BED BUGS AT SEA: HOW SERIOUS A PROBLEM?

Q – We’re turning to traveltruth with a serious concern. We are being urged by family members to join them on a Spring Break cruise next year on Norwegian Cruises Line. But my husband and I have real concerns about bed bugs which we understand is a real problem on cruise ships. How serious a problem is it and what can we do to prevent it – if anything. It really is holding us back from booking. Our travel agent is saying there was a problem on one or two of the ships in the past but the cruise lines are now using pesticides that prevents the problem. Is this true?

A – We are going to try to answer this question as clearly as possible since it has been raised by a number of visitors to our site. Bed bugs are a growing problem in the United States. You are far more likely to get bed bugs in a hotel room than a cruise ship cabin. This has a lot to do with twice-daily crew cleaning practices, use of safe pesticides, and the changing of beds and mattresses on a scheduled basis during dry dock. But it would be dishonest to say that cruise lines have “prevented” the problem. The fact is that the vast majority of bed bug infestations have been reported on four cruise lines, basically the four largest cruise lines and the most familiar names, find bed bug services come with a 100% success rate over here. Now, you could say that they have far more cases than smaller ships because they carry more people. But we suspect that is not the case.

The fact is that price dictates many things including what a cruise line is able to spend on housekeeping and maintenance. Price also reflects the kind of people who are hired to do housekeeping and it impacts training. There have been isolated cases of bed bug bites on the World’s Top Ten Cruise Lines but when these are carefully investigated, it almost always turns out that the bugs were brought aboard by guests, usually via their luggage. The mass market lines have, however, had several dozen bed bug outbreaks since 2000. But, in the scheme of things, that is still not a particularly high or worrisome number.

The fact is that bed bugs are an increasing problem in our own country. Most experts say this is connected to the restrictions on the use of several high powered pesticides. In addition to hotel rooms, bed bugs are appearing in apartment buildings, health care facilities, shelters, schools, and furniture rental outlets. Perhaps the most prevalent growth in bed bugs has been in movie theaters and in the seats of aircraft.

The most common form of bed bug is Cimex lectularius, often mistaken for ticks or cockroaches. The females lay several eggs each day, which stick to surfaces. We doubt that any cruise line has eliminated the problem. Aristotle mentioned bed bugs in his writings, so they may be with us for a while. Here is some general advice for any traveler:

  • Bed bugs are a more serious problem in the United States than they are in many other parts of the world with the exception of Africa, Eastern Europe, and portions of Asia. Learn to spot bed bugs and always check mattresses and head rests before getting into bed while traveling.
  • The problem is more prevalent in hotel rooms with thick carpeting than in rooms with wooden or marble floors. Leaving the lights on or using insect repellents will not work. Learn to look for nests which are characterized by “dark spotting”.
  • Never leave your luggage under the bed on a cruise ship or in a hotel room. Ask that staff place your empty luggage is a “clean storage area.”
  • Never unpack your suitcases on a carpet at home. It is best not to bring luggage inside the house.
  • Some dry cleaners can sanitize luggage after travel. Always do this after traveling in areas of high risk.

Finally, we would advise you to go on your cruise. The odds are with you and who is to say you would not run into bed bugs in the waiting room upholstery at your doctor’s office? Remember, your life expectancy increases whenever you travel outside the United States, literally. So relax and have a good time.