16 Bathroom Mistakes You Should Avoid When Traveling Abroad
There are some eye-poppingly cool places to relieve yourself around the world, but there are also some serious differences between Americans' bathroom habits and what they might encounter in other countries. Never fear: To bolster your toilet-tourism savvy, we've rounded up 16 of the biggest bathroom hiccups travelers are most likely to face while abroad and how to avoid major cultural faux pas.
In a significant part of the world, including much of Africa, the Middle East, India, and Asia, the right hand is expected to be used for eating, shaking hands, and other daily tasks. The left hand, however, is meant to be used for cleaning up after a trip to the toilet. Mixing them up -- or using both hands indiscriminately -- is a common foreign faux pas.
The thought of doing your business anywhere but behind a closed stall door might horrify you. But communal toilets without any sort of privacy are still relatively common in Asia, especially in China, though that country is beginning a push to modernize its public restrooms and make things a little more tourist-friendly.
Many Americans can't fathom paying to use the restroom, but it's common practice in many other places, including much of Europe. If there's an attendant, about 50 cents in local currency should do the trick, according to guidebook author and travel TV host Rick Steves, with the money going toward keeping those bathrooms clean for everyone. Some other pay toilets may be free-standing stalls that require coins to open the door.
Think pay-to-pee-potties in Europe can be avoided by ducking into a café? It's possible, but don't be surprised to find the door locked. In fast-food restaurants in busy cities in particular, there may be no getting into a bathroom until after a purchase. The receipt will have the magical code that opens the door to sweet relief.
Squat toilets are widespread in much of the world, including Asia and Africa. Though Western-style toilets are a safe bet in most hotels and at many tourist attractions, be prepared to squat especially when off the beaten path. Beginners should consider taking their pants off to avoid soaking them, and remove small items from pockets that could easily slip into the void.
At the other end of the spectrum, modern Japanese toilets are truly in a league of their own. Don't be spooked if the toilet lifts its lid automatically when you walk into the stall. There may even be an option for a heated seat, refreshing rinse, or some sort of music or white noise to cover up any unsavory sounds (it turns out Japanese women in particular don't want others to hear them doing their business).
While Americans' love affair with toilet paper is well-documented, in many other countries, nether regions are simply rinsed with water. Even tourist-friendly spots with Western-style toilets and toilet paper are notorious for running out of the stuff, so it's never a bad idea to bring some along. (Don't want a whole roll hogging space in your day bag? Buy smaller travel packs to carry along for $7 on Amazon.)
There are plenty of less-than-sparkling public bathrooms in the United States, and it's no different abroad. What is different: Stray far from touristy areas, and there's less chance of finding soap, or even a sink with running water, to wash up with after you're done. Best to bring some hand sanitizer, also available in convenient travel size, to go along with the toilet paper.
Whether traveling where toilet paper is standard or bringing your own, flushing it is probably a reflex. Not so fast: In many places, such as parts of Eastern Europe, the plumbing just can't handle it. One intrepid traveler maintains a country-by-country list for confused travelers, but as a general rule of thumb, in all but the most developed countries it's better to toss toilet paper in the trash.
Yes, there's even a wrong way to flush in some parts of the world. Dual-flush toilets -- those that have a less powerful flush for No. 1, and a more-powerful flush for No. 2 -- are becoming commonplace, especially in nations such as Australia where water conservation is the norm. (If the flush buttons aren't labeled, use the bigger one for, ahem, bigger waste.)
No, it's not a small water fountain, a urinal, or a tub for washing babies or pets. It's a bidet, and it's simply a place to wash the delicate bits after using the commode. Stand-alone bidets are especially common in southern and eastern Europe as well as some parts of South America. And while bidets might confuse Americans and travelers from other countries that use only toilet paper, most devotees say rinsing is far more sanitary and eco-friendly than wiping.
While most people still expect to find separate bathrooms for men and women, a push for unisex bathrooms is gaining steam, especially in Europe. And that doesn't always mean single-user bathrooms, as is common in the United States. In Berlin, for example, several unisex bathrooms with multiple stalls and urinals have been introduced, and Germany is studying how expensive it will be to add more.
Traveling somewhere where English is spoken only sparingly? The first thing to learn to say is, "Where's the toilet?" Even in parts of Europe where English is widely understood, asking for a "restroom" or a "bathroom" might bring little more than a confused look, Steves says. Instead, ask for the toilet or the "WC" -- that's water closet, and it also means toilet.
In some places, particularly Southeast Asia, you might be promised a bathroom with a shower only to find a nozzle affixed to the bathroom wall without any tub or shower enclosure. Yep, it means the entire bathroom can be doused, so try to find a high perch for towels, leave the clothes outside, and clean off as quickly as possible to minimize flooding.
Americans take for granted the ability to take a long, luxurious shower, but that's simply a fantasy in most of the rest of the world. In Europe, there may be just a few minutes of bliss before the shower turns frigid, as hot-water tanks are smaller and energy costs are higher. Even then, be grateful -- in some nations, the cost of a simple shower is staggeringly steep.
Finally, remember that quick, easy access to clean toilets is something to appreciate -- in many parts of the world, getting to use a toilet remains a luxury. An estimated 2.4 billion people don't have access to sanitary toilets; the situation is particularly dire in India, western and sub-Saharan Africa, and some parts of Asia, including China.