Uninvited Guests

The creepy hitchhikers you don't want

Words: Lee Tulloch

This is a horror story. If you are eating your breakfast do not read on.

It started as a dream assignment. New York: fourteen days, ten luxury hotels.

Apart from the fact that checking in and out of hotels almost every day is not really the most effective way to spend your time in any city, I could hardly complain.

I was fortunate to be experiencing some serious bucket list hotels – among them, the Pierre, the Plaza Athénée and The Mark. While concepts of ‘luxury’ can vary wildly, these uptown palaces for the pampered are plush, rarefied and expensive. I stayed in a number of very good downtown hotels, too, including a suite usually reserved for the tribe of Kardashians.

Not every hotel was perfect, but one thing you are assured when the rack rate is upwards of $500 a night for a room is a comfortable bed, dressed with crisp, clean sheets and topped with puffy down duvets. I can’t say I had a bad night’s sleep in any of these hotel beds, and this gave me a false sense of wellbeing.

Back in Australia a few weeks later, I came out in an appalling case of hives. I’d never had them before but I was busy with deadlines and nervous about a speech I had to give. The welts only appeared on my arms and neck, which was odd, but I still put it down to stress.

Let me not go into too many details about how I discovered the real culprits. Let’s just say I increasingly felt creepy things on my skin in bed at night.

I had brought back some uninvited guests from one of the New York hotels.


There’s still something shameful about having bedbugs, harking back to the Depression era, when they were a symbol of poverty and uncleanliness. But they’re equal opportunity parasites – as often found luxury beds as budget ones.

There’s still something shameful about having bedbugs, harking back to the Depression era

They had been almost eradicated in developed nations by the end of the 1940s, but the ease of travel between the First World and developing countries has meant the revolting little bloodsuckers have returned. They’re great hitchhikers, and can make themselves so flat they hide undetected in crevices and creases. They live on warm blood, but the adults can feed once and then scurry under a floorboard and live without nourishment for a year. So they are extremely difficult to abolish.

We managed it through various means, but it took weeks, and we were only really sure we had been successful after a year.

Bedbugs in New York hotels have become such an issue that there’s a dedicated site, where experiences are shared and hotels are named and shamed. (I’d take it with a grain of salt, as contributors are anonymous.) There were 500 cases of bedbug infestation in the city (not just hotels) reported in 2004. That rose to 10,000 cases in 2009. I was there the following year, when it peaked.

The New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene says the chances of acquiring a bedbug infestation from hotels is now ‘low.’ Teams of sniffer dogs and pest controllers have scoured the city in the past three years, creating a sharp decline in risk.

But you only need acquire a couple of almost-invisible eggs to bring home a cosy little infestation. If you are creeped-out by this prospect, you could do a full bedbug inspection of your hotel room before you unpack. This involves leaving your luggage in the bathroom, where bedbugs rarely are found, and scrutinising every inch of bedding, curtain, carpet and picture frame within 3 metres of the bed.  Some travel websites suggest you keep you suitcase wrapped in plastic whenever you’re not using it. Insist on moving rooms two whole floors away if you find anything suspicious.

I think this is excessive. I’ve been to New York since and I’m going back this month, and what I do now is make sure I don’t unpack my clothes onto the bed. I put my bag off the floor and hang up what I can straight away. I trust that a good hotel will regularly inspect beds, although I’m sure it was a good hotel where I caught them in the first place.

Or maybe it was a Kardashian who passed them on. They’re easy to blame for everything, aren’t they?

Good night. Sleep tight. And don’t let the bedbugs bite.



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