Travel Logistics: Laundry and Clothing Choices

This post builds on the previous travel logistics posts. By this point, suppose that you have evaluated your travel scenario, picked out your suitcases, and decided on all the kid gear that you are hoping to bring.  But you still aren’t quite ready to start packing.

Before you start throwing everything into your suitcase, you need to figure out how much suitcase space is available for clothing and evaluate your laundry strategies.  The laundry situation can make a big difference. Will you have access to a reliable washing machine and perhaps a dryer (e.g. an AirBNB) ? Or for a short trip, maybe you’ll plan to never wash anything? Maybe you’ll use a local laundry service (can be cheap in developing countries)? Or maybe you’ll hand wash as needed? This will make a difference in how many of each item you should bring, the fabric materials, and more.  Once you understand these two factors, then you can start loading up your suitcase.

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Organization

First, you need to know how much space you have for clothing.  When traveling as a young family, one suitcase per person isn’t practical.  The kids usually can’t be relied on to carry much, and the adults are humans, not octopuses.  For a young family of 4, there is no good way to carry 4 suitcases, 4 daypacks, and all the baby gear that you want to bring, all while keeping your children safe.  The solution is to use larger bags in combination with organizational packing cubes.

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On our 5 week trip to New ZealandSydney, Bali, Singapore, Taipei, and Japan, we brought two 25-inch, wheeled Samsonite suitcases, as well as our hiking backpack.  We wished we would have been able to reduce more, but with the weather spanning from southern hemisphere fall/winter, to the tropical equator, to northern hemisphere spring, in addition to a wide range of activity choices, we were a bit overwhelmed with the idea of packing into two suitcases.  That said, carrying the hiking backpack got a bit old by the end of the trip, and we really should have made some harder choices.

A month later, when we packed for our 2 month trip from Egypt to Israel to Europe, we decided that it would only be two 25-inch suitcases.  We packed them to the brim, then added a collapsible suitcase similar to this one, just in case we really wanted to bring home souvenirs, store jackets, or combine carry-on backpacks into one bag.  This worked out fabulously, and we were much happier while on the move.

Packing Cubes to Divide Space

If you are bringing two large suitcases like these Samsonite ones, and you have 4 sets of Target’s large 3-piece sets, each person can have one extra large, gray, 17.5″ x 12.75″ x 3.25″ cube, and one large, blue, 13.75″ x 9.75″ x 3″ cube.  This will take up one and a half suitcases, and you can fill up the rest of the space with toiletries, swim suits, extra shoes, umbrellas, and anything else required.

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If you really need to bring a third bag, really evaluate whether you, your spouse, or your children can handle it as you climb/descend step.  With back problems, I have enough trouble getting one large suitcase up and down the stairs.  On bad days, one of my kids needs to help me.  Jeremy can usually take two, particularly if one is a backpack style, but it isn’t super pleasant for him.  Our 10 and 11 year old kids can fairly reliably handle a small bag on their own, or a large bag with help from an adult on the stairs.  The key is to make sure this third bag doesn’t get too heavy, particularly if you have a day pack loaded with heavy electronics on your front.

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On our 5-week trip, we decided we needed the extra space, so we loaded our top loading hiking backpack with a combination of blue, 13.75″ x 9.75″ x 3″ cubes, and  teal, 11″ x 6.75″ x 3″ cubes.  I could rummage as much as I wanted without fear of wrinkling everything.  I could simply dump everything out, get what I wanted and dump the cubes back in.  Beautiful!  The gray cubes did not fit well, so I reserved those for our Samsonite suitcases.  While in New Zealand, I put the hot weather stuff, dress clothes, and other things that would be lightly used in the hiking backpack.  Everything we wanted easily accessible went in the Samsonite suitcases.  Once we arrived in Bali, I switched things around to put our cold weather stuff in the hiking backpack and warm weather stuff in the suitcases.  This worked reasonably well, except when we needed to move the luggage to the next destination, then Jeremy started showing that he was no longer 25, and he both looked and felt like a mule.

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Note that it is possible to get packing cubes at reduced prices if you are patient and wait for the sales.  Here is a blog post by OurNextLife that goes into a lot of detail on the efficiency of packing cubes and gives some other ideas for using cubes for carry-on travel and how to get better prices than we got.  Since we are a family of 4, and they are retired/business travelers, our needs/methods are a little different, but their theories definitely work when in a stage of life that we are not ready for.

2 Suitcase Travel

If you are fortunate and can figure out how to get everything into 2 suitcases, here is what you do:

The blue cube is for your pajamas and underthings:

Many sites tell you to pack 5 or fewer pairs of socks and underwear, and to wash them in the sink.  Great, if you are a single person backpacking.  Not so great, if you are the mother washing everyones stuff every night or two.  Bring 10 each and try to find a laundry machine during that time.  Assuming you find one every 7 days, this gives you a couple days of wiggle room, or a few spares if some get lost, end up with holes, wet from puddles or snow, or your kids have Delhi belly accidents to the point that you simply want to toss them.  Add in a pair of pajamas and an undershirt or two, and you have filled your blue cube.

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The gray cube is for your clothes:

On the plane, Jeremy wore jeans, a polo, and a pair of fashion tennis shoes that could look reasonable both in casual and formal settings.  In his cube, Jeremy was able to fit 2 pairs of jeans, 1 pair of khaki’s for nice wear, 1 pairs of shorts (his second pair doubled as pajamas in his blue cube), 3-4 polo shirts, 2-3 t-shirts, and a dress shirt.  His sweater didn’t fit, so it went into one of the small teal cubes that could be crammed somewhere else.  He has the biggest body, so he is the only one who got to over stuff his cube and have the privilege of a smaller cube.

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Since we were going to very hot and conservative Egypt first, I decided to wear a long skirt, a base layer tank top that came close to covering my collar bone and could stand alone in tourist areas like the pyramids, a somewhat conservative layering top that covered my shoulders and elbows for when we were in regular areas, and a scarf that could be used to cover my head, collarbone, and/or elbows in super conservative areas.  I also brought my favorite travel shoe: my Rothy’s.  I would wear these shoes anytime we boarded a plane or left the suitcases anywhere super warm to avoid shrinking them, and would pack my tennis shoes.  I packed a second long skirt, 2 pairs of jeans, 3-4 layering tank tops, 4-5 short sleeve tops, a lightweight 3/4 sleeve open front cardigan, and a sweater.  I accidentally left a pair of conservative shorts at my parents house, but since I had my long skirts, it worked out okay.  I also packed a pair of tennis shoes into the extra space in the suitcase.  The gigantic Google Shopping Express ziplock bags, or other plastic grocery bags, work perfectly for sealing off nasty shoe bottoms from the rest of your clothes.

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The boys wore jeans, a nice t-shirt, and their tennis shoes that were thoroughly checked to make sure that they were in reasonable condition and had plenty of room for growing feet.  I packed them 3 pairs of jeans, 1 pair of navy pants, 2 pairs of shorts, 2 polo shirts, 4 t-shirts, and a dress shirt.  I decided that even if we went to an opera, they could probably get away with showing up in dark colored tennis shoes, so I elected not to pack a pair of dress shoes.  If they were toddlers of the age where they fell frequently, I would have put in extra pants and shirts to avoid having to hand wash stuff very often.

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Clothing Materials

You will notice that you really aren’t bringing many clothes.  If your laundry strategy is to handwash everything, then for a 2 week trip, it is a very real possibility that you will wear each of your tops and bottoms at least 3-4 times.  Your clothes should be durable and sturdy.  You do not want delicate items that can’t handle wear and tear.  You never know when something will get dirty sooner than expected or when there will be a problem with the laundry machine that you thought you would have access to.  In this case, fast drying materials are key.  You do not want to have to wait for days for a particular item to dry.  Even if you have access to a washing machine, you may not have access to a dryer (we found several AirBNBs where this was the case), in which case you still want fast drying items.

 

Think quick-dry materials like polyester, nylon, spandex, or some combo.  Get tiny, quick-dry underwear.  (One person in our family prefers cotton, but the others are flexible.)  Bring thin socks and double up if you need more cushion.  (I usually do this, while Jeremy and the boys bring their sturdy, sweat absorbing athletic socks that take 18-48 hours to dry.)  Consider a few nice looking athletic shirts.  Get quick dry shorts.  Think about zip-off pants.  Women should definitely look at flowing, breezy, ankle length skirts when traveling to hot, but conservative countries.  Crinkle skirts are awesome since you want them to wrinkle.  The more things that are both durable and quick dry, the better.  Just make sure that you aren’t sacrificing your look too much to achieve this.  That said, Jeremy will often suffer in jeans and a cotton polo in extreme heat rather than look too scrubby.

Optimizing for Stains

All of your clothes should be reasonably dark, particularly if you have toddlers.  They will wipe their ice cream cone or spaghetti sauce on you.  You might spill your coffee on yourself or your spouse.  Your child or a car may splash a puddle onto you.  Any age kids could have stomach problems that end up on you.  Prepare to have some levels of minor or major nastiness that happens to your clothes.  And prepare to keep wearing them unless they are truly disgusting.

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To facilitate this, all of your clothes should be centered around a common theme:

It’s easy for the men and boys.  Jeans or dress pants, at least one shirt that matches the dress pants, and sweaters that go with every single shirt.  Or at least one v-neck sweater that works with the polos and one crew-neck that works with the t-shirts.  Or one that works with half the shirts and one that works for the other half.

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Women and girls are more difficult.  I like layers.  A tank top, a short or long sleeve shirt, and a cardigan or sweater.  I love long skirts in hot or conservative countries.  I like a little color.  I have found that sticking with black and one or two other color themes works fabulously. First,  I will take a long black skirt and pair it with 2-3 colorful tops.  Then I will take a colorful skirt and pair it with 2-3 black tops that could also work as layering options with the colorful tops.  I will bring at least one thin, wide, lightweight, and incredibly packable scarf to keep in my purse to cover my shoulders, head, elbows, or any other exposed body part that will prevent me from seeing the various sites.  Most of the tops need to work with jeans, one of them should be dressy enough to go to a musical performance.  If you bring shorts, at least half of your shirts need to work with each pair.  Everything needs to be as interchangeable as possible.  Just because one top or bottom gets dirty, it should not mean that most of your wardrobe is dead.

Below you can see 2 brightly colored skirts/dresses that I brought to India.   The pink themed one is actually a dress that could stand alone, but I added a black top to make it a little more casual and to add warmth.  (India is a great country to bring your brightest clothes that you rarely wear at home.)  The skirts are paired with 4 black layering tops: 1 tank top, 1 basic short-sleeve, 1 basic long-sleeve, and 1 zippered long-sleeve.  I could wear one, two, or more at a time, and then add a jacket if needed.  On the colder mornings, I added a pair of leggings and my simple black skirt underneath.  Since we were traveling by car, I could shed the layers throughout the day, as needed.  Add in a couple more black tops, a couple of pairs of jeans, and a few other colorful tops that would only be used with jeans or a third skirt like my black one, and you have a ton of options with minimal suitcase space.

If possible, bring enough socks and underwear until you can make it to a laundry machine or a laundry service.  Bring a few spares, just in case laundry doesn’t work out, things get lost, or they develop holes.  If you are traveling to the mountains, bring even more socks.  In a pinch, they can work like mittens if needed.  Who knew that snow and tank tops were compatible?

Some people will tell you to buy clothing as you travel through hot and low cost countries.  If you are tall, or not super slender, don’t count on it.  I don’t consider myself to be particularly large, but it is work to find things that fit me in Asia.  Once I forgot to pack Jeremy’s spare jeans.  Good luck trying to find pants in a 36″ length in China.  He ended up making more use of his dress pants than we expected.

Organization of Dirty Clothes

Anything in the packing cubes should be clean.  Anything outside the packing cubes has been worn at least once, but could probably be worn again.  Anything in your laundry bag is so filthy that it would take vomit or other nastiness on all your other clothes to make you wear them again.  Anything truly nasty goes inside a plastic shopping bag or a gallon sized ziplock bag and does not come out until you find a washing machine.

Washing Machines

If you are staying in apartment rentals, look for units that have washing machines.  Note that they may or may not have a dryer, so try to get these units on multi-day stays so you don’t have to put wet items back in your suitcase.  Also note in the listing whether the machine is in the unit, or just a shared one in the basement.

