Of all the questionable places I’ve spent the night — dingy apartments in Bushwick, shady hostels in Cambodia, cut-rate motels on cross-country road trips — the last place I expected to pick up bed bugs was from a luxury hotel in the Bay Area. But lo and behold, that’s what happened: I brought home one of New York’s biggest nightmares on a cross-country flight from SFO, not on a cross-borough ride on the G train.
On the mildly bright side, I figured getting bed bugs from a fancy, five-star hotel chain that was known for their excellent customer service was at least the best way to get them. There’s no way I’d be responsible for treating my apartment, which I knew could be super expensive. It was their fault, end of story. Sure, they may not have a legal responsibility — a few states have laws protecting hotel guests from bed bugs, though they usually aren’t very effective — but anything else would be bad business.
Turns out, it wasn’t that simple.
This all happened two years ago during a business trip to San Francisco. I was enjoying happy hour with a friend at Rickhouse, a trendy cocktail bar in the Financial District filled with lots of dark wood and tech-engineer types crowded around whiskey barrel tables, when I noticed a small cluster of itchy pink bumps on my foot. As the bartender handed us our drinks, I joked, “The mosquitos out here just love me!”
“That’s weird,” my friend replied with a confused look. “I don’t think I’ve been bitten once in the seven years I’ve lived here.”
I was so used to being the one who gets eaten alive while everyone else remains unscathed that I thought nothing of it. Having never lived there, I had no idea that the Bay Area has basically zero mosquitos.
That night, I tucked myself once again into my fancy, king-sized hotel bed. Two days later I flew back to Brooklyn and crawled into my own bed for a daytime nap.
I woke up a few hours later with three big, itchy red bumps on my thigh. The next morning, there were a few more. When the same thing happened a third time, I assumed a mosquito had gotten into my apartment when I was out of town so I Googled “How to catch a mosquito” and started taking advice from internet commenters.
I’m no fool. Of course I’d suspected bed bugs, but I had no evidence — no physical bugs, no reddish-brown marks where I might have squashed one after it bit me, not even any “brown, coffee-grind like residue” I’d been told to look for (it’s their poop). And I’d been searching hard. Plus, I couldn’t come up with a source. I hadn’t had any house guests, hadn’t lugged home sidewalk furniture, hadn’t seen a movie at The Pavilion. The only possibility was that fancy hotel. But surely they’d have that stuff on lock to keep their reputation pristine?
After nearly two weeks of dotting each bite with a marker before bed to keep track of new bites, I woke up to three in a row on the side of my left shin — breakfast, lunch and dinner, as it’s called in bedbug-savvy circles. I was disgusted and freaking out. I tore apart my bed more thoroughly than ever, flipping over the box spring and prying the fabric from the frame with a butter knife while peaking in with a flashlight. Finally, after half an hour of hunting, there they were: two tiny, slightly reddish bed bugs tucked underneath a staple on the bottom side of my box spring.
Redemption. Success. An intense feeling of violation. Terror. Fears of bankruptcy and social ostracization and having to throw out everything I owned and start from scratch. The irony of having travelled to the opposite coast only to come face to face with New York’s public enemy number one was not lost on me. For a hot minute (ok, probably about 15 minutes), I lost it. I sat on my floor in the middle of my basic metal bed frame and cried.
But then, I started handling shit. And I was going to go after that fucking hotel.
First, I went to the hardware store for construction grade trash bags, mattress bags (like the kind you use for moving) and duct tape and sealed up pretty much everything in my bedroom — bedding, books, the actual luggage I’d used in SF. Anything that could went straight to the laundromat for a high-temp wash and dry. When the exterminators came later, they complimented my work.
Next, I called the hotel.
The manager listened calmly, then he explained that they couldn’t inspect the room because it was currently occupied.
I was incredulous. “Well, get them out of there! It has bed bugs!” He took down my contact info and said he’d get back to me. They didn’t seem to be taking things seriously.
The next day I got an email thanking me “for reaching out to us regarding any bed bug concerns that you have” and explaining that “after the inspection conducted today we did find minimal bed bug activity in the room.”
Minimal. Ha. The email then went on to explain how bed bugs aren’t a reflection of a hotel’s cleanliness (true) and are just a result of travelers (also true) and I should probably do my laundry and call a professional (obviously), and oh, won’t you please stay with us again?
I wasn’t about to spend thousands of dollars on professional extermination brought on by the hotel’s own negligence, so I asked about their plan to cover my fumigation costs. After a few days of general corporate non-answers, they explained that they had to follow the appropriate process and get their insurance company involved. Sounded good to me — they’d already said, in writing, that my room had bed bugs. Of course they were going to take responsibility for the situation.
