Attention Holiday Travelers: The Best Place to Poop on a Road Trip Is a Coffee Shop
If there's one thing I've learned over thousands of miles of road travel, it's that coffee houses are good for more than just a nice cup of joe.
If there's ever a good time to see this beautiful nation on its scenic network of highways, this weekend isn't it. Over 102 million of you are expected to hit the roads this holiday season, according to an INRIX report cited by AOL. So, as my gift to you, I will share my secret to road trip success this holiday season: always poop at a coffee shop.
When I was a kid, McDonald's used to be the gold standard for bathrooms. Whenever there was a road trip, we could all but rely on the golden arches to deliver a warm, satisfying Egg McMuffin and a reasonably clean bathroom. Yet McD's as a necessary diversion (for occasionally urgent reasons) has lost its luster over the years, as I've encountered a bit of a mess in there on my past few trips.
Where you want to go instead in your most urgent roadgoing time of need is a coffee shop.
Think about it: these neat, tidy harbingers of gentrification tend to be frequented by an older set than most playplace-adjacent fast food joints—one old enough to know how to aim, and who usually doesn't unroll the toilet paper for fun.
They're quieter, with a more relaxing atmosphere. There are people working with laptops out, for Pete's sake, even on Christmas Eve. The high-pitched squeal of a gaggle of high school girls is as loud as it usually gets. You're invited to hang around a while in these places, and even if it takes you a while to wrap up why you're really there, you'll find your order sitting neatly labeled for you on the counter when you're done.
Honestly, do you think Kaelynn and Parker's Wednesday night Bible study is going to put up with the same low bathroom standards as a truck stop? Hard no.
I've tested this theory out on multiple trips: driving across the western half of the U.S. to go to my high school reunion, fetching a free race car from California, going to see family, towing cars to races and even on the couple-thousand-mile cross-country scavenger hunt for weird cars known as the Lemons Rally. I usually require some amount of caffeine to stay awake and alert on the road, so I consider this one-stop shopping: a latté and a poop.
My preferred strategy is to look for a local roaster with decent ratings on somewhere like Yelp or Urbanspoon. Most medium-sized or even smaller college towns on your route have a few options in this day and age.
You should buy something if you use an establishment's restroom, and (bonus tip!) a good bag of beans from a boutique roaster can make a nice last-minute gift for any coffee nuts you know. If your personal convictions or diet forbids caffeine, look for a less focused coffee shop that would offer other drinks and snacks in addition to the usual hot cup o' brown.
This provides a nice trip off the busy path, and can even be something you plan ahead. Going through Waco, for example, usually means a short detour to Dichotomy or Common Grounds—both of which sit just off the highway enough not to be magnets for every crossover-full of extended family members on the road.
Multiple trips through the vast civilization-free plateaus of West Texas have taught me that it's better to go when you see a nice place to stop, and not wait until the last minute. That last-minute all too often shows up alongside that "Next Rest Area: 114 miles" sign when you're traveling.
Coffee and coffee-adjacent chains like Peet's, Tim Hortons or Panera usually have fairly clean restrooms, too, although they tend to be more heavily trafficked than their small-biz counterparts. However, I do appreciate that many Starbucks now offer two gender-neutral single-stall bathrooms instead of separate men's and women's rooms, as this has directly translated into a shorter wait time for a good ol' number two. Consequently, Starbucks is the sign I most want to see when I can't hold it any longer.
This weekend is bound to be a messy hell of over-trafficked rest stops and travel plazas—but remember, it doesn't have to be all that bad in your most dire time of need. If a place makes its living off of $6 specialty lattés, there's a good chance that the toilet will be clean and clear for landing.