The parable of the frugal traveler and the coin operated bathroom

Are you old enough to remember that stores did not always have free public bathrooms?

You had to pay to use them, and they didn’t look anywhere near as sleek as this.

You have not lived until you and your six siblings who are all under 10 years old are doing the traditional We’ve waited too long to tell you that we need to go potty now! dance while waiting for mom to find a dime in her pocketbook to open that door.

Oh, yes. Amusing memories of growing up in a large family.

Well, if you travel to Paris and outlying cities, you will still run into these pay bathrooms. However, they do operate with an twist I have never seen here in the states. . .

At my family’s urging quite a few years ago, I joined my oldest daughter in April, for her week-long break in her college junior year abroad.


Mon cherie-that meant springtime in Paris!


It would be lovely, wonderful and amazing, especially because I had never traveled outside of the United States.

Well, it was cold. And damp. And a bit drizzly. And there weren’t many flowers because of the unseasonably cool weather.

That did not slow Alexis and me down, however. We figured that meant there wouldn’t be the usual crowds of tourists, and we were just excited to be able to sight see and photograph from dawn to dusk.

On this particular day, we took the train to Caen. Disembarking at the station after the two hour-ish ride, I naturally went looking for a bathroom, because as a mom, that is what you do. After all, you don’t know how long it will be until you see another. We were picking up a rental car and then driving quite a distance further to Normandy, so I didn’t want to take any chances.


We spotted the universally recognized sign on a door set into a wall of the station and headed over.


Outside, 24 hour access? “Well,” my folksy self thought, “How thoughtful! Folks can use this round the clock, and don’t have to worry that the building is closed.” But then my paranoid safety conscious mommy brain spoke up, “While that is wonderful, how do you know it’s not being used as place for some criminal to hangout so they can mug you?”

Once we were standing in front of the door, though, I realized it was a pay toilet, like those from my youth. I turned to Alexis for the money—the equivalent of about 50 cents— and the translation of the sign next to the door.


It turns out that the bathrooms are self-cleaning once your visit is done.


So much for it being a hideout.

“Isn’t that wonderful,” I marveled, relieved, because the cleanliness of the bathroom had also crossed my mind.

Well, Alexis and I, being frugal, figured we could pay once and use the room one after the other, just like when I was little. Old habits can die pretty hard.

Yes, I know that is foolish and theft of services.  And I wouldn’t do it again.


We put the coins in the slot, and I entered the bathroom.


Well, now. I looked around, and wondered where the toilet was, because this is what I saw.

The line from The Wizard of Oz ran through my head: We’re not in Kansas anymore, Toto.

Wait-it’s the spring loaded U-shaped metal tubing set into the wall?

Color me surprised.

Shortly thereafter, I waited for Alexis to take her turn, and my mommy brain started into overdrive and I started to really stress.


“What were we thinking?!”


“What triggers the cleaning cycle? Is it a time element? Is it the locking of the door?”

My daughter safely exited the bathroom unscathed, fortunately.

However, I wanted to know how the cleaning cycle worked, so we hung around for a few minutes.

Yes, I am aware of how creepy silly we probably looked, as we leaned into the closed door to listen.

In just a minute or two, we heard the sounds of a powerwash that splashed with such force against the metal and tile surfaces that it sounded like it would break down the door.

We looked at each other, eyes wide open in surprise, and realized what a short-sighted decision we had made.

We vowed to pay individually from that point forward, because we decided never again to be penny-wise and bathroom foolish. (Like it? Click to tweet!)


Question today: What decision have you made that led or nearly led to a surprise, unpleasant ending?


Sharing at No Ordinary Blog Hop, Finding Heaven, Things I Can’t Say

Photo credit: Andres Rueda via Flickr (For my sharp eyed readers: yes, this is a Spanish bathroom, not French. I was too rattled to take a picture of the one in Caen. :-) )

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  1. Ha ha, thanks for making me laugh so early in the morning, Kim. Too funny. There is probably a laundry list of things I would do differently had I not been trying to be, uh, creative? But on the traveling thought, I will NEVER underestimate the amount of time that you have to wait to get through the Rome, Italy airport to come back to the states. Yikes.

    • You are very welcome, Sharita! It’s something that has gotten funnier over time. . .
      That is good information on Rome. I have a nephew headed there next year, so I will be sure to give his parents a heads up!

  2. Such a funny story Kim! I’ve had plenty of harebrained schemes in my not-so-long-ago’s too, but they often make for the funniest memories. Glad you both stayed dry!

