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Getting your clothes clean on your travels (and getting them dried quickly)

One of the best ways to travel lightly is to wash your clothes while on the road. Think about it; instead of packing a shirt for every day you’re traveling on your weeklong vacation, you can wear one shirt and pack two in your carry-on, and wash your shirts maybe once or twice on your trip. How you get your clothes washed, though, depends on various things, like your length of stay in one place, the type of clothing you pack, and your budget, your type of trip, and the time of year. In general, you can get your clothes clean by:

  • Staying in lodging that offers washers and dryers
  • Using your hotel’s laundry services
  • Going to a neighborhood laundromat
  • Taking your clothes to a local dry cleaner
  • Washing and rinsing your clothing by hand in the hotel sink, and hanging them up to dry overnight

Of these choices, the first (washing by hand) is probably the easiest. It doesn’t take up an hour or two while you wait for machines to get done, doesn’t require you to find a laundromat nearby, and doesn’t cost the large fees hotels typically charge. Let’s look at these options in a bit more detail.

Using a washer/dryer in your hotel

Using your hotel’s laundry facilities is a great option for a lot of people, especially families—it doesn’t cost as much as requesting laundry services through your hotel, and you don’t have to leave your hotel. This might not be such a great option if you’re traveling solo and don’t really have enough for a load of laundry, the machines are very popular and you have to wait all night for an available machine (especially during a busy travel season or on a cruise ship, where cabin luggage storage space is at a premium and everyone wants to wash all their beachwear), or you haven’t planned your wardrobe to put everything in a single load (different fabrics, water temperature, and so on).

Just do a little planning; check to make sure the hotels you are staying at offer laundry facilities, and consider taking a few Purex laundry sheets. They take up almost no space in your bag; just take them out of the box and pack them in a Ziploc baggie.

Using your hotel’s laundry services

If you’re staying at least a few days at your hotel, especially if you’re traveling on business, using the hotel’s laundry services is a very convenient, albeit expensive, way to get your clothes clean. Such services are particularly great for business attire like suits that need to be pressed.

This option however, doesn’t really work for undergarments, and can get pretty expensive if you’re requesting more than a couple of items be cleaned. Of course if you’re on an expense account, I guess that’s not an issue…

Going to a neighborhood laundromat

If you’re feeling a little adventuresome and you have a good book to read, consider finding a local laundromat. This may pose a challenge if you’re staying at a resort (although the resort will likely offer washers and dryers) and you don’t have a rental car, and you might find some laundromats in a less safe neighborhood (since their patrons may be city apartment dwellers without their own washing machines). That said, most are perfectly safe, and will offer you a chance to visit the neighborhood.

Taking your clothes to a local dry cleaner

An option most people wouldn’t consider, but if you are used to having your clothes dry cleaned and your motel doesn’t offer laundry services, you can always drop your clothes off at a local dry cleaner. Be warned however, unlike your hotel (which will likely be far more accommodating about meeting your check-out deadline), a dry cleaner may wind up getting slammed and not be able to have your clothes ready for pick-up when you need them. Unlike at home when you can always return the next day, you might not have such a luxury if you’re needing to catch a flight that day.

Washing and rinsing your clothes by hand

By far, the most convenient way to get your clothes clean while traveling is to wash it yourself in the bathroom sink. This might sound like a painful inconvenience, but it’s not nearly so bad, with a little planning. In general, pack clothing that are:

  • Made of thinner fabric. If you’re traveling during a colder season, consider wearing multiple layers with the inner layer being easy to wash by hand (and avoid the really bulky wool sweaters).
  • Hand washable. Avoid packing items that must be dry cleaned.
  • Made of moisture-wicking material, like some synthetic fabrics (BackpackingLight.com has an interesting article comparing the drying speeds of different base layer fabrics, from synthetic Capilene to merino wool).

One concern when washing by hand in your hotel bathroom is ensuring that your clothes are dry by the time you want to wear them again. This can be a particular challenge if you’re washing things like denim jeans or a fleece top. The first thing you can do is to put off washing those heavy items. Do you normally “go commando” when wearing jeans? Consider an undergarment as a layer between you and the jeans. Or if you normally just throw on a sweatshirt, consider wearing a thin T-shirt under it; it will let you wear the sweatshirt a few times before it needs to be washed.

For those items that you do wash in the sink, how do you get them dry fast enough? If your hotel’s bathtub/shower has a spooled laundry line, that definitely helps. If you have room in your carry-on, you might consider packing a portable one yourself. However, just hanging your clothes on a clothing line doesn’t ensure quick drying. To that end, you can help it along.

Quick-drying your hand-washed items

Let’s say you want to stay on your workout regimen during your trip, so you pack a workout outfit. Rather than pack a cotton T-shirt and a pair of athletic shorts,  consider packing a tech shirt and a pair of compression shorts instead. Both of these are made of lightweight material that make drying much easier.

Fill the sink with water to wash your clothes by hand. Photo by Lani Teshima.

Fill the sink with water (use whatever temperature water is appropriate for your garment). Unless it’s lingerie, you can add some body wash or shampoo as your “detergent,” or even the hotel bar soap, taking extra time (and extra soap) on soiled spots (food stains, armpit area).

Once your garment has been washed, it’s time to hang it to dry… or is it?

First, wring your garment (note the washing instructions; some fine fabrics have warnings about not wringing or twisting them) like wringing a washcloth.

Wring your shirt to get the water out of it. Photo by Lani Teshima.

For me, a regular wringing is never quite enough. I find that folding the garment over the faucet and using the faucet as an anchor lets me wring out far more water from the garment.

Anchor your garment to something steady like the faucet, then wring it out some more. Photo by Lani Teshima.

After you’ve wrung the garment as much as you can, lay it out on a bathtowel.

Lay your garment on a full-sized bath towel after you’ve wrung the garment out. Photo by Lani Teshima.

Take one side of the towel and start rolling it such that you roll your garment in along with the towel (your garment is the cream in your towel’s chocolate Ho-ho’s cake, or the fish in your roll sushi).

Starting with one end of the bath towel, slowly roll the towel (with the garment) until the towel is completely rolled up. Photo by Lani Teshima.

Once you’ve completely rolled up your bathtowel, you can now wring the towel with your garment inside. You can even step on the bottom end of the bath towel with your foot, which allows you to use both hands to wring the towel very effectively.

Wring the towel with the garment rolled inside. Photo by Lani Teshima.

Most of the moisture left in your garment will get transferred into the towel as you wring them out, leaving your garment as dry as it would be when it comes out of the spin cycle of a washing machine. This almost ensures that your garment will be totally dry by the next day!

This method is most effective on things like T-shirts, but you can use it for your underwear as well.