Why in the world would I write a post about something we all try to avoid: public bathrooms?
Well, in case you are new to the blog, we have five kids! Our oldest is currently 12. This means lots of toddlers, one in diapers, and lots and lots of bathrooms breaks.
As we travel the world, I’ve spend a lot of headspace finding and navigating bathrooms with kids. Chance are good that if you are on this blog, you also like to travel with kids! I’m sharing my observations and tips in hopes it helps other families along their journey.
Table of Contents
What Kind of Toilet?
First of all, let’s just establish that our Western ideas of a toilet are not shared worldwide 🙂 . Europe shares our views, but Asia is a whole new story in the bathroom.
In case you have never heard of a “squatty potty”, let me share my boy’s reaction when they first saw one in the Singapore airport: “Mom, there is a HOLE in the GROUND and people are peeing into it!”
That’s fairly accurate. A squatty potty is a hole, with spaces on either side for your feet, that you squat above and do your business. For those who grew up this way, it’s totally more comfortable. So much so that they often try to squat on western toilets! More than once I’ve visited a “western toilet”, as they are called in Asia, to find footprints on the bowl! You’ll also find lots of signs banning this as I’m sure it can break the toilet off the wall.
Word of warning: unless you are an amazing squatter, trying to use these can be tricky and messy. Kind of like going in the woods 🙂
Most of the squatty potties flush, thankfully, so they aren’t like an outhouse. Most flush with a button, but in some of the more third-world locations you might have to fill a bucket and flush it yourself (yep, done it a lot of times!). In China, I was warned about squatties that are more like “troughs” and that flush on a schedule, like every 15 min. So it may be kind of full when you arrive? Thankfully, we never saw this. I will say China was almost all squatties and, if I saw a Western toilet, it was used by the very old.
On the other end of the spectrum, let’s talk about Japan. Japan has the most high-tech, amazing toilets you’ll ever meet. They are super smart! Many open or close themselves, flush themselves, have tons of bidet options I can’t understand (boy versus girl options too where the water will spray a different spot I guess?), heated air dryers for your rear, and even white noise that starts when you sit down and do your business. It was shocking to sit and hear random bird sounds or rushing water white noise.
In Europe, we’ve found all Western toilets. However, many times in a public location, there is no lid. This still perplexes me and all I can think of it is easier to clean? It’s not very fun to sit on the rim alone!
When you have a toddler that needs to go, finding a public toilet becomes a BIG priority! So how available are they?
It can always be tricky to find a toilet in public and when you don’t know the culture, even more so. We’ve had plenty a pee outside! There are a few places you can always rely on to find a toilet, thankfully.
In Asia, there are convenience stores everywhere. You think I’m exaggerating, but it is not uncommon to see them every block. 7-Eleven’s market is Asia people. They are so common and usually have a toilet to use. McDonalds also is everywhere in this world and you can slip in for a toilet there too.
In Europe, they are even more tricky to find. Often they have paid public toilets (more on that below), but they can be pretty hard to find. Gas stations off the freeway are plentiful, so it’s never an issue during a European road trip on main freeways. In a city, however, it can be tough!
Paris was especially hard and we learned the hard way to always use the bathroom when leaving a cafe. Paris does have public toilets freestanding in the street. Thankfully, they are free and actually clean themselves! This process takes a few minutes though, so it can be a long wait with 1-2 people in front of you.
Have you heard you need to carry your own toilet paper? Unless you are my grandma (or my friend Lua- love you!), you probably don’t. I never do. My bag is too packed already with camera gear, snacks, bandaids and diapers.
However, it’s probably a good idea to carry your own, especially in China. They literally don’t have paper products in public restrooms. Sometimes they have vending machines, but I’d usually borrow from our guide, a friend, or use a baby wipe (just throw it away so it doesn’t mess with plumbing). I asked our guide finally why there is never toilet paper?! She said it gets taken if they put it in! As in, people take it to use at home. Talk about frugal!
Paper towels are also completely missing from Asia. It was surprising to come to Europe and find them again. I’d gotten totally used to going without. Europe seems to be on board with less paper towels and lots of hand dryers, but sometimes you just need a paper towel (like when I forget wipes!).
Back to the TP, some places in Asia (and, I’ve heard, South America) can’t handle flushing toilet paper. So be prepared to throw it away (yep, it’s really gross). Thailand is the main culprit for this and one of the major bummers. I think in many hotels and otherwise, people still flush. I know we did before we found out. I heard it can really mess with their systems though and they just aren’t built to handle it.
I wish I could say all public toilets are super clean and easy to find (already dispelled that!), but of course, that’s not true. They run the spectrum on levels of cleanliness.
For Asia, Japan gets another gold medal! Their toilets are always clean, even in public. For really busy, touristy locations, you may find it to be slightly messy. I found they usually had an attendant (free) keeping it clean, but once they leave, it can go downhill with all the tourists. However, in parks or gas stations or otherwise, I never dreaded using a toilet.
In Europe, Italy was the worst. Italians can be selectively lazy and bathrooms are good example. They were gross. Rome toilets were nasty. Paris also was pretty gross! Outside of Paris, France seems to be fairly clean and comfortable in public restrooms. Everywhere is pretty similar to the US: it just depends.
Free or Not?
Ever heard of paying to pee? I hadn’t! We ran into this maybe twice in Asia (one being at Chatuchak Market in Bangkok) where we had to pay a small fee for the bathroom.
Coming to Europe it’s been a new budget line item! Not really, but it is very common to pay to use the toilet. Sometimes there is a full-time attendant, a day-time attendant or even an automated machine that you put money in to enter. Thankfully for us, sometimes kids are free, but often we pay for everyone. That can be upwards of $10 for our family to use the bathroom!
If a toilet isn’t free, it can also be passcode protected. You may get the code on your receipt or you may have to ask. In both McDonald’s and Starbucks I’ve had to do both. I also saw in Basel, Switzerland people would share the code very freely. I had three people approach me and ask for it!
I know, we are just glad to find the bathroom, but what about other items, like a changing table?
Asia just doesn’t really have this, in my experience, outside of Japan and Singapore. Japan wins another category. Not only do they have a changing table, they often have an entire room of changing tables, sink, wipes, microwave, etc. They have nursing rooms often, always have the toddler seat in the stall, and almost always had a mini urinal for toddler boys going with their moms! They often have tiny stalls too with mini toilets. They are SO family friendly in this way.
Otherwise in Asia, we just used a patch of grass or our wagon or stroller! We use this pretty often.
In Europe, changing tables are not guaranteed, but fairly common. I’ve had to use some counters, but it hasn’t been as challenging. I’ve seen a very rare nursing room, but I don’t think those are very common.
This has been our experience with seven months in Asia and six months in Europe!
Has your experience been different? Let me know in comments! I’m always keenly aware that the experience I present as advice is my experience and may be different from yours.
Enjoy your travels!