These unwanted guests joined us on vacation. Here’s what we did about them

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By Christopher Elliott

When it comes to vacation trouble, the worst is the kind that you don’t see coming. I’m talking about insects, rodents, and other creepy-crawlies that decide to join you on your getaway. Add kids to that mix and you have the soundtrack for a horror movie.

You know, the blood-curdling scream, followed by. “Daaaaaaad! Come heeeeere!”

Finding a praying mantis in our Sedona rental was one such moment. A picture is worth a thousand words — and screams.

A praying mantis on the wall of our Sedona, Ariz., vacation rental.
A praying mantis on the wall of our Sedona, Ariz., vacation rental.

When my daughter saw this big boy in the bathroom, the entire neighborhood heard about it. Even though it didn’t make a sound, and although I explained that mantises are more or less harmless, she remained petrified of the insect. It wasn’t the first time we’d had a “guest” in our hotel room or vacation rental, but it was one of the most memorable.

You’ve probably seen the estimate that for every human on the planet, there are 200 million insects. Even if that’s half true, there’s a pretty decent chance you’ll fend off a pest on your next trip. Then again, maybe we’re invading their territory. It all depends on your perspective.

I’m not a psychologist, but I can discuss the coping mechanisms that work for my family. They involve a little reason and a lot of advance preparation, by which I mean a thorough inspection of your property. Maybe they’ll help you on your next vacation with varmints.

Vacation trouble comes in all forms -- including unwelcome insects.
A less menacing visitor at the Butterfly House at Put-in-Bay, Ohio. You can get up close to these insects without freaking out.

Hey kids, let’s talk about bugs

It’s normal to fear insect interlopers. I mean, no one wants to see a cockroach in a rental. Who wants that kind of vacation trouble? But there are bugs and then there are bugs. One of the best ways of explaining the difference is by showing instead of telling. Take your kids to a butterfly garden and let them see the beautiful, nonhazardous insects.

I really liked the Butterfly House at Put-in-Bay, Ohio. During the summer, it’s teeming with red admirals, painted ladies and viceroys. If you want to see butterflies in the wild, there’s no better place than Pacific Grove, Calif., where the monarchs rest during their migration. You can find them in dense clusters in the trees. They’re fascinating — and friendly.

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It’s important to explain to your kids the difference between finding a Madagascar hissing cockroach in your sandwich (very unlikely, by the way) and seeing a butterfly on the summer lilac outside your window. If you see a hissing cockroach, and by golly, if it hisses at you, it’s OK to drop the sandwich and flee. Not so with the cabbage white landing on the shrub.

Having that conversation is surprisingly difficult because you don’t really have the opportunity until it happens.

“Don’t worry,” I say when one sees a harmless daddy longlegs dangling from the ceiling. “He’s not gonna hurt you.”

Sometimes the kids believe me, sometimes not. That’s when your old buddy Google can help. Research the pest and show your kids that the ladybug in the entryway is not a predator.

A small crab in Neskowin, Ore. Totally harmless. See, kids?
A small crab in Neskowin, Ore. Totally harmless. See, kids?

This is my kind of vacation trouble

Random creepy-crawlies, like the tiny, spider-like crabs we found while kayaking in Oregon last summer, can add to the adventure. (By the way, it helps to be with an experienced guide, who can confirm that no, that crab won’t bite you and suck your blood!) It’s really all about the conversation and trust between you and your kids.

The conversation is pretty simple. You remind your kids of the previous discussions about unwanted vacation guests. Some are totally harmless, while others you’ll want to admire from afar. But the trust thing is important, too. They have to know that when the time comes, you will not hesitate to call the exterminator.

I always carefully inspect every hotel room we check into and every vacation rental we occupy, to make sure we’re the only residents. If we aren’t, I make a quick call to the front desk to let the powers that be know about the problem. The kids know that I have zero tolerance for interlopers and that as far as I’m concerned, any insect encounter should be for educational purposes only, which is to say, it happens in a museum. (Related: A $25,000 Oahu family vacation demands perfection, including an ant-free experience.)

We found one other insect in our Sedona rental which fit that description: a large tarantula that lived under the refrigerator. This freaked everyone out. My middle son, Iden, would not go into the kitchen for days. Even after I explained that the spider was more afraid of him than he was of it, and that tarantula bites don’t kill you, he would have none of it.

I contemplated telling our vacation rental management company about the spider, but then I remembered where we were. Our house was on the edge of the wilderness, with incredible hiking trails and an abundance of wildlife, including coyote and jackrabbit. I suspected that if I told the rental company about the mantis and the spider, they’d say, “That’s it?” So I told my son I’d find the tarantula myself and deal with it. The spider disappeared without any prompting from me, and so did the mantis.

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Christopher Elliott

Christopher Elliott is the founder of Elliott Advocacy, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization that empowers consumers to solve their problems and helps those who can't. He's the author of numerous books on consumer advocacy and writes three nationally syndicated columns. He also publishes the Elliott Report, a news site for consumers, and Elliott Confidential, a critically acclaimed newsletter about customer service. If you have a consumer problem you can't solve, contact him directly through his advocacy website. You can also follow him on X, Facebook, and LinkedIn, or sign up for his daily newsletter.

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