Encouraged by the hotel’s management to “accelerate the process” at my personal cost (“keeping my receipts to be reimbursed”), I hired a pest control company. They decided to “bomb” my closet (where I’d hung unworn clothes from the trip and stored my luggage) and bookshelves (where I’d replaced paperwork and other books) with Nuvan strips and treat other potentially affected areas with Cryonite, a rapidly freezing carbon dioxide snow-like compound that goes by the tagline “The chill that kills”. Both treatments would require the items be out of commision for about a month. The total cost was just shy of $3,000.
Meanwhile, my battle ground had moved from the hotel to their insurance company. I was required to give a recorded statement to a claims specialists describing the ordeal. During our conversation, the specialist asked multiple times whether I’d turned down cleaning services at all during my stay. Luckily, I hadn’t. Turns out this is because checking for bed bugs is part of the cleaning checklist. If I’d told them to stay out of the room, then they wouldn’t have had a chance to inspect (however poorly) for bed bugs. This gave me leverage. (Ever since, I always accept the cleaning service — you can still tell them not to replace your sheets for environmental reasons, but at least allow them to come in and remake the bed.)
On top of all this, I’d learned via the public bedbug registry (it’s a thing!) that other guests had had the same problem around the same time. Given that irrefutable evidence, it’s understandable how livid I was that when the insurance company called a couple weeks later to let me know they determined the hotel not at fault.
A vendetta was born. I became a woman with a single mission: Make. Them. Pay.
I’ve spent most of my career in online publishing in some form or another. I fully understand the power of SEO. And as a hotel — or anyone in the service industry — you reputation is everything. I started searching and found that there were multiple variations of “HOTELNAMEhasbedbugs.com” available. Two minutes later, I was the proud owner of a new URL. It was incredibly cathartic. I started dreaming of how I would detail every story, every photo and every dollar of my ordeal — all due to this hotel — to the world. I had mentally psyched myself up for my inevitable appearance on The Today Show during which my chyron would read “’Crazy Bed Bug Lady’ publically shames hotel into taking responsibility for their mistake”.
I sent word of my plans to the hotel, making it clear that I, too, could be a pest who wouldn’t go away.
After a month of continual phone calls, strongly worded emails and more conversations with their insurance company, I finally received an email from the hotel manager stating that “due to the nature of our business as well as our understanding of your frustration with this situation we would like as a hotel, regardless of fault, [to] reimburse you for the expenses you submitted.” Save your receipts, kids! I signed some papers — hence why I haven’t mentioned the chain’s name — and got my check. Blood had been shed (well, more like feasted on) but the battle had been won.
A few weeks later, I was able to remove the plastic sealing off my bookshelves and closet, and I no longer needed to pick my clothes out of trash bags. I was able to stop going to the laundromat every other day and I felt comfortable, kind of, replacing my duvet and bringing things into my house. Roscoe, the bed bug detecting beagle, did a complete sniff-test and cleared my apartment. I was happier to receive that piece of paper than I was my college degree.
But there are still times when I’m not convinced. I find a random, itchy bump on my elbow and tense up. I wake up to a red spot on the back of my shin and I’m flipping over the mattress. Earlier this summer, I was at a wedding in the Catskills where all of the guests stayed in cabins and when I got back to New York, I noticed my back looked like a game of connect the dots. I sent a text to the group asking “What’s everyone’s bug bite situation? I have so many it’s unreal. I’m nervous…” I wasn’t the only one.
A few hours later, we figured out we were dealing with chiggers, not bed bugs. While the others slept soundly that night, I dug out my markers and dotted each bite I could reach before going to bed and woke up early to do my laundry before work. Just in case.
That’s the thing with bed bugs. They’re not going to make you sick, or cause you any actual harm. But they can slowly drive you crazy, cost you more than twice your rent money, and make you fear for every bite, itch and bump you’ll ever have, for the rest of your life.
And while a business can’t possibly return your sense of security, they absolutely can — and should — take responsibility for their errors and make sure you don’t drain your savings (or go into debt) trying to recover from their mistake. If comes down to it, just take a cue from our blood-sucking friends and keep at it for as long as you need to (and maybe register a domain name or two). Eventually, they’ll do whatever it takes to make you go away.
Erin Scottberg has become the go-to for bed bug advice and questions among her friends. Tweet your questions to her @erins or follow her on instagram @ErinGraceBerg, where she promises to never post a #BiteThings pic.