It's one of the questions we get asked the most- How do you wash laundry while travelling?
Admittedly, some of us pack more than others (cough cough, what do you mean, me??) but personally I think it's sensible to bring more than 7 pairs of underwear. Spares and things… just in case… I have no idea what ‘in case' is. Tell me I'm not the only one who does this!?!?!
Usually, my husband starts the process- by casually commenting that he is down to his last set of underwear.
“Oh,” I reply, whilst wondering why on earth he couldn't learn to give me at least a day's notice on this stuff. Vanlife people- it requires more patience than you ever knew you had!!
Also, I appear to be the only person onboard our motorhome capable of using Google in order to find somewhere to wash our clothes, so it falls to me to search for a place. (Strangely, they can master Google just fine when it comes to finding things to buy..!)
How to wash laundry while travelling- the options
There are several options available to clean your clothes while travelling. This fall into the general categories of:
- Handwashing, normally in a sink if you're backpacking or possibly in a bucket if you're RVing.
- Laundry tub or bag
- Laundrette/ coin-operated laundromat
- Laundry service
All of these are perfectly feasible, but there are some big downsides to each.
If you're hand washing, or are lucky enough to have space for a caravan washing machine, you need to find somewhere to dry your clothes. In an RV you can pack a portable line dryer, which are great and many fold down flat. Alternatively, just drape your clothes all over the van, especially if you have a bike rack, which can easily double as a towel rack. Be cautious if you leave your clothes outside overnight- many people have had things stolen by passers-by!
Laundry services are great and very easy if you can find a good one. However, there have been tales of travellers with excellent taste in underwear losing their fancy knickers & not having any proof that they were in there. So be careful- and maybe handwash your french lace. Some places (mainly Far East and Indonesia) can turn the washing around within a few hours, but most take about a day.
However, our favourite option is the laundrette. It's been relatively easy to find one so far, and they're cheap (6-10€), quick ( done within 90 minutes) and we can plan it around our travelling- as long as I get longer than a day's notice!! Seriously, I think I need to start hiding a pair of his boxers and socks for emergency use! Actually, that's a great idea…
How to wash laundry while travelling- Finding a Laundrette
I have discovered a fairly easy way to find a laundrette near to us- think like an American. And Google is American. (Shout out to all my lovely awesome American readers!) So don't type in ‘where can I wash my clothes?' or ‘laundrette near me' (although that last one does sometimes work), but instead use phrases like ‘coin-operated laundromat near me' or ‘coin-operated laundromat in _____' (insert name of largish town. If that doesn't work- choose a bigger town!)
Most large towns and cities have one, if not several, laundrettes. Local people use & rely on these to do their own washing all over the world. In our case, we needed to visit a town anyway, after our unhappy dispute with a pavement and the subsequent removal of the tap on our fresh water tank, in order to find a camping shop or motorhome supplier. Luckily, the town of Freiburg, (not to be confused with Triberg- home of the cuckoo clocks!) was only 40 minutes drive away- and had both!
Other places which often have laundry facilities are campsites and also, bizarrely, supermarkets. If you're reading this & thinking that having a laundrette in a supermarket carpark is perfectly normal, trust me when I say you will NEVER find this in the UK. Ever. The best places in the UK to find laundry facilities is a good-sized town or a proper campsite. You can Google both of these, but in the UK use words like ‘laundrette'.
How to wash laundry while travelling- the preparation
Step 1: Find the dirty laundry. This is not always as easy as it should be, especially when you are sharing the van with a teenager who seems not to understand how a laundry bag works but instead insists on stuffing her dirty clothes back into her cupboard with her clean clothes so they all get mixed up together…! **pause for me rolling my eyes, then panicking that I sound just like my mother! How did this happen???**
Step 2: Empty entire contents of teenager's locker in order to find the lost sock, which is later discovered on her foot.
Step 3: TAKE YOUR OWN DETERGENT & SOFTENER. In some places, you can buy small sachets from a machine, but in most you can't, so it's best to bring your own. I put a little of each into small bottles so I can pack them onto the motorbike easier. I also bring a spare plastic bag.
Step 4: CHANGE. CHANGE. CHANGE. Bring lots of it. Including the 10cent pieces you've been keeping but had no idea what to do with.
Step 5: If you're taking the Motorhome, put the directions into your sat-nav, but proceed with caution. Most laundrettes are in the middle of built up, residential areas- for obvious reasons. These places are not always easily accessible to motorhomes. You may well have to park elsewhere and walk back. For this reason, we tend to take the motorbikes if possible- and strapping our laundry to the back of a bike just feels more adventurous!
Step 6: Dispatch the teenager to the nearest shop or cafe for ice cream aka keeping her out of the way.
How to wash laundry while travelling- inside the laundrette
Step 7: When you arrive at the laundrette, perform the ‘I'm just organising my stuff over here in the corner whilst subtly watching everyone else to see how they do it' routine. This can be as long or as short as you like- keep at it until you get your bearings. Alas, this time in Germany all the other occupants of the laundrette had already put their washing in, so they were sitting & waiting for it to be finished- which gave them nothing better to do than stare back at us!
Step 8: Here it is- your big moment. Rest assured- you will screw this up. Unlike the UK, where most machines operate independently and you put the coins into that individual machine, most laundromats in Europe seem to be operated from a central control panel. Here the general order of things are roughly:
- Insert coins into slot (where you discover all those 10cent pieces are still useless, but you need a million more 20cent ones!)
- Look around for some kind soul to exchange change with
- Spy the change machine on the wall and feed it a 10€ note, then get showered in small change which falls all over the floor.
- Whilst here you spot the sign on the wall with a lot of different prices. You try to understand it, give up, and take note of the most expensive setting, just in case.
- Return to the control panel, put in the change and then stare with increasing concern at the foreign language. In this one in Germany, you had to select the number of the machine you wanted to use. (Be careful to select a washer, not a dryer. Not always as easy as it sounds! In this one, the washers were numbers and the dryers were letters.)
- Then return to the machine (double checking the number) add in your clothes & detergent, then select the cycle you want. You will normally find a sign either on the machines or above them- in this case there was a sign on the wall explaining (in German) the different wash options. I went for a safe 30 degrees, clicked the door shut, and pressed ON.
- Hang around for a few seconds until you hear the wash cycle start. Just in case.
- There is generally another sign somewhere which tells you how long the cycle will take. This one took 45 minutes. Try not to leave your clothes unattended for too long after the wash has finished. There's the obvious concern about thieves, but you're more likely to find someone has taken out your (freshly washed) clothes and put them on the (dusty) side, or even the floor! People have places to be & things to do and waiting for you to return to collect your washing from the machine isn't one of them!
How to wash laundry while travelling- the dryer
These work in roughly the same way as the washers. Return to the central panel, put in some change, select a dryer number (or letter), add in your dryer and DON'T FORGET TO PRESS ON! Just because you've put money into the central machine does not mean the machine will automatically work! Not that I have ever done that, of course. I'm just speculating…
Most dryer cycles are 15-20 minutes long and cost around 1€. We tend to find two dryer cycles dries one load of washing, with the possible exception of jeans. In this case, we put the nearly dry stuff in a separate bag, (remember that spare plastic bag you bought), so we can dry it back at the van in the sunshine.
And that's it. It's not difficult, but it is probably different to what you're used to and you will most likely look like a tourist who has no idea what they're doing! Having said that, the people always seem very friendly and ready to share a smile- you're all joined together in the camaraderie of not wanting to be there, but it's a necessity. Try and avoid weekends if at all possible- that's when laundrettes are the busiest and you may well need to wait longer for a free machine.
I have seen some portal washing bags and we used to have a small washing tub on our boat. They seem like a great idea- but I know that tub never got things as clean as a proper washing machine does- so for the sake of an hour once a week or so, we'll continue to find a laundrette.
This time, I left the laundrette to find that my darling daughter had become ‘bored' of waiting for me… so she'd eaten my ice cream. She doesn't even LIKE ice cream. I think that might be the ultimate insult!
How about you? How do you do your laundry while travelling? Let me know below (right at the bottom of the page) and share your tips with other readers. Silly/ embarrassing stories always welcome! Or am I the only one with those…?
(Update on the water tap- none of the ones in the German camping store fit our UK tank… so we're hoping our awesome duct tape repair (see here) will hold until we return to the UK…..!!!)
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