When you gotta go: Your guide to public bathrooms during your summer road trip
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Editor’s note: This post has been updated with new information.
As more people get the COVID-19 vaccine and the world slowly opens to visitors, frustrated travelers booking flights or planning to hit the road. But as you begin to make plans, you need to consider one frustrating truth: The state of public restrooms could wash all your vacation plans down the, ahem, toilet.
Many travelers are gravitating to road trips in the coming weeks and months, as they look to venture out while staying closer to home and avoiding airports and airplanes.
AAA Travel expects a significant rebound in the number of Americans planning to travel this Memorial Day holiday weekend. From May 27 through May 31, more than 37 million people are expected to travel 50 miles or more from home, an increase of 60% from last year, when only 23 million traveled, the lowest on record since AAA began recording in 2000. Despite this, 2021 summer travel still represents 13%—or nearly 6 million—fewer travelers than in 2019.
Yet even as travelers flock to the nation’s roadways, many facilities may not be open. Rest stops and service stations are opening, but it still may be a challenge to find a place to go when you need to, well, go.
Don’t poo-poo the importance of apps that help you find “magnificent facilities” along your drive worthy of George Costanza — or products that can help you out in a pinch. And whether renting a car or braving the skies, here’s what you need to know about how even public restrooms haven’t gone unaffected by the coronavirus pandemic.
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Back to basics
Health and hygiene have never been a more popular topic of conversation. And all the old rules still apply.
“When using public restrooms, consider using toilet paper on toilet handles to flush, as they are notoriously contaminated with fecal bacterial,” says Dr. Hanh Le, senior director of medical affairs at Healthline, (also owned by TPG’s parent company, Red Ventures). “Also, always wash your hands well with soap and water for at least 20 seconds.”
“Toilet seat covers are also handy and provide an added sense of reassurance that you minimize contact with potentially contaminated surfaces, but make sure to not touch the toilet seat cover after you’ve put it down.”
If there are disposable paper towels, opt for those instead of hand dryers, Le advised. “Though hand dryers may feel like the best environmental solution, studies have shown that the strong gusts created by hand dryers actually blow bacteria and viruses throughout the restroom environment, thereby increasing everyone’s risk of becoming exposed to fecal microorganisms,” she said.
Last, but not least, on the way out, use the hand towels you used to dry your hands to open restroom doors so that you can exit, said Le. “Restroom toilet handles and door handles are typically found to be the most contaminated surfaces in public facilities.”
Keep in mind that SARS-CoV-2 — the virus that causes COVID-19 — may be able to survive on surfaces for some period of time. According to Healthline, the virus can last the longest on stainless steel and plastic (three to seven days) and paper and glass (up to four days).
How to find a bathroom
If you’ve decided to take a road trip or venture into your local area, you may wonder about the availability of public restrooms. Well, there’s an app for that. Of course there is. Unfortunately, these apps won’t tell you about temporary closures, so you may have to call ahead or take your chances.
Sit Or Squat
This app (iTunes and Google Play) was developed by Charmin (yes, like the toilet paper) to help you find a public restroom near you, wherever you may be in the world. With more than 100,000 listings, you can see bathrooms in the list or map view, and filter locations for features such as accessibility, or baby-changing tables. You can also rate bathrooms by cleanliness — Sit indicates a clean bathroom while Squat indicates a bathroom with, ah, less-desirable conditions.
With more than 1.8 million bathrooms listed worldwide, this app (iTunes and Google Play) features public toilets, as well as restrooms in restaurants and other facilities. It offers turn-by-turn directions to nearby bathrooms, the ability to see a Google Street View of the location (if images are available) and you can rate the condition of the bathrooms. The paid version even includes sound cover when using a public restroom.
This free app (iTunes and Google Play) covers nearly 200,000 restrooms worldwide. Search for restrooms by map and list view and get directions to ones nearby. You can also filter to see results for bathrooms that require a key or charge a fee. Best of all, this app works even if you don’t have an internet connection.
Have a backup plan
As the country reopens, so have many public restrooms and rest stops.
But depending on your location, you might discover your favorite facilities are still shuttered. Urban explorers in New York City and Washington, D.C., for example, often turn to Starbucks when in need of a bathroom. But Starbucks is no longer a place to linger, and several locations in the Northeast still have signs announcing their bathrooms are closed. TPG’s senior travel editor, Melanie Lieberman, suggests seeking out a Wawa as far north as New Jersey since many locations are open 24 hours a day and you can always pick up a soft pretzel on your way out.
