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Travel Tales: Paying for bathrooms overseas

I’m sure a lot of you already know this, but finding a free public bathroom in Europe is like finding a $20 bill on the ground, especially in Paris and other French-ified cities.

Every time I go to Paris, I KNOW not to drink too much water unless I am going to be in a restaurant later, or able to get to a toilet easily.

The French like to hide their public bathrooms, especially in really chic department stores because no one wants to clean them.

It is like a maze to find one in a nice department store.

It’s on the 4th floor, in the back, behind the whole area of baby clothes which hides a secret doorway, under a ladder, through a tunnel, to your left, and… there’s no sign to tell you which side is which.

There’s only people come in and out looking refreshed that gives it away.


Otherwise, you can safely assume that NO ONE has a public bathroom available to you, not even if you’re pregnant.

Starbucks and McDonald’s (thank goodness for American corporations) are two places I can pretty much always count on to have a free bathroom.

The one thing I can’t count on is that they’ll be clean, big enough to step in and out of, and have toilet paper you can use, which is why I took to carrying a small wad of toilet paper around with me in Europe.

Sometimes they make you buy something and then give you the code to punch into the door to get to the bathroom, but more often than not, the bathroom door is left open, the lock is broken or someone will come out and you can dart into the bathroom for free.

My travel tale comes down to me being near Galeries Lafayette. I was drinking water like a camel and feeling the pain to urgently go to the bathroom every half an hour.

I couldn’t get to a Starbucks or a McDonald’s, and the ONLY BATHROOM in the entire place I knew of, was in the wine department of the grocery store.

I made a beeline for the door, and desperately turned the handle only to find to my chagrin, the ONE bathroom in Paris that actually had a lock that worked.

To unlock it, you had to be a patron of the restaurant of the wine department, and they would give you a token to open the door for free, OR you had to pay 1 EUR.

I was desperate…. and did I mention I was PREGNANT?

I started digging around my bag, pleading to everything I could conjure up in my head that I had a euro (frankly, it’s a ridiculous ripoff at 1 EUR but what are you going to do if you’re stuck?).


I came up totally empty of euros, and was about to desperately turn to the security guard in the store with tears in my eyes that I would pay him that equivalent of a euro to use the bathroom because I was pregnant and in need, when this French angel came out of nowhere.

I’m fumbling in my purse trying to count out exactly one euro to try my little plea on the guard, when this slim guy in a typical French business suit and with a suitcase comes up, smiles and waves at me saying IN ENGLISH NO LESS:

I have it, I have it. Don’t worry.“, and he flashes the 1 EUR coin at me.

Don’t worry? I was about to get on my knees and beg the security guard to let me in, I was in such pain from my bladder. He had no idea.

He saw the utter relief on my face and my stammered, badly said “Merci beaucoup” either awkward or charming, and allowed me to go in first.

What a man.

French men = Courteous gentlemen, which I think stems from their pathological, cultural need to flirt and charm anything with boobs no matter how ugly, fat, or old.


Look, they even play piano in the streets!

I can tell you that I came out of that bathroom with a newfound respect and love for French genteel courteousness, which adjusted my previous view of French folk on the whole being rather blunt and at times, rude compared to what I was used to as politeness in North America.

They’re just honest and frank. Really, just look at it that way.

Oh I should mention at this point it’s a unisex bathroom which I think is rather smart and ingenious. Every stall is perfectly sealed from top to bottom with a door, and there are no urinals.

Both men and women enter, do their business behind the stall, come out, wash their hands together, and leave.


If you have EVER seen the women’s bathroom lines in a busy mall snake around the corner and down the hall, while the men’s bathroom chirps crickets, you will wonder the same thing I did.

I found it pleasant to use, and not at all weird.

In case you’re wondering, in the event that this bathroom was not available, I would have made a beeline to the nearest cafe, tried to find one with “reasonable” prices for a small cup of espresso (under 2 EUR) and forced my partner to have a coffee while I used their disgusting, have-never-been-cleaned-in-2-months, locked women’s bathrooms.

Or just peed in my pants. *sigh*

Don’t travel when you’re pregnant. Especially in the early stages.


  • Ksenija

    Interesting view. I had a couple of similar experiences in North Europe, DC and Atlanta, Georgia to be precise. But I also can say that Baltimore, Boston and New York do not offer more public rest rooms than London, Paris, Amsterdam or Berlin.
    Using a public toilet means you are using a certain service. I do not know why should you expect to get it for free.

    • save. spend. splurge.

      I have to definitely disagree. I was in Paris, pregnant and unable to find a free public restroom to use unless it was McDo or Starbucks. In North America, ANY STORE you walk into, has a free restroom. It is unbelievable how kind they are in letting you use them.

      In terms of using a certain service, this is called CUSTOMER SERVICE. I can understand the outdated, antiquated view of “well it’s a service you should pay for it because people are cleaning it, etc”… but it is part of your CUSTOMER SERVICE so that consumers stay in your store, can comfortably shop and not have to worry about answering the call of nature to LEAVE and do so (especially with children or worse, ones in diapers and you need a change room).

      Otherwise you end up in Europe, with people peeing everywhere possible and the whole city (Paris) stinking of pee. How gross is that?

      Only in NYC, in certain areas did I smell as much pee as I did in Paris. It was in alleyways near bars which I can understand, but it wasn’t EVERYWHERE the way it was in Paris.

      Nope. I think this is a real flaw, and a close-minded view of Europe in general to not offer a basic public service as a store to serve your customers.

      With that kind of view, maybe restaurants shouldn’t have toilets either. Why the hell for? People can go home and pee or do it before coming to eat. They shouldn’t be offering their services for free either.