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If nothing else, a laundromat may work for you.  With this option, get a good laundry bag, preferably one with shoulder straps, to carry your things in, or just pull your packing cubes out and use your suitcase.

If you are in a country with low labor costs, consider using a laundry service.  They usually take at least 24 hours.  In Bali, we paid someone about $.50/pound to do our laundry.  In Udaipur, India, we paid someone $.10-$.25 per item to do our laundry.  And we probably could have gotten lower prices in both locations if we would have felt like bargaining.

If you do laundry yourself, prepare to see no English on the machine.  Which button is for cotton/permanent press/delicate?  Hot/warm/cold?  Etc.  Consider using the Google Translate App or something similar to help you, just make sure that when you have wi-fi access that you download the language that you want for off-line use.  If the machine is in an apartment, there is often an English translation in the welcome book.  Or if you meet your host to get the keys, ask them to show you before they leave.

Also prepare for mistakes in heat.  There is the obvious washing machine water temperature, but some driers seem to heat the clothes to burning temperature.  Even after two hours at this temperature, the clothes are ridiculously hot, but no closer to being dry than when they started.  Mysterious.  Try to only bring clothing that can handle the problem.

Bring a long, sturdy white rope that can work as a clothesline.  Tie it to chairs or other pieces of furniture.  Ladder back chairs are your friends.  Weave it back and forth and make as much hanging space as possible.  This works for problems with non-existent or finicky driers, but also works if you need to hand-wash items.  In one case, I cut a piece off the clothesline and used it as a makeshift shoelace when all the stores were closed on a Sunday.

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Hand-Washing

Hand-washing is a pain, but sometimes necessary.  I used to do all of our socks, underwear, and some of the nasty toddler or adult clothes on every trip.  Here are the steps:

  1. Fill the sink, add the whites, add the soap, scrub vigorously, then set the whites aside.  If there is no plug, be creative.  A wad of saran wrap or a ziplock bag will often work if you are careful not to dislodge it during the scrubbing stage.
  2. Now add the darks.  If there is a good drain stop, you can use the same water, otherwise add more water and soap and repeat.
  3. Now repeat the scrubbing for both whites and darks with clean water until there are no more soap bubbles.
  4. Wring everything thoroughly.  Maybe do it twice if you have a towel shortage.
  5. Figure out how many towels you have in the apartment and how often you get new ones.  Either use a clean towel that won’t be needed, or a towel that was already used for a shower and lay it flat.
  6. Lay a single layer of clothes on the towel, roll it up tightly, and wring.
  7. Repeat until all the clothes have been towel wrung, using a fresh towel as needed if the current one gets too wet.
  8. Hang the clothes on your rope/clothesline that you strung on furniture around the room.  Or, in Eastern Europe and sometimes other locations, they often have heated drying racks that may or may not function year round.  If you have one that works, turn it on, drape your clothes on it, and they may be dry in as little as an hour.
  9. If you have daily cleaning service, consider taking down the clothes in the morning and re-hanging them in the evening if there is any possibility they could be upset with your laundry procedures.  Mainly, they don’t want water dripping on the floors or wet clothing ruining wooden furniture, so try to at least respect those rules.

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This is easy for one person, not so easy if you are washing for a family of four.  I would do the laundry, Jeremy would sort through the pictures and plan the next day.  The hassle of one person doing more than 4 pairs of socks and underwear is why the most guide books only suggest bringing at most five pairs.  When you get more than about four pairs per person – 16 pairs total – it is not pleasant and approaches horrid.  Doing laundry for four every single night is also not pleasant.  Spending a couple hours in a laundromat, rather than sightseeing, is not pleasant.  If you don’t have a washing machine at your accommodations, pick your pill.

The Clothing Checklist

The checklists for men, women, and children are a little different, but the principles are the same.  Pack light.  Make sure everything is interchangeable with, at most, only two sets of color/style combos.  One is better, but it can get a bit boring.  Every item in your suitcase should be able to be be worn with at least half of your other clothes.

