on how you react to them of course, but they’re drawn to body heat so often attack your torso/neck, upper arms, thighs, or butt. That’s a really good indicator we’re not just looking at mosquito bites, which tend to be scatted around your body more randomly.
They also tend to bite in clusters and lines. A lot of medium-sized red bites in a line up your back? Yeah, that’s a bed bug.
They also feel differently from other bug bites I’ve had, in that they itch worse than mosquito bites but scratching provides no relief. It’s painful. That’s just my experience.
Bed bugs are extremely difficult to get rid of.
This is kind of their thing. This is why people spend thousands of dollars treating their homes for bed bug infestations.
Heat is most effective to get rid of them. Apparently they can survive for months in most temperatures, including super cold ones. Obviously, this didn’t apply in Southeast Asia anyway. HOWEVER, they can be killed in a hot water wash cycle following by drying on the highest temperature.
The heat thing is also why I’ll suggest putting your belongings in black plastic bags in direct sun, though this is really just an extra step that helps but likely won’t finish the job.
But, really, if you’ve gotten them on the road… congrats?! You have time to get rid of bed bugs before you get home, and you will! Be strong, friend!
How to Avoid Getting Bed Bugs
Obviously, prevention is the best cure and all that. If you already have bed bugs (if I haven’t mentioned enough, I am so sorry) feel free to promptly scroll past this entire section, because it’s not f*cking helpful and I am so sorry.
Check your mattress for bed bugs!
I don’t care how many hostels you stay in, just don’t get lazy about this one. This would’ve saved me. Every single mattress you sleep on while traveling, you should be inspecting thoroughly.
By the way, this doesn’t just go for seedy Phnom Penh hostels (and mine wasn’t even that seedy). Oh, no. Bed bugs can lurk everywhere from 15-bed hostel dorms, to 5 star hotels. It literally can’t hurt to check for them, and could save you a lot of misery.
How do you check a hostel or hotel room for bed bugs?
When you get to your new mattress, it’s ideal to check for bed bugs with the lights out if possible. Flip the mattress up super quickly and hit it with a flashlight. If there were bed bugs scampering around in the dark, the sudden light will cause them to scatter. Check under every corner of your mattress and as deep inside every seam as you can.
Failing the lights out trick, still inspect the creases and crevices. Don’t get too weird with it, but if there are empty dorm beds near yours it reeeeeally can’t hurt to check those, too.
Next, check the mattress (and sheets and pillowcases, if present), for the aforementioned nightmarish blood bug sh*t. This will look probably how you’re thinking it looks… like a tiny red smear.
You may also see small clear eggs (these are very, very tiny) or shed skin.
Bed bugs also have a musty odor, which I did not identify at the time but in retrospect that hostel room in Phnom Penh totally had. It’s really unpleasant, not like garbage or sweat, just… musty and harsh. I don’t think this one is always present, though, and if you haven’t smelled it before you might chalk it up to a weird hostel odor.
Never put your belongings on or near beds.
If I had followed this simple step, I would’ve shortened my bed bug encounter significantly. Alas, my dumb a$$ literally put my backpack on my bed at the hostel where I got bed bugs. And slept with it there.
Unfortunately, if you do this and wake up covered in bed bug bites, you can guarantee they’re in your stuff. Or at least, you’ll need to get all your stuff aggressively cleaned (more on this later) just in case.
Definitely put your belongings in a locker, on a shelf, or even just lean them against a far wall. It’s ideal to keep them as far away from anyone’s bedding as possible, so under-bed lockers aren’t great for bed bug prevention. That said, literally anything is better than on your bed. IT IS THE BIGGEST REGRET OF MY YOUNG LIFE.
If possible (and safe), sleep in the nude.
I totally get why this one isn’t for everyone, and that’s fine. Bed bugs can hide in and lay their eggs on clothing, so any clothes you wear to bed are effectively contaminated. They’ll need to be quarantined and cleaned immediately.
I frankly don’t mind sleeping naked, especially in an all-women dorm, but again, to each their own on this one. You don’t want to be uncomfortable, nor would you want to make anyone uncomfortable. It’s just an extra step you (and me, as I am forever paranoid) can take if you want to.
How to Get Rid of Bed Bugs
So, you have the plague of the appleseed-shaped blood sh*tters. It’s okay. You’ll get through this, and it won’t ruin your backpacking trip!
