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For Good, Clean Fun on the Road, There's Always Freshly Washed Laundry


Few things make me happier than clean clothes. Is this a woman thing? I don't know. But I do know that it isn't always easy to be crisp and spotless by the time you reach the bottom of your suitcase, especially if you have many miles to go before you head home. Your wardrobe is limited to what you can fit in your bags, and traveling tends to be dirty work.

The obvious answer is to have your hotel do your laundry. But the cost can be outrageous. It's often $2 and up just for socks and underwear, never mind blouses and skirts. At the elegant Carlyle Hotel on the Upper East Side of New York, I once had a dress ironed (admittedly, I was in a rush) for $18.

"Getting your laundry done at a hotel is the last place I'd spend money," says Sandra Gustafson, author of the "Cheap Sleeps" and "Cheap Eats" travel guide series (Chronicle Books), which covers such places as Paris, London and Italy.

But there are exceptions to Gustafson's rule, I've found, mostly in Third World countries, where labor is cheap and so are hotel laundry services. Carol Rivendell, co-founder of Wild Woman Adventures, a tour company for women based in Northern California, has hotels do her laundry in such places as Egypt, Thailand and Mexico, loving the line-dried smell when her laundry comes back.

On a monthlong tour of Northern India three years ago, I stayed cleaner than I usually am at home, thanks to the efficient, inexpensive laundry services at Indian hotels. At Chonor House, an inn steps away from the foothills of the Himalayas in northern India, I had the entire contents of my suitcase laundered for about $8, and even my T-shirts came back pressed.

Mostly, though, people who aren't on expense accounts clean up in pricey destinations like Europe by doing their laundry in hotel room sinks. Wise travelers anticipate the need by packing sink stoppers, laundry detergent and portable clotheslines. Some find that bidets make perfect washing tanks, and, like Gustafson, they carry inflatable plastic hangers so their clothes dry with few wrinkles. Gustafson also goes abroad equipped with a brush for scouring road grunge off her clothes and rubber gloves so she can use really hot water to get the grime out as she does laundry in hotel room sinks.

In-room laundering requires you to pack clothes made of nylon, rayon and silk, which dry fast, says Evelyn Hannon, editor of the on-line women's travel newsletter Anyone who has tried to wash bluejeans in a sink learns this quickly, she says. And according to Hannon, there's no excuse for wearing wrinkled clothes because most hotels provide ironing boards on request.

Suds are also important. Some travelers take Woolite or plastic food storage bags of detergent. Others, like Hannon, often use the free bottles of shampoo and body gel in hotel bathrooms. I used to do that until I realized that many hotel shampoos are actually shampoo-conditioner combinations and that my clothes didn't really need to be conditioned.

The middle-of-the-road approach is to have your dirty clothes done at a self-service laundermat with an attendant or at a dry cleaner that also does laundry, which is usually less expensive than sending them to the hotel cleaning service. Most concierges will tell you where to find such a place; otherwise, ask at the tourist office, or walk around to find them. Everyone needs to do laundry, which is why a self-service place is usually easy to find. In Mexico it's called a lavanderia, in France a laverie automatique and in Denmark a vask.

I love doing my own laundry at laundermats almost as much as seeing the sights, partly because it makes me feel grounded, gives me time to sit in a cafe or explore the neighborhood during wash and dry cycles, and teaches me something about the everyday life and national character of the countries I'm visiting.

For instance, there's a self-service laundry in Helsinki, Finland, that has a cafe and a sauna, so you and your clothes can get clean in concert. At a laundry in Kyoto, Japan, I was amazed to discover that the washing machine dispensed detergent automatically.

At a vask near my hotel in Copenhagen recently, I puzzled over the directions (in Danish) and looked in vain on the machines for a slot to deposit coins. Finally a nice young man who was also doing his laundry (and spoke English) showed me the laundry's central control panel, where you select the number of the machine you intend to use and insert your money. The same panel controlled the washers, dryers and centrifuge (for eliminating excess water before drying), and even dispensed detergent and fabric softener. Later I kept bumping into the same young man around the neighborhood, which made me feel as though I belonged there.

Meeting people like this endearing young man is, perhaps, the best thing about using laundries on the road. And I've met all sorts, including cigarette-smoking drifters at a laundry near the bus station in Tucson, Ariz., and fishermen in Petersburg, Alaska, who had particularly stinky dirty clothes.

Above all, I love to do my laundry right before I leave a place. That way, I come home with a suitcase full of clean clothes that smell subtly but ineffably of Ireland, Denmark or Alaska. It's a little souvenir that lasts until they get dirty again.

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