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12 Clever Ways to Use Plastic Bags When You Travel

When it comes to travel, plastic bags aren’t just for your 3.4-ounce liquids and gels. Before every trip I throw a half-dozen plastic bags of various sizes into my suitcase. Cheap, waterproof, and often reusable, they always seem to come in handy.

How to Use Plastic Bags When You Travel

Although I bring eco-friendly cloth bags to the supermarket each week, grocery-size plastic bags seem to accumulate anyway—so I like giving them a second life on the road. Odds are you have a few other types of plastic bags hanging around your kitchen, too, such as gallon-size freezer bags and smaller bags for sandwiches and/or snacks. All of these can prove useful when you travel.

Because plastic is so damaging to the environment, I’ve also included alternatives to plastic bags and some tips for how you can reuse plastic bags when you travel.

Keep Your Phone Dry

When I’m planning to be outdoors in the rain, I put my phone into a zip-top sandwich bag before slipping it into my pocket. That way it’s still at my fingertips but it won’t get damaged by water. Back at your hotel, leave the bag out to dry so you can use it again on the next rainy day.

Isolate Dirty or Wet Items

If your boots are muddy from a hike or your bathing suit is wet after a swim, seal them off from the rest of your suitcase by putting them in a grocery bag or a large zip-top plastic bag. I often put my dirty laundry into a plastic grocery bag or a small garbage bag as well, though there are plenty of good cloth laundry bags that you can use instead.

Wash Delicates

An Allurette Washer is a good long-term investment if you wash delicates often while traveling, but for occasional use, a gallon-size zip-top plastic bag is significantly cheaper and works just fine. Put the garment into the bag with some water and soap, seal it shut, and use your hands to rub the clothing from the outside. Give it a rinse or two, et voila! Clean undies, right in your hotel sink or bathtub.

Turn the bag inside out to let it dry, and you can use it again for other purposes or to wash more clothes later in your trip.

Hold Documents

Sure, a travel document organizer looks a little more elegant, but a gallon-size plastic bag works almost as well to hold things like boarding passes and printouts of flight and hotel confirmations. Just put the sheets of paper in the order you’ll need them and fold them in half inside the bag. The plastic will protect your documents from an unexpected bout of rain and can easily be reused on multiple trips.

Make an Impromptu Ice Pack

Whether you’re trying to keep drinks cool in your backpack or you need a cold compress for an achy knee, a zip-top plastic bag can do the job. Fill it with ice from your hotel, seal it, and you’ve got an instant ice pack. Sturdy freezer bags are best for this purpose, as they’re less likely to tear or leak than sandwich bags, and they’ll last longer.

Compress Your Clothes

You can buy compression storage bags for travel, or you can make your own poor man’s version with large, zip-top plastic bags. By putting your clothes into the bag and rolling and pressing all the air out, you can condense the size of your clothes and fit more into your suitcase. Just be mindful of your airline’s weight limits.

Again, buying the sturdiest bags possible, treating them gently, and storing them in a safe place between trips will let you use them multiple times.

Organize Your Clothes

One- or two-gallon plastic bags can also take the place of packing cubes in keeping your wardrobe organized in your suitcase. You can have one bag for underwear, another for socks, and so on—or put each complete outfit into its own separate bag. Because the plastic is clear, it’s easy to find and grab what you need.

Organize the Rest of Your Belongings

Snack-size plastic bags are perfect for holding little items like cotton swabs, jewelry, or bandages. I also like using small plastic bags to protect tissues and/or toilet paper in my daypack.

Avoid Hotel Germs

That luxury hotel room might look gorgeous, but studies have shown it’s almost certainly covered in germs—and the TV remote is one of the worst offenders. Avoid it by slipping it into a bag and pushing buttons through the plastic. Another alternative: Give it a good going-over with alcohol wipes—which can also be stored in plastic bags if you have them in bulk containers at home.

Clean up After Your Dog

If you’re traveling with your furry best friend, you’ll want to bring a roll of plastic bags to clean up during walks. Even better, consider a biodegradable alternative.

Clean up After Yourself

On road trips, it’s a good idea to pack some kitchen-size garbage bags to collect all the food wrappers, banana peels, and other detritus that builds up along the way. To minimize waste, empty the bag at a rest stop and reuse it—as long as it hasn’t gotten too odorous.

Smaller plastic bags, like grocery bags, can serve as mini-trash bags during a hike when you don’t have easy access to a trash can—or as a storage spot for waste items on a long flight while you’re waiting for a flight attendant to come by.

Make a Rain Poncho

Speaking of garbage bags, they can serve as a rain poncho in a pinch—just cut out openings for your face and arms.

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