There’s a wonderful passage in Ann Jones’ marvelous travel memoir, Looking For Lovedu, where she recounts the clean-out day she needed after crossing the Sahara in a jeep. While I can’t identify with Jones’ endless appetite for adventure, her scrubbing day speaks to me. In fact, just like Jones, I’ve built many a cozy memory around the prosaic work of doing travel laundry.
While I can’t exactly claim to love doing laundry when I’m at home, it’s a different story altogether when I’m traveling. Laundry has become my mid-trip rite of passage. It’s a meditative moment that allows me to take a breath, grounding myself in the mundanity of the chore. I’ve listened in on some mighty interesting conversations at laundromats around the world and I’ve had some highly satisfying bouts of hotel room scrubbing. Laundry time is when my bag gets reorganized, my postcards are finally written, and my travel budget is updated.
But beyond the zen are sensible practicalities that make travel laundry appealing even if you’re not quite ready to ruminate on the meaning of life mid-spin cycle. Committing to laundry means I can commit to a carryon size bag. That means saving money and lots of it. I don’t have to pay to check a bag on the airplane. I skip pricey taxis when I can easily walk. I don’t need bellhops or valets or even the oversized storage locker at a museum.
Over 20 years of travel, I’ve picked up a few tried and true tips for doing laundry on the road that anyone can copy.
Research Your Options In Advance
Inevitably, on any trip, there will be days when laundry is easy and others when it’s hard. A 12-hour layover probably isn’t the time when you want to tackle a heap of dirty socks (then again, maybe it is. Talk about a cool way to check out a city!) Some destinations are notoriously laundromat-adverse (I’m looking at you, Stockholm) while others have facilities that are tourist attractions in their own right (like Copenhagen’s The Laundromat Cafe.) Guidebooks like Lonely Planet help me discover cool and convenient laundry facilities.
Consider Your Hotel And Hostel Options
Many hotels, especially in the United States, have small, coin-operated laundry rooms for guests. If the property you’re staying at doesn’t offer this, there’s a good chance that a nearby hotel does. Hotels often have an agreement that lets guests pop in for this purpose.
You can almost always count on hostels to have laundry facilities, and I’ve been known to book myself into a private room just so I can enjoy accommodations with ample washers and dryers on-site.
And whether I’m in desperate need of a wash or not, if I’m staying in any spot for more than one night, I’ll inevitably do some sink laundry. I know I have ample time to let everything air dry and it’s the perfect moment to freshen things up even if they’re not strictly due for the washing machine.
Bring Along Some Basic Supplies
All laundromats sell detergent on site. Ever fearful that they won’t, I always bring along a bottle of hotel shampoo with me in case I need an on-the-spot solution. Fortunately, I’ve never had to use it.
You can rinse out undies with nothing more than a sink, some hot water, and a tiny squirt of whatever soap is on hand (like hotel shampoo). But if you anticipate more substantial hotel-room laundry, a few basic supplies will make your task all the easier. A flat sink plug and a stretchy elastic clothesline with hooks and suction cups at the end are a big help (bonus points if the clothesline is braided with three strands as opposed to just twisted with two — the braids do a better job of holding up wet items.)
You can pack individual sachets of laundry detergent (both Woolite and Tide are commonly available) or you can bring your own powdered soap from home. Finally, don’t forget to bring along a laundry bag of some kind for hauling everything around. I alternate between my hiking day bag and a fold-tiny market bag that I always keep on hand. If you’re stuck, grab the hotel room’s dry cleaning bag from your closet.
Keep An Eye Out For This Brand
If you happen to find yourself in Germany, keep your eyes out for a product called Rei In Der Tube. It looks like a toothpaste tube, but it actually contains a concentrated soap paste, perfect for traveling.
Dryer Sheets Do Double Duty
There is nothing so cozy as taking fresh, clean laundry out of a dryer and having it smell just like home. Packing a few dryer sheets in your suitcase guarantees that your gear will always smell fresh and, when you get to a laundromat, your clothing will smell just like home.
Get Creative With Stain Removal
There are a number of travel-friendly stain removing “pens” and wipes on the market. While research suggests they work best with fresh food-based smears, they’re not so great with older spots or grease residue. Consider them a tool, not a miracle worker.
I’ve tackled stains by applying detergent directly on the spot and letting it sit before laundering (it’s essential to know your gear — I wouldn’t do this with a brand new shirt). But your best stain removal plan might just be to visit the nearest grocery store. White vinegar helps with grass stains, dish soap breaks down grease, lemon juice helps with rust and funky smells, and baking soda paste helps with sweat stains (and brightening whites).
Obviously, no trip to a foreign grocery store is complete without raiding the chocolate aisle! All your hard work deserves some treats.
Time Is On Your Side
In a typical hotel room laundry session, I’ve quickly dumped dirty items in the sink with cold water and a squirt of shampoo as my “pre-soak” before heading out to enjoy other activities. Upon return, all dirt is nicely loosened, and I can take a few moments to really scrub and swirl things with a pinch of proper detergent and fresh water (hot, should the fabric call for it). I let things soak a bit more while taking care of essential work — like drinking some local wine — and give a final scrub, a good rinse, and a strong wringing. For heavier fabrics, I wring once, shake it out, and wring again in the opposite direction, ideally with a towel to sop up any extra water. Then I hang things up in the breeziest place I can find, by a window, a fan, or a source of heat.
Use Your Ironing Board In A New Way
I think I can count the number of times I’ve cared about wrinkled travel clothing on one hand, but that doesn’t mean that I don’t love using the hotel ironing board. Think of it as your new best friend — it’s a shelf, it’s a table, and it’s an easy way to support clothing hangers, hooked over the edges and draped with your newly washed garments. If things are just a tad damp come morning, a quick pass over with a hot iron will take care of any lingering moisture.
You Might Just Love Travel Laundry Too!
It’s often said that no traveler has ever lamented, “If only I could drag around a heavier bag.” Well, I think that’s true. And I also think no traveler has ever said, “If only all the underwear in my bag was dirty, not clean!” Packing light and embracing laundry offers the best of both worlds, easy-to-handle luggage, lots of fresh outfits, and maybe — just maybe — your laundry adventures will be a source of rich travel memories, just like Ann Jones (and myself!).