Everything You Need to Know About Toilets and Travel
How did I find myself with a red light flashing, an alarm going off, three children staring at me wide-eyed and a husband using all his might to hold a door closed that wanted to open and expose me to a Dutch city square?
Toilets and travel can be an interesting travel dilemma.
When you gotta go, you gotta go but what if you don’t know where to go or how to follow the local customs?
Have no fear. Here is a guide to the most important things you need to know about toilets in the places I have personally traveled to and run into a toilet snafu or delight.
Japan: Home of high tech and squatty potties
Every true toilet aficionado knows that Japan is home to the ultimate in high-tech toilets. If you want a device that can not only spirit your bodily waste away with ease but also squirt clean water on your bum from a wide variety of angles, pressures, and temperatures, Japan is your go to.
Keep exploring and you will find the butt blow dryer, and buttons to play a variety of tunes to cover any noises you might be making. The Japanese are always considerate of those around them and a public restroom is no exception.
Westerners are often befuddled by the vast array of buttons and options where we are used to only a simple lever to flush. In fact, figuring out how to flush is often the most complicated task of all as you desperately try all the buttons with a wide range of interesting and surprising results hitting your rear end.
Usually, the flush mechanism is a simple lever or mechanical button, and isn’t any of the buttons on the high-tech display accessed while sitting on the john.
This brings me to the most important tip of all. Only push buttons while seated firmly on the toilet. Many a hapless tourist has ended up doused in water when standing over a toilet after a glass or two of saké saying, “I wonder what these buttons do.”
Once seated bare bottomed on the throne, have at it pushing button after button. The only way to sort it out is trial and error.
The youth hostel in Sapporo Japan, catering no doubt to numerous uncultured westerners has a handy guide written in rudimentary English posted on the toilet door. My favorite button descriptions were, ‘Pleasant sounds for the covering of the disgusting body noises” and “Gentle shower for the posterior.”
You will find these high-tech toilets everywhere from fancy hotels to dive bars to highway rest areas. And it isn’t just the commodes themselves that are high tech. The following screen greeted me as I entered the toilets at a tollroad rest area.
This monitor provides a wealth of useful information: which toilets are available, what type are they, do they have a baby seat in them. No need to do a trial and error search cautiously pushing open a variety of doors in this restroom. The Japanese are forever expertly solving problems the rest of us haven’t even figured out exist.
Note the “Japanese style toilets” denoted by the icon above. These are the classic squatty potty. Finding this option alongside western-style toilets is fairly common in Japan. If you head out into the countryside occasionally this will be your only choice.
To use a Japanese style toilet stand with your feet on either side of the opening and squat down facing the hood. Facing the proper direction is the bit that seems to confuse most westerners but really a few seconds thought about human anatomy makes the reason to face the hood pretty clear. Since you are literally holding a squat while doing your business, you are getting in a miny workout as a bonus.
The best thing about a squatty potty is hygiene. No need to put your butt cheeks where so many cheeks have been before. What’s not to like about that? If you are the type of person who has frequently found yourself angled weirdly in a public toilet attempting to relax your muscles while hovering over a toilet seat trying desperately not to touch it with any part of your body, you will love Japan.
Still, I was surprised by the prevalence of squatty potties alongside high-tech toilets in fancy locations. Until I attended a kimono dressing demonstration. Even for an expert, a proper woman’s kimono will take at least 30 minutes to put on with help, longer if you are trying to do it alone.
The instructor turned to us at the end of the demonstration. “Now, how will she use the toilet?” With a kimono on you have practically another person’s worth of padding, fabric, and bow sticking out your rear end. You are tightly swaddled top to bottom. It is not just difficult to use a western toilet in a formal kimono, it is impossible.
But with a squatty potty — while still no walk in the park — relieving yourself without an hour-long robing and disrobing session is possible.
China: Bring your own toilet paper
We had many interesting public toilet experiences in China. Many charged a small fee so make sure you always have change available. The most important thing to know about Chinese toilets however is they rarely have toilet paper inside the stall next to the toilets.
There may be an attendant at the entrance who will hand over your allotment of TP in exchange for your fee. Or there might be a single communal roll available for you to grab from before entering the stall. Frequently, however, you are expected to have brought your own.
Always have a packet of tissues available for your wiping needs when you are out and about in China. Also note that many Chinese toilets do not have plumbing adequate to deal with tissues of any kind so there will be a trash can placed beside the toilet where you are expected to deposit your used paper.
Get a bit off the beaten path and you will find a wide variety of restroom conditions. Squat toilets are fairly common but this is a good thing for hygiene reasons. You might also find less privacy than you are accustomed to with stalls, doors, and walls high enough no one can see over them not a guarantee by any means. But when you gotta go, you gotta go. It all comes out in the end.
You’ll also need to be able to find the toilet. 公厕” are the characters for “public toilet” but signs will also often say WC as well. Chances are high the doors will be marked with recognizable symbols for male and female but just in case here is a handy graphic from The China Guide.
My most memorable toilet encounter in China came on the sleeper train from Beijing to Xian. As I started to assume the by now familiar squat position I realized I could see the ground speeding by. Relieving myself directly onto the train tracks while feeling the rushing air caress my nether regions was a unique experience.
Europe: Always have coins
Americans just aren’t used to the concept of paying to use a toilet. It is a basic need everyone has so it really should be free, they say annoyed as they struggle to find the proper coins in their pockets. So is healthcare, says the European, and yet you expect individuals, not government to pay for that.
But I digress. One of the great things about travel is seeing the ways other cultures do things and in Europe toilets are a pay to pee proposition.
Make sure you always have a handful of change so you don’t get caught short. Nowadays a surprising number of locations will have a contactless credit card or phone pay option but you will still often need cash.
Paying for the toilet is only part of the problem. First, you have to find one. There are fewer public toilets in general than in the US. In most European countries you are looking for a sign that says WC. If you are asking for directions don’t use the phrase bathroom or restroom, say toilet instead. Restroom is a euphemism not common outside of the United States. And are you really planning to take a bath?
Popping into a cafe to use the facilities without ordering something is a big faux pas so don’t even think about it. You can always use another drink or tasty nibble, right? Also, don’t assume every establishment will necessarily have a toilet available for customers. It always pays to scope out the situation before you order if the need is desperate.
My family was in Delft, Netherlands once and my need was acute. We followed signs to the tourist information center, but there were no toilets there. We asked for directions and tried to follow them but 15 minutes later still had not located the loos.
Finally, we stumbled upon a single stand-alone handicapped toilet in the middle of a square. I felt guilty about using a handicapped toilet but was pretty desperate. The door was coin operated and cost a euro and we had only one euro coin on us.
By this point everyone in the family needed to go so we put in the coin and all five of us piled in. I don’t know if the toilet had some kind of sensors that knew there were too many of us or what but the door wouldn’t latch closed and a red light was flashing inside.
I was committed now. My bladder had seen a toilet and it was not to be denied. I quickly peed while my spouse held closed the door that was trying hard to open. We quickly cycled all three kids on and off the toilet before I switched places with my spouse so he could pee as well.
Mission accomplished we all snuck out of the toilet glancing around furtively to see if someone was coming to arrest us. I sincerely hope we didn’t do any damage to the automatic door mechanism.
It was a rookie mistake made early in our days of travel. I share my experiences here so hopefully, you can avoid my failings.
New Orleans: The vicious circle of buying a drink to use a toilet
New Orleans is a fantastic place to visit. One of the great delights while strolling the French quarter is sipping delicious cocktails. However, finding a public restroom is a challenge. The problem is particularly acute during Mardi Gras when up to 90% of the arrests made are due to public urination.
The natural solution is to head into a bar and buy a drink in order to use their toilet. This of course has the side effect of causing you to need the toilet again soon so you will need to choose another bar and have another drink. It’s a vicious circle but really drinking and peeing your way around the French Quarter is a pretty pleasant way to pass the time.
Toilets and travel advice in a nutshell
My advice is colored by the fact that I am a middle-aged woman who has given birth three times and I have the diminished bladder capacity to prove it. Some of the travel above was made with young children in tow. It may not be the romantic side of travel but access to toilets is important.
Your bladder capacity is likely many times mine but still, at some point, you are going to need to answer nature’s call. Here is a summary of my most important toileting knowledge gained from years of travel.
- Do not drink too much if you have no idea where you will find a toilet.
- Never pass by a good toilet opportunity. Go whether you feel the need or not. Who knows when the chance will come again.
- Carry change for toilets. Having a credit card or phone with contactless pay options is also a good idea and not just for the toilets.
- Always buy something if you use the toilet at a business establishment.
- Carry your own toilet paper. Mini packs of tissues are perfect for this purpose.
- Do not judge the toilet standards and practices of another country. What you are used to is not necessarily better.
- Never push buttons on a Japanese high-tech toilet without your buttocks firmly covering the seating area.
Keep the above in mind and you will be fine.
Happy travels and toileting.
Sign up for our new newsletter to stay informed with up-to-date curations from our editors:👇