    • Harebrained schemes…that sounds like a lot of things I’ve done in my life! You are so right about them making for funny memories and great tales to tell the children and your nieces and nephews when they are older. Thanks for stopping by!

  3. Memooooooriiiieeess…I forgot that we waited to see what the self-cleaning cycle sounded like. And you weren’t exaggerating – we would have been nicely “exfoliated” had one of us gotten caught inside. “I might not have any skin left, but hey, at least we saved 50 cents!”

    • Exfoliated. Now that does express quite nicely what would have happened to us. Perhaps the tourism board would like to offer that as an additional benefit. :-)
      “At least we saved 50 cents”: You are too funny!
      Thanks for the smiles and the memories of being in Paris with you that week!

  4. How funny,while we haven’t runacross one of those in our travels, the kids and i were once asked (I believe in. brussels) by a bathroom attendent if we were going to pee or poor. To my astonishment there was a price increase for pooing.

    • Oh my gosh! Thanks for the laugh out loud. Such a question I couldn’t possibly ever anticipate, or ever imagine a person asking me. Wow. Thanks for stopping by, Anna-Marie!

  5. wow, Kim, you made me laugh and you showed me something I had never seen before…glad you got to travel w/your girl…how special.

    • We did make a week of it, and this was just one of our many adventures. It’s so nice when our children grow up and we get to spend time with them like this; it’s just priceless. If someone had told me this would be possible when my daughters were in their early teens, I probably would not have believed them. :-)
      Thanks for coming by Dolly. Glad I could share a laugh and something new with you!

  6. Oh my! Good thing neither of you were subjected to the self-cleaning cycle.

    • I was thankful for that too, Tara! As my daughter noted, it would be a free exfoliation treatment. :-)
      Thanks for stopping by!

  7. I had totally forgotten about pay toilets!!!

    • I would say they would have been totally forgettable as well if we hadn’t tempted fate with our single payment for two visits. Ah, yes, those foolish moments are sometimes where the best memories are made. :-)
      Thanks so much for coming by, Shell. Love your blog!

  8. Being incredibly frugal myself, I can picture myself doing the exact same thing. I have done the “fugal thing” at Costco, where I will make all 3 of my kids share the same very berry sundae, because it’s so big that none of them would finish their own, but they fight so much over having to share one, that’s it’s just not worth it. Great post!

    • Hopefully my story will have kept you from ever sharing a pay, self cleaning toilet!

      Ilene, it’s good to know there are other parents who have made their kids share food! Those sundaes are huge!

      On the very rare occasion we would go out to eat with our young girls, we quickly learned they just couldn’t begin to eat all that was served. We would “team up” for dinners, and share an order. We still do that now when we are not especially hungry, even though our daughters are adults. The girls did fight it at first, but when they saw the food they were wasting, they came around. There are battles worth fighting with our kids, but each parent has to choose when and what those are

  9. Oh my goodness! I would’ve been paranoid too. When I went to Egypt, I discovered that the toilets are free but you must pay an attendant for paper… :)

    • LOL, Keri! Things I never would have thought to ask…
      I just have to wonder who thinks up some of these charges. Goodness!
      Thanks for sharing!

  10. How funny! Now I’m forewarned if I ever go over there!

  11. I remember being on trips as a kid and having to use a pay toilet. My four year old would love that it was self cleaning.

    • Oooh, you gave me a good idea. Wouldn’t it be great if we had self cleaning bathrooms at home? The kids would fight over who gets to push the button!
      I know I got a kick out of listening to the cleaning cycle, and I imagine your four year old would too! Thanks for coming by JDaniel4’s Mom!

  12. This is hilarious. I can certainly relate because these things exist all over Germany too.

  13. I remember pay toilets and I love this story! Very funny. Glad it all worked out. 😉

    • The question is: Would a thinking parent do this? Not more than once, I can say with absolute surety, for myself! Thanks for coming over, Missy!

  14. Thanks, for a really fun story. I do remember having to pay for the use of a bathroom and I haven’t thought about that for years.
    Smiles today…………on this one!

  15. Kelly Rogers says:

    Thanks for sharing your story about this kind of bathroom. When all of my children are in the bathroom with me, we would be very noisy. :) I have a lot of precious moments with my children in the bathroom. :)


  1. […] car. The incident with the public bathroom occurred there as well, and you can read about it here if you missed it. Arriving at Normandy and walking the grounds was so humbling, realizing the […]

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