For the 50+ Traveler

No two words summon more disgust: bed bugs. Immediately, we contemplate burning our beds, bug bombing our houses, sleeping in a hotel until it feels safe to return to our own rooms.

Actually, hotels are one of the common places we can get bed bugs in the first place. Bed bugs are transients, hitch-hikers if you like. They move from bed to bed, gaining passage in luggage, clothing, towels, or bedding. They don't care whether you're staying in a hostel or a five-star all-inclusive resort; it's all beans to these critters. If we're not careful, they might develop a taste for us and decide to follow us home.

But never fear: there are steps we can take to reduce the risk of becoming bug food. Here are 5 tips to avoid bed bugs when you travel.

Know The Signs

You can't avoid bed bugs if you can't spot the warning signs. Fortunately, they're not too difficult to see.

Bite marks on the body are the most obvious sign. Although a small percentage of humans have no physiological reaction, most bodies do respond in the form of raised, red, itchy marks or welts. These are most commonly observed on arms and legs, but they can occur on any part of the body exposed during sleep. These marks are often left in line patterns, three at a time.

Bed bugs only feed every six or seven days, and bite marks can take a few days to appear. So by the time you realize you've been bitten, you've probably already got a fairly serious infestation. (Of course, you'll still need a professional evaluation to determine whether you in fact have bed bugs.)

The best preventative way to gauge whether or not you may have a problem -- especially if you're staying in a hotel -- is to search the room thoroughly.,

Most bed bugs hide out no more than 15 feet from where their humans sleep. You should therefore search in bedroom closets, night table drawers, and dressers. But the bed is obviously the best place to start.

Check for small red or brown splotches on the mattress, blood stains, or anything that looks like ground pepper; bed bugs leave their waste behind at the scene of the crime. You may also find the bugs themselves hiding out in the mattress seams. They're about the same size as small seeds. Other signs include molted exoskeletons and eggs (which are white, sticky little packets).

If you find any of these tell-tale signs in your hotel room, you should demand alternative accommodations -- or go to another hotel altogether! If you do stay in the same hotel, make sure you're assigned a non-adjacent suite at least two floors away from the infested room. Bed bugs can move between rooms through electrical sockets and crevices in the walls and ceilings.

Bed bug bites on a man's back and arms.
Bed bug bites. Wikimedia Commons

Protect Your Suitcase

The first thing you should do when you get to your hotel room is put your suitcase in the bathroom. Bed bugs don't like tiled floors. They're much more comfortable on carpet where they can blend in; the washroom is the last place they're likely to occupy. Keeping your suitcase in the bathroom for the duration of your trip is a good way to minimize the chances that any bed bugs will stow away.

Choosing the right suitcase can also help you reduce the risk. Consider buying light-colored plastic luggage, and avoid darker or fabric-based exteriors. (Bed bugs are none too fond of plastic, and a light surface makes them easier to spot.)

If buying new luggage isn't in the budget, you can put your old suitcase in a white garbage bag and seal it while you're not using it.

Leave Your Linens

If you're anything like me, you like to travel with your own pillow and security blanket. A little familiarity always makes it easier to sleep in a strange place. But if you're serious about avoiding bed bugs, it's best to leave your creature comforts at home. The more beddings you bring with you, the more places the creepy-crawlies can find to burrow away for the return flight.

Do Your Research

Not to freak you out too much, but in a recent survey, 75% of exterminators said they have treated bed bug infestations in hotels or motels. It's not remotely uncommon, and it's not necessarily even the hotel's fault. Whether a room costs $3,000 or $30 a night makes no difference to the bed bugs. They don't care if your blood is blue as long as it's tasty.

One of the best ways you can protect yourself is by doing research ahead of time. The internet is your friend here. Check out the Bed Bug Registry for starters. It contains user-submitted reports about hotels and motels across North America. You may also be able to learn a thing or two from user review sites like Yelp!, but bear in mind: sometimes former employees or unpleasant visitors say things that aren't true online as a way of grinding their axe. On the other hand, if three or four people have warned about bed bugs recently... you'll probably want to book somewhere else.

Old 70s car parked in front of old motel

When You Get Home

Before you lug your suitcase into your house and set it down on the bed, you should take a few precautions.

Don't bring anything into the house without checking it first. Place your suitcase on a hard surface -- like a driveway or a garage floor -- so no bedbugs will be able to escape your notice. Then search everything. Wash every article of clothing you brought with you in hot water. (If you can't wash something, at least run it through the dryer.) You can even vacuum out your luggage if you want to be extra careful, but be sure to empty the vacuum bag outside right away. Bed bugs are nothing if not persistent.

So there you have it: a few tips to even the odds in the never-ending fight against the critters that consider you a midnight snack. We hope we haven't grossed you out too much. With a little awareness, the chances of you bringing back unwanted guests from your next vacation aren't all that high.