You may think you’re immune to bedbugs because you stay in high-end hotels or upscale short-term rentals while travelling for business. But you’d be dead wrong.
These nasty little critters are increasingly a factor in the world of travel. And a 2015 report by American Entomologist found business travellers were more likely than leisure travellers to have had personal experience (35 per cent) or know someone who has had personal experience with bedbugs (21 per cent).
If you regularly spend time in short-term rentals, your risk of coming across bedbugs may be even higher. Infestations are most common in apartments and condos (95 per cent of pest control companies reported treating them there), although 75 per cent said they had treated hotels and motels as well in the past year.
But here’s a sad truth I ran up against on a recent trip to Mexico. If you’re in a hotel, you can always be moved to another room and, since relationship management is so important, particularly in hotel chains where business people tend to stay, you can probably expect a full refund.
If you’re in a short-term rental, you could just be up a creek without a paddle. Why? Because you are reliant on the decency of the host property owner and the willingness of the online travel bureau to accept responsibility for the situation.
Just to give you an idea of how it works, my husband and I recently booked a penthouse condo on Trip Advisor in “an exclusive area” of Playa del Carmen for US$3,000. I woke up the first morning itching furiously from bites on my ankles, wrists, face and neck. My husband felt nothing. “What could be biting me?” I asked owner Domenico La Cava. His reply: The Mexican mosquitoes are very bad.
I bought bug spray and cortisone cream for the bites and soldiered on. Big mistake! Had I called Trip Advisor immediately, I could have expected a full refund through their Trip Advisor Peace of Mind Guarantee.
As it turns out, the policy only applies for 24 hours after move-in. At that point, your cash is released to the property owner, so any refund you’d get would come directly out of the travel agency’s pocket.
If you don’t immediately recognize the presence of bedbugs or if – as I did – you contact the property owner with your concerns, you face a battle to get your money back. On the second day in the condo, I texted La Cava to ask if he had ever had a problem with bedbugs. His answer: No.
Crazed by lack of sleep and itchy, tear-your-skin-off welts, I woke up on the third night to find a small black bug crawling across the page of my book. I squished it and blood stained the print.
The next day, La Cava (who wasn’t around) sent in two guys in a broken-down truck with a chemical sprayer to confirm the place had bedbugs. My husband and I left with just the clothes on our backs (the bugs love to tag along in suitcases, purses, shoes, etc.). Then we booked a different condo.
We called Trip Advisor to ask for a refund. They said we were no longer covered by their “guarantee” but they would negotiate with La Cava on our behalf. He flat-out refused to return any of our money. Instead, he wanted us to move back in, as “hopefully everything will be fine.” That statement failed to generate much confidence, but I entertained the thought — providing he guaranteed a full refund should I be bitten again. He declined.
So I went back to Trip Advisor. I had documented the experience in detail, with photos of the bites and evidence that La Cava had been renting the place out by the room in off season and that there was a documented report of bed bugs at that address on bedbugs.net (so the critters very likely didn’t come as a surprise to him).
After much pressing, Trip Advisor initially offered to refund their own booking fee (US$380). The catch: I had to sign a confidentiality agreement. I refused and notified the company that this column was in the works.
Finally, almost a month after our initial contact, the company called me back to say they were issuing a full refund, minus the four days we’d spent at the rental. They had also severed their business relationship with the property owner.
Trip Advisor did the right thing. But bedbugs have become an unfortunate fact of life and there are some lessons in this for business travellers. You can decrease your chances of getting burned by:
— Checking reviews carefully before booking (the more the better),
— Scanning the rental address on bedbugregistry.com (North America) and bedbugs.net (international),
— Calling the travel agency immediately (within 24 hours in the case of both Trip Advisor-owned companies and Airbnb) if something is amiss,
— Documenting your experience carefully with pictures and notes regarding important dates and conversations. The caveat: Try to keep your communications concise and polite – customer service agents don’t have time to read through a tome.
— Be persistent. Had I accepted Trip Advisor’s first offer, we’d be out of pocket US$2,600.
• Camilla Cornell is a business writer and intrepid traveller, who nonetheless appreciates a little comfort when away from home.