The short answer: Yes, and they're equally content to feed on the blood of both the budget-minded and big spenders.
Cruise ship infestations are rare, but they do occur. Cruise Critic members have posted about possible bed bugs on late-2010 Carnival cruises, and an outbreak on Royal Caribbean's Jewel of the Seas caught media attention in early 2005.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) notes that the problem is increasing in first world countries like the U.S., U.K. and Canada, as well as in Europe. A January article in the Wall Street Journal referenced university studies that showed that since the ban of DDT, a pesticide that worked well against bed bugs, the insects have become more immune to the chemicals currently being used to kill them. Which means that bed bugs are stronger and possibly here to stay.
If you're concerned about encountering bed bugs on your next cruise, here's everything you need to know.
Q: What are bed bugs?
A: According to the CDC, bed bugs are "small, flat, parasitic insects that feed solely on the blood of people and animals while they sleep. Bed bugs are reddish-brown in color, wingless, [and] range from 1 mm to 7 mm (roughly the size of Lincoln's head on a penny)." They're found worldwide and do not spread disease, but their bites can be itchy and uncomfortable. Some people do have allergic reactions to the bites that would require medical attention.
Q: How do they get onboard cruise ships?
A: "Bed bugs typically are brought on board via guests' hand bags or luggage," says Vance Gulliksen, spokesman for Carnival Cruise Lines. They are not a sign that a cruise ship (or a hotel, for that matter) is unclean. Bed bugs often hide in the seams of bags and suitcases, and travelers don't even realize they're transporting the bugs from place to place.
Q: How can I check to see if my room has bed bugs?
A: Inspect your mattress and bedding, especially in any folds or corners, for the presence of bed bugs or their molted exoskeletons. They can often be found behind your bed's headboard, but you may not be able to see behind it if it's attached to the wall. Also, look for rust-colored blood spots on the mattress or bedside furniture, and check for what the CDC refers to as a "sweet, musty odor." If you're nervous about the bugs, pack a flashlight to help you check for evidence of the insects in dark corners.
Q: How do I know if I've been bitten by bed bugs (as opposed to a different kind of bug)?
A: It's often hard to differentiate between a bed bug bite and a mosquito or flea bite. The CDC reports that bite marks often look like swollen, reddish areas, either in a straight line or randomly arranged, that itch. It's also very possible for one person in a bed to get bitten while a second person sharing the bed does not -- or that one person will react to the bites while another won't feel them at all.
Q: What should I do if I think there are bed bugs in my cabin?
A: You should immediately report the problem to your cabin steward. If you need medical treatment, you can see the ship's doctor, but you'll need to pay out of pocket for your visit (and fees can be hefty) -- and you may not be reimbursed unless you've purchased travel insurance that would cover the visit. You can ask to be moved to another cabin, especially if there's evidence of a bed bug infestation, but if the ship is full, one may not be available.
Q: What do cruise ships do to prevent bed bug infestations?
A: "All stateroom stewards are trained to recognize the possible presence of bed bugs and are required to conduct weekly inspections of every cabin. Inspections cover not only stateroom beds but also curtains, carpeting and other areas," says Gulliksen. Cynthia Martinez, spokeswoman for Royal Caribbean Cruise Lines, adds, "Our laundry washes all bedding at 155 degrees, a recognized practice that helps prevent bed bugs. We also provide guests with adequate drawer and closet space in their stateroom so they can store their clothing, as well as a luggage rack so they can place their suitcase."
Q: What do cruise ships do to prevent the spread of bed bugs once onboard?
A: If bed bugs are found onboard, says Martinez, "we have specific procedures we follow to deal with bed bugs, which eliminates them completely. This includes inspecting the stateroom -- and other staterooms in the area -- fumigating, deep cleaning and replacing various soft goods." Gulliksen says Carnival has similar procedures. "If signs of infestation are present, the room is chemically treated along with all other cabins within that section. Frequent reinspection continues for the next several months. When ships are taken out of service for their routine maintenance period, all staterooms receive an extensive pest control treatment at that time, as well."
Q: What can I do to prevent the spread of bed bugs?
A: You can start by never putting your luggage directly onto the bed -- use a luggage rack or the thick mat the cabin steward puts on the foot of your bed on the first day. There are various products on the market -- luggage liners, laundry bags, sprays -- that claim to prevent the spread of bed bugs. You could try them, but we don't have any data on how effective these products actually are.
--by Erica Silverstein, Features Editor