The definitive guide to doing laundry in your hotel bathroom

by Сашка

Because sometimes you’ve packed too few pairs of underwear

I didn’t expect it to be cheap, but still, my laundry bill on a recent hotel stay in Singapore came as a sticker shock. I had to pony up more than $80 for a few T-shirts, some socks and some boxers — cash I could’ve spent on, say, five Negronis, a spa treatment or almost a week’s worth of laksa, satay and chicken rice lunches at the city’s excellent food courts.

It was a moment of weakness (along with a hectic schedule) that had me reach for the hotel’s laundry bag, but the bill served as a sobering reminder that my go-to laundry routine while traveling — DIYing it in the hotel sink — is still the only way to go. As a #TeamCarryOn travel journalist who spends at least 150 nights per year in hotel rooms and often stays too briefly to use the laundry service without a hefty express surcharge, a squirt of soap and a little elbow grease saves me a small fortune.

Over the years, I’ve finessed my techniques. I’ve learned from other frequent travelers and laundry experts how I can have my clothes smell fresh when I don’t have laundry detergent on hand, and how to dry them with only a few hours to spare.

Follow these road-tested strategies, and you’ll never have to pay $15 to clean a single shirt again.

How to do laundry better

Soaking is key

Like with washing machines, the key to getting your clothes fresh is a good soak. “It makes cleaning a lot easier,” says Patric Richardson of the Laundry Evangelist, who had just finished a load at his hotel room in D.C. when we connected over email. “The stains loosen up in water, so you don’t have to scrub or swish as much. Washing machines work for 8 minutes straight, then rinse for another fifteen. We’d be exhausted if we had to manually do that, so soaking is our cheat.”

Before you fill your hotel bathroom sink or tub, give it a good rinse to make sure it’s clean. Then fill it with enough water to submerge your garments. (First read their care labels, because some pieces should be dry-cleaned.) A lukewarm bath will do for most fabrics, though clothes made of wool or silk will fare better in cold water.

Add a few drops of detergent or soap — more on that later — and swirl the water until the soap has dissolved. Then submerge your clothes, swishing and swirling the water every few minutes to let the soap reach every spot and loosen up any dirt. After letting the clothes soak for a bit, drain the sink or tub, and use cold water to rinse out the suds.

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No detergent? No problem.

Some travelers pack laundry detergent they’ve decanted into small shampoo bottles, while others stick single-dose sachets of Tide into their suitcase. I, however, am neither of them. Instead, I rely on the toiletries in my hotel bathroom as a substitute. Although their formulas won’t help with the toughest stains, they get the job done when it comes to getting my shirts and socks fresh for the next day.

“The best detergent substitute is liquid hand soap,” Rick Rome, founder of WashClub, said in an email. “Like laundry detergent, liquid hand soap is formulated to break down oils and dirt and kill bacteria. It also lathers well, so it can be easily distributed throughout the fabric.”

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According to Richardson, shampoo is another viable option. “It’s totally gentle enough for all fabrics. Just use a small amount as it’s easy to wash out. If there’s no shampoo available, a tiny bit of liquid body wash will do. But don’t overuse it; it’s a beast to rinse. And for stains, the soap bar is my go-to. Just wet the spot and rub the soap right into the stain.” Avoid the two-in-one stuff with conditioner blended in, though, because those chemicals can spoil the textile’s fibers.

And please, on behalf of everyone who loves a cup of tea, refrain from boiling your underwear in the kettle.

Drying in a pinch

Getting your clothes wet and soapy isn’t difficult; it’s drying them that’s often a challenge. Luckily, most hotel rooms have a few amenities that can help speed up the process. Bathrooms in many upscale properties in Europe, for example, will have a heated towel rack with enough space to hang a few undergarments, some socks or a shirt or two to dry. Hotels and resorts in warmer climates will often have a balcony with some chairs to drape wet laundry over and let the sun work its magic.

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As long as you have access to a source of continuously flowing air, however, you can dry clothes even without heat. A gentle breeze carries away the water vapor trapped in the fabric and prevents the buildup of condensation. If possible, open a window and hang clothes on the curtain rod, or gently hook a hanger into the vent of your room’s air conditioner.

Whether you hang your clothes over the balcony railing or the back of a chair, squeezing the excess water out of them before hanging them up will vastly shorten their drying time. Although it’s tempting to wring and twist with all your might, too much strain can damage the fibers and result in shapeless shirts and lumpy trousers. Instead, gently squeeze out most of the moisture, then lay down a towel on the floor for what Kin Mun Lee, a frequent traveler and a podcast host from Singapore, calls the “burrito method.”

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“After gently wringing them, I lay down my laundry on a towel on the floor,” he said in email. “I then roll the whole thing up like a burrito and squeeze or walk over it to press out the moisture. It removes the bulk of the water without excessive wringing.”

If you’re really in a pinch, a hair dryer can work wonders. Hang your garment to maximize airflow, and continuously move the dryer over it in every direction. Put extra focus on the seams, which tend to trap more moisture, and flip your clothes inside out to reach every spot. Don’t hold the hair dryer too close, and avoid using the hottest setting, so you keep burn marks from forming.

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Pack strategically

If you’re planning to avoid a hotel’s laundry service on longer trips, it pays off to be smart about the clothes you bring. Garments from synthetic fabrics such as nylon and polyester are moisture-wicking and are therefore easy to wash and dry (with the added benefit that they’re also more wrinkle-resistant). Cotton, on the other hand, is very absorbent, and therefore needs more drying time.

“I’m quite particular about the fabrics I pack,” Carol Wilson, a home textiles expert at You Comfort, said in an email. “I tend to lean towards materials like merino wool for my business attire. It’s breathable, doesn’t wrinkle easily and can be worn multiple times without washing. Brands that use performance fabrics, which are quick-drying and odour-resistant, are also on my radar. It’s all about finding comfort and ease of care when you’re on the move.”

How much underwear should you pack?

Handily, sports companies have started branching out into business-casual lines made of easy-care materials that remain wrinkle-free and are quick-drying. Ivan Saprov, the jet-setting founder of flight-booking platform Voyagu, recommends Lululemon’s line of business-appropriate shirts, blazers and pants, or Spanx’s workwear selection.

If you have some extra space in your suitcase, there are a few doodads that can help ease your laundry routine. Instead of a rubber sink plug, which might not always fit on every drain, Lee suggests packing a silicone cup lid for when the stopper doesn’t create a secure seal.

Guidebook author and blogger Steph Dyson, who spends months at a time hopping between hotels in South America, swears by her Scrubba, a compact washboard-in-a-bag that works like a manual washing machine. ”

And if the idea of doing it yourself is still daunting, Saprov has one more hotel hack to save on laundry costs: “I bring a net bag and use that instead of the laundry bag provided by hotels,” he says. “If you put all your clothes in one net bag, some hotels will only charge it as a single unit.” Worth a try, but your mileage may vary.

Chris Schalkx is a Bangkok-based travel writer. You can follow him on Instagram: @chrsschlkx.

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Expert advice: Our By The Way Concierge solves readers’ dilemmas, including whether it’s okay to ditch a partner at security, or what happens if you get caught flying with weed. Submit your question here. Or you could look to the gurus: Lonely Planet and Rick Steves.

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