Okay, it’s gross and no fun to read about, but frequent travelers everywhere are buzzing about…bed bugs. Is this for real? Apparently it’s all too real; a pest we thought was a relic of depression-era tenements is now taking up residence in hotels across the globe.

What surprised me the most, I must confess, is how many of the hotels challenged with bed bug reports are high-end hotels, including members of respected chains that you’d think would have high-tech pest eradication programs in place. But yep — Hiltons, Holiday Inns, Radissons and ritzy boutique hotels are turning up among those listed by the Bed Bug Registry, a website where travelers report their experiences with the nasty critters. The fun touch: a clickable coast-to-coast map.

So first a few facts:
• Bed bugs are so small you rarely see them. What you will see (and feel!) are tiny red bites, often on the feet, ankles and calves. They itch big time.
• Bed bugs only come out at night, usually in the wee hours of the morning.
• They can be as small as a sesame seed, and possess the ability to flatten their bodies to fit inside tiny crevices, so don’t count on actually seeing them.

• The best way to check for bed bugs is to lift up the sheets and look around the edges of the mattress for their waste products (think shells, feces, and traces of blood — as in ick).
• Also check under upholstery pillows and behind headboards.
• According to pest control companies, bed bugs were pretty much eradicated 50 years ago by DDT, but since heavy duty pesticides were banned in the 1970s they’ve been slowly making a comeback.
• The Orkin pest control company says the problem is nationwide; their agents have been called to rid hotels and homes of bed bugs in all but three states.

The good news is that new products are starting to arrive to help us deal with the bed bug threat. First out the gate in terms of a travel product is Rest Easy, an all natural concoction featuring cinnamon and lemongrass oil. These ingredients are said by herbalists to repel and possibly even kill the pests. The company boasts impressive statistics, though there’s little data beyond theirs and I find it hard to believe bugs resistant to DDT could be killed by natural oils.

Does it work? Therein lies a problem – how would you know, since you can’t spot the darn things anyhow? I can tell you I’ve spritzed it between the sheets in at least 20 hotels over the past three months, and I’ve nary an itch or scratch to complain about. But wait — another explanation is there weren’t any bed bugs to worry about anyhow. It smells good, if faintly medicinal, so there’s really no downside to using it, other than the expense (cheapest at two bottles for $14.95 from pest control companies) and the space the two-ounce bottle takes up in your quart-size plastic baggie of toiletries. And while I find the product’s claims to kill the bugs a bit far-fetched, I can believe that it works as a repellent, since I’ve had good luck with natural oil-based mosquito repellents.

So here’s where I really take the “better safe than sorry” approach: Stowaways. Bed bugs can hop into luggage or tuck themselves into clothes left on hotel floors, then cop a ride home and invade your home. That’s where the real ick factor comes into play.

So I always:
• Store my suitcase on the raised fold-out rack that hotels usually provide to keep it off the floor. (Tip: move the rack away from the wall.)
• Resist scattering my clothes around the floor; instead I hang them in the closet or keep them inside my suitcase. (Don’t use hotel chest drawers.)
• Spray some Rest Easy around the edges of my suitcase when I get there as a barrier to keep curious bugs from getting any ideas.
• Leave my suitcase outside for a few days to air out when I get home, and wash all the clothes I brought in hot water, then dry them in a hot dryer.

My friend and fellow travel writer Diana Lambdin Meyer also has a good post on the bed bug epidemic in hotels. If you have bed bug tips, please feel free to share them here. All ideas welcome.