Checked bag fees are expensive, a 75 L backpack is surprisingly heavy, and sifting through a behemoth top-loading backpack for your toothbrush after lights out at the hostel is super fun. Seriously, that’s how you get cavities, guys.
The shift to carry on packing is scary for a lot of people, but the secret to traveling with a smaller lighter bag is simple:
Bring less stuff and wash it once in a while.
Dirty Laundry is Dead Weight
I can hear you rolling your eyes, and I know it’s unfair to boil carry on packing down to one element, but limiting how much clothing you pack is kind of the foundation of good carry on packing. Three or four extra items of clothing in your rolling suitcase might be all that’s separating you from cheap, easy, stress-free travel with a carry on bag. Seriously.
What truly blows my mind about over-packing is that the extra clothing you pack is unlike everything else in your bag. We all bring a few things we don’t really need, but odds are you’ll use your laptop or phone charger or deck of cards multiple times in lots of situations. You might even use that sweet frisbee you brought. Who knows? Moscow is a weird place. But clothing is different. Clothing is mutually exclusive, meaning simply, the clothes that you aren’t wearing are the clothes you have to lug around all day.
It’s a silly thought, but you can’t wear four socks at once (unless you’re into that), or all your t-shirts at the same time (unless you’re in Iceland). Once you wear a pair of underwear (*cough* a few times) they’re essentially useless until you clean them. That means that you won’t be using most of the clothing you packed, MOST OF THE TIME. So bring less and wear what you want more often.
Even clean clothing isn’t really useful until you get to each item. That button-down shirt you wore to the club on night six is actually just, “the shirt you carried around for five days then only wore once.” When you travel clothing is a liability, not an asset.
So, to lighten the load let’s tackle a few travel clothing do’s and don’ts, and take a good hard look at the best ways to do laundry while you travel, including the time, cost, and pros and cons of each option. Roll up your sleeves because it’s time to get your hands dirty.
The Best Travel Fabrics
I hate “travel clothing.” Zip off shorts or pants, tech t-shirts, and fleece look ridiculous, cost a lot of money, and instantly single you out as someone that hasn’t really traveled that much.
Seriously, when you come tromping into the Milan hostel in hiking boots and a poncho, I can tell it’s your first rodeo. However, there are a few great items of clothing that are light, durable, and fast-drying.
Jeans Are the Ultimate Travel Fabric
Levi CEO Chip Bergh, argues that “machine washing” jeans is completely unnecessary, and most denim experts agree that jeans only need to be washed every two to six months, or “when they smell,” depending on what abuse you put them through.
The coolest part about denim is that it’s designed to wear and fade specifically to your body while you travel. How you sit, the way you crease the jeans with your keys in one pocket or the wrinkles behind your knee are all unique to you, and if you don’t wash them, those lines and foxing around the stitching will start to show. Swedish jean company, Nudie Jeans simply says, “The outcome depends on how you travel.”
Essentially, a well-worn pair of jeans is like your fingerprint—unique to you. How cool is that? Show me a pair of REI travel pants that can take a beating for six months and we’ll talk. Jeans for the win.
Smartwool is Actually Brilliant
Wool is an all-star when it comes to travel clothing. It keeps you warm, locks in odor so you don’t stink, wears well over long periods of time, and packs like a champ. Up your wool game with a synthetic smartwool hybrid for the best of both worlds—durability and fast drying times.
If you’ve got the money buy merino wool. It’s literally the best material on earth. Comfortable, durable, warm, breathing, soft to the touch, wrinkle-resistant and fast-drying. If I could make all my clothing out of merino wool I would, starting with this merino smartwool t-shirt.
Underwear That Goes the Distance
The limiting factor for when to do laundry on the road is usually your underwear. In hot climates, or trips packed with hiking and activity, your underwear will be the first thing to need cleaning, pushing up your laundry deadline at least a few days ahead of the rest of your clothing timeline. Instead of packing dozens of bras and underpants, invest a little more money in underwear built to travel.
There are a lot of brands out there promising underwear that can last for weeks, but you don’t want to be that guy. When looking for good travel underwear, keep your eyes peeled for these three things:
- Antimicrobial fabric
- Small & light
- Travel fit
The antimicrobial fabric keeps your undies smelling fresh, the wicking keeps you dry, the small light size helps with packing, but the real difference between underwear and travel underwear is how they fit. Good travel underwear just feels… different.