      • Ksenija

        @save. spend. splurge.: @save. spend. splurge.: @save. spend. splurge.: Well, if you follow that logic, then public transportation should also be free. Just because a certain concept is foreign to you, does not make it narrow-minded. This is exactly why Europeans in general dislike North American tourists. Because they think they was is a) the best way, and b) the only way.

        • Anonymous

          @Ksenija: The reason why American businesses make a lot of money is because of their SUPERB 24/7 customer service. In Europe you have a lot of stringent laws and customer service is give or take (sometimes good, sometimes bad).

          American businesses require their companies to be customer service oriented. As someone that has worked in customer service for a bunch of American businesses, if we as employees aren’t nice to our customers American or not, we get warnings and then we get fired if we continue to be rude.

          That’s why there’s also a huge spread of Americanism and American brands overseas. It’s different from European values, many American stores will let you use their restrooms for free, however I have been to a few American stores that say clearly on the front “Bathroom for customers only.” To be fair this was at a few gas stations on a road trip.

          Not saying that European values are bad but there is something to be said for American customer service, it’s one of the best in the world, and American businesses will put up with screaming adult customers in order to turn them into a customer down the line.

          Sometimes American businesses are also willing to take chances when Europeans aren’t. Would pet rocks have been patented in Europe? I doubt it.
          It’s also difficult to have a small business in Europe that’s why you normally see businesses like McDonalds and Starbucks overseas. Europe has too many rules for businesses. It’s also a nanny state and some French people have been leaving France due to the difficulties of the French economy.

          When American businesses need to lower costs they don’t go to Europe, they go to Asian countries like China, India, and to Latin American countries like Mexico. Europe has a lot going for it: culture, history, nice people (for the most part), etc.

          However, I think that in terms of business, Europe could be more customer service-y. It wouldn’t make sense for public transportation to be “free” because economics 101 says there is no such thing as a free lunch. You have to pay for drivers, the buses, subways, and trains, and gas, etc. Anyway, back to my point.

          In fact when American businesses first started you had to go to a department store and know what you wanted, you couldn’t really browse, there were no public bathrooms that is something that evolved later on as a COURTESY and American businesses don’t want to be rude to people who need the restroom because if you’re rude, that customer might not come back later on.

          You want to turn a looky-loo into a customer eventually. That’s why American businesses are courteous and for the record I was born in Europe and my family later moved to the U.S.

    • beatriz maria

      @Ksenija: I agree with the owner of this blog.My self in Paris had a stomach pain and was in subway.My God,I was terrifyed but God bless McDonald I went to the street and find a CLEAN bathroom FREE. IN another trip in MAROC we were in a tour walking the street and need urgently a bathroom. Even in a BANK hadn,t one of them. I went to a bar full only by men =women dont go there_ and asked for a bathroom who was upstairs and oh surprise, it was a letrine, yes,a hole in the floor with a pot of water near. Wearing pants I had to take out to did my work. Fortunately I was with my sister in law at the door and she helped me. Advice,always check with your guide where you can find a broom before you go out.

      • save. spend. splurge.

        McDonalds and Starbucks. Best chains in the world. I used their bathrooms many times and was so grateful. I stayed and ate at their cafes and am a continued, happy patron even back in North America.

  • Cassie

    Hahahaha, that was totally me in Denmark. I was at the main station in Copenhagen waiting for my train and stuck using the public pay toilets. I wasn’t visibly pregnant, but at 7 weeks by bladder was running in overdrive. It was 10DKK ($2) every time you wanted to use the washroom, which is guarded by an attendant who stops people who try to double up or force their way in (saw it happen). Fortunately they were clean and well maintained, which as you’ve noted isn’t always the case in paid European washrooms. The one I paid to use in the train station in Rome was horrendous.

  • Erika

    This drives me crazy! For some reason North Americans are so much more sympathetic when it comes to emergency bathroom situations. I’ve often wondered if Europeans even go to the bathroom. Do they just not eat or drink? I know I’ve restricted fluid intake, to the point of dehydration, while traveling overseas.

    On a side note, I watched a documentary about Selfridges in London. One of the reasons it became popular was because they were the first to offer public restrooms. Before that women weren’t able to venture too far from home. What a terrible existence that must have been!

    • save. spend. splurge.

      I think Europeans don’t understand that if you offer free washrooms, THEY WILL COME.

      Honestly, the key is to KEEP people in your store, not to drive them out because they have to go relieve themselves and would rather rush home to do it than pay 2 EUR.

      North Americans get it. It’s to keep you in their store, shopping especially with children. Go do your business then come back and spend $$$$.

      They have a saying in marketing: Don’t let a potential buyer leave the store until they’ve purchased something, do everything in your power to keep them there because once they leave, they may not come back.

  • Irene

    This annoys me to no end about Europe. And it’s the dumbest thing…

    Because men will pee in some alley next to a dumpster, and women end up having to pay these ridiculous bathroom fees or not drink water! We invented sewage systems for a reason… The fact that this happens in Europe is a step back into the middle ages.

    And the stupidest thing is, that it never used to be like that. When I was growing up in Europe, they would let you go to the bathroom in a cafe. And their excuse that it costs money to clean the bathroom and everyone should contribute… blah blah blah. Total BS. How about the general public service of keeping your streets clean and preventing some man from peeing against your building? Anyways… end rant.

    And thank god for French chivalry.

    • save. spend. splurge.

      Well Paris did smell like pee everywhere for that reason. It was really gross especially on hot days. I was gagging (while pregnant!) and trying not to breathe through my nose.

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