Travel is a feast for the senses. Yet it’s much harder to enjoy the sounds, smells, and tastes of a new place when you’re struggling to safely navigate it.
With each airport, train system, and point on the itinerary, there’s a different set of rules and differing levels of accessibility and support. Even in destinations without accessibility standards akin to the U.S. Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), there are ways to make traveling easier—with or without a companion.
It all comes down to planning, says Jani Nayar, executive director of the Society for Accessible Travel and Hospitality (SATH), be it finding the right hotel or choosing a guide or tour operator who offers robust experiences centered around sounds, tastes, and touch (think winetasting, cooking classes, or museums with tactile experiences).
We tapped the expertise of tour operators, travel advisors, and blind or low-vision travelers to come up with this list of tips and resources for planning a trip you’ll remember for years to come.
Start your planning early
To ensure a smooth experience, give yourself plenty of time—months, ideally—to fully research the supports available in your destination, says Cindy Caldwell, a disability travel advisor with Full Access Vacations. That means checking out every aspect of the trip, including the layout of the hotel, its staff reviews, and supports such as Braille room numbers and signage or large-print menus. If you’re planning a city tour and travel with a cane, it’s good to acquire tactile maps, know what curb markings are in place for canes, or find out if there is audio to signal green lights at crosswalks.
Book the help you need at the airport
Navigating the chaos of the airport can be the most daunting part of travel. However, a lot has changed since implementation of the Air Carrier Access Act in 1990. Now airlines are required to help visually impaired (VI) passengers board, deplane, make connections, and retrieve luggage at baggage claim. And they can’t be required to travel with a companion. Check with the airline when booking to see where the access points are for your pickup. Consider using the TSA Cares program and booking a passenger support specialist, who can get you through security quickly and easily.
Familiarize yourself with the aircraft and introduce yourself to the crew
After a flight attendant takes you to your seat, make sure you know where the call button is in case you need to be guided to the restroom or have other questions during the flight, says Amar Latif, the blind founder of tour operator Traveleyes.
Make sure your guide dog can travel with you
U.S. airlines are required to accommodate guide dogs with the right Department of Transportation forms. With cruise ships, it depends largely on the operator. Foreign destinations have widely differing policies on service animals, from not allowing them at all (United Arab Emirates) to requiring special applications, health reports, or even two-week quarantines that could ruin your trip. Mobility organizations recommend reaching out to the embassy or consulate of the countries you’re interested in to find out their policies, as well as departments of agriculture to see if guide dogs are exempt from quarantine.
Ask hotel staff to give you an introduction to your accommodation
You can save a lot of time and be more independent within the hotel, Latif says, if you have someone give you a brief tour of its layout and facilities at check-in. Where are the elevators? Can they help you find the pool, restaurant, or gym?
Try a tour operator who specializes in the VI community
“[Our travelers] want to go somewhere they normally couldn’t go without help, such as Thailand or Italy,” says Damiano La Rocca, director of Seable. “They can get trained assistance and meet other people.”
Sighted local companions at Seable assist two travelers at a time on each trip and are required to take some visual awareness training to make sure they are describing attractions in a meaningful way and guiding people appropriately. These companies choose experiences that don’t rely heavily on big descriptions of visually stunning landmarks; instead, they immerse travelers in physical activities such as adaptive skiing or hands-on cultural experiences such as winetastings or craft or cooking classes. The included car transportation at all points means one less thing to worry about.
Leverage technology for support
If you’re traveling without a companion, you can find visual assistance on apps such as Be My Eyes, which uses volunteers and video chat on your phone to help guide VI travelers through unfamiliar locations. Many airports also use Aira, a visual interpretation app to help VI travelers find restrooms and restaurants near their gate. Other travel tips are available on VisionAware, an online directory of resources for the blind and low-vision community.
Don’t rule out big adventures
Adaptive recreation organizations around the world have tailored programs in place for everything from windsurfing and skiing to river rafting and kayaking.
Jessica Pita, a blind South African traveler and blogger, had never considered the highly visual sport of scuba diving until a friend got her into an adaptive Professional Association of Diving Instructors (PADI) program in Mozambique. A buddy diver guided her around coral and used tactile hand signals to communicate depth or time. She said she could never have guessed how much the experience would stimulate her other senses.
“The sound of the coral was intense,” she says. ”It was like a crackling sound, and as we went closer and deeper into it, it was like it was coming from all around me.”
The biggest lesson for Pita was learning to trust her guide so she could relax and have fun. Now she’s adding dive destinations such as Hawai‘i and Zanzibar to her bucket list.
After years of relying only on friends and family while traveling, “I just needed to know that if I let my guard down, I would be safe,” Pita says.