Why McDonald’s is Indispensable for Every Traveler

The Big Mac is so ubiquitous The Economist developed a price index for the burger as a way to measure purchasing power parity across economies.

McDonald’s changes its offerings to meet local demand. For instance there’s no beef in Mumbai McDonald’s but they do offer several different fry dips.

In Bangkok Ronald McDonald greets you, sawadee krap:

Johnny Jet offers 5 reasons people eat at McDonald’s when they travel. And I’m not buying it. The arguments here are largely about some foreign McDonald’s being better than you’d think. But they’re still rarely as well as you can do. I’d argue that the case for eating at McDonald’s is limited to:

  • When there’s nothing else available
  • When there’s nothing else fast available and you’re pressed for time
  • When there’s nothing else cheap available and your cash-constrained

McDonald’s is quick and cheap. I’m not sure it’s the best thing that’s quick and cheap, but it’s also efficient in terms of not needing to invest in learning about options. So I do understand why people go in there when they travel.

United Airlines even served McDonald’s on Orlando flights years ago, modifying their galley carts to keep the cold items cold and the patties hot.

There’s a case for McDonald’s, though, that goes largely overlooked: as a source of clean(-ish) restrooms.

When I go to McDonald’s when I travel, it’s not to eat. If I’m out in Mumbai all day, not everywhere I go is going to have a restroom. Or toilet paper. Toilet paper is getting more common in China than it was when I first visited years ago, especially in major cities. (Although it can be a good idea still to carry your own in some places.)

McDonald’s are easy places to walk in, relatively unnoticed, and use the restrooms. Now in many parts of South Asia McDonalds delivers. But since they do not deliver clean restrooms I don’t really see the point.

I don’t find the McDonald’s restroom tip especially valuable in Europe, because of the prevalence of first world amenities you’ll find most everywhere you go. And yet on Las Ramblas in Barcelona, one of the most touristy of tourist areas, you have pretty much every fast food to choose from.

There’s plenty of Spanish food there, too. But if you’re going to eat tapas, try to do it somewhere other than Las Ramblas. The food will be both better and less expensive, because of the rents.

Since there are clean restrooms all over Barcelona I cannot offer a justification for Western fast food. But I’m grateful that it’s popular in many of the places I travel where I couldn’t otherwise find a place to go.

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community InsideFlyer.com, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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  1. Use the restroom at the McDonald’s in the mission district of San Francisco then report back.

  2. This isn’t as valid as it used to be. In Ljubljana the door required a code to enter the restroom. You had to make a purchase and receive a receipt which contained a door code. I don’t know if it was set up to change daily, or if it was valid for multiple uses, etc.

    I’ve encountered similar situations that ultimately necessitated a beverage purchase to gain access to McDonalds or Burger King toilets in Trieste, Florence and Lyon. In general, if it’s a western city I simply walk into a bar or restaurant and beeline for the toilets like I’m already a paying customer.

  3. 24 hour McDonalds have become havens for people seeking refuge from the cold and the streets.

    I stepped into McDonalds in Hong Kong last month and found many people sleeping at tables at 3AM. While spending the night in Toronto waiting for a 6AM bus, I sat in McDonalds and drank coffee until dawn. While not the cleanest place, it was safe, warm, and had a place to sit while everything else in the city was closed. In a pinch, when the cost of a hotel room doesn’t make sense, an all-night McDonalds helps.

  4. Why do Americans love smearing shit around their ass with tissue paper. It’s disgusting! Use the hose or bidet, much more hygienic

  5. Interesting. McDonalds is something of a paradox. I avoid it in the US, esp. since the self-ordering and increased delays in food delivery have been foisted on us — it’s not fast food anymore.
    But… the Big Mac index, while started tongue in cheek isn’t a joke anymore. It gives good currency purchasing power data..
    Example: Hong Kong is a very expensive destination, but I go there a lot. I traveled on the bus from TST to Stanley ( a seaside town on the island) and having become tired of touts trying to talk me into bars and restaurants ended up in McDonalds. I ate a Big Mac meal for half of what I would have paid in the US. Go figure…and that’s with a currency tied to the $USD.
    Yes, I know there is something terribly wrong with flying half way round the World to eat at Mc Donalds but there ya go…

  6. Also, McDonalds typically has wifi. Starbucks is also an option, but typically have to
    wait in line to order.

  7. Sometimes, when traveling, when you’re tired and hungry, you don’t want a Forest Gump box of chocolates; you WANT to know what you’re gonna get. i.e. McD.

  8. Ice cream. I have no problem paying several dollars for quality ice cream while traveling, but if I just need to cool off and get off my feet for a few minutes, a cone or sundae at McDonalds hits the spot.

  9. Mc D’s is our go to place to get a reasonable (taste and price)coffee, wifi and restroom.

    Our daughter taught us that an alternative for wifi is KFC……………

  10. Any economist who uses McDonald’s to compare purchasing power is an idiot. Any traveler can tell you that in many countries, McDonald’s costs more than a nice meal in a local sit down restaurant. It does not reflect relative purchasing power at all!

  11. I unabashedly enjoy eating MCDs on occasion when traveling internationally – my favorite are the SE Asian menus because of that sriracha-like fry dipping sauce plus that huge fried chicken sandwich. I also like the fry seasoning kits.

