Toilet Tips: Using the Bathroom No Matter Where in the World You Go
One of the daily challenges of traveling abroad for people with mobility disabilities is using the toilet, especially on airplanes or in developing countries where accessible toilets can be difficult to find. This tipsheet addresses strategies for all bathroom-related matters when overseas.
In this Tipsheet:
For some people with mobility disabilities, fears or concerns about not being able to use the bathroom are among the most significant barriers to participation in international exchange programs. Fortunately, people with disabilities have lived, volunteered and studied in some of the most remote areas on earth and have devised countless strategies for handling challenging bathroom situations.
Have Toilet, Will Travel: Things to Bring
What you should bring depends on your specific situation, including your degree of mobility. Airline policies often allow passengers with disabilities to check an additional piece of luggage at no extra charge as long as it is full of disability-related supplies, including urology and other bathroom-related equipment.
Personal assistant: An assistant with the right physical skills and the right attitude can help with inaccessible bathroom situations. This could involve unusual kinds of lifting or balancing, and quick thinking to provide privacy at inopportune times or inconspicuous clean-up after having to wait too long.
Toilet riser: For Western-style toilets that don’t have other accessibility features.
Portable Grip Bar: These use suction and can be placed on a smooth surface for transfers or stability.
Non-slip transfer board: For accident and hassle-free transfers.
Shower chair: If you’re packing light, consider a combination shower chair/portable commode.
Portable commode: This can be helpful for outdoor settings and rural or undeveloped locations that have no accessible bathrooms, and can also double as a shower chair or a seat.
Bedpan: These can be especially helpful, particularly in emergencies.
Catheters: Consider bringing enough urology supplies to last your entire trip, including sanitizing liquids and lubricating gels. Catheter sizes may be different in your host country than what you’re used to so it’s best to bring your own. Medicare will not pay for supplies shipped outside the U.S. or bought in your host country.
Peroxide: This is useful for keeping catheters and other equipment sterile.
Vitamin C: This can help with avoiding bladder infections.
Medications and antibiotics: Make sure to include your prescription information with your medications. Consider bringing antibiotics for infections.
Adult sanitary protection: This is an option for long flights, but make sure to take measures against skin issues that can result from wearing pads.
Hand sanitizer, baby wipes or rubber gloves: If you are going to a place where there is no access to showers or clean water, consider bringing dry shampoo as well, which can be used for washing your hair without water.
Dark-colored clothes: These are helpful in case of accidents, along with packing an extra set of clothes.
Travel Urinals: These can be a great option in rural areas, outdoor settings, and developing countries.
More information about what to pack and examples of different portable products can be found in: Packing for Easier Travel with a Mobility Disability.
Learn bathroom- and disability-related phrases in your host country’s language before you go.
Call or email ahead of time to find out if lodging will have accessible bathrooms and shower stalls.
Don’t make assumptions about accessibility unless information is clearly stated. In other countries, what is considered accessible may be different from what you are used to.
Ask specific questions about toilet and shower accessibility such as:
- How wide is the bathroom door?
- Are grab bars available?
- Are roll-in showers available?
- Are the sinks lowered? How high are they?
- How high are the toilets? Accessible toilets are 17 to 19 inches or 43 to 48 centimeters tall.
- Are toilet risers available if the toilet isn’t tall enough?
- Is the pathway to the toilet accessible? For example, does a narrow hallway or stairs block access?
- Don’t be afraid to ask questions or ask for photos. One study abroad student requested pictures of the dorm room where she’d be staying, including the bathroom, because “one person’s idea of accessibility might not be yours."
- Book shorter segment flights and take bathroom breaks between flights, as accessible toilets are widely available throughout most airports. Make sure layovers provide enough time to use the bathroom.
- Request an aisle chair for flights on single-aisle airplanes. Single-aisle planes with more than sixty seats can have aisle chairs onboard as long as they are requested at least 48 hours in advance. When booking flights, ask about aisle chair availability.
