I’m half way through a 17 day tour of Italy and today is my day off. We don’t really have days off as guides, but I’m in the Cinque Terre today and have sent my group off to explore the villages and coastline. What’s a guide to do with spare time? Drink wine and lay on the beach? Visit with impossibly glamorous Euro friends? Nope. Even better. I’m going to deal with travel laundry.
Ahhhhh, travel laundry. There is almost nothing in this world that feels better while traveling than a bag full of clean laundry. After living out of my backpack for 6 weeks (so far), you’d probably be able to guess that things have gotten funky. I’m pretty good at keeping clothes reasonably clean, I’m not particularly sweaty or stinky, but there’s always a point where my stuff has been so overused that I feel certain that if I turn away from my bag for too long, the clothes will get up and walk away on their own in protest. For that reason, I have developed some strategies for keeping reasonably clean and doing laundry abroad.
While You’re on the Go
The best practice in travel laundry for keeping the situation under control is to wash out the stinky stuff as often as possible. We know the typical culprits- bras, underwear, socks, undershirts. Anything that touches the stink zone on your body. As I may have mentioned before, I typically toss my bra and underwear in the shower with me and rinse them out with shampoo, hanging them in the shower to dry. That works best when you will have a full 24 hours before packing up again, so that there is time for drying. It’s a good idea to bring some sort of waterproof sack with you for damp laundry. You can use a big ziploc bag, or pick up a waterproof travel bag. This is also a great item to have for things that have gotten rank that you don’t have time to wash, to keep messy things separate from your clean things. If I do put wet things in a waterproof bag, I pack the bag in a very obvious place, so that it’s the first thing I see when I unpack and remember to hang the wet stuff out to finish drying. Mildew is no fun at home and even yuckier in your suitcase.
I try and pack enough clothing to get me through at least a week to 10 days. If I keep up with the underwear situation, I can even stretch to two weeks between washes. That doesn’t mean I bring a million clothing items, it means that I try and get a couple of wears out of items before I wash them. I always recommend dark bottoms for travel because you can get a good three uses out of dark jeans or pants, no matter how much wine or tomato sauce you’ve spilled on them. Trust me on this one.
Bringing a spot cleaner like a Tide Pen is invaluable for getting more use out of clothing. If things are getting smelly but are otherwise clean, giving them a good spray with a spray pump deodorant and a hanging in little fresh air will give you another day’s use.
My philosophy with clothing for travel is to bring lightweight, durable clothing that can be washed all together in a single load, and can resist mishandling and aggressive washing machines. If it bleeds, fades, or needs special care I leave it home. You will probably not be able to launder things exactly as you would at home, so I don’t suggest bringing anything that, if damaged, would break your heart.
As far as laundry bags go, I have two options in my backpack at the moment. Typically I use my pillowcase, which has a zipper on it and is ok for short walks to the laundromat. This time I also have a cool lightweight duffel bag with a shoulder strap, which came in really handy on the last laundry trip, requiring a 20 minute hike into town.
You’ll have a few options for washing while you’re traveling, what you choose depends on your ratio of time to disposable income. If you’re really organized, look into staying at a B&B or Airbnb place with a laundry facility midway through your trip. Doing laundry in the comfort of your own apartment with a glass of wine in hand is a pretty nice deal.
Handwash- This is the typical province of campers and grubby backpackers everywhere. Some people like to bring laundry gadgets like the Scrubba Wash Bag to replicate a washing machine. I don’t like to bring anything unless it’s really necessary, so I tend to go for simple soap and a bathroom sink. A good concentrated soap and a soak in hot water works for small items. I will also handwash my cashmere items. Cashmere is so wonderfully travel friendly, but shrinks like crazy and usually must be hand washed and shaped while drying.
One hand washing note, if you plan to use a travel clothesline, be sure and use it only in your bathroom. Hotel owners get upset if you hang clothes out of the window or over hardwood floors.
Self Service- You can find self service washers in most cities. They typically work on coins and have basic instructions. The cost tends to be about €7-10 wash and dry, taking a total of about 1-2 hours. Every laundromat I’ve encountered sells soap and fabric softener but it is often cheaper to grab some at the store first. Some machines come preloaded with soap, all you do is set the temperature and hit wash. The washing is a set time, taking about an hour in most laundromats. For drying, you choose an amount of time and a temperature, with the cost depending on how long you set it for. Choosing hearty clothes that can withstand high temperatures will pay off here. I tend to put the dryer on super hot for a short amount of time and check when it’s done.
While most machines have instructions or an attendant, often there isn’t any explanation at all. Google Translate comes in handy for deciphering the situation, but the hassle and frustration of figuring out a foreign washing machine might not be worth it. Money can make that problem go away, you can do full service.
Full service- More typical than self service places, most cities have full service laundromats. All you do is bag up your stuff and hand it over, then pick up at an appointed time. Most places allow drop off before noon and pick up in the evening of the same day. The full service places wash, dry, fold and hand you back your things in a tidy package, occasionally resembling a birthday present as just as delightful. I’ve paid €10-18 to wash all of the contents of my backpack at a full service place, well worth the price because I went sightseeing while someone else washed my stuff. That’s the upside. The downside: someone else is washing your stuff and you have no idea how careful they will be or what else they will be washing your stuff with. I had a place in Athens wash my clothes in June and when my black fleece jacket came back, it was covered in white pills that I could never fully remove. Oh well.
Hotel Service- For the person who has far more money than time, most hotels can do your laundry for you. This is the easiest option, but also the most expensive. A load of laundry will cost at least €20, probably more. Some places charge by the kilo and others by the piece, which can add up quickly. I do find that hotels tend to be more careful with your clothes, but at the prices they charge you may as well go to H&M and buy all new things. That’s not a bad strategy, now that I’m thinking of it….
Travel laundry may seem like an annoying task that kills your valuable travel time, but you can look at it another way. I kind of like it. It forces me to be real for a few minutes, to take care of the normal business of life that we forget while traveling and see how the locals live their lives, doing typical things. Its like playing house. And it might be the only travel adventure where you’ll smell better after you’ve done it.