The below is in addition to whatever you wear on the airplane.  Make sure you read the complete section on laundry tips, before you start selecting specific items.

For Him

  • 2 pairs jeans or lightweight, casual pants
  • Optional: 1 pair dress pants
  • Optional: 1-2 pairs shorts (if traveling to a warm climate, or planning to work out)
    • Consider zip-off if needed to enter religious sites
  • 3-4 polo shirts, appropriate to season
  • 2-3 t-shirts, appropriate to season
  • Optional: 1 dress shirt
  • 1-3 sweaters, of various weights, depending on season
  • 10 pairs underwear (5 if planning to hand-wash clothing)
  • 10 pairs socks (5 if planning to hand-wash clothing)
  • 1-4 undershirts, depending on weather
  • 1 pair pajamas
  • Wear one pair casual shoes that hopefully work for formal as well
  • A jacket appropriate to the season, consider a 3-in-1 jacket.
  • Optional: 1 swim suit
  • Optional: 1 pair formal shoes
  • Optional: 1 pair flip-flops
  • Optional: 1 pair hiking or snow boots
  • Optional: Hat, scarf, and cloth and/or waterproof gloves
  • Optional: down jacket/vest layer
  • Optional: snow pants

For Her

  • 1-2 pairs jeans or lightweight, casual pants
  • Optional: 1-2 pairs dress pants or skirts
    • Opt for ankle length skirts if traveling to conservative countries
    • Consider zip-off shorts if needed to enter religious sites
  • Optional: 1-2 pairs shorts or skirts (if traveling to a warm climate, or planning to work out.)
    • Bring knee length or longer if traveling to conservative countries.
  • Optional: 1-2 pairs of leggings
  • 3-5 layering tank-tops
  • 4-6 layering tops, appropriate to season
    • Optional: 1 of which is formal and could be worn to the opera or similar.
  • 1-3 sweaters, of various weights, depending on season
  • Optional: 1-3 open front, cardigan, or zippered tops of at least 3/4 length sleeves, depending on season and conservativeness of travel location
  • 1-2 lightweight scarfs or sarongs, big enough to cover head, shoulders, elbows
    • Bring 2 if you will need to cover knees as well.
  • 10 pairs underwear (5 if planning to hand-wash clothing)
  • 10 pairs socks (5 if planning to hand-wash clothing)
  • 1-2 bras
  • 1 pair pajamas
  • 1 pair walking or hiking shoes
    • Wear either these or your dress shoes when changing locations.
  • 1 pair dress shoes, Rothy’s are my shoe of choice
    • If Rothy’s, wear these anytime your suitcase may be left in a hot environment that could shrink the shoes.
  • A jacket appropriate to the season, consider a 3-in-1 jacket.
  • Optional: 1 swim suit
  • Optional: 1 pair flip-flops
  • Optional: 1 pair hiking or snow boots
  • Optional: Hat, scarf, and cloth and/or waterproof gloves
  • Optional: down jacket/vest layer
  • Optional: snow pants

Add these Clothes for Babies/Small Children

  • Have a total of at least 5-8 tops, dependent on how dirty they tend to get
  • Have a total of at least 5-8 bottoms, dependent on how dirty they tend to get
  • Make sure your kids shoes are in reasonable shape and have room for growing feet
    • If their feet are tiny, consider a second pair of shoes in case they get wet.
    • If their feet are large, consider a pair of flip flops for emergency use (plus they work to go to the pool)
  • A few extra socks
    • Kids like puddles
    • If you encounter high mountain summer snow, use extra socks like mittens
  • A few extra underwear, in case of accidents
    • A bathroom is rarely there when they need it
    • Their stomachs are not used to the local food and the bacteria that may be in it
    • There is no shame in travel related accidents, even for older kids or adults
    • Bring a travel-size pack of baby wipes for your purse/daypack
    • Bring a quart sized ziplock bag for your purse/daypack if you don’t want to throw out the underwear, or plan on wrapping it in a ton of toilet paper or paper towels, but not always available.
  • Diapers, if necessary
  • Pullups for up to pre-k kids,  A.K.A. “airplane pants” or “city doesn’t have reliable public bathrooms pants” or “my kid ate something funny pants”

 

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