- Book flights on double-aisle planes, which have accessible restrooms. These kinds of planes are common for long distance flights.
- When booking tickets, use seatguru.com to check the layout of the plane and pick seats. Consider requesting aisle seats near the bathrooms, which are typically at the back of the aircraft, or request permission to use the bathrooms in business or first class at the front of the aircraft.
- Research the layout of accessible bathrooms in lay-over and destination airports in case of contingencies such as delayed or canceled flights.
Taking Medications and Toiletries Onboard
- Toiletries must be in 3 ounce (travel size) containers and packed together in a one quart plastic baggie to be allowed in carry-on luggage.
- Liquid prescription medicine can be taken onboard as long as the name on the prescription matches the passenger’s ticket.
- Passengers needing over the counter items such as lubricants for catheterizing, liquid nutritional supplements and similar items while in flight should obtain a doctor's note. Be prepared to have all such items thoroughly inspected and to answers question regarding their use.
Boarding and While Onboard
- To prevent frequent trips to the bathroom, avoid caffeine, alcohol and soft drinks.
- Consider limiting fluids before a flight. Travelers choosing this option should use caution to avoid dehydration, and be sure to re-hydrate upon arrival at their destination.
- Double-check aisle chair availability with airline staff at the gate.
- Give flight attendants advance notice of accessibility needs. Airline personnel can assist passengers to the aisle chair during the flight but are not required to assist with going to the bathroom.
- Avoid scheduling bathroom visits during meals and coffee breaks, as aisles are obstructed during this time.
- For travelers who use catheters, consider emptying the catheter bag into a closed, inconspicuous bottle which can be emptied in an airplane lavatory or in a bathroom in the airport upon arrival. Using a coat or small blanket can make this operation more discreet.
- Some planes include curtained off areas if the bathroom door is too narrow to be accessible.
More information can be found in Air Travel Tips for People with Disabilities.
Especially in developing countries and rural areas, western-style accessible bathrooms are often difficult to find or non-existent. Four billion people worldwide use squat toilets, including most of Asia, Africa, the Middle East and South America. Generally, these toilets have a water bucket or hose for hygiene, not toilet paper. Some wheelchair users find squat toilets more accessible than western-style toilets with the proper modifications.
- Dress strategically so that clothing won’t interfere with urination, especially if you need to go outdoors.
- Creative travelers can narrow a manual wheelchair to fit into bathrooms or stalls. Options include using a belt to cinch folding chairs and removing one or more rear wheels from their chair long enough to pass through the doorway. (If you want to use this option, consider practicing at home before departure.)
- Another option is to modify a wheelchair to include a toilet seat to position over an in-ground squat toilet in more remote areas.
- Many cultures value interdependence over independence. Travelers needing assistance may need to be willing to ask for help and prepared to show the correct way for helping. Travelers may also need to firmly refuse help when it is not requested or when it is inappropriate.
- Consider options such as a travel urinal, portable commode or bedpan, which allow you to go to the bathroom even in inaccessible areas or if you cannot locate a bathroom in time.
- Many hotels, particularly those catering to tourists, have western-style sit toilets, though they may not be accessible. Larger or more modern hotels may be more likely to have accessible options, particularly high-end hotels.
- In general, accessible bathrooms may be found in businesses, cafes or hotels and may be more likely (but are not always) found in businesses owned by U.S. companies.
All information provided by MIUSA and the National Clearinghouse on Disability & Exchange (NCDE) is subject to change without notice. Although efforts have been made to ensure accuracy, MIUSA/NCDE cannot be held liable for inaccuracy, misinterpretation or complaints arising from these listings. Mention of an organization, company, service or resource should not be construed as an endorsement by MIUSA/NCDE. Please advise NCDE of any inaccuracies you may find.
Photo of "Barrier-Free Lavatory" Sign: copyright Augapfel, used under a Creative Commons license: Attribution 2.0 Generic.
Photo of Indonesian squat toilet: copyright っ, used under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike license: Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported.