The Space-Saving Travel Hack You’ve Probably Been Overlooking

published May 15, 2023
We independently select these products—if you buy from one of our links, we may earn a commission. All prices were accurate at the time of publishing.
Post Image
Credit: racorn

In January, I took a bucket-list cruise to Antarctica. During my trip aboard the Viking Polaris, I squealed with delight while observing clumsy penguins on the Antarctic Peninsula, oohed and aahed at the swimming prowess and sheer size of humpback whales, and gasped at breathtakingly blue icebergs floating in the Southern Ocean. I lounged in the ship’s beautiful library, soaked in the cozy hot tub, and indulged in more delicious meals at the onboard restaurants than I can count. I even got to ride in a small submarine all the way down to the sea floor. In short, I had no shortage of total “pinch-me” moments on this trip.

But one of my favorite parts of the journey ended up being something totally unexpected: The free, self-service laundry on the ship

Among all the different amenities, experiences, and creature comforts that made the trip so pleasant, the ability to do laundry was a total game-changer — one that allowed me to pack for a 13-day trip in just a carry-on suitcase and a small backpack.

To understand my sudden obsession with cruise ship laundry, I should back up a bit. I’ve always been a bit of a nervous traveler, and a big part of my pre-trip angst stems from packing. No matter how many lists I make, packing — even for short, seemingly easy trips — has always taken me hours and hours. And, despite many valiant attempts, I’d also never been able to pare down my belongings to just a carry-on.

But then I read about the luggage fiascoes many travelers endured over the holidays last year and I decided enough was enough. Once and for all, I was going to tackle my packing woes and skip the checked baggage fees in one fell swoop. (It helped that Viking would be providing passengers with a hefty winter coat, muck boots, and waterproof pants once we got onboard.)

At that point, I was vaguely aware that the Polaris had some sort of laundry service, but in the pre-trip hustle and bustle, I didn’t look into it. I decided to forge ahead with my minimalist approach, packing only two pairs of jeans, a handful of T-shirts, two thermal base layers, a few pairs of wool socks, a sweater, and my essential toiletries. 

Once on the ship, I spent several days mixing and re-wearing pieces from my limited wardrobe before deciding to give the onboard laundry a shot. When I stepped inside, I was surprised to find a tiny but space-optimized room that contained five sets of stackable washers and dryers and an ironing board. Thanks to the detailed instructions, doing laundry was a total breeze — there was even a button to press that automatically dispensed detergent to the right machine. I set a timer on my phone and headed off to the spa, returning 30 or so minutes later to swap my clothes to the dryer. 

And that was that. Now, I had fresh-smelling garments to wear for the remainder of the trip. 

Amid all the otherworldly scenery, the nervous excitement of being so far from home, and the long duration of the trip, doing laundry felt so … normal. It was grounding and, honestly, a bit comforting to tackle a familiar task in such an unfamiliar place. Of course, some people want to fully check out from normal life while on vacation, and that’s OK, too. But if you’re like me, the ability to do laundry while traveling could be the extra little push you need to finally start packing lighter.

Credit: Photo: Lucy Schaeffer; Prop Styling: Carla Gonzalez-Hart

What to Know About Doing Laundry While Traveling

It’s not just cruise ships that offer self-service laundry these days. You’ll also find washers and dryers in many vacation rentals listed on Airbnb and Vrbo, as well as at some (but not all) properties run by big hotel chains, including Best Western, Holiday Inn, Hilton, Marriott, and Hyatt. 

Even high-end lodgings are getting in on the self-service laundry action, such as Four Seasons Resort Scottsdale. The five-star, luxury hotel in Arizona has nine complimentary laundry facilities located throughout the property and provides guests with free detergent upon request.

“The ease of being able to pack less, especially with kids, makes it a big draw for families,” says Kim Cole, a spokeswoman for the hotel. “It means when kids invariably go through more outfits than planned, you can do a load of laundry and have fresh clothes to wear.”

Self-service laundry facilities are also handy if you travel a lot for work, or if you have a remote job and just like to hop from place to place. The newly opened CatBird Hotel in Denver, which caters to digital nomads and other long-term guests, has washers and dryers on every floor. Use of that equipment, as well as detergent and other supplies, is simply included in the hotel’s nightly rate.

Depending on the location, you may have to pay to use the self-service washing machines at some lodgings, but others provide this amenity for free. Of course, many hotels will also offer to do your laundry for you, although this option will almost certainly be a tad pricier. You’ll also find a variety of products for sale online to help you do your own laundry while traveling, such as this portable Scrubba wash bag. Searching for a nearby laundromat or giving your clothes a quick rinse in the sink or shower are also viable options.

More often than not, the hotel, ship, or vacation rental will provide detergent. But if you have sensitive skin, you may want to consider bringing your own or buying some once you arrive. Also, if you need to air-dry some of your apparel, make sure to give yourself enough time — the last thing you want is to be rushing off to the airport in damp clothes. Although if you planned to do laundry on the trip, chances are you’ll have a blissfully lightweight bag to lug through security.