Yes, You Can Travel If You’re Blind or Have Low Vision
Tourism and travel do not require eyesight. Whether you’re blind or dealing with low vision, you just need new ways to apply what you already know about navigating the world.
This guide to travel and tourism for blind and low-vision people will help you figure everything out. You’ll soon find out that your senses of smell, touch, hearing and taste provide everything you need to enjoy the wonders of our planet and its people.
Planning – Anticipating accessibility challenges in advance.
Navigating – Getting to your destination by plane, train, bus or cruise ship.
Experiencing – Making the most of touring, dining and lodging at your destination.
If you need inspiration, consider the case of James Holman, a sightless Englishman whose global travels made him a celebrity in the early 1800s. In an age when blind people were stigmatized and resources were negligible, Holman insisted on experiencing everything his world had to offer. Need a more recent example? Check out Tony the Traveller, who is totally sightless, partially deaf and the author of three e-books about his global solo travels.
The National Library Service for the Blind and Print Disabled, part of the U.S. Library of Congress, maintains an extensive list of links for low vision travelers. It’s a great place to find specific guidance for things like assistance animals and accessibility on cruise lines.
Now, let’s get moving on your travels.
Planning your visit
Preparation pays off when planning a vacation or tourism holiday for people with low vision. It’s a good idea to get started several months before you plan to go. You can plan everything yourself or work with a travel agent or professional tour guide. Just make sure they have experience with visually impaired travelers.
Let’s walk through some of the most important things to plan.
Choosing a destination
If you’re undecided on where to travel, think about places that ignite the senses:
The spice of Thai food.
The aroma of a French bakery.
The touch of a Caribbean breeze.
The sounds of Mideastern music.
Look for articles online about adventure travel and urban tourism, and ask your friends with low vision for ideas about what to do and where to go. Once you've made a decision, it’s time to figure out how you can make the most of your trip.
Some big cities are organized on grids that are easy to navigate. Remote villages may have few accessibility features, but the people there may be willing to help you out.
Nations, states and metropolitan areas usually have tourism offices and websites for visitors. Scan these sites for resources for people with low vision and blindness. The more you learn about accessibility at your destination, the better you’ll do with the rest of your preparations.
Weighing personal assistance
Think about asking a sighted friend or family member to come along. That way you can spend more time enjoying yourself and less time on distractions when navigating a new environment. And you’ll have somebody you can share memories with for years to come.
After you’ve traveled with a companion, you may decide you’d prefer to go solo. Just make sure you weigh the pros and cons of each choice.
Preparing your canine assistant
If you have an assistance dog, you’ll have to make a few special preparations. Immigration officials in the countries you’ll visit will probably need to know about your dog’s vaccination records and any other relevant health information.
Some nations may require a quarantine. As you research your destinations and explore immigration policies, make sure you know all the rules specific to animals. And don’t forget about your dog’s dietary needs and medications.
Acquiring documents and identification
To pass through airport security, you’ll need a valid, state-issued photo ID. If you’re leaving the country, you’ll have to apply for a passport if you don’t have one already. Do this as soon as you pick your destination. There are always unanticipated paperwork hassles involved in getting government documentation.
Again, ask your friends and acquaintances in the low vision community about their experiences. That should help move things along.
Updating technologies, equipment and devices
Make a checklist of the assistive devices you use every day. Are they in good condition, or should they be replaced or repaired? Make sure you have enough batteries and chargers — with adapters that match the plugs used in your destination (Europe and other regions of the world often have different electrical plug and socket formats than the U.S.). You might even consider getting duplicates for items that might get lost or stolen.
Also, dozens of smartphone apps can help with things like GPS locations and audio descriptions of your environment. For instance, Be My Eyes is an app that connects users with volunteers who can describe objects within view of a smartphone’s camera.
Filling prescriptions, getting shots
Check with your doctor and pharmacist to make sure all of your medications and prescriptions are up to date. If you’re going overseas, find out about the vaccinations you’ll need.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has a handy page to help you match your destination with the recommended shots. The CDC strongly urges giving yourself at least a month before you leave to build up your immunities.
Dealing with dietary needs
If you’re a finicky eater, that’s fine — just avoid the stuff you don’t like. But if you have specific health requirements (gluten-free, diabetes-specific, etc.), then you have to start planning how to stay fed while traveling.
As you sort through destinations, look for restaurants and other meal sources that can accommodate your needs. Yes, it’s time-consuming because most tourist destinations have a vast array of food sources. This underscores why you have to get an early start on your travel plans.
When booking flights and hotel nights online, make sure you include any special accommodations you’ll require. If you find you’ve booked everything without clicking any boxes or including information about your visual impairment, take time to find a customer service page where you can double-check their accessibility policies.
Trying to get everything right when booking reservations can be an exercise in frustration if you try to do it all yourself. This is why many vacationers prefer to use travel agents and touring companies that specialize in working with people who have disabilities. It’s their job to get everything right.
Telling people where you’re going
Make sure you create an in-depth itinerary of your planned travels — especially if you’re going it alone. Even if you have a traveling companion, there’s always the potential to get separated for hours or perhaps days, depending on the ambitions of your travel plans.
Leaving an itinerary behind also helps the folks back home coordinate their efforts if they need to track you down for a family emergency.
Traveling to (and from) your destination
Getting there — and back home safely — is the hard part. Planes, trains, buses and cruise ships have schedules to keep and millions of other travelers to deal with. A snowstorm in Chicago can trip up your international flight out of Atlanta.
And then you have to find your way through a maze of dropping off luggage, going through security, finding your boarding location, getting seated, retrieving your luggage and starting your vacation in an unfamiliar place. It’s enough to make some people stay home.
But you’ve made it this far and you’re not so easily discouraged. You just need specific guidance for the most likely modes of travel.
Airports handle so many travelers that they are usually well-equipped to deal with people who have low vision or blindness. Typically, it’s just a matter of asking for help when you arrive at the terminal.
Passing through security is the tricky part. Make sure you have your photo ID or passport ready at the checkpoint. If you have a cane or an assistance dog, you’ll require special attention from the security agents who have to x-ray everything. Be patient and cooperate with the agents’ requests.
At the gate, tell the airline staff about your disability and they will help you board.
Trains and buses
Train stations and bus depots may be easier to navigate than airports are, though this can vary by region and country. You may not have an assigned seat, however, so you may need to arrive early and get to the boarding area before a crowd builds up.
Calling ahead a day or two before you arrive can help the local station or depot staff assign somebody to help you out.
Affordability might be the only obstacle to a cruise vacation if you have low vision or blindness. A ship has everything you need in one place, with options for dining, entertainment, relaxation and socialization.
Getting to the ship poses a long list of logistical difficulties — you don’t want to miss the boat. All-inclusive packages that include airfare may be an attractive option, though you’ll pay more for them.
Cruise lines can accommodate most dietary needs, but you’ll need to let them know in advance. Ships also have limited medical facilities for emergency care.
Packing your bags
Don’t forget you’ll have limits on luggage. You’ll also want to mark your bags to make them easier to find in baggage carousels (unusual colors, bumper stickers or flowers that stick to the bottom of a bathