We’ve all been there… You’re on holidays in a beautiful country, you’re out and about for the day, exploring this new part of the world and having the time of your life. Sun is shining, birds are chirping and you’re blissfully unaware you’re about to have a real problem. Like a good traveller, you’re staying hydrated with a big bottle of water. Suddenly, you feel it. The urge to pee. NO! You begin cursing yourself mentally, “Why the %&*$ didn’t I pee again before I left the hotel?” In your mind, you can clearly picture your hotel toilet. It’s glorious. Clean, fresh, untouched.
You look around and realise you’re trapped. I mean, let’s get real, public toilets in any country are usually pretty dodgy. They smell. They’re dirty and a whole new level of terrifying. You can use one of them, sure, but you’ll have to hover-squat over the top of it. This action always reminds me of a Survivor challenge, where you push your body to the absolute limits of what it’s capable of doing, mentally willing yourself to push through. You hover over a cess-pool, trying to pee, your thighs shaking under the strain of this unnatural body position, raging the ultimate ‘Mind over Matter’ battle. “I can do this. I do a pump class twice a week! Don’t you DROP, legs. You HOLD ME UP! This is what you were made for. Now, DO YOUR JOB or I’m falling in and you’re going with me. Then we’re both going straight to the hospital to get every injection they have available.” Rock. Bottom.
A bad public toilet experience can haunt your nightmares for the rest of your life. Trust me, I’ve used some very suspect ones in rural China and lived to tell the tale. Yea, that’s right. I’ve seen the belly of the beast and it ain’t pretty. Now that I travel for a living I’ve had to develop a whole new set of travel-ninja skills. The most important of these is the ability to rapidly identify and use a toilet of acceptable quality. On a side note, I once had a small male child in Indonesia use my right leg as a urinal while I was waiting to cross the street. He saw an opportunity and he took it. That kid’s a survivalist.
Here are my tips for finding an acceptable public toilet while you’re travelling. Good luck out there, dear friend.
Fancy shopping centres
If they sell Chanel, it’s safe to pee there. Regular shopping centre toilets are usually pretty grotty, mostly because they’re used by 5,000 other people each day, the poor things. So instead of making a beeline for your nearest regular shopping centre, try to identify a high-end shopping centre. You know, the fancy type we all usually walk past because paying $12,000 for a handbag is just ridiculous. You’re looking for places that sell Louis Vuitton, Prada, Hermes and all that stuff. High-end jewellery stores are also a safe bet, even rich diamond dealers gotta take a leak.
This is my go-to. If I’m busting, I’ll stop and look around me for the nicest hotel I can see. We’re looking for places that are nice, but not obscenely over-the-top. Avoid places like the Ritz and Shangri-La, and stick to your Hilton, Marriott, Intercontinental type places. They’re guaranteed to have really nice bathrooms in the lobby. All you need to do is walk in confidently. Toilets in these places are usually well signed and in a pretty obvious place, as soon as you step foot in that lobby keep your head up high and dart your eyes around, trying to find the toilet sign. The sooner you can find it, the better as you can confidently walk in the right direction and not look lost.
If you feel nervous, just walk up to the front desk first. Tell them you’re heading out for the day and need directions and a map. After they give that to you, ask them where the toilet is. Works every time. I’ve taken a lot of toilet breaks in some very fancy hotels, I’ll have you know. Just try your best not to look suspicious.
Restaurants, cafes and bars
A lot of places will not let you use the toilet if you aren’t dining there, which I can understand because they don’t want their restaurant turned into a public bathroom. Fair enough. But there are times when you really, really, really have to go and those are the times I think it’s okay to use and abuse their toilet.
A small place isn’t going to work for you, you need to find somewhere that looks nice but is a decent size. Outdoor seating is preferred, so it looks like you’ve come in from one of the outdoor seats.The place needs big enough that the servers are kinda busy, they have a lot of space to cover and it’s not plausible that they can keep up with every single person there. That’s your window of pee-opportunity, guys.
After you’ve cased the joint, leave your jacket and handbag with your friend or husband outside. You need to look light, like all your stuff is back at the table that you’re sitting at, eating, drinking and paying for things. I call this ‘The Illusion of Lightness’. Toilets are always usually toward the back, so walk calmly in that direction. Don’t rush. Be sure to smile at someone, it’ll make you look relaxed and less like someone about to pee in a place you shouldn’t be in.
Art galleries and museums
These types of places attract a lot of tourists, so they’re usually out to impress and get repeat business. Reports of a foul bathroom can seriously ruin the reputation of any business that relies on tourism. So, your galleries and museums are a great place to scope out a decent toilet. Now, it may not quite be the same level of a high-end shopping centre or the Mariott, but it’ll be better than a public toilet at a bus station. You can also try out a library if you see one!
There’s an app for that!
Oh yeah, there’s an app to help you! Welcome to the future, guys. It’s a beautiful place.
Download Find Toilets, a free app that maps toilets nearby to you and gives you directions to them. There’s also one called Sit or Squat which has user-ratings of toilets nearby and will tell you if they’re a sit or squat toilet. Brilliant! The only thing to keep in mind is that information on these apps may not be recent, so you’re still taking a gamble.
If you absolutely cannot find any of these places, then you’re officially at desperation station and need to take some emergency action. PRONTO. Stay calm. You can get through this.
Find the nearest toilet, if it smells really bad then you’re going to need to do some serious mouth breathing. If like me, you suffer from hayfever/allergies, this will come naturally to you. Breathe in and out through your mouth only. Pretending you have a cold, with a blocked nose will help you mentally if you’ve never done this before. Think of it as method-acting 101.
If you need to sit down on the toilet seat, you’re going to need a bottle of hand sanitiser. Squirt sanitiser on the toilet seat and use tissues/paper hand-towels/ toilet paper to wipe it over the seat and disinfect it. Repeat this action as many times as needed. I recommend two minimum. Always BYO pocket-pack tissues, just in case there’s no T.P available. Also, always close the toilet lid before you flush to avoid any form of splash back, seen or unseen.
If you find yourself using a squatty-potty, they should have a hose or bucket of water. This is your new best friend. Use it to wash down the area and clean it for your use. Sure, squatting to use the toilet isn’t the greatest thing to ever happen to you, especially if you’re on a moving train in China (YEAH! That happened to me!), but it’s a lot better than a filthy toilet seat that you have to hover over, like a urinating UFO. If you know you’re going to a country with squat toilets, it is essential you wear closed-in shoes at all times. This is no time for sandals, guys.
Phoebe is a travel writer and photographer with a love for storytelling and making people laugh. Matt is a videographer and photographer with a passion for the great outdoors and big adventures. Together we inspire big adventures through our guides, videos, vlogs and photographs. Find out more about us here.