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Europe's Bedbug Problem

Sleep tight…don’t let the bedbugs bite. That’s what I used to tell my kids when I tucked them in for the night, without giving any thought to what it actually meant. Viewed up close, bedbugs are fearsomely scary critters. If my kids understood that, it could have given them serious nightmares. It helps that they are small critters...almost microscopically small. Which doesn't keep your skin from crawling just at the thought of them.

The phrase “don’t let the bedbugs bite” originated from times when people slept on straw or grass mattresses, prime real estate for bedbugs. Today’s hygienic, hypoallergenic mattresses with daily fresh linens in rooms regularly treated for insects have largely minimized the risk of waking up to bedbug bites. But it hasn’t eliminated it. Bedbugs are tough, and if you’ve ever had the unfortunate experience of bedding down with some, you know the bothersome itch their bites can leave behind. Still, bedbugs are not something I worry about when I travel.

That cavalier approach to bedbugs was put to the test a few weeks ago. I booked a trip to Paris for clients, a trip they had dreamed of and planned for over many years. A few days after they departed on the trip, I caught a series of alarming media articles and social media posts warning about a widespread bedbug infestation throughout Paris.

If the stories were to be believed, no place in Paris was safe…residents and tourists were equally targeted by the critters. The stories included pictures of bedbugs crawling on bus and train seats, and bedbug carcasses littering mattresses and furniture. Articles and posts then began popping up suggesting the bedbugs were hitching rides on tourists and commuters from Paris, spreading the infestation to London. It all sounded and looked…well, ICK! I fully expected to get a call from my clients that the infestation had ruined their dream trip, and that they wanted me to get them home. NOW! That call never came. They had a great trip.

You all know that I rarely believe anything I read on social media these days, and the bedbug posts were no exception. Bedbugs are one of those topics that evoke a visceral reaction likely to result in multiple 😱emojis and shares...all the things that make social media thrive, whether or not the information is true. And in the case of the European bedbug infestation, it wasn’t true.

To be clear, Paris was not and is not suffering from a bedbug infestation, nor is London. That’s not to say some travelers don’t come home from Europe with bug bites among their souvenirs, but it isn’t common.

Follow-up articles from reputable news services, where real journalists actually do their job rather than just re-post sensationalized accounts from others, failed to turn up any objective evidence of a bedbug infestation. Not in Paris and not in London. Journalist queries of Paris residents, hoteliers, and tourists yielded a collective yawn. Not because Parisians don’t care about bedbugs, but because there was no infestation.

Nobody in Paris knew where these stories were coming from. In the intelligence business we used to call it RUMINT…intelligence based on rumors, and RUMINT was almost always wrong. As it was in this case. The bedbug stories first appeared during the Paris Fashion Week, and with Paris hosting the 2024 summer Olympics the mere suggestion of a bedbug infestation was too rich to pass up. Unfortunately, it was also too rich for the re-posters to fact check.

Bedbugs are a global phenomenon. They are everywhere. Yet in all of my travels around the world, and I’ve stayed in some real dives, I have yet to actually see a bedbug. Most tourist properties contract with certified pest control companies to regularly treat their rooms and common areas. I doubt most AirBnB properties go that far, but even so I'm sure more than once during a stay at a reputable hotel, I’ve bedded down with the critters. And I’ve lived through it. I’ve certainly gotten welts from some bug biting me in the night to show for it, but those bites could have been from spiders or fleas, and I could have picked them up pretty much anywhere.

According to the CDC, bedbugs don’t spread disease, making them less of a concern than fleas or mosquitoes. It can take up to 14 days for a bedbug bite to show up on your skin, making it difficult to know when or where you got bit. And some people can endure bedbug bites without any skin reaction. All of that is small comfort if you happen to be someone with a particular sensitivity or allergy to bedbugs.

I don't know that there is much you can do to completely avoid bedbugs short of spraying yourself with insect repellent every night before bedding down, which to me sounds like a solution that’s worse than the problem. I’ve seen Top 10 Lists of ways to avoid bedbugs, but none of them contain suggestions that are actually helpful. You can check the bedding, linens, and furniture for any signs of bedbugs, but not seeing them doesn’t mean they aren’t present.

Wherever you stay when you travel, if you see signs of any bug infestation, or you end up with the telltale welts from a bug bit of any sort, take a few pictures, show the property management, and ask for a different room. If a new room isn’t available, you may be faced with the decision to transfer to a new property.

If you do have to change hotels because of bedbugs, providing photographic evidence and documenting your complaint to the property management along with their unwillingness to take action, will be helpful to ensure you don't get charged an early cancellation fee. Take pictures of the bugs and/or the mess they leave behind, of your welts if you do get bit, and take notes from your interaction with the property management. Be sure to note the names of employees you speak with and jot down the dates and times of your conversations.

Travel insurance may cover some of your expenses incurred as a result of bedbugs, but proving a claim can be difficult. As with all issues concerning insurance, check with your provider for guidance on coverage, limitations and exclusions, and the documentation you'll be required to provide in the event you have to file a claim.

Bedbugs are no fun, but they still aren’t something I think about when I travel. Although I’ve occasionally come home from a trip with bug bites, I don’t give much thought to what caused them. It can happen even in the most upscale properties, particularly if they allow guests with pets where a flea bite is more likely than bedbugs. If you have concerns about bedbugs, talk with the management for the property you are staying. Ask what steps they take to control pests, and if you have any evidence of bugs in your room, ask to be moved to a new room.

Beyond that, all I can say is…sleep tight and don’t let the bedbugs bite.

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