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How to do your laundry while traveling

“Recycle” is a word experienced travelers never want to hear, and it isn’t because they hate the environment.

Recycling means that you’re out of clean clothes while you’re on the road and that you’ll either have to do the laundry or wear the same thing again.

And maybe again.

Your choices for doing laundry while traveling aren’t always that great. Hotel laundry services are ridiculously expensive. Who pays $7 to clean a shirt? Laundromats are often far away. And DIY laundry in the sink is, well, messy.

As someone who lives on the road, I feel your pain. So does Jennifer Zwicky, a travel agent from Stuart, Florida. A client tried to do her laundry in the sink on a recent cruise and hung a dress on the balcony to dry. A few hours later, it was gone.

Lesson learned? “Be careful what you put out to dry on your balcony,” Zwicky said, “You may find that your couture is gone with the wind.”

The laundry habits of leisure travelers are a dirty little secret. There are no reliable surveys on the subject, and travelers don’t talk about it. But at a time like this, when everyone’s pinching pennies, maybe it’s time for a little openness – and a few insider strategies for doing your laundry while traveling.

For a stress-free trip, you’re better off solving the problem before it becomes one. For a short vacation, pack enough clothes so that you have something to wear every day of your trip. Consider bringing quick-dry fabrics created especially for travelers. Pack a laundry bag to separate dirty clothes from clean ones.

“I plan my daily wardrobe on a spreadsheet, so I only pack enough,” said Candy Adams, a trade show consultant from Vista, California. “On the way home, the suitcase is filled with my dirty clothes.”

You don’t have to use a spreadsheet, but creating a packing list could help. Make sure you have enough socks, underwear and outfits to last the entire trip. If you’ve done that, you can stop reading this column now.

Still here? Maybe you’re on the road for longer than a few days. That’s certainly my problem (10 years and counting). Or maybe you’re traveling with young kids and you know there will be an accident.

The next-best solution: Find a hotel or vacation rental with laundry facilities. Many extended-stay and all-suite hotels have washers and dryers in their units. I’ve stayed at several Staybridge Suites and Residence Inn properties with washing machines.

If you find a place with laundry facilities, be sure to ask for instructions. When she was staying in a golf villa in Bodyke, Ireland, Joanne Collins tried to open the dryer door before the end of the cycle. “My attempts to open it early must have caused some sort of default locking. No matter what we did, we could not open the dryer door,” said Collins, a retired college professor from Belchertown, Massachusetts. The next morning, the door unlocked itself.

A laundromat is another option. If it’s not near my hotel, I cross-check the location against a crime map to make sure it’s in a safe neighborhood.

Michael Kelly, a retired electrical engineer from Palm Desert, California, likes the laundromats in Europe. They’re usually clean, and the people who run them are helpful.

“While waiting for the wash and dry cycles to complete, we spend our time updating journals, editing photos or popping into a nearby bar or cafe for a quick drink or meal,” he said.

If no laundry facility is available, you can always try washing your clothes in the sink. Susan Stevens, a retired publicist from Lakeside, Michigan, has made it a ritual. She buys a small bottle of dish detergent at a convenience store when she arrives.

“Then I hand-wash and hang the clean clothes up in the shower or on the balcony,” she said.

“The sink is our last resort,” said Grant Sinclair, a professional traveler who blogs about his adventures at Our Wander-Filled Life. But sometimes, it’s unavoidable. He recommends packing two items: a sink stopper and a clothesline.

Planning ahead helps, too.

“To avoid a laundry emergency, we typically like to start thinking about doing a wash about two to three days before we run out of clothes,” said Michael Rozenblit, a global nomad who blogs at The World Was Here First.

That’s not always possible. I recently spent two weeks on the road with my three teenagers, riding a train from Barcelona to Nice, France. None of our hotels had laundry facilities, and our schedule was so jam-packed with activities that we didn’t have a spare moment to find a laundromat. I didn’t have the budget to buy new clothes, which left us with one choice.

That’s right – recycling.

Christopher Elliott is a consumer advocate, journalist and co-founder of the advocacy group Travelers United. Email him at chris@elliott.org.