TPG writer Chris Dong recently embarked on a road trip down I-95 to Virginia and noted that the rest stop bathrooms along the interstate were available.
If, however, you’re in an area where open, serviced bathrooms are still few and far between, multiple TPG editors recommend turning to big-box home improvement stores or supermarkets for their facilities since they’re considered essential and are consistently open. Wegmans, Lowe’s and The Home Depot, in particular, get high marks for open bathrooms that are often in tip-top shape.
What to pack
When you know you’re going to be using public restrooms, you need to pack for the worst-case scenario, especially if you’re venturing off the beaten path.
Bring hand sanitizer and disinfecting wipes such as Clorox to-go wipes, since they easily fit into purses, glove boxes and diaper bags and kill 99.9% of germs. Other popular wipes include Purell, or a pack of Germ-X wipes with moisturizing vitamin E. CareTouch makes alcohol-free, fragrance-free wipes that are gentle enough for young children and have soothing vitamin E and aloe.
Because sanitizing wipes and hand sanitizer can be in short supply and hard to find right now, consider adding standard baby wipes and DIY hand sanitizer to your packing list, if necessary. Other good items to have on hand are good old-fashioned paper towels, gloves and toilet paper.
And what happens if you just can’t find a place to go? Don’t worry, you can plan for that too. For families with little ones in tow, pack a portable training seat, such as the Kalencom Potette Plus. And for grown-ups, there’s a slew of solutions, including funnels and feminine urinals to help on-the-go women.
Know before you go
If a flight might be in your summer travel plans, there are changes to expect on your next trip through the airport and airplane bathroom, too.
Many of the world’s airlines implemented the International Air Transport Association (IATA) sanitation guidelines, including cleaning lavatories once every two hours (or after being used 10 times) during flight. For high-risk flights (aircraft without HEPA filters, flights originating from destinations with severe outbreaks and flights with a high passenger load, among other factors), lavatories should be cleaned once an hour (or after being used five times) during flight.
IATA also recommends a deep cleaning at the end of a flight, with an emphasis on lavatories and galleys. Surfaces should be cleaned with rags soaked with disinfectant, with separate rags and mops for aisles, lavatories and galleys.
At Southwest Airlines, for example, is using Sani-Cide EX3, a broad-spectrum disinfectant, to clean commonly used areas including lavatories, tray tables, armrests, seat belts, flight attendant call buttons and overhead bin handles before every flight. Disinfecting wipes will be available on all flights for passengers.
United, American and Air Canada are also among the airlines providing passengers with disinfecting wipes, and Delta has told TPG it’s electrostatically spraying and wiping down the lavatories, along with the rest of the plane, between every flight and then again overnight.
Phoenix Sky Harbor International (PHX) has partnered with Flagship Aviation Services to ensure the cleanliness of 11 restrooms in Terminal 3 and 19 in Terminal 4. Approximately 300 cleaning crew are working 24 hours a day, seven days a week, to sanitize and disinfect the airport’s highest touchpoints, including bathrooms, which are being cleaned multiple times each hour.
According to USA Today, Los Angeles International (LAX) has issued a statement saying its coronavirus precautions include cleaning and disinfecting restrooms and public areas “at least” once an hour.
Other public bathrooms
It’s impossible to know how clean restrooms are at public places such as hotels, rest stops, gas stations, tourist attractions and even restaurants. But there are some areas in restrooms you might really want to avoid.
A 2019 study by BMC, which has a portfolio of some 300 peer-reviewed journals, found that hand-drying facilities in public washrooms can be reservoirs of drug-resistant bacteria. It’s a finding that echoes Dr. Le’s warnings. The study also found that washrooms in high- and middle-income areas generally had cleaner facilities and environments.
Unless you’re one of those people who can hold it indefinitely, you’re probably going to need to use a public restroom if you travel this summer. And if you’re traveling, you’ll want to know what bathrooms are available and what condition they’re in.
One of the key things to keep in mind is that if a public restroom looks very dirty, you should probably steer clear: It could be contaminated, even if not with coronavirus.
“Desperate times require desperate measures obviously,” said Dr. Le, “but if you can mitigate your risks, that’s really how you’ll best protect yourself.”
Featured photo by Stephen Chernin/Getty Images
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