A Pest From Yesteryear, Bed Bugs Travel Nowadays

Joe Sharkey|The New York Times

Janet Hilowitz told me about a recent “lousy experience” in a motel, and sent me photos of nasty red welts on her arms and legs to prove it.

Bed bugs

Ms. Hilowitz, a retired college professor from Massachusetts, was actually referring not to lice but to bed bugs, which bit her arms and legs one night in a Georgia motel during a road trip with her husband.

The next morning, after she checked out of the motel and got on the road, the pain and itching began. “I discovered I had been bitten all over,” she said. She found a drug store and asked the pharmacist to look at the welts on her arms and legs.

Yep, bed bugs. The prescription was Benadryl and hydrocortisone, and a warning that she would probably feel uncomfortable for three days.

“This was my first experience with bed bugs,” said Ms. Hilowitz, who was still angry when I spoke to her, weeks after the pain and swelling went away.

Yes, bed bugs are back — not just in apartment buildings, but also in hospitals and hotels and motels. A familiar pest before World War II, the little red-brown insects were driven into relative obscurity in the United States by pesticides like DDT — which was largely banned in the 1970s.

They’ve revived as pest control experts began using less toxic chemicals to combat other insects.

“In recent years, bed bugs have made a comeback in the United States,” according to Michael F. Potter, a professor of entomology at the University of Kentucky.

In the case of hotels, increased international travel is also partly to blame, since bed bugs remain prevalent elsewhere and are very adept at hitchhiking in suitcase crevices. At the same time, hotel housekeeping departments have switched to new, more environmentally friendly cleaning and pesticide products, and experts say this may have left an opening for patient and wily bed bugs.

They like to lurk in bedding and even in headboards. Like movie vampires, they are active in the dead of night.

There is a Web site,, with national bed bug alerts. While most reports are about economy or midlevel roadside hotels where housekeeping standards may be less strict, well-known big-city four-star hotels also occasionally turn up.

A young woman reported on the Web site that she was confounded by her bed bug bites in a Texas hotel. “I Googled all kinds of rashes and couldn’t be sure what was wrong with me,” until she stumbled across bed bug information, she wrote. “I didn’t even know they were real. I mean, I had heard, ‘Good night, don’t let the bed bugs bite,’ but didn’t know they actually existed.”

The industry, while cringing at the very word, seems to be facing the bed bug issue head on, while insisting that the problem is not confined to hotels and is not widespread.

The New York State Hospitality and Tourism Association, for example, whose members include 1,000 hotels and other lodgings properties, scheduled a Web seminar on bed bugs for late this month. Its president, Dan Murphy, called it a “proactive” initiative for members who “want to learn more about how to spot, treat and cope with” bed bugs.

Ms. Hilowitz, the retired professor, said that she was rebuffed when she asked for a refund from the Rodeway Inn in Brunswick, Ga., where she had been bitten. She was told she needed to provide a doctor’s prescription, and she refused to go to a doctor while on a road trip. She then wrote to Choice Hotels , whose brands include Rodeway as well as Comfort Inn, Clarion, EconoLodge and others.

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“The money was like 50 bucks,” Ms. Hilowitz said. “This wasn’t about the money.”

She eventually got a refund, including reimbursement for the room and the medicine.

“When incidents that affect the guest experience occur at an individual franchised hotel, it is the local owner’s (i.e, the franchisee’s) responsibility to responsibly deal with these situations,” a spokesman for Choice, David Peikin, said in an e-mail response.

The chain offers franchise owners “ongoing professional development and training” in areas like customer service and housekeeping, he said, and “maintains and enforces a series of brand standards.” He added, “We take customer service issues very seriously.”

Evidently, so does the hotel owner in Georgia. Neel Patel, the front desk manager at the Rodeway Inn in Brunswick, said that a “misunderstanding” caused confusion over issuing a refund. He also said that after Ms. Hilowitz’s complaint, the hotel — owned by his uncle — sent him and other employees to state-sponsored training for certification in coping with and preventing bed bugs. The hotel also installed bug-proof mattress covers on all beds.

“We wanted to prevent this from ever happening in the future,” he said.