Step 1: Quarantine your belongings. All of them.
Put all your belongings in a big plastic bag. If you’re somewhere warm, make this bag black plastic and stick it directly in the sun.
If you can, go buy a cheap new outfit somewhere so all your exposed belongings are truly, 100% quarantined.
It goes without saying, but get far, far away from the place you think gave you bed bugs. If there are others in your dorm, it’s only fair to warn them, but besides that and telling the front desk there’s no need to make a huge scene. Everywhere from hostels to luxury hotels get bed bugs, and in most cases they deal with them promptly and responsibly (usually offering a refund in the process), but it can totally kill a business.
Step 2: Clean your belongings. All of them.
We sorted our belongings into two categories: washables, and non-washables. Backpacks, clothes, towels, etc. are all washable; these should be in a plastic bag and taken straight to a professional laundromat. Tell them you need everything washed and dried on the hottest possible setting.
I was worried about communicating this to the laundromat staff in Southeast Asia, but it turns out a pair of panicked backpackers with all their clothes in bags desperately requesting high temperatures was a dead giveaway. They had seen our brand of bullsh*t before.
I’m sorry if long washes on high heat might ruin some of your clothes, but I just can’t recommend anything but this method. It worked for me, and I am so glad I didn’t spare a single article of clothing, even if my new $3 pair of hippie pants shrunk and wore out a bit (read: a lot) in the dryer.
The non-washables were things like passports, souvenirs, journals, etc… while our clothes were being purged, we kept these in the big plastic bags and one by one, went through them. We opened every page of every guidebook, assessed if things were or weren’t “safe”, and honestly threw some stuff away. Eggs or baby bed bugs were the main things we were looking for in the non-washables.
Whenever you have down time throughout this process, it never hurts to leave belongings in that black plastic bag in the sun. The hotter, the better.
Step 3: Store your cleaned belongings extremely carefully.
Honestly, if you’re lucky, Steps 1 and 2 will have taken care of your bed bug problem. Still, if you are extra paranoid (which I very much was) I recommend buying ziplock baggies in which to store absolutely everything.
That way, if god for-freaking-bid you realize you haven’t gotten rid of the bed bugs, you’ll be able to better isolate the “exposed” belongings.
I kept most of my favorite clothes and souvenirs deep in my backpack, well-sealed, until I was sure I was rid of them. That way, if I woke up covered in bites again or saw signs of eggs/teenagers/blood/anything, I would just have to wash one or two outfits+my backpack.
Also, I got a (new) black plastic bag, in which I set my packed backpack in the sun whenever possible.
Step 4: Repeat
As I said, I hope you don’t have to do this, but if you skimped on any of the early steps or are just unlucky, it might be necessary.
For example, my first time around I washed most of my clothes, did the black plastic bag trick, but did not wash my backpack. Lo and behold, I saw a teenage bed bug skitter out of one of the pockets during one of my daily post-bed bug attack psycho inspections of all my belongings.
The next time I went to the laundromat, I spared nothing from the hot wash and dry cycles. And it worked.
How do you know you’ve gotten rid of bed bugs?
This question pains me because in a crisis I become a very Type A, do-all-the-research, contain the situation type of person.
As I said, I would pick at and inspect every nook and cranny of every one of my belongings, I would thoroughly assess every inch of my body in the mirror for new bites, and I read every article I could find on getting rid of bed bugs.
But, ultimately, only time will tell you for absolutely certain. If you did everything I outlined above, are no longer seeing signs of them or waking up with bites, you’re probably fine. But if a couple weeks pass and you’re still no longer seeing signs of them or waking up with bites, then you’re almost definitely fine.
One obsessive person to another (because if you’ve gotten this far in this article, you are truly devoted to the cause and I commend you), bed bugs suck, but just take care of the problem swiftly and thoroughly. It’ll be okay. Do everything in your control, and accept that that’s all you can do. I regret stressing over them as much as I did when I was already doing all I could, as it definitely tainted a few days of my travels.
Looking for Vietnam travel inspiration that doesn’t include parasites? Check out my wonderful 3 week Vietnam itinerary!
P.S. Just so EVERYONE KNOWS, I have been given a weird look by every single human who has walked by me while I was writing this article. Could I have changed the page? Yes. Should I have changed the page? Also, yes. But that’s showbiz.