A lot of cities, especially in Europe, have public restrooms on their streets accessed with a few coins. They may not be the cleanest facilities, but aren't gruesome, either, and are great in an emergency. New York doesn't have them. There are a few public restrooms to be found, few and far between. The ones at the corner of Bryant Park behind the main branch of the public library are so nice, in fact, that they've won Nicest Public Restrooms awards. Big bouquets of fresh flowers, even.
Many of the major attractions and destinations have restrooms open to the public. Lincoln Center and Rockefeller Center both do and they're free and pretty nice. Penn and Grand Central Stations both do and they're free and relatively disgusting. If you see one in a subway station, you'll probably want to avoid it unless your emergency is dire. The ones at department stores can vary in their users and cleanliness to a shocking degree. Any place where you've paid admission to get in will most definitely have one. The best advice may sound like common sense, but it's that whenever, wherever you spot a restroom that is available for you to use, USE IT. As my parents would say before we left the house and I "didn't have to go": "Just try."
My next bit of advice is information most eating establishments will not be very happy that I'm sharing. It's also a bit unfortunate that it's true. But the "Customers Only" restroom at restaurants and stores for the most part only applies to homeless people. Most truly public restrooms, unless strictly monitored by security, attract homeless people who will quite literally bathe, shave, and take care of other hygiene matters at the sinks.
This advice is really a viable option only at diners and clearly inexpensive restaurants, but the higher-priced ones wouldn't bother to have the sign in the window in the first place. I'd also use it only for minor and extreme emergencies. In other words, don't take advantage of this loophole or it will cease to work for all of us. My line, delivered in as humble, polite, and friendly a tone as possible, is "if I promise not to make a mess, is it alright if I use your restroom?" I have never once been told "no." As long as you don't look like a complete slob, I seriously doubt you would be, either.
No more than two people should ever try this at once. Don't waltz fourteen people into a busy restaurant, disturb their customers, and leave toilet paper all over the floor. If more than two people have a legitimate restroom emergency, then just sit down and order a cup of coffee or a muffin for a dollar or two. I don't think the expenditure will make or break your whole vacation budget. Then at least the proprietor won't feel that you're freeloading. If you're not hungry, simply wrap it up and save it for later. This also solves your afternoon snack problem.
©2012, Ryan Witte
11. The Grid