Wanted: Roadside pit stop with clean bathroom
Litter-free, landscaped grounds. Upscale beer and wine. Freshly made sandwiches on crusty bread. Modern bistro tables in the cafe lounge and spotless bathrooms with matte-tile walls, state-of-the-art fixtures and sparkling glass shower doors.
A four-star boutique hotel?
Nope. A truck stop on highway E50 in the Czech Republic, a couple of hours west of Prague.
Holiday travel both in the U.S. and abroad over the last few weeks showed up some interesting contrasts in motoring culture. From the unfamiliar marques and eye-popping fuel prices to the glossy luxury sedans swooping unleashed through Bohemia on Germany’s Autobahn, the trip was a reminder that we in the Motor City aren’t the only auto mavens around.
In particular, we were struck by the cleanliness of fuel-station facilities, from the neatly stocked shelves of snacks and sundries, to the pleasant dining and food areas.
The first pit stop in the Czech Republic wasn’t a fluke or a concept store getting extra attention from management. Throughout the four-country tour, the amenities of these roadside centers continued to be a delight.
Indeed, as we traveled through a region of Europe known for general tidiness, it was still a bit startling to see a young woman diligently wiping down outdoor fuel pumps and handles with a scrub bucket at her side — in 26-degree winter weather. That’s dedication to service and high standards.
The lavatories generally had water-conserving options, high-speed dryers and other eco-friendly options, too.
Stations in that area apparently function as more than a place to grab gas, a pack of smokes and a cup of coffee or lottery tickets. The cafe areas are meeting places for locals and welcome respite for travelers. One evening on a fast tour of a little Austrian town, we encountered some people from our tour group quaffing the local pilsner — not from the bottle, but served in thin specialty glasses — at cafe tables in the filling station off the city’s main street.
As luck would have it, a week later I was on a midwestern U.S. highway with two antsy pets, a near-empty gas tank and a growling stomach. Wheeling into a name-brand truck stop off I-69, I thought, “We aren’t in Plzen any more, Toto.” Dog droppings, paper litter, grease puddles and more created an obstacle course in the parking area, while the interior offered greasy fast food, bathrooms and indifferent service.
One wonders why the difference in corporate standards and on-the-ground execution. Work ethic? Cultural expectations? Customers with the courtesy to pick up or clean up after themselves wouldn’t hurt, either.
In a 2018 report, the traveler’s resource GasBuddy said it analyzed the traffic at locations that ranked high in its survey of the nation’s cleanest roadside bathrooms. The company found that at highway exits where patrons could choose from a cluster of similar establishments, those that ranked high for clean bathrooms captured 33 percent more customer visits than those with less appealing facilities.
Considering both gasoline and rest-stop relief are universal needs for motorists, it is puzzling that domestic filling station and truck stop operators haven’t upgraded the experience and used better bathrooms as marketing tools. There are umpteen ways that a cleaner, nicer, more refreshing restroom (and clean retail shop and exterior) would engage me and fellow travelers into staying onsite for an actual break instead of scurrying away as quickly as possible and without spending more than on fuel.
None of the filling-station restrooms we encountered required payment (though public ones at tourist attractions did charge about one euro — well worth it when you realize it pays for an attendant to disinfect between each and every user, as well as provide clean basins, paper towels and other amenities). That might be a model that stateside operators could adopt to discourage bathroom use by vandals and slobs.
I know we’ll probably never see gas station cafes offering draught beer and Riesling here in the United States, but upgraded, water-conserving, regularly cleaned restrooms clearly are in reach if proprietors and patrons really want them.
Melissa Preddy is a Michigan-based freelance writer. Reach her via Melissa@MelissaPreddy.com.