Tips for navigating travel by air, bus or rail when you can’t see well.
When you have a visual impairment, travel can seem challenging or even overwhelming. But with advance planning and these expert tips, you can comfortably — and safely — get to where you want to go.
The key? “Plan ahead,” says Carol A. Moog, senior mobility instructor at Lighthouse Guild: “Get as much information as you can before you leave your house. Go on websites to get train or bus directions, plan out your route and always leave more time than you think you’ll need.”
Bring documentation of your vision loss. Optometrist Ranjoo Prasad, the director of the Penn Center for Low Vision Rehabilitation at the University of Pennsylvania Scheie Eye Institute in Philadelphia, gives her traveling patients a letter stating their diagnosis. It may not be obvious that you’re visually impaired, she says, so a letter from an eye-care provider can make clear that you’re entitled to assistance.
Share your itinerary. Make sure somebody — a loved one back home or a friend you’ll be visiting — knows what your plans are, says Prasad. (You can consider using the Life360 app, which allows others to follow your every step.)
Consult with an expert. If it’s your first time traveling with a vision impairment, consider meeting with an orientation mobility specialist, a professional who teaches people with low vision how to travel safely, confidently and independently. You can find one through your state’s Office of Vocational Rehabilitation or State Commission for the Blind (search online to find your state's).
Be flexible. Do your best to accept that things don’t always go as planned, says Moog: “That’s a natural part of traveling, no matter your situation.”
Traveling by Air
Call ahead. All airports should have a meet-and-assist program to help travelers with anything from check-in to boarding and baggage claim, says Miguel Reyes, certified orientation and mobility specialist at Blind & Vision Rehabilitation Services of Pittsburgh. By law you need to give airports at least 48 hours’ notice for them to be able to guarantee the services you need. “I encourage people to call and start their conversation by saying, ‘Hi, I’m visually impaired.’” Reyes says it will fast-track your call to the appropriate resources to get you what you need.
Blind and low-vision travelers can also get help navigating airports using Aira assistive technology. Aira, a smartphone and smart-glasses-connected technology company, connects blind and low-vision people to trained agents who can help with navigation. It's available for free at many airports across the country; you just need to download the Aira smartphone app and sign up as a guest. At other airports, you can still access Aira but you need to subscribe to the service.
Bring a magnifier or travel telescope. Your eye-care provider can help you get a magnifying device that you can keep in your carry-on bag.
Tag your bags. Put some kind of obvious marker on your luggage — like colored duct tape around the handle — to make it more noticeable to airport staff (or you) at baggage claim.
Speak up. Make sure you’re not seated in an emergency exit row. Ask for help when you need it, and don’t be afraid to advocate for yourself. “Meet-and-assist workers may want to put you in a wheelchair, but if you’re not okay with that, you’re entitled to speak up,” Reyes says.
Taking the Bus
Ask customer service for help navigating the station. Multi-level bus stations, which are essentially large parking garages, often have steep escalators or stairs and can be confusing. If you’d prefer an elevator, don’t hesitate to ask customer service to point or guide you to one, says Moog.
Talk to the driver. As you board your bus, let your driver know you’re visually impaired, and ask him or her to please tell you when you’ve reach your stop. If you’re transferring, ask where to catch your connecting bus, says Reyes.
Hold on to the railing. Even buses that lower the steps at stops can present trip hazards for passengers entering or exiting.
Traveling by Train
Ask customer service for help. Train stations can be chaotic, and tracks are often not announced until a few minutes before departure times. Moog says customer service representatives will be happy to bring you to your track on time.
Ask questions. When the train doors open while you’re waiting on the platform, it’s perfectly acceptable to call into the car and ask if it’s the train you’re expecting. Plenty of people do so, whether they have vision loss or not, Moog says, “It’s just a part of [train] culture.”
Choose a seat by a door. Then you won’t have to climb over people when you reach your stop.
Be familiar with the name of the stop before yours. It will give you time to prepare so you'll be ready to go when you arrive at your stop.