Tips on Using a Public Restroom While Traveling

From a portable loo to highway rest stops, a few tips on how to prepare to go on the go.

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If I’ve heard any refrain over the past several months as friends, coworkers, and family members have hopped back into the world in a variety of ways, it’s been this one: How do we safely deal with the bathroom sitch away from home? 

When my partner and I first began traveling locally again, we planned our route and drive time to avoid using public restrooms on the road. It felt like the easiest way to bypass some seriously germy situations—and minimize our exposure to other people. Since then, I’ve been a little less restrictive. While the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) maintains that “staying home is the best way to protect yourself and others from COVID-19,” the agency’s current guidelines around public restrooms emphasize thorough handwashing, which for me, made public restrooms feel less like public enemy #1 (and 2). (Pun intended!)

In recent months, I’ve braved a public restroom at a beach, a grocery store, a restaurant, and a trailhead. I still try to avoid these scenarios but, hey, we’re all human. It helps that I’ve assembled my own little bathroom travel kit (TP, compostable disinfecting wipes, hand sanitizer), so I’m never caught off guard.

Enter this not-entirely-exhaustive list of the situations I’ve encountered on the road, and what I’ve discovered about each.

1. A portable loo

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Sorry, squeamish folks. We have to start here because it’s pretty much the only way to replicate the safety of your own bathroom on the road. Personally, I’d rather break out my kit and use a public restroom, but a) that’s not always an option and b) I know many who have found happiness with their Luggable Loo (paired, of course, with some kind of portable bathroom shelter). If you go this route, make sure you dispose of your stuff properly (that is, not in a trash can).

2. Airbnb bathroom (your own) and hotel bathroom (your own)

These two are tied for the second spot. Assuming the homeowner is following Airbnb’s new sanitation guidelines and the hotel is following those of the CDC and/or the American Hotel & Lodging Association, having your own space to take care of business drastically decreases your risk of infection. While most hotels and Airbnb are emphasizing frequent cleaning of high-touch areas, you should do a little wipe down of the door handles, toilet seat, TP holder, and other frequently touched areas in the bathroom before you use it. And, to minimize contact with those outside your travel bubble, consider forgoing housekeeping (just don’t forget to tip). 

3. Airplane bathroom

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From an air circulation perspective, flying is relatively safe—and so too are the bathrooms: All plane bathrooms should be equipped with a “functioning exhaust fan,” reports the Atlantic, meaning “an airplane toilet shouldn’t aerosolize the virus any more than a typical toilet.” (In other words, you shouldn’t be at high risk of contracting anything from the dreaded toilet plume. Just remember to put the lid down before you flush.) The real risk here comes from surfaces that may have been touched by dozens of others. So, if you must use the restroom on a plane, consider packing portable disinfecting wipes and take all the same precautions (masks, handwashing, using paper towels to open doors) you would in any other public space.

4. Shared multi-stall bathroom

Most airports and hotels have expanded and stringent cleaning practices in place. Hotels have modern, well-conditioned ventilation systems, but any time you have more than one person in a small space, your risk increases. So use your best judgment. Is the bathroom relatively empty, with clearly posted signs about how frequently it’s cleaned? Proceed with caution. Is it a small, busy bathroom with no visible signage? Maybe search for an alt. Whatever you do, wear your mask through the entire process, try to minimize contact with high-touch areas (faucets, door handles, toilet seats), and wash your hands thoroughly (scrubbing with soap for at least 20 seconds) when you’re done. And though MIT reports that it’s “highly improbable” that the virus would spread through toilet plume, if you’re in a stall without a lid, use the “flush and rush” technique to minimize risk.

5. Rest stop bathroom

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Highway rest stops should, for the most part, be open, but there are no guarantees they will be cleaned regularly, or stocked with soap—it differs from state to state. The Georgia Department of Transportation, for example, said it hired an additional staffer per shift to help “maintain facilities,” reports 11Alive. Washington State Department of Transporation says it is disinfecting highly trafficked areas every two hours. But the good news is that highway restrooms “are generally the largest restrooms where you can keep a good physical distance,” writes Natascha Tuznik, assistant clinical professor of infectious diseases at UC Davis. Plan your road trips accordingly! 

6. Single-stall bathrooms in gas stations and restaurants

We ranked this very last because—if they’re open at all—these restrooms are less likely to be cleaned at the same frequency as those in an airport or hotel. (Just think about how sketchy gas station bathrooms were before COVID hit.) One exception? Chain restaurants are more likely to have cleaning practices in place; McDonald’s, for example, has employees cleaning bathrooms every half an hour.

Just like all other aspects of travel during COVID, it pays to do your research and make a plan. If all else fails, there’s always the Luggable Loo.

>>Next: How an Infectious Disease Doctor Protects Against Germs While Traveling

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