A Neat Freak's Guide to a Clean Suitcase

From bacteria-infested handles to (gulp) bedbugs, what's living in your luggage might freak you out. Five experts, from a doctor to a dry-cleaning guru, tell us how to clean even the most soiled suitcase.

(PoodlesRock/Corbis)

We all know that the door handle to the airplane lavatory is a breeding ground for bacteria, but have you ever considered that similar germs might find their way into your suitcase?

Before your inner germaphobe lunges for an airsick bag, a dose of reality is in order. "There's really very little disease you can get from germs on an inanimate object," says Dr. Ronald A. Primas, M.D., of TravelMD.com. "Any time you have a lot of people crammed into a small place, like an airplane, bus, or subway, your risk of acquiring disease is somewhat higher but most of the diseases people get when they travel come from contact with other people directly—not indirectly."

Still, as any germaphobe knows, the fact that dirty luggage isn't likely to make you sick provides little solace. Plus, what about the very real possibility of picking up bedbugs or grease stains? Five experts share insider tips on treating the most common suitcase disasters—including when to tackle the mess yourself, when to call in the professionals, and the easiest ways to protect yourself in the future.

What's living on my suitcase? Should I be cleaning it after trips?

Bacteria and germs are everywhere. Since you never know who's been hoisting your luggage handles behind the scenes (not to mention what's taken up residence on the bottom of that carry-on—E. coli, for example), it's a good idea to have a post-trip plan of attack. "Every time you use your luggage, I would take a damp rag with Lysol and just give the bottom of the bag and the handles a quick once-over," advises Chuck Horst, president of Margaret's Cleaner's San Diego, a dry cleaning service specializing in the care of couture clothing, leather cleaning and handbag and shoe repair. In addition, Horst advises keeping luggage out of your bedroom and—above all—off your bed when you're unpacking after a trip.

CLEAN IT

1. Buy some Lysol Disinfecting Wipes.

2. Spot test your suitcase in a discreet area to make sure it won't damage the fabric.

3. Wipe down the bottom of the bag (including wheels) and the handles with Lysol wipes. Squeezing Purell into a rag is similarly effective for removing germs.

4. If you want to completely degerm your suitcase, you can also spend $45 for a professional ozone treatment:a process in which an ozone generator is used to oxidize bacteria. Leather, vinyl, and plastic bags will have to be dry-cleaned by hand (costs will vary depending on the size and scope of the damage).

AVOID IT Nesting suitcases that can be stored inside of each other might seem handy, but since the outside of a suitcase is the dirtiest place, it's a bad idea to store them this way, says Horst. If you do, be sure to cover a piece of luggage with a plastic garbage bag before placing it inside another suitcase.

A bottle of red wine broke inside my bag! How do I clean this mess?

"When red wine spills in your luggage, it is not a good day," says Horst, explaining that it's one of the toughest stains to get out. And while spilled alcohol of the clear variety doesn't necessarily cause discoloration, breakage in your luggage can mean glass shards in the crevices and residual odors that conjure "eau de frat house" everywhere you roll.

CLEAN IT

1. Empty your suitcase of its contents and use a vacuum with a crevice tool to suck up all pieces of broken glass from the interior (be sure to check suitcase pockets before vacuuming).

2. Newspapers are hygroscopic (meaning they can readily soak up moisture), says Horst, and can be used to absorb some of the wetness from spilled liquids. Roll up a few pieces of newspaper and place them inside your closed bag for two to three days.

3. Canvas and nylon bags can be scrubbed with reasonable force using a toothbrush and a product such as liquid laundry detergent, according to author Barbara DesChamps, whose book It's in the Bag: Your Custom Business and Travel Wardrobe includes a chapter on fabric cleaning and care.

4. To address major odors, Horst suggests purchasing carbon that's used in aquariums from a pet store and placing it inside a sock in your empty luggage. Spraying Febreze Auto in the suitcase interior is another way to freshen odiferous bags.

5. Wine Away, Horst says, is a product that can help with dissolving red wine stains (evergreenlabs.com, $21 for two 12-ounce bottles).

TRUE LUGGAGE TRAGEDIES

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Note:This story was accurate when it was published. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.
 

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