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Are There Bed Bugs on Your Cruise Ship?

Cruise Ship Cabin (Photo: ER_09/Shutterstock)
Cruise Ship Cabin (Photo: ER_09/Shutterstock)

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Bed bugs have long been the bane of hostels and motels, even luxury hotels -- but are they on cruise ships as well?

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. A quick perusal of the Cruise Critic message boards shows that members posted in July 2018 about a family who reported encountering bed bugs on Norwegian Dawn and in July 2017 about a bed bug encounter on Royal Caribbean.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) notes that the problem is increasing in Europe and First World countries like the U.S., U.K. and Canada. A combination of people traveling more and bed bugs becoming immune to insecticides used against them means that bed bugs are stronger and here to stay.

If you're concerned about encountering bed bugs on your next cruise, here's everything you need to know.

Updated January 8, 2020

What are bed bugs?

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 1mm to 7mm (roughly the size of Lincoln's head on a penny)."

They're found worldwide and don't spread disease, but their bites can be itchy and uncomfortable. Some people do have allergic reactions to the bites that would require medical attention.

How do they get onboard cruise ships?

"Bed bugs typically are brought onboard via guests' handbags or luggage," says Vance Gulliksen, spokesman for Carnival Cruise Line. 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.

How can I check to see if my room has bed bugs?

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.

How do I know if I've been bitten by bed bugs?

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, which itch. It's also very possible for one person in a bed to get bitten while a second person sharing the bed doesn't -- or that one person will react to the bites while another won't feel them at all.

What should I do if I think there are bed bugs in my cabin?

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.

What do cruise ships do to prevent bed bug infestations?

"Carnival has a dedicated team of specially trained personnel who conduct weekly inspections of every cabin. Inspections cover not only stateroom beds but also curtains, carpeting and other areas," says Gulliksen. Likewise, Royal Caribbean washes all bedding at 155 degrees, a recognized practice that helps prevent bed bugs.

What do cruise ships do to prevent the spread of bed bugs once onboard?

Royal Caribbean has procedures in place to eliminate bed bugs if they're found onboard, including fumigating, deep cleaning and replacing various soft goods.

Gulliksen says Carnival Cruise Line has a dedicated team of specially trained personnel who monitor and eliminate any pest issues onboard. If pest issues are identified, the stateroom and the passengers' luggage and belongings are all fully inspected. The passengers' clothes and luggage are sent to be laundered without charge, and all linens are changed.

Steaming, fumigation and treatment is scheduled, and re-inspections of the stateroom are scheduled throughout the cruise and for the next three months, with follow-up treatments as needed. On embarkation day, the stateroom, adjacent staterooms and corridor are all treated.

What can I do to prevent the spread of bed bugs?

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.

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