Whether you’re taking your family overseas on a one-city visit for just a few days, or out for two weeks and multiple stops, the challenges are similar: you don’t want to overpack (extra baggage charges, hassle of dragging suitcases around), but you don’t want to have to wear dirty, smelly clothes, especially in cold or tropical weather.

Packing smart and bringing as little as possible is the first part of your strategy. The second part is figuring out how you’ll clean the clothes you do take.

Your options are: 

Hotel Laundry Service

With hotel laundry, you’re trading expense for convenience. The per-piece rates at mainland, non-Western chain hotels are not that bad compared to prices at Hong Kong, Tokyo, or US hotels, and less than what you’d pay your local dry-cleaner back home. In China, figure between 5 CNY - 15 CNY (or about US$1 - $3) per piece. Western hotels and business/luxury hotels will charge more.

There will be plastic bags and forms in your hotel room’s closet. Your dirty articles go in the bag, of course. The form will be in English and Chinese/Japanese/Korean - mark the number of pieces you’re sending in the appropriate categories. Prices for each type of clothing are listed on the form, so you can decide what you’d rather hand-wash to save some money.

Usually you’ll leave the bag on your bed, with the completed form on top, when you head out in the morning. The maid service picks up the laundry bag when your room is cleaned. In most cases your laundry will be returned by early evening, and the bill will be charged to your room.

Housekeeping will call your room to make sure you are there before sending a staffer up with your clothes. We’re not entirely sure why they won’t deliver if you’re not in the room, but when the delivery person arrives, China’s “no tipping” policy seems to evaporate: a 5-yuan bill will be greatly appreciated. (NEVER tipping in Japan, of course...)

Your clothes will arrive folded beautifully; longer items will be on hangers. Check for and remove stapled strips of paper that were used to identify your order.

Washing in your hotel room

It is certain that you’ll need to clean a few articles yourself, especially when you’re with young children. Items like underwear, socks, sleepwear, swimsuits, bibs and rompers should be selected for ease of hand-washing: “performance fabrics” and other easy-wicking blends are good choices. For cotton or terrycloth items, try to go as thin as possible for faster drying.

En-suite washer/dryers and coin-operated machines are extremely rare in East Asian hotels, so all your scrubbing will happen in the sink or tub in your bathroom. Here are some tips for best results:

Before traveling, look for travel-size detergent packets such as Liquid Tide. Powders are easier to manage and weigh less, but in either case, you want something prepackaged to avoid any unwanted confusion if your luggage is hand-examined. In convenience stores in Japan we found travel-size boxes of powdered detergent packets that worked very well for small loads and delicates - wish we could get this brand in the States:

  • Turn the air-conditioning on full-blast when you return to your hotel in the afternoon, and if there are any fans in the room, get those started well before you turn on a faucet. Humidity is not your friend, and the ventilation systems in Chinese hotels are not the most efficient.

  • The best time to wash is in the late afternoon - early evening, as you get the longest stretch of drying time. Dry or not, you want everything packed away before you head out in the morning; less likely anything’s going to disappear or get collected with the linens.

  • Hot water makes steam; steam is humidity; humidity is not your friend. Use cold or lukewarm water to wash with. (Most fabrics tolerant of sink-washing work better with cold water in any case.)

  • Wash only a few items at a time - get in the habit of doing 3-6 pieces each night. Too many items in one batch will put too much moisture in the air and prevent anything from drying out completely.

  • You’ll need only a small amount of detergent to wash a few items - perhaps a teaspoonful. Have a snack-size zip-top bag handy to stuff the opened packet of detergent back into so it doesn’t spill all over your suitcase.

  • Dab detergent on any spots and let it soak in - and let your items sit in the sudsy water for a while. Don’t try to imitate the churning action of a washing machine... just gently work the water through the fabric. After about five minutes, drain the soapy water out and run cool water from the tap. Rinse all the soap suds out of each item and let as much water drip out as you have patience for.

  • Gently squeeze more water out of each piece; try not to twist items around too much. Then, lay the items flat in a bath towel and roll the towel up as tightly as you can to wick out even more moisture.

  • Use the clothesline over the tub - it’s coiled up in the round metal puck mounted up near the shower rod. Pull the line out and hook it into the notch on the opposite side of the tub. Of course, the shower rod is good, too, for lightweight items. (Your hotel room’s windows won’t open all that wide, so you can’t dry clothes the traditional way - on a broom handle outside in the breeze, precariously balanced, 20 stories above the ground...)

  • If by morning you still have some damp pieces, use the hairdryer in the bathroom, or get the ironing board out. It may feel silly to iron your underwear, but it’s far better than having to wear damp drawers...

Using an off-site laundry service

Throughout Hong Kong and Guangzhou, same-day launderers are common. These places will take your bag of clothes in the morning, wash, dry, press and fold them, and be ready for pickup by dinnertime. They usually charge by weight instead of by piece, and are a superior value by far than any hotel’s offerings. Also in these two areas you are likely to find shopkeepers who speak some English (especially on Guangzhou's Shamian Island, where they’ll likely be running a giftshop and internet cafe out of the same building.)

Hong Kong shops literally front onto the street (such as in the photo at the top of this article) and couldn’t be more convenient - once you find them. 

Coin-operated laundromats don’t seem to be located near hotels in any city, if they even exist in China.

In other cities you may be able to find the equivalent of a Western dry-cleaner shop. The Fornet chain of franchised stores is China’s largest, with several locations in most major cities; but given the potential size of the market it’s easy to see most cleaners are still mom-and-pop independent operations. Pricing is by-the-piece and while less than what business / Western hotels would charge, still would run over US$20 per load. You may have to hunt for these places as well, since your hotel concierge would rather you stick with his employer’s services. 

Folding up neatly

With smart packing you can make it easier to wash articles yourself and reduce the expense of keeping clothes clean, but be sure to budget for having someone do the bigger pieces. Ask other travelers, and locals you know, for their suggestions in the particular cities you’ll be visiting. Laundry services are still a better bargain than excess baggage fees, and you’ll be happier during your trip and again when you get home without suitcases full of dirty clothes.