Airing our Dirty Laundry: Managing Laundry and Long-Term Travel

One of the most frequent questions we get about travel is how we pack with one carry-on bag and one backpack each, whether for a trip that spans 10 weeks and 15 countries like last summer’s, or for shorter trips.  People often say “I could never do that because I work out” or “I need dress clothes” or “I carry a camera with me.”  I usually just nod and smile, in an effort to avoid an impassioned defense of my adoption of the Rick Steves philosophy that there are two kinds of luggage: carry on and lost.  We’ll be sharing our own packing lists and tips for packing, whether you’re packing for a weekend, a week, or several months.  But one key to how we are able to almost always avoid checking bags is thanks to the stinky elephant in the room: laundry.  

Week 10: Clean Laundry.

Week 10: Clean Laundry.

We always pack Woolite packets in case we needed to wash clothes in our hotel rooms, but fortunately don’t usually have to use them.  (On other trips we’ve packed a bottle of Rick Steves travel wash, which has also worked well and is more flexible since you can use what you need and close the bottle back up.)  Since we don’t usually wash clothes in hotel rooms, do we just use copious amounts of travel Febreeze?  In a word, no.

 Years ago I read many, many blogs about long-term travel.  One of the posts that stuck with me (by which I mean horrified me and haunted my dreams) was by a couple who wrote about how they never would’ve imagined how much filth and smell they would tolerate while traveling long-term. They shared photos of mushrooms growing out of the shower drains in a hostel in Myanmar, talked about wearing their socks multiple times between washings, having wet underwear because it never dried between washings, and generally just living in ways I did not find appealing. 

With that as background, I went into this trip concerned . . . . about laundry.  As someone works professionally coaching attorneys and other professionals on career issues, I didn’t want to suddenly start considering Febreeze a substitute for, you know, soap.  Fortunately, I needn’t have worried.  You can do laundry more or less anywhere in the world for a fraction of the cost of checking a bag.  (As long as you avoid the hotel laundry.)  And it always takes far less time than arriving at the airport early to check a bag and waiting for it to come off the carousel if it arrives when you do at your destination.  We won’t get into the amount of time you can spend wandering the streets of an unfamiliar city trying to buy the things that were in your bag when the airline misplaced it. (If you ever need advice on buying underwear in Sarajevo, do let me know!)    

Here are our tips for how to make it work:

(1)  Avoid hotel laundry services if at all possible.  

I always read the laundry price lists in hotels, and the price to have one shirt washed is usually anywhere from $6-10 US at most hotels.  In fact, one time we did have our laundry done at our hotel, laundry cost more than the (admittedly inexpensive) hotel stay.

(2)  Think about laundry when you’re packing.  Really. 

Don’t pack clothing that needs to be washed separately, resist the temptation to pack something new without washing it first, and don’t pack anything that could be ruined by being washed in an industrial washer or dried at a high temperature.  

For me, that meant packing a lot of bright colored shirts that could all be washed together, dark colors that could all be washed together, and taking extra underwear and socks.

I also am careful to always pack some of my clothes using a red Eagle Creek compression packing cube (I use the medium and large sizes.)  The cubes themselves are terrific, keep me organized, keep my clothes relatively unwrinkled (or at least not so wrinkled that being hung up in the shower doesn’t make them presentable), and help me keep dirty clothes separate from clean.  And, unlike those plastic hotel laundry bags, they ensure clothes don’t take up more room when dirty than they did when clean.  In particular, once I have dirty clothes, I fold them back up the same way they traveled, then use a red Eagle Creek compression packing cube to transport them.  That way, I never wonder what’s dirty and what’s not, and it makes doing laundry faster and unpacking easier.  

And, not using the hotel laundry bag also means that the cleaning person will never decide to help you by taking the laundry bag to have the contents cleaned, as happened at our hotel in Abu Dhabi.  While I appreciated how proactive the cleaning person was, I did not make that mistake again and went back to using my trusty Eagle Creek compression packing cube exclusively.      

(3)  Research in advance to know where you’ll do laundry.  

In Odessa, Ukraine, I wasn’t able to find a laundromat online, but assumed that the places that advertised “cleaning” meant laundry.  Well, you know what happens when you assume . . . . you find yourself wandering the streets of Odessa, Ukraine with heavy plastic bags full of laundry in 90+ degree heat.    

In some cities – like Dubai – it can be hard to find laundry.  A quick google search from home will give you time to post in travel groups on Facebook, email your hotel, or otherwise research to come up with a plan.  Or to just plan to do your laundry in another city.  (Note that if you do need to do laundry in Dubai, the one place we found that was relatively close to the Palm was Laundry Lounge (www.laundrylounge.ae. The worker was very helpful and you can head next door to the Baker Street Café, to eat while your clothes get clean.) 

Lunch while washing…

Lunch while washing…

(4)  Airbnb.  

We purposely scheduled some AirBnBs knowing that we would want to do laundry, and used the washing machine filter on the website to only consider places with a washer. Our apartments in Medellin, Columbia; Tbilisi, Georgia; León, Spain; and Barcelona, Spain all had a washer, drying racks and hangers, laundry soap, and sometimes a dryer or washer/dryer all-in-one machine.  

(5)  Do your laundry as soon as you arrive at a destination so it has time to dry.  

You might think this is obvious, but we repeatedly had AirBnB hosts tell us that laundry dried quickly thanks to their fan/spin cycle/climate/dryer.  They were sometimes right, but sometimes not.  And when the washer in our Medellin AirBnB didn’t work and the owner couldn’t fix it, trying to do laundry early meant we had time to come up with a plan B.  

 (6)  One of our readers suggested asking hotel doormen for a nearby laundromat.  He reported that staff often offer to just take the laundry and have it done for him, at much lower cost than the hotel (even with a healthy tip), and less time and effort than doing it yourself.  

What are your laundry questions or hacks? Post in the comments. And don’t forget to like RedDotBlueDot on Facebook and sign up for our email list for infrequent, but content packed emails.

UPDATE: RedDotBlueDot reader Lisa noted that the Scrubba Travel Wash Bag is an excellent choice as well. Thanks for posting Lisa!