Julianne with her suitcase heading to Uganda

Unpacking After a Trip: 13 Extra Clean Tips

I can admit that I’m a bit of a neat freak and a germaphobe. 

I’m not clean or tidy to a disordered level. But I do think a lot about what touched what. And I require that things be organized in the spaces where I live and work so that I can be calm and focused.

Of course, travel is messy. That’s part of what makes it wonderful. But I don’t want to bring that into my home, and especially not into my closet. So unpacking after a trip is a whole thing. 

I have a routine now, which I’ll share with you in a minute. It makes things go pretty fast. One year I came home from Paris and left for Uganda less than a week later. Another year I came home from Albuquerque and left for Norway less than a week later. And I went through this whole routine in between.

Why, you might ask? 

Even if you’re not convinced that your suitcase is disgusting after rolling it through airports, touching the handle in the bathroom stall before you can get to the sink, and sending it through security …

Even if you didn’t visit a destination that has really nasty insects, lots of mud, or diseases that your family’s immune system hasn’t met (and we all know about COVID) … 

You might appreciate this: By following this routine, then any time that an opportunity for travel arises, you’re already ready to go. So here’s how I keep it PG-squeaky clean when I come home from an adventure and get set for the next.

When unpacking I send my cosmetic bags through the washing machine.
My stack of packing cubes, cosmetic bags, totes and other fabric items awaiting a turn in the washing machine.

Unpacking After a Trip

  1. When I come in the door, I leave everything in the garage or on the tile or hardwood. My purse, my jacket…everything but my phone and laptop, which I carry to a hard surface like my kitchen island for immediate sanitizing. I use Seventh Generation disinfecting wipes, but don’t take this as advice for your technology, because I don’t want to be responsible for damage. Use whatever you use to sterilize your tech gear. (You do that regularly, right?)
  2. If I have time, I like to shower right away. Some trips don’t allow for many showers! I leave the clothes that I was wearing on the tile bathroom floor until they can go in the laundry. (I don’t normally do this, Mom!) 
  3. If I had the time and space, I did myself a favor and sorted my dirty laundry into my ebags packing cubes before I left my destination. This way I can get a load into the washer right away. If not, while I’m unpacking I pick through things inside my suitcase to put together a load. I carry them straight to the open washer, toss them in and wash my hands after depositing them inside (before shutting the lid, adding detergent and starting the washer).
  4. While the first load of laundry is going (my new washer takes nearly two hours to get through a sanitizing cycle of socks and underwear), I clear a cleaning station on my kitchen island or kitchen table, and I grab my stash of disinfecting wipes.
  5. I fetch things out of my purse, as much as I can carry, and deposit them on one side of the island or table. As I wipe each thing, I put it on the “clean” side. I’ll even wipe my credit cards, lip balm, keys … everything. 
  6. If any of these objects were in a fabric or reusable plastic pouch, such as a cosmetic case, I’ll start a pile of those bags on the tile or hardwood floor for washing later. 
  7. I continue this unpacking process through all of my cosmetics, toiletries and any other hard-surface item that comes out of my luggage or purse.
  8. If an item can go in the dishwasher — your plastic toothbrush can survive a few cycles, and your toothbrush holder can go on the top rack forever — I stick it in right away. WARNING: Do not wash your contact lens cases this way. I used to until I ended up with dishwasher detergent residue in my case (or so my doctor believes) that made me nearly go blind in one eye. Instead, I open up my case, put it in a mug, put on a kettle and, when it whistles, pour boiling water into the mug to sterilize my case. I sometimes have some tea while I’m at it — in a different mug, of course.
  9. Somewhere in the midst of this process of unpacking after a trip, I usually can move some more laundry. One of my early loads, if at all possible, is the accumulation of cosmetic bags or reusable plastic pouches, so that I can repack them. Believe it or not, you can wash almost everything in the washing machine (especially if yours doesn’t have an agitator). Even handbags.
    • If it’s a delicate, structured object (reusable plastic pouch, woven handbag, baseball cap) wash it on cold with little soap and almost no spin cycle. Reshape it and set it somewhere clean to dry.
    • If it’s a plain old fabric cosmetic bag, wash that puppy on a hot sanitizing cycle. Mine have survived years of this treatment, even though I’d like to get new ones. 
    • If it’s a vinyl or leather handbag, you can simply wipe it clean with some sort of sanitizing wipe, inside and out. I do use Seventh Generation wipes on my leather objects, but I follow up with a leather conditioner so that they don’t dry and crack.
    • If my tennis shoes are a disaster, I put them in on hot, but with a low spin cycle. I air-dry them.
    • NOTE: I am not guaranteeing that you will have zero tears, fading or other damage from cleaning your items this way; however, mine come out just fine every time. It’s amazing what you can put in the washing machine, really.
  10. If I find anything that’s no longer usable while unpacking and sanitizing objects — makeup has cracked, flashlight needs new batteries — I’ll dispose of it and put a replacement in the clean pile immediately (washing my hands after trashing the old and before digging for a new one, of course); or I’ll charge/repair it; or I’ll make a note that I need a replacement. 
  11. Once my cosmetic bags and purse are dry, I repack all of my sanitized items in them for my next trip (or everyday use, in the case of my purse). I have a place in my linen closet where I keep my packed cosmetic bags, along with backup travel toiletries; you could keep them in your suitcase, too, if you store it somewhere that’s temperature controlled.
  12. Last but not least when unpacking after a trip, I wash my suitcase. I store my suitcase in my bedroom closet, so I want it to be really clean before it sits on the carpet in there, nestled up next to my clean clothes. Also, I spread it out on my bedroom floor when I’m packing, so I don’t want airport bathroom cooties on my bedroom carpet.
    • I leave my suitcase where I dropped it until a semi-nice day; then I take it outside. I save “empty” laundry detergent bottles for just such a purpose (or for washing winter boots, or plastic storage bins, or whatever). I use the hose to shoot some water inside one of these empty bottles, put the lid back on, give it a shake and then douse my suitcase inside and out with soapy water. This works for both hard-sided and fabric suitcases. I’m especially careful to soap up the handle and the wheels. Then I hose off the whole suitcase, inside and out, and let it air-dry outside. My neighbors have witnessed this often and, believe it or not, no one has ever approached me with concern nor stolen my suitcase off my front porch. Here too, my suitcases have survived this treatment for years, even though I’d like new ones. (Note: Be sure you took all of the receipts out of the front pocket of your fabric suitcase before you start the hose, or you’ll have to air-dry those as well.)
  13. If you don’t have a space where you can clean your suitcase this way, you can use the aforementioned wipes; however, this is tedious and kind of gross, especially when you start wiping the wheels. 
My hairbrush and makeup brushes getting a bath in warm water and shampoo.

Packed for Your Next Trip

The best part of this unpacking routine is that I give a little thought to what I did and didn’t use on my trip and what I wished I had packed. It’s a great time to refine your packing list for your next trip, especially now that everything is clean and restocked. 

Unpacking after a trip can feel like a drag — the party’s over, and everything is grubby and sad. If you travel like me, you’re probably exhausted, too. I’ll fully admit to letting everything go until the day after my return, with the exception of taking a shower and sanitizing my laptop and phone. If it’s a day off, I can get through the whole process in a few hours. 

And not long after, I’m likely planning my next trip. I may often have to hose mud and bathroom cooties off of my suitcase, but I don’t often have to dust it. 

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