Tips and Tricks: My Experience Travelling as a Person Who is Blind

A blind woman walking independently with her long white cane.
PTCB instructor Erin walks independently with her long white cane. Photo credit: Pacific Training Centre for the Blind

As a person who is blind, I love to travel, meet new people, and enjoy the excitement of experiencing new places. Prior to my vision loss, I had lived in four Canadian provinces and travelled from coast to coast by plane, train, and automobile. I had the pleasure of meeting many different people from all walks of life. I feel blessed to have had the opportunity to travel, and once the COVID-19 pandemic is over, I look forward to travelling once again.

When diagnosed with my eye condition in 2007, it was very important for me to continue to do things I enjoy. Travelling is one of many interests I have. Since living with vision loss, I have travelled independently, using my white cane or accompanied by my guide dog. My travels with a guide dog within British Columbia include ferry, bus, and plane. In 2008, I went on a road trip across the northern United States by car with a friend who of course did all the driving. My first guide dog Rafferty accompanied us, and it was a wonderful experience to travel and enjoy the company of a close friend. Our trip included staying in hotels, dining in restaurants, and touring museums and landmarks on our way to the East Coast. I have fond memories from this trip: walking along Lake Coeur d’Alene in Idaho; walking around the small town of Sundance, Wyoming; and spending time in the city of Chicago. It was at a city park in Chicago that my guide dog made friends with a squirrel.

In other trips I have taken, I have flown within Canada and the U.S. Most of the tricks I have used when travelling are helpful for many people, specifically for people who are blind. Whether travelling in Canada or out of country, I make sure I am well prepared. Planning my itinerary, compiling a packing list, and gathering any necessary documentation is essential in my trip planning. In preparation for a trip, it is vital to check the reviews before booking a hotel or lodging. When booking accommodations or calling a taxi, I recognize that I do not have to disclose my disability or that I have a guide dog. However, I prefer to inform these businesses ahead of time that I am travelling with a guide dog. I love to travel, and I do not want to be inconvenienced or stressed while on a vacation. Each one of us has our own preferences, and there is not one way of doing things. I enjoy sharing with others in the blind community what has worked for me, and I love to hear other people’s experiences and what has worked for them.

For me, packing light has enabled me to have less luggage to carry or pull behind me. When travelling on a weekend getaway, for example, I often use a backpack, which allows me to have my hands free to use my white cane or handle my guide dog. On a longer excursion, I still try to pack light. Packing the essentials spares me some room in my suitcase for any goods and souvenirs I might purchase while on my vacation. When having to check luggage, I have discovered the benefit of making sure that my bag is easy to identify. Attaching a bright coloured luggage tag or item to my bag can make it much easier to find and retrieve my bag from the carousel. Although I have limited vision to identify my own bags, the airport employee assisting me, for example, can easily find my bag based on the description I provide them.

Whether going on a weekend trip or on a holiday, I love to use a fanny pack. Some people may not find a fanny pack to be the most fashionable bag, however I appreciate that it is simple and practical. My fanny pack holds my essential ID, documents, cash, and other necessities while allowing me to have my hands free. The different compartments of the fanny pack allow me to store what I need in a tidy and organized fashion. When travelling within Canada or the United States, I carry necessary health card and identification cards. I find it very easy to quickly pull out my passport and boarding pass when asked at the airport. I have my travel insurance information, guide dog identification and guide dog’s health certificate from my veterinarian, as well as my itinerary at all times.

There is more to prepare and think about when travelling with a guide dog than travelling with a white cane. It is important to always carry the identification card issued by your guide dog school/organization, as well as any health certificates and any additional forms now required by some U.S. airlines. It is imperative to know the access laws regarding guide dogs in the province or country in which you are travelling. For example, in Canada, each province has their own set of policies regarding guide dogs and service dogs. When packing my bags, I compile a packing list for myself, as well as a list for my guide dog. I need to pack enough food for my dog for the duration of my trip. I have found it handy to measure my dog’s meals into small Ziploc bags; that way each meal is ready to put into my dog’s bowl. Packing my dog’s food in this manner has saved me space in my luggage and I do not have to pack a measuring cup or spend time on my trip to measure out his food at mealtime. I often carry a collapsable dog bowl with me, and this also saves a lot of space in my bag or carry on. I try to only bring the essentials for my guide dog: food, bowl, an extra collar/leash, food pouch, tie down, brush, toothbrush/toothpaste, face cloth, my dog’s favourite toy, and a felt blanket or towel I can easily roll and fit in my bag. I do my best to pack only what is on my packing list, otherwise I end up with not enough room for clothes and personal belongings. I have met other guide dog handlers who pack their guide dog a separate bag. However, I find that the less bags I have, the easier it is to travel and to keep track of my belongings.

Upon arrival at a BC Ferries terminal or the airport, I ask the agent at the counter for assistance navigating the ferry terminal or airport. Some people who are blind may prefer to navigate the ferry terminal or airport independently. My preference is to have assistance from staff to safely navigate the terminal or airport. My experience with having assistance has been relatively positive. I have saved time, avoided getting lost or disoriented, and have always arrived at my gate or the waiting area at the ferry terminal in plenty of time. I do not like to feel stressed when I travel, and asking for assistance has definitely helped me over the years to ensure that I do not miss a flight or my ferry ride! When travelling in the United States I make sure to carry small American bills with me, so that I can tip the agent who assists me at the airport. At times going through airport security can be overwhelming, particularly for me when I began flying independently as a person who is blind. Having an airport employee to assist me through this process has been a tremendous help in keeping track of my belongings and getting through security as seamlessly as possible. I am an independent person, and at times I have had to be assertive with security regarding blindness and guide dog etiquette. Although I may have an employee assisting me, I am not afraid to speak up for what I need. Some guide dog handlers put a nylon collar and leash on their guide dog when flying so that the dog will not set off the metal detector. I have yet to try this trick. My guide dog tends to set off the detector every time, and the agents then need to conduct their job in patting down my dog. I like using the technique of putting my dog on a long leash and having him in a sit/stay while I walk through the metal detector and then calling my dog through. There are many times that both my guide dog and I set off the metal detector and both of us have to be screened by security agents. Nonetheless, most of my experiences with airport staff and security agents have been positive, helpful, and accommodating of my disability.

Travelling should be fun and exciting. I have many fond memories of my travels over the years and the people I have met along the way. Although travelling as a person who is blind might be challenging at times, it is well worth putting in the time to plan and organize. The memories I have of travelling independently will last me a lifetime! The excursions and experiences I have had have helped me to become confident, assertive, and empowered. I look forward to many more independent adventures with my guide dog. I also dream of travelling the world and having my partner at my side. Once it is safe to travel again, I plan on booking my next trip!

As Shauna says, “Travelling should be fun and exciting.” In the travel class at the Bowen Island Recreation, Training and Meeting Centre, students will work with travel instructors to learn the skills they need to travel independently. Traveling different environments, from the quiet streets of Bowen Island to the busy urban core of downtown Vancouver, combined with lessons in long-distance travel skills such as navigating airports, ferries, and busses will set students up to travel successfully, no matter where the journey of life takes them. One of their final assignments before graduation will be to plan a short trip to another city. This will help them put into practice many of the skills they have learned throughout the year.

You too can be a part of making the dream of a Canada where blind and Deafblind people can live independently with dignity and success by supporting the Bowen Island Recreation, Training and Meeting Centre project. Financial support is not the only kind of support a project like this needs. Sharing posts like this one on social media and helping to spread the word about the work we are doing is also important.

If you would like to learn more about this project or would like to help in some other way, you are always welcome to reach out and get in touch.