Airing Dirty Laundry on the Road


Why is it that the image of colorful clothes hanging on a line and fluttering in the breeze in a foreign country is so appealing and picturesque?  I often grab my camera to snap a photo when I see it, but, somehow, when I have to do my own laundry in the same country, I consider it a chore.  Dirty laundry. They say you shouldn’t air your dirty laundry, but when you’re traveling for more than a week or so, you have to get it clean somehow.

Maybe the ideal trip is 7-10 days.  It’s possible to bring enough clothes for that amount of time.  You come back with a suitcase full of dirty laundry and toss it in the washing machine.  That’s the ideal trip length for some folks, perhaps, but it’s way too short for me!  I prefer packing enough clothes for a few days in a small suitcase and taking my chances about getting them clean while on the road.

I’m always willing to have someone else do my laundry if the price is right.  Laundry by the kilo at a lavanderia in the Galapagos was so easy!  Drop off in the morning; pick up the same night.  It comes back all neatly folded and wrinkle-free.  It worked in the rest of Ecuador too.  When we stayed in a place for a couple of days, we managed to find a lavanderia in the neighborhood.  It was always much cheaper to schlep our clothes to the lavanderia instead of handing them over to the hotel desk.  So, for about $10 or $12, we had clean clothes for our travels.

In more developed countries, there are often laundromats where you can do it yourself.  Of course it’s a big drag to sit around in a laundromat; it seems to be such a waste of time.  It is a waste of time, but it forces me to stop and slow down.  I read a book or, better yet, take time to write in my journal.  In Paris, near the Rue Cler shopping street, the laundromat took some figuring out.  I looked for the coin slots on the washers.  There were none.   I finally noticed the large panel on the wall and realized that it was a central pay station for all the machines, both washers and dryers.  “That’s really clever,” I thought.  I’d never run into that before.  It wasn’t so obvious to other patrons either, and I soon became the maven of the laundromat, showing them how to get their washers going.  I didn’t get much writing done in my journal, but I had fun talking to the other tourists with dirty clothes.

Many times on the road there is no choice but to wash the clothes yourself.  Some cousins of mine use the shampoo provided by the hotel and take their clothes into the shower with them.  According to them, a good thrashing under foot, like stomping grapes to make wine, gets the clothes really clean.  I prefer the hotel sink method, using soap that I’ve either brought with me or picked up along the way.  I wash and rinse, and my husband, who provides more muscle power, does the wringing.  If we’re lucky, there are enough towels or at least the prospect of more, and we roll the clothes in the towel to take out some of the moisture. 

Then it’s time to decorate the room with dripping wet garments.  I have a great little travel clothesline that we can string from chair to chair or lamp to chair or cabinet to chair or whatever works.  No clothespins required.  I tuck a bit of cloth into the twist of the elastic cord and the socks and underwear dangle freely, hopefully in the path of a good air vent or heat duct.  I bring two or three blow up plastic hangars for t-shirts, a great tip I got from a friend many years ago.  The width of the hangar allows t-shirts to dry faster than if they stuck together on a thinner hangar.  We suspend the hangars from fresh air returns, wedge them into drawers, hang them from chairs or door – whatever it takes – and hope they dry in time for departure.

And that’s the kicker:  timing the washing so that everything dries in time to pack it all up for the next leg of the journey.  Shirts, panties, bras and even t-shirts will usually dry overnight, especially in front of the air conditioner fan.  Socks are my biggest problem.  Thin socks may dry fast but they are generally unsatisfactory if you are walking a lot.  A simple pair of cotton crew socks takes a couple of days to dry.  Thick woolen hiking socks are a whole other ball of laundry wax.  In the Sacred Valley of Peru, in a rustic hotel that once was a convent, we were very grateful for a radiator style heater in the room.  I laid the socks on the ribs of the heater and turned them, checking them for “doneness” like steaks on a grill, until they finally got dry.  Thankfully we didn’t have to pack up wet clothes.

I have to mention the option of sending your clothes out to be laundered and cleaned through your hotel in any country.   If you are on an expense account courtesy of your business or have an unlimited travel budget, this is a great option.  It is definitely the most convenient way to go, but probably the most expensive.  Alas, I usually am traveling on my own dime.  I’d rather spend extra for a good meal and get wrinkles on my fingers later on while washing my clothes in the hotel sink.

Another culture’s hanging laundry may make for a pretty picture.  One’s own dirty laundry just makes for a time-consuming task that needs to be done.  Doing laundry is the gritty side of travel that no one likes to talk about, but everyone who spends time away from home has to do it.  Let’s see now, how many days’ worth of clothes do I need to take on the next trip…?


Laurie Gilberg Vander Velde tries to be gone - off exploring - for nearly 6 months per year. Retirement has given her the opportunity to travel to many places with her husband of almost 42 years.  She loves to write about her experiences as she travels through life.

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