The daily need for a toilet can be a frustrating challenge for travellers. While you likely know where public toilets are located (or where they're missing) in your home town, this is not the case when traveling to places you're unfamiliar with. When visiting different cultural spheres, you may actually not be able to identify toilets or know how they work.
—title of a children's book
While one of human's most basic needs has to be taken care of no matter where you are, the way it is actually done can differ wildly from place to place, sometimes even within one country. From fancy self cleaning toilets in Japan to nothing more than what you bring with you to dispose of human waste or – well – a hole in the ground when leave-no-trace camping, there is a wide variety, that you should be at least aware of before heading out.
Once you finish your business, you have to clean yourself, and there are various methods that are popular in different parts of the world.
Since it's such an essential need, along with "please" and "thank you", one of the first phrases any traveler should learn in the local language is "Where is the toilet?".
Since many cultures don't like talking plainly about their dirty business, it's incredibly common for there to be a lot of euphemistic names for the room where you go to do your business. Even the plain English word "toilet" came from French toilette "small cloth", used to protect your clothes while shaving or doing your hair (from which we get "toiletries").
In English, the word "toilet" often refers only to the receptacle, but when you're asking where to go, a different word is often used for the room it's in. Depending on the language and region, not all names are universal, and you may confuse people if you ask for the wrong one. To wit:
- toilet – Okay in the UK (where "toilet" may be the room or the fixture), but considered blunt in the U.S. (where "toilet" is the fixture).
- bathroom – In the U.S. this has a toilet and might have a bath/shower; standard word in homes. In the UK it definitely has a bath/shower, but maybe not a toilet.
- restroom – In the U.S. this usually has only a toilet; standard word in public buildings. Not used in the UK.
- water closet or W.C. – In the UK has a toilet, but this phrase is not very common today. May be understood but not generally used in the U.S. Used as a loan word in many countries, where it's sometimes written as WC without punctuation.
- loo – Common informal word in the UK. May be understood but not generally used in the U.S.
As you might expect, there are also a lot of humorous names and phrases for the toilet.
There are many other English words for the room…
- washroom – Canadian equivalent of U.S. "restroom"
- lavatory – Common in UK English; in the U.S. this usually refers only to facilities on passenger vehicles (airplanes, trains, buses)
- comfort room, or C.R. – Common in Philippines
- men's / women's room
… some exceedingly polite and indirect names…
- gentlemen's (gents') / ladies' room
- little boys' / little girls' room
- powder room, or "powdering one's nose"
- "washing one's hands"
- the facilities
- public conveniences
… a lot of informal names…
- lav – British slang, short for "lavatory"
- bog – British slang, may be mildly vulgar
- khazi – regional British slang
- netty – regional British slang
- jacks – Irish slang
- john – American slang
- can – American slang
- dunny – Australian slang, particularly for an outhouse or outdoor toilet
- head – nautical term for any toilet on a ship; also general slang
- latrine – standard military nomenclature
- privy – generally refers to an outhouse or outdoor toilet
- potty – word often used with children, as in "going potty" and "potty training" (more specifically, a potty is a small pot used by children who aren't big enough to use an adult-sized toilet)
… and probably a lot of crude ones, which we needn't mention here.
For cleaning, "toilet paper" is universally understood, but Brits may refer to loo roll or bog roll.
- See also Stay safe below
Once you've found the appropriate rooms, you're often faced with a new quandary: which one is for men/women?
Fortunately, many parts of the world use familiar pictograms depicting a stylized man and woman. Although you can debate the nuances of the gender expressions these pictograms portray, they're undoubtedly the most useful method for most people.
Failing that, you'll usually have to rely on written language. You should learn to recognize the common words written in the language of the places you'll be visiting. Sometimes the first letter of the respective word may be used, either of the local words or a lingua franca.
A few places like to be cute or pretentious with their labels, not realizing the difficulty this might cause for foreigners. Restaurants tend to be the most frequent offenders; instead of the straightforward words "men" and "women", some real-life examples include "guys"/"gals", "hommes"/"femmes" at a French restaurant (in an English-speaking country) and "Zeus"/"Hera" at a Greek restaurant. Assuming you don't know enough of the locally known languages to recognize the word or ask and don't have Internet access to quickly look it up, you have only a couple of options:
- Take an educated guess. For example, "gentlemen" contains the word "men" while "ladies" doesn't. In China and Japan, you might notice that 婦 ("lady") and 嬢 ("young lady") are made using the base character 女 ("woman").
- Wait for someone else to come along, and follow them.
- Go inside, and hope it's apparent which one you're in or that people do not mind your using it regardless (as often if it is for use by one person at the time).
Depending on where you are, finding an appropriate place to go can range from easy to arduous.
Public buildings and facilities are often required to have toilets, or just plain provide them as a common service. Examples include train stations, airports, gas/petrol stations, government buildings, and hotels. Restaurants also often have toilets, and in some countries this too is a legal requirement. Larger stores and buildings may also have them, such as museums, department stores, grocery stores, and other large or medium-sized retailers.
Some buildings (particularly restaurants and stores) may reserve their toilets for paying customers. You might be able to get around this rule by making a small purchase such as a drink, or simply asking the staff.
Some toilets, such as in gas stations or some stores, require a key to enter. This is either because the restroom is outside and not in view of the staff, or simply to prevent someone from monopolizing the room.
Accessible and family toilets
Users with a disability or handicap usually require special care, such as a space large enough to fit a wheelchair adjacent to the toilet.
In some countries this is mandated by law, and any restroom (or perhaps restrooms above a certain size) must cater to disabled users.
Larger public spaces may also have a dedicated accessible restroom, which is its own one-person room separate from the men's and women's rooms. It can be used by any gender, and often doubles as a family restroom for changing babies or helping young children who need to be accompanied.
Babies have business to do, too, and this means parents have to find someplace to put them in fresh diapers/nappies.
Some public toilets provide baby changing stations, either in the common area of the room or inside a stall. Accessible or family restrooms are also likely to have changing stations. This is often a tray that folds out from the wall, or sometimes just an alcove that doesn't seem to have any other designated function.
Unfortunately, it's not often marked whether restrooms contain a changing station, so you may have to just enter the restroom to find out. Sometimes there's one only in the women's room; tough luck if you're a man.
Failing all other options, it should be acceptable to change babies on the sink counter. At least there if you make a mess, it will be easy to clean up.
Attendants and language issues
Many countries have public toilets with attendants. Usually the attendants are helpful and able to indicate what and where. If you don't speak the same languages, then you'll probably be stuck using hand signals and gestures to identify where to go, how much to pay, and what the requirements for men and women are.
While in some countries toilets are available free of charge almost everywhere except in the wilderness, in other places you will be expected to pay, following the old Latin saying "pecunia non olet" ("money does not stink"), which was indeed coined after the first toilet tax was introduced. The amount you will have to pay will usually oscillate in the "small change" range; if you don't have a low denomination local coin, it's likely that getting change will be time-consuming, burdensome or impossible, so make sure to always have the proper amount with you. If you're lucky, a change machine may be provided at the entrance. Sometimes there's not a fixed amount, but just a tip jar, and it's up to you how much you pay or whether you pay at all.
In Germany — usually a pay-to-pee country — there is nette Toilette (it rhymes in German), a program for owners of free-to-use toilets to advertise that fact with signage and through the app. Besides the obvious benefits, it reduces the pressure on municipalities to either provide toilets or clean up after people relieving themselves just anywhere.
Where pay-to-use toilets are the norm, they are likely to be found standalone, in public transport facilities (e.g. railway stations), and in some shopping malls.
One way to avoid paying to answer nature's call is to look for large hotels and discretely enter. However, some hotels have cracked down on this by putting an access code to enter such toilets to ensure that only its guests can access the toilets. You can also try using the toilets at public museums as these are usually located before the paid area.
Even when transport facilities charge for use of their public toilets, the toilets in the vehicles are free of charge if provided; if you can wait long enough, you can save some coins by using the ones in the buses or trains. On the other hand, the capacity on buses is limited, and usually not very comfortable. Depending on the country and the length of the trip, the vehicle may not have toilets on board at all.
How does this sit with you?
Although pictorial signs showing the correct way to sit on a toilet (such as the one above) may seem laughable, they stem from a genuine lack of knowledge. They're generally for older generations who grew up with only squat toilets, and may even consider it unclean to touch their bottom where everyone else's bottom has been!
Unfortunately for them, Western toilets for sitting just aren't designed to be squatted on, and doing so is likely to break the seat or wind up with a foot slipping into the toilet.
In general, the biggest difference between toilets is your position when you use them: sitting, standing, or squatting.
The flush toilet, a familiar sight in many countries, is the most widely used type of toilet that you sit on. Not all sitting toilets flush; portable toilets collect waste at the bottom to be removed later, and latrines and outhouses may simply leave waste to be naturally decomposed.
A western-style toilet has a U-shaped or O-shaped seat; toilets in private homes also have a lid, but public restrooms generally don't. The seat can be raised to get it out of the way and expose a larger opening of the bowl, which men are supposed to do when they urinate standing up facing the toilet.
Regardless of the previous person's etiquette, it's not uncommon for the seat to be dirty. Hopefully this is just a bit of liquid (and it really might just be water, particularly if there's a sink adjacent). Even if it looks clean and dry, it still harbors germs as any surface touched by a lot of people does. In any case, some people prefer to wipe the seat with toilet paper before sitting, or lay toilet paper or a special paper seat cover down to sit on. The seat covers are particularly nice because they are designed to get pulled away automatically when the toilet is flushed.
Although you might think you already know all you need to know about these, think twice. Broadly speaking, there are two different styles globally. The North American style (also used in Japan) uses a siphon effect to empty the bowl, which tends to clog; for this reason, these toilets often have a plunger nearby. The European style (also used in Australia) use a washout system, which tends to get dirty since there's little water in the bowl; these toilets often have a brush nearby. Whichever type you use, make use of the plunger or brush as appropriate.
Dual flush toilets have a regular full flush for big jobs, and a smaller half flush for urine. These are usually operated with buttons; for those with flush levers, either you can push either side down to choose, or pushing down and releasing the lever will activate the half flush, while holding down the leaver will activate the full flush. They are almost universal in Australia, Israel, New Zealand, and Singapore, but less common elsewhere.
What could go wrong?
While you are unlikely to cause such a disaster using ordinary toilets and lavatories on passenger vehicles, you could make a giant mess that would be very unpleasant to clean up. Read or ask for directions before using an unfamiliar toilet, and ask for help rather than trying to figure it out for yourself.
On vehicles such as small craft and caravans, there may be special procedures to follow when flushing, such as opening and closing a valve, pumping up the water to be used, disposing of toilet paper separately, or closing the lid before flushing. If you rent a vehicle with a toilet, get instructions for using it and for emptying the tank. If you're a passenger, ask for instructions before operating the toilet.
Most men are likely already familiar with urinals, sometimes called pissoirs if they're outdoors, which allow urination while standing up. They are simple, quick to use, and require little or no water. Common types vary by region: individual urinals (with or without privacy dividers) versus troughs of varying designs. In some places urinals are also available in a (slightly different looking) female version that accommodates the female anatomy. Several devices have also been invented to allow people with female genitalia to use "male" urinals, though they are not widespread or in fact commonly known. Events where many people have to use toilets primarily to urinate have in recent years experimented with female urinals to cut down on cost for full scale portable toilets as well as wait times, and you might consider using them or bringing equipment for using the male version if you intend to go to such an event, e.g. a big music festival.
Although it now seems foreign to much of the world, squatting was historically the most common way to go. It has the advantage of not touching any part of the toilet (or ground, or anything else), so it can actually be more sanitary. These days, squat flush toilets, or "squat pots", are common in industrialized countries that still prefer squatting.
If you haven't used one, it's fairly simple. In a flush squat toilet, there's a curved "hood", which is the front of the toilet. Pull your pants down to your knees, and squat facing the front. Get closer to the hood than it looks like you need to, or else you might miss. To keep your balance, there may be a handle in front you can hold on to. Just don't hold onto the plumbing, lest you break it and drench yourself.
Non-flushing toilets are mostly found in less developed regions, but they still find limited use also in advanced countries.
Campgrounds, natural parks and cottages sometimes have outhouses, standalone buildings containing just a toilet. The toilet may also be integrated with a woodshed or other building, with its own entrance. Outhouses were the norm until modern plumbing and sewers took over. Festivals and special events often use portable outhouses, portable toilets, often called porta-potties or by trademarked names like Portaloo.
Some of these toilets, typically at least the portable ones, have chemical disinfectants. These are used the same way as normal Western sitting toilets, except you don't have to flush afterwards. They are designed to be emptied quite often.
In the case of dry toilets there is often a bucket with some material for covering the litter, such as saw dust, peat or chalk. In high-tech versions (sometimes used indoors instead of normal toilets for ecological reasons) there is a handle or pedal to use instead, to remove the litter from sight and mix it with this material. In some dry toilets urine is separated, either by having a separate collector in the front end or by use of a lever or similar. Small amounts of liquid do no harm in the separating versions, do not worry, but do your best.
This is a fairly common way to cleanse one's bottom. You're probably already familiar with it.
In some countries such as Greece and Turkey or most of Central and South America, you may see toilets with a small trash can next to the toilet. Take this as a sign that the plumbing will clog if you flush toilet paper. In such cases, put used toilet paper (and only used toilet paper) into the trash can. In some countries (e.g. Finland) the can is primarily for sanitary napkins and you should flush toilet paper.
Paper other than toilet paper, such as paper towels also provided in many toilets, is not designed to be flushed. There is probably a wastepaper basket for these.
Contrary to their name, flushable wipes/wet wipes are often not really flushable in many sewer systems, and can lead to clogs.
Restrooms without toilet paper
In some countries such as China and occasionally Japan, public restrooms may not have toilet paper. In such cases, be sure to carry a packet of tissues with you. In Japan, for instance, local businesses often hand out tissues as advertising, and smart locals hold on to these for use later in the toilet. Sometimes there is a vending machine for packets of tissues, usually just outside the restroom.
Also elsewhere toilet paper may be missing e.g. in some public toilets, cheap hotels and wilderness cottages. When available it may be coarse and of low quality. In some countries it is customary to buy toilet paper from a restroom attendant. Bringing at least an "emergency stash" with you may be a wise idea, especially when going to remote places on a shoestring.
In order to be polite to the next user of a toilet (who might even be yourself), if you use up a roll of toilet paper, it's a good idea to replace it if possible. Public toilets may have multiple rolls, with a mechanism in the dispenser to make the next one available. At a private home, there are usually spare rolls, but you may have to hunt inside cupboards or under the sink to find them. They might also be hidden inside a knitted decorative cover. If you take the last spare, you might want to make that apparent in some way, or simply tell your host or somebody else who knows how to get more.
If you can't find a new roll, then you should consider leaving a clue for the next user. You might remove the empty roll or the dispenser, and leave it where it's easily visible (such as on top of the toilet seat lid, or on the floor just in front of the toilet). You might also remove the remnants of paper from the empty roll, since a brown empty roll is slightly more noticeable than one which still has some unusable scraps on it. On your way out, you could also warn someone who's about to walk into the same toilet or stall.
If your luck runs out, you might find yourself with a dirty bottom and no toilet paper in sight. In a public toilet, you might be able to call out and ask if anyone else can pass you some from another stall. In the worst case, you might have to improvise something: scrap paper from your wallet (like receipts or business cards), or even cash (start with the lowest value banknotes). A sock is also good for cleaning up with, and you can either discard it or wash it in the sink.
In some European countries, a bidet (pronounced bih-DAY) is common. This is a fixture (usually separate from the toilet) for spraying your bottom with water to clean it.
In many other countries, from the Middle East through East Asia, a bidet shower or health faucet is common. This is a hand-held spray nozzle that you can reach from the toilet, as opposed to a separate fixture.
In Japan, a high-tech version, often called a "Washlet" after the most popular brand, is very common. This kind is integrated into the toilet seat, and has a control panel attached or mounted on the wall. When you activate it, a robotic arm will extend to provide the cleaning function. High-end units have additional features such as heated seats, blow drying, and controls for the pressure and temperature of water.
In other areas, a simple pail of water is used. In South Asia, it's called a lota, and it usually has a spout like a watering can. (A squeeze bottle can also serve as a good substitute.) In the Philippines, a tabo is a dipper kept in a bucket of water which is used for cleaning yourself, flushing the toilet, and cleaning the floor; be sure to check upon entering the toilet that there's enough water in the bucket.
Isn't cleaning yourself with your hand gross?
Imagine this: you have two dinner plates covered in food. One you clean using only a paper towel, the other you clean using running water and your hand. Which plate would you rather eat from later?
Although you might find it gross to clean your butt with your hand, people accustomed to it find it genuinely distressing to use nothing but paper to "clean" your bottom. As funny as it sounds, it's not uncommon for them to hold out for many days before finally giving in and performing such an unclean act.
In many parts of Africa, the Middle East, and Asia, you use your hands to clean your bottom after first washing it with water. Although you rinse your bottom first, and wash your hands after, in some regions there are still taboos that insist you reserve one hand (usually left) for this purpose, and use only your right hand for other actions such as eating.
As any doctor or restaurant worker can tell you, washing your hands is an important step to prevent the spread of germs.
A proper sanitary hand washing should involve soap and hot water, lots of scrubbing, drying the hands thoroughly, and avoiding recontamination by not touching the faucet or door handles with your now-clean hands.
In places like Japan, some toilets have a small faucet on the tank of the toilet. When you flush the toilet, water flows from the faucet so you can rinse your hands, which then fills the tank where it will get used to flush the toilet the next time. Since the water is cold and there's no soap available, this is obviously more for a token rinsing than for proper sanitation.
Disposable paper towels are the most hygienic way to dry your hands afterwards. Cloth towels with any section used just once before being washed are even better; often-changed ordinary towels are quite good also. Blow dryers are touted as being more economical, but studies have generally shown that they're also effectively high-speed germ blowers.
As with toilet paper, some public restrooms may not have a way to dry your hands, neither towels nor blow dryers. This is particularly common in China and Japan. In such cases, you can let your hands drip dry, or use the same tissues passed out as advertisements as mentioned above regarding toilet paper.
Eventually children become old enough to use public toilets unsupervised, but there's no agreed-upon age at which this happens; depending on the parent and child it could be any age from 4 to 10. It may depend on the situation, too; a huge busy toilet at a sports arena is a very different environment from one in an uncrowded restaurant.
This can be tricky when a solo parent has to accompany their child of the opposite gender, and single-occupancy or family toilets aren't available. Probably the most common solution is to take children into the toilet matching the parent's gender. Less common is for the parent to enter the toilet matching the child's gender; to avoid alarming other adults (particularly for men entering the women's room), it may be wise to take some precautions such as checking if the toilets are empty, making an announcement like "Dad and daughter coming in", or leaving doors open so it's apparent that you're there.
When children are old enough to go solo but not completely unsupervised, some sensible precautions to take might include reminding your child not to talk to strangers, and talking to them from the doorway so they know you're present if they need help and you know they're safe. You could ask employees or security guards to assist your child, which is probably safer than making the same request of total strangers who happen to be the right gender. However, actual cases of children coming to harm from being unsupervised in toilets are extraordinarily rare, so such measures are likely overprotective.
Transgender travellers have an additional difficulty to face: the consequences for being caught using the "wrong" restroom.
Policies about this vary wildly, and there is much ongoing social and political debate. Ultimately, travellers should be sure to educate themselves about the local laws and attitudes towards public toilet use vis-a-vis transgender people.
Family/accessible restrooms are a welcome sight here: since they're single-occupancy and designed to be used by any gender, they can be safely used by anybody. Also other single occupancy toilets are often gender neutral. Gender-neutral shared toilets (with multiple cublicles) are also becoming more common in some countries.