For Dudes: A long-time travel buddy recently put me onto a new underwear company called Saxx. He raved about the new design of… well… the cup portion of these travel underwear, and swears by them. They’re literally the only underwear he owns now, and after taking ’em for a spin, I’m a big fan. Pairs start at $25, so maybe dip your toe with one pair before ditching your whole wardrobe, but I can attest that nothing beats a well-designed pair of underwear on the road.
Don’t Pack These; Just Don’t
Never Pack White
This is a no-brainer. White clothing shows stains immediately (especially sweat stains) and are tough to wash with the rest of your colored clothes. White fabrics are a hassle, through and through. Skip ’em.
Cotton Travels Poorly
Cotton is trickier because at home we forget how difficult cotton is to keep clean and wrinkle-free. Cotton breathes well, but dries slowly, stretches after a few hand washes, shrinks after a few too many dryers, and generally wrinkles seconds after you pack it.
Honestly, cotton is cheap and easy to pack, but if you plan on doing laundry on the road, ditch the cotton for polyester, or at least a poly blend.
Travel Clotheslines & Sink Plugs Suck
You will never use this incredibly flimsy, narrow item. Ever. Don’t waste your time, money, or space on this garbage. The flat plastic sink plug that comes with “travel laundry kits” isn’t much better. There are lots of ways to block a sink drain that you don’t have to pack and carry with you every day. More on this later, but stop it. Stop it right now.
Now that you know a few items to bring and not bring, let’s move on to getting your clothes clean.
One of the keys to doing laundry on the road is keeping the dirty away from the clean.
Packing cubes are perfect for keeping the dirty separate from the clean. The mesh tops let air circulate so the stink isn’t building up on the interior.
Almost every hotel in the world offers laundry service for the simple reason that it’s a big money maker. Don’t get me wrong, hotel laundry service can be a fantastic way to maximize your time in a destination without adding to your packing list, but you’re gonna pay for it.
It might not feel like it, but hotel laundry service is kind of like room service. You place your clothes in a hotel laundry bag in your room, fill out a sheet listing each item, and leave it for housekeeping. Later that day or the next day your clothes come back fresh and clean. That’s room service, and room service is usually pretty pricey. Actually, that’s exactly like room service. It even has “service” in the name.
While not all hotels gouge their guests for a clean pair of pants, hotel laundry fees can be steep. Travel writer and producer Rudy Maxa has even made a hobby of collecting laundry price sheets from hotels to show how much laundry can cost you across the world—from $12 for a cleaned and pressed men’s shirt at the Carlton in Manhattan, to $6.30 for a dry cleaned skirt at the Landis in Taipei—and it goes up from there. Hotel laundry is expensive.
Those are 5-star hotels, so the prices are a little high, but the reverse can be true at budget hotels or national chains, like the Holiday Inn. Don’t just assume that every hotel offers laundry service. Many have self-service laundry machines, but sometimes not enough to go around.
The best way to know if your hotel provides laundry service or a machine is to simply ask. Call, or check out their website for amenities, availability and fees and see if laundry service is available, or inexpensive, before you pack. If it’s only a few bucks maybe leave that extra change of clothes at home to keep your bag nice and light for the flight. You’ll be glad you did.
If your hotel laundry service is too expensive, not fast enough, not available, or you’re staying at a hostel, the next best laundry alternative is to drop it off at a laundromat. Typically, hostels have information about the closest laundromat (the hostel staff wants you to smell good more than you do) so just ask and they’ll point you in the right direction. Odds are, the hostel staff uses the same place.
Once you find the laundromat, the hardest part of travel laundry is over. Honestly, I’ve paid for same-day drop off laundry service in Rome, Peru, Colombia, and all across the US, and I’ve never paid more than $1 per pound—and that’s on the absolute top end. Typically it’ll be half that, including a wash, dry, and fold. My local spot in Rome was only 2€ for a small load, or about the price of gelato. 2€ for a task that would have taken me two hours is a win in my book.
If you do decide to stick around the laundromat and wash it yourself to save a few bucks, at least find a laundromat with wifi and get some work done while you’re waiting for your tightie whities to dry.
Laundry Pro Tip: Bring a 10L Dry Bag with you to use as a laundry bag. The waterproof seal on the bag means that whatever smelly nonsense you lock in there will stay separate from the rest of your clothing until you’re ready to wash it. When you’re not using it, the dry bag rolls down nice and small, and if you ever need a dry bag for your camera gear, etc. you’re prepared.
Hostel Laundry: AKA Hand Washing in the Sink
Let’s say a laundromat is too far, too expensive, or just plain closed. Maybe it’s late and you missed the deadline for same-day service. No problem. You’re just gonna have to wash the laundry in the sink. At the hostel. Get ready, because this is where gets tricky.
Not all hostels are created equal. I should know; I used to run one in Rome. Spoiler: we weren’t awesome.
The odds of finding a hostel with a cheap, clean, abundant laundry room are on par with booking a hostel with plush memory-foam queen-size beds for $5 a night. It’s possible, but not too likely. So failing that, here’s how you can quickly and cleanly wash your clothes in a hostel sink:
- Plug the drain in the sink. A rubber ball works great for recessed drains, but honestly, a coffee mug or glass will work just as well.
- Fill up the sink with warm water—about 85° F—will break down stains without letting the colors run.
- Soak your clothes for a few minutes. Drain and rinse if the water is too dirty.
- Add detergent or soap and hand wash each item. For tough stains, rub the fabric against itself.
- Soak your clothes for a few more minutes.
- Drain and rinse until the soap is gone.
- Wring excess water off and roll each item in a travel towel.
- Hang dry
It’s simple and easy, and you can easily wash a backpack’s worth of clothing in about 15 minutes.
Here’s a detailed breakdown with a video, that Fred did, if you need more help.
Travel Laundry Detergent Review
Dr. Bronners Magic Soap Wins
Dr. Bronner’s definitely smelled better than Tide while actually washing my tank tops (it’s got that signature peppermint aroma) but, once they dried, both garments that I hand washed in the sink smelled about the same, that is “clean.”
That being said, the reusable bottle and versatility of Dr. Bronner’s (you can use it for laundry or soap and shampoo) makes it a better choice than the single use Tide packet. The Tide Packet does win for sheer size though. If you know you’re only washing a few items one time, I’d pack the little Tide packet and save space.
DIY Laundry Kits
Generally I think packing your own laundry bag is a waste of space. A bulky laundry kit sort of defeats the purpose packing less and doing your laundry on the road. The last thing you need is a lot of extra gear weighing you down, and drying lines, sink plugs, clothespins, detergent, etc. are all things that you just shouldn’t worry about on your next adventure.
Cough up a few extra bucks and save space, time, and your sanity. You can do your own laundry when you get home. That being said, there are a few times when a travel laundry kit might come in handy.
Travel Laundry Philosophy
This is the part where I get a little harsh: When it comes to if, and how, you do laundry on the go there’s really only one question you have to ask yourself: Is this worth my time?
I’m a big fan of paying someone else to do my laundry not because I’m rolling in fat stacks, or too cool for school, but simply because I didn’t spend hundreds of dollars and dozens of hours traveling across the planet to save $3 doing laundry for four hours. I do laundry every other week at my local laundromat in Brooklyn, and I like doing laundry when I’ve got nothing going on, but not when I’m only in a place for a few days.
I acknowledge that makes me a privileged traveler, but if your financial breaking point on a two-week trip is the cost of doing one load of laundry, maybe you shouldn’t be traveling. There, I said it.
Carry on packing is all about bringing a little less. Maximize every item you pack, from pashminas to charging cables, but never forget that while there are a lot of hacks and tips and tricks for packing the “ultimate carry on bag” one of the best hacks is the simplest:
Bring fewer clothes, and wash them every now and then. You’ll be surprised how far it can get you.
- Merino Wool is the greatest travel fabric ever known
- Jeans don’t need to be washed: Ever
- Hotel laundry service can be way more expensive than you realize
- Just pay for same-day service; you’ll be glad you did
If you have any travel laundry tips or tricks that I left out, or have any questions about packing for your next trip, shoot me a tweet @leftyscissor and we’ll get you all sorted out.