It took just a three-hour layover after a missed connecting flight for Vancouver's Kasey Wilson to learn the awful truth about bedbugs: They're everywhere, even at the nicest hotels.
Wilson, the executive producer and co-host of Vancouver AM 650's The Best of Food and Wine radio show, was on a freelance assignment in the summer of 2006. When she awoke in expensive sheets at a freshly renovated luxury hotel near the Toronto international airport, her scalp was on fire and she had welts running down her spine to the waist.
Her adventures as a veteran travel writer had included partying with Eminem's entourage in the Charlotte Street Hotel in London, being propositioned by a 400-pound ex-Royal in Mongolia, and once, on a writers' tour of India, being hit so viciously by diarrhea that colleagues were fashioning diapers out of garbage bags lined with hotel towels.
But it was Wilson's month-long, excruciating allergic reaction to bedbugs, and the emotional toll, that made her question whether she should ever travel again.
"I was horrified that this could happen to me. I really took it personally," she recalls. "I figured it would only happen in hostels or places that weren't clean."
It's a common misperception, according to the Canadian Pest Management Association. Condos and apartments, homes, public spaces like movie theatres, cruise ships and hotels - old and new, business and resort, budget and five-star - are equally targets. CPMA exterminators say that in two years, bedbug calls have shot up 200 to 500 per cent, depending on the region.
Ironically, the fact the airline lost Wilson's luggage before she reached the tainted hotel room probably saved her from the worst bedbugs can inflict. They're hardy voyageurs who love to creep into warm, dark, skin-cell-speckled luggage, and wherever they land, lay two to four eggs each, per day, for up to a year.
Tracking them home from a business trip or dream vacation could easily lead to misery, stigma and thousands of dollars in fumigation and cleaning bills.
Victims of stubborn infestations have been brought to the brink of sanity, says Sean Rollo, a Vancouver entomologist and CPMA board member.
"People have literally called and told me they're suicidal, and all you can really do is to encourage them to seek help," Rollo says. "What else can you do?"
A frequent traveller's best strategy, therefore, is preventing bedbugs from becoming hitchhikers.
Rollo never checks into a hotel without first asking management if it has had a bedbug problem. Then, leaving luggage outside his room or in the bathroom, he performs a mini-inspection: searching the bed for signs of flat crimson or white-yellow bugs, and white, millimetre-sized eggs, along mattress seams and tufting, box spring, frame, mattress pad, bedding and dust ruffles; he even lifts the headboard off the wall.
He checks baseboards, curtains, picture frames, night tables, light switches and assorted crevices, and looks for droppings resembling poppy seeds or ink blotches (bedbugs like to poop after a feed). A free wireless app, Roscoe's Tips, gives a step-by-step hotel-room checklist.
Experts also suggest packing clothes into oversized Ziploc or BugZip bags and leaving them inside luggage during the trip, or hanging in the closet - never on the bed or floor.
Rollo warns to be equally vigilant when going on a cruise. Ships are "floating hotels and are no more safe than a regular hotel," he says, adding that many cruise lines (and hotels) are hiring specially trained bedbug sniffer dogs to carry out their own frequent inspections.
As for travel gear proliferating on e-tailors like Amazon.com - from insecticide sprays to pen lights, pillow encasements and bug beacons - the rule is caveat emptor. Packtite - a duffle bag with a heating element that zaps luggage and clothing at bedbugs' kill temperature of 49 C - is "fantastic," says entomologist Sean Rollo, but it hasn't been approved for sale in Canada.
After a trip, unpack luggage outdoors, reinspect clothing and then throw everything into the dryer for an hour, or the freezer for two weeks (for delicates). Vacuum luggage thoroughly. And buy the hard, smooth kind without inviting pockets, since bedbugs struggle over smooth surfaces and metal.
Technology is also helping travellers band together for the fight. They can Google a hotel's name plus "bedbugs" and check for complaints posted to Bedbugger.com, Bedbugregistry.com or TripAdvisor.com. (TripAdvisor spokesman Brooke Ferencsik cites an 11-per-cent hike in bedbug reviews in the past year.)
For their part, hoteliers say they're educating themselves and becoming more responsive to complaints - though cynics suggest hundreds of lawsuits filed against North American hotels recently may have something to do with it.
In one landmark decision, Burl and Desiree Mathias of Toronto collected more than $372,000 (U.S.) in 2003, after jurors found a Motel 6 in Chicago had knowingly let the siblings stay during an infestation.
Lawsuits in Canada are usually settled, but there are multimillion-dollar court cases pending in the United States, and individual hotel responses vary, Rollo says.
When Wilson's calls to the general manager went unreturned, she tracked down the head of the hotel chain for Canada, who offered only an apology - and a free night's stay.
"I thought about congratulating him for his sense of humour," she says.
She never contemplated suing. And for the record, she never checks a hotel room for bugs: "I don't want to make decisions or live life based on fear."
Special to The Globe and Mail