  12. Starbucks in china is usually warm and clean emphdis on warm in the wet cold chill of northern china

  13. I have found one of the most useful words while travelling is “Coke”. The words for water, juice, beer or any other soda will be different from language to language but in almost every part of the world “Coke” or “Coca Cola” will get you a sealed, hygienic bottle or can of something to drink that will not give you dysentery.

  14. McDonalds (and Starbucks) also offers free high speed wifi — great for checking emails or making travel plans while on the go in a foreign city.

  15. Have eaten many many meals at McDonald’s over the last 60-some years. Also have stopped in to use their bathrooms on occasion, even without buying anything. Most of the food items are a good value.

    But when we lived in Japan for four years in the early 2000’s, I was amazed at how consistently better the food was in any McDonald’s there. Always fresh, always hot. (With fries and nuggets, hot is critical.)

    Finally another American ex-pat living there, who had been a McDonald’s manager in the U.S., explained it to me….no drive-throughs in Japan. The real estate is too expensive to allot the space for a drive-through. Apparently having counter service only makes it a lot easier to consistently serve the food still very hot.

  16. @RandyO. The Japanese are simply a more dignified people, as a group, than Americans. It would be a cultural shame to serve anything less than their best product. Meanwhile Americans could not give a rat’s ass.

  17. McDonalds in HK is good for coffee – about half the price of Starbucks for similar quality offerings.

    When in Asia and in need of wifi I usually go to McD, although the one in Calapan City, Philippines didn’t have it. That’s the first and last one I have seen that didn’t, but that’s also about the most backwater McD’s I’ve been to.

  18. If you think McDonald’s is cheap, you’re mistaken. Most often than not, in remote locations, it’s more expensive than a sit-down restaurant. I’ve (foolishly while hungry) paid $30 for two people at McDonald’s, and we didn’t even pig out.

  19. McDonald’s is not very cheap. Or good. Here in São Paulo one can get a much better and cheaper meal at dozens of places compared to McDonald’s.

  20. McDonalds isn’t even that cheap in the US. A family of four can easily spend 35 bucks for garbage food. Completely agree you can always find comparable priced, much better food no matter where you are. The only time I go to McDonalds overseas is for ease or when traveling with the kids. I’ll grab a drink and hamburger for a few euro knowing there’s better options but I’m pressed for time or just damn hungry. But anyone who says it’s cheap is kidding themselves.

  21. It’s a ritual for me to use their restroom while driving on a domestic trip. I‘ll buy an ice cream cone to return the favor.

  22. That United partnership reference (and photo) are awfully dated references. Isn’t that news from 1991?

  23. “o. But if you’re going to eat tapas, try to do it somewhere other than Las Ramblas. The food will be both better and less expensive, because of the rents.” Pretty much every country I have ever been to is like this. The food is more expensive and often subpar in tourist areas of cities. I skip those restaurants all together.

  24. I don’t advocate eating fast foods in foreign countries but sometimes it is necessary especially in countries with a high language barrier. If I am pressed for time I don’t have the luxury of sitting down in a restaurant and playing charades. At least with mcdonalds I can walk in and simply point at the menu number I want and quickly get food before a flight/train/bus etc. KFC tends to work better though, especially in china where the chicken at kfc is just soo much better than the US.

  25. The higher cost of restaurant labor in the USA is making many casual restaurants very expensive. Unless you’re willing to eat out of a supermarket (in most parts of the USA, supermarket food is cheap), McDonalds offers excellent value if you’re willing to eat their food. Especially if you download their app and order their online “deals” — when the food can cost 1/5th of any alternative. The food quality is not much lower than the majority of casual restaurants in the USA. I would never eat their food at home, but I do patronize McDonalds at least once a week for breakfast or lunch when I’m travelling in the USA and need quick food. Their restaurants are generally better run and more efficient than their competitors — especially Burger King.

  26. @Turningleft

    Agreed. Still cheapish compared to many options but its value per dollar has diminished over the years. Personally I stopped eating McDonald’s in the US. Their fries are only good within 10 minutes out of the fryer and I never seem to get lucky on that front. Always get soggy fries.

  27. It’s the very worst of the USA, patronised mostly by the same gauche philistines who eat in them in their home countries. One feels sorry for parents pressured into taking kids there as a consequence of exposure to predatory marketing. Disgusting food but evidently convenient/attractive toilets.

  28. Here in L.A. we’re sh*t out of luck. The lockdown includes McDonalds restrooms (drive-thru or take out only). Ditto for all eating places. One of the only restroom options now are the grocery stores.

  29. Ed – how about home improvement stores in the suburbs? Lowe’s usually has their restrooms near the cashiers.

  30. I had friends staying in Rome who went to a McDonalds after a couple of weeks because they were in saturated fat withdrawal.

  31. My wife…on our honeymoon…surprised me by wanting to eat at the Thundercloud across from La Sagrada Familia…the first time that she had eaten at a Thundercloud in the four years we’d been together before the honeymoon…

    It was…mindboggling…

  32. @donaldosborne The value of a Big Mac Index isn’t that it is a show of what people buy, it’s that it’s standardized. A local meal could be rice, it could be fish, it could be anything, but a Big Mac is the exact same ingredients no matter where in the world you buy it. Therefore, it shows the relative costs of those ingredients worldwide. Seriously, the one who doesn’t understand purchasing power is you.

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