The daily need for a toilet can be a concern for travellers. While people likely know where public toilets are located (or the absence of them) in their home town, this is not the case when traveling to places they're unfamiliar with. When visiting different cultural spheres, you may actually not be able to identify toilets or know how they work.
Everyone Poops – 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.
While in some countries toilets are available free of charge almost everywhere except for a 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, but if you don't have a low denomination local coin, chances are, getting change is time-consuming, burdensome or impossible, so make sure to always have the proper amount with you. Sometimes there is 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. Toilet paper can also be a concern, especially in cheap hotels and public toilets, where it is either unavailable, coarse and of low quality or has to be paid for separately. Bringing at least an "emergency stash" with you may be a wise idea, especially when going to remote places on a shoestring.
Since it's such an essential need, along with "please" and "thank you", one of the first words any traveler should learn in the local language is "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").
The English 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:
- the toilet – Okay in the UK, but considered blunt in the U.S.
- 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, 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. Not used in the U.S. Used as a loan word in many countries.
- the loo(s) – Common informal word in the UK. Not 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 – Common in Canadian English
- lavatory – Common in UK English; in the U.S. this usually refers only to facilities on passenger vehicles (airplanes, trains, buses)
- men's / women's room
… some exceedingly polite and indirect names…
- gentlemen's / ladies' room
- the little boys' / little girls' room
- powder room, or "powdering one's nose"
- "washing one's hands"
- the facilities
… a lot of informal names…
- loo – chiefly British slang
- bog – chiefly British slang
- lav – chiefly British slang, short for "lavatory"
- john – chiefly American slang
- khazi – regional British slang
- head – sailing term; refers to the toilet on any watercraft
- can – chiefly American slang
- dunny – Australian slang, particularly for an outhouse or outdoor toilet
- 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.
- 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 undoubtably 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.
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", examples seen in the wild include "guys"/"gals", "hommes"/"femmes" at a French restaurant (in an English-speaking country) and "Zeus"/"Hera" at a Greek restaurant. Also, the first letter of the respective word may be used, sometimes of the local words, sometimes one of a lingua franca. Assuming you don't know enough of the locally known languages to recognize the word or ask, 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") is 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.
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.
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. 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 it is in the women's room, tough luck if you are a man. Accessible restrooms or "family restrooms" (see below) are also likely to have changing stations.
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.
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 room" for changing babies or helping young children who need to be accompanied.
Attendants and language issues
Many countries have public toilets with attendants. Usually the attendents are helpful and able to indicate what and where. When it is with not your language that they speak, then it might be only hand signals and gestures to identify where to go, how much to pay, and what the requirements for men and women are.
- Flush toilet seats are standard in most high-income countries, at least in cities.
- Squat toilets are a simpler kind of flush toilet.
- Portable toilets are common at festivals and other outdoor events.
- Outhouses are common in low-income countries. Even in high-income countries, some countryside settlements and islands have no public water supply, and therefore no flush toilets.
In general, the biggest difference between toilets is your position when you use them: sitting, standing, or squatting.
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.
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. There are two different styles globally: the American style (also used in Japan) and the European style (also used in Australia). The American style 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 use a washdown system, and don't need as much water in the bowl, but this means they're likely to get dirty; for this reason, these toilets often have a brush nearby. Whichever type you use, make use of the plunger or brush as appropriate.
Some newer toilets have dual flush: a regular flush for big jobs, and a smaller flush for urine that uses less water. These are usually operated either with buttons, or by pushing the flush lever in a different direction to select the type of flush.
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 as of now they are still 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" where the water drains, 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 itself, lest you break it and drench yourself.
Non-flushing toilets are mostly found in less developed regions, but non-flushing toilets still find limited use also in advanced nations.
Campgrounds, natural parks and cottages sometimes have outhouses, standalone buildings containing just a toilet, which 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 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.
Restrooms without toilet paper
In some countries such as China and parts of Japan, public restrooms may not have a way to dry your hands (neither towels nor air dryers) or even 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.
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.
Water (bidets and Washlets)
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 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 (sometimes with a spout like a watering can) is used. A squeeze bottle can also serve as a good substitute.
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.
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, anybody can safely use them regardless of gender.