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How to Easily Wash Your Clothes When Traveling

Without paying those crazy-expensive hotel laundry fees.

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Laundry drying in a hotel room bathroom Illustration: Laura Sant

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If you’ve stayed in a hotel recently and happened to look at the price list attached to the plastic laundry bag, you probably got wobbly from sticker shock. Ten dollars to wash a T-shirt? Four dollars for panties? Twelve dollars for shorts? Twenty-three dollars for a dress? We are talking laundry, not dry cleaning. In some cases, it would be cheaper to buy clothes than to clean them.

If your trip is short, you can pack enough stuff so you don’t have to clean at all on the road. But if you are going on a longer trip — and want to keep your packing light to eliminate the schlep factor and obnoxious airline fees for checked luggage — then these tips are for you.

I learned the ins and outs of doing laundry in hotels over 17 years as a travel journalist; sometimes, I am on the road seven or eight months out of 12. Some of these hacks come from other travel scribes and bloggers, because we love to share discoveries. Others are from conversations I’ve had with travelers around the world.

I’ve tested them all, from Brazil to Bulgaria, Alabama to the high Arctic, and Yosemite National Park to the island of Yap. No matter where I am in the world, my conclusion is always the same: Splurge on something else besides the hotel’s suds and soaks.


First rule: Pack some powdered laundry detergent. I use Charlie’s Soap laundry powder because it’s unscented, easy to pack, and not loaded with harmful chemicals. A little bit goes a very long way.

Grab an extra towel when you check in. When you wash your clothes in the sink, they have a timetable of their own when it comes to drying. So wring them out, place them inside a towel, and ring, roll, pound, sit, or stand on it to your heart’s content. When you have finished, your togs are well on their way to drying. (And you will have gotten out a lot of frustration at the same time!)

Fluffy hotel bathrobes can be used like towels to dry clothes, too. You can roll up several items in there at once.

With your clothes now pre-dried, where do you hang them? Get yourself a stretchy, portable, braided travel clothesline ($9.50) from REI before you leave and pack it in your bag. You stick your clothes into the braiding, and it holds on for dear life.

Your room probably has a windowsill where the sun shines in. If not, it certainly has a heater, which you can turn on. Think of both as underwear grills. Place your underwear on them, and flip them over once or twice like burgers.

Peer into the bathroom. If it has a drying rack, you have just met a new friend. Turn the knob to activate the heat. The trick is to wrap clothes tightly around the bars.

A hair dryer drying socks Illustration: Laura Sant

Find the hair dryer and stick it into the socks you have just washed, but take care to use the low heat setting. (For safety reasons, high heat is fine for your hair, but if it blows inside a sock, it will often trigger automatic shutdown of the hair dryer to prevent overheating or fire.) If you dry wet socks or undies a bit and then hang them up, they will finish drying by themselves. Sometimes it takes as little as an hour or two, sometimes it’s overnight.

You can hang shirts, pants, skirts, and anything else you have washed on hangers suspended from the shower head or the top of the shower stall. Let them drip for a few minutes, then gently wring out the bottom, where the water accumulates. Repeat once or twice or thrice and then trust they will dry on their own overnight, unless the climate is very humid.

If hangers cannot be removed from the closet (these non-removable hangers were probably designed by investors in hotel laundry services), then lampshades are your next-best alternative. So are the backs of chairs set near windows, heaters, or air vents.

Get your extra layer on. Uniqlo, for example, sells quick-drying, thin shirts you can wear underneath your regular shirt. You wash them rather than the clothes, and the latter can be worn again… and again.

In humid climates, things dry slowly, if at all. Pack thin cotton, emphasis on thin. If undies do not dry, then, horror of horrors, wear them one day and then inside out the second day.

If you plan to work out at the hotel fitness center, then you’ll also want to pack thin cotton or moisture-wicking material (if you don't mind the static electricity).

If the weather will be even a little cool, or cold, and dress is casual, then fleece is your best, fast-drying friend. Eddie Bauer sells thin quarter-zip fleece tops, and even Old Navy sells pajama-soft fleece bottoms.

Sierra Trading Post is a good place to buy travel shirts by Ex Officio and Mountain Hardwear, for example, at a deep discount. They dry very quickly, especially if you use the drying methods above.

My last tip isn’t exactly a regular hack; it’s a kind of desperate hack I used once when my husband and I were in the Caucasus. We washed a bunch of clothes, but it was so humid that nothing dried. Our last-ditch solution: Outside our hotel was a park, and one area of the park was in bright sunlight. We carried our wet clothes outside and draped them over the back of a park bench. Within minutes, people in the park approached us and offered us money for our clothes, which they thought we were displaying to sell. Our clothes dried, we met locals, and shared a great laugh.

If you are staying at an Airbnb, HomeAway, or any other rental property and there is no washing machine and/or dryer, all the hacks above apply. Many people search out coin-operated machine or fluff-and-fold laundries, which is certainly an option. Personally, I prefer spending my time exploring the destination.

So be safe, have clean clothes, and bon voyage!

Judith Fein is an award-winning travel journalist, author, and speaker who lives in Santa Fe. Her website is www.GlobalAdventure.us.