Don’t let the bedbugs bite

“Can you pick a bedbug out of a lineup?” asked the article’s headline. “Oh my yes,” I replied. 

The hotel’s ratings had been good on Everyone loved the kind staff and great location. The rooms in the photos also looked nice — a bit spartan, but bright and clean and nicely decorated.

My heart sank when my husband and I checked in, however. Although the manager’s kindness matched the reviews, our room had seen better days. The carpet looked worn and faded, the bedspreads had cigarette burns, and the bath mat was literally a rag. Above the tub were two hand towels, also frayed. “Looks like we don’t get bath towels,” I said to my better half.

After a day of travel I was eager to change my clothes, until I realized there was nowhere to put my clothes. There was a single hook on the wall and a lone free-standing hanger, but no closet or drawers. I piled my dirty clothes on the bed and sighed. “It’s nothing like the photos,” I told my husband. “Yeah,” he agreed. “Let’s check out tomorrow and go back to Paris.”

But first, he said, we should take a stroll. It was a beautiful evening and neither of us had seen Rouen before. We meandered through the shopping district, past the cathedral, and along the river.

We had a delicious and inexpensive sushi dinner. And then we returned to our threadbare little room.

We closed the curtains, but their sheer voile fabric was no match for the blinking neon sign outside. The thin walls conveyed our neighbors’ every word (they were Spaniards, likely from Galicia). The windows were shut, but we still heard the cars and truck engines and people shouting outside the bar below. I resigned myself to a terrible night’s sleep as I climbed into bed and heard a chorus of springs squeak in protest.


I don’t remember dozing off, but a sharp stab to my chin startled me awake. The blinking neon lights revealed something on the bedding. 

Bugs! I swatted at my chin and dislodged a couple of insects. Even in the half-darkness I could see a dozen specks darting about on the white sheets. 

“Oh my God,” I squealed. “I think we have bedbugs!” The bugs scattered as my husband sprang out of bed and flicked on the lights. “We sure as hell do,” he confirmed. “[Naughty word.]”

The moments that followed are not among my proudest. There was no screaming, at least, but there was lots of involuntary chicken-with-its-head-cut-off running and waving of arms.

My husband, meanwhile, remained eerily calm. “Here’s what we’re going to do,” he said in a tone usually reserved for treed cats and hostage negotiations. “We’re going to bag anything that touched the carpet or bedding. We’re going to zip up the suitcases. We’re going to wipe down the suitcases. Then, we’re going to shower and put on clean clothes and get out of here.”

I always pack my clothes in compression sacks, and bring oversized plastic bags for my camera gear. I was glad to have brought extra bags; anything made of fabric was soon contained.

In the middle of this we called the hotel manager. He was apologetic and helpful, but we still had a problem: It was now midnight, and we had nowhere to sleep.

“I found another place on,” my husband said a few minutes later, as the kind manager called us a taxi.

Our new digs were such a contrast to the previous room that it felt like a different planet. But we couldn’t enjoy it just yet: First we had to shower again and quarantine our luggage. 

We took off our clothes in the bathroom, checked each other for bugs, and put our luggage in the bathtub. Then we sealed the space under the bathroom door with a towel. “That should at least contain any hitchhikers,” my husband said.

The next morning we sprinted to the laundromat and spent €41 to wash all our clothes. I still felt contaminated, though, so back at the hotel I wiped down my luggage with alcohol one more time.

A few more walks to the laundromat convinced us of Rouen’s beauty, and we actually stayed an extra day. But we never lifted our luggage quarantine, nor did we ever fully relax. Had a bug or a handful of eggs hopped a ride? We’d find out in a couple of weeks.


Bedbugs have an almost mystical reputation for their ability to appear out of thin air, and then just as quickly vanish. That’s until you have a severe infestation; then the signs are unmistakable.

My husband and I had been lucky that in all our years of frequent travel we’d never seen bedbugs before. But with that luck came complacency: In spite of the first hotel’s threadbare appearance, we didn’t think to check for signs of the little bloodsuckers.

Had we lifted the sheets and the mattress pad, we would have seen faint brownish-black smears. This is what happens when bedbugs eat blood … and then poop. The marks on the bedding would have been a clear warning.

In a sense, I was lucky to feel the sharp bite. Most people don’t feel a thing until they wake up covered in welts — or worse yet, bring the little critters home. 

As my husband and I bagged our belongings, I thought it strange that bedbugs should be so difficult to find and kill. The bugs I’d seen were about the size and shape of an apple seed. Their little bodies were fragile, too (he squished a few as he bagged them for evidence).


I later learned that those apple seeds are only the tip of the bedbug iceberg. They go through five larval stages before they reach adulthood, in fact — and the smallest nymphs are almost invisible to the naked eye.

Through my obsessive research I also learned that bedbugs are pretty inoffensive, as bloodsuckers go. Like considerate tiny dentists, they give you a wee shot of anesthetic before they begin to drill. And unlike many other biters, bedbugs aren’t known to spread disease.

So … why the terrible reputation? Well, they’re gross (because no one wants to be a sleeping smorgasbord). Some people do have allergic reactions to the bites. There’s a social stigma. But most importantly, they’re difficult and expensive to get rid of if you bring them home. 


The telltale signs of a Bedbug Encounter appeared a week after I got home: A handful of red, raised bites extending down my belly in a single line. 

Our luggage was still quarantined in the cellar, and we’d since washed and dried our clothes a half-dozen times. My husband and I checked our bedding and vacuumed our wood floors, but we couldn’t find a single sign of bedbugs.

“Sometimes it can take a couple of weeks for bites to appear,” said my wise dermatologist the next day. “Did you notice any bites after the initial exposure?” Actually, no, I didn’t. He said I was probably having a delayed reaction, and advised me to not panic. 

The old feeling of contamination returned as every mole and fleck of dust became an object of suspicion. But almost five years later, nothing with legs has ever materialized. 


My husband and I are lucky to have dodged an entomological bullet. But we learned some valuable lessons, which I’ll now pass on to you:

• Trust your instincts. Better to switch hotels right away than in the middle of the night. 

• Always check the mattress, headboard, and box spring for tiny dark-brown spots.

• Never place your belongings on, near, or under a hotel bed.

• Pack your clothes in plastic bags or space-saving compression sacks.

• Consider washable luggage, or bags you can at least wipe down with disinfectant.

• When you get home, wash or dry-clean everything before putting it away.

Epilogue: Upon returning home we debated whether to share our story on (We wanted to warn fellow travelers; but we also knew the mere mention of bedbugs could bankrupt a small hotel.) Did we make the right call in giving the manager the benefit of the doubt? It seemed so for a while, as none of the subsequent reviews mentioned a problem. But now the harrowing photos are back.

If you’re going to Rouen, please drop me a note. I’ll be glad to recommend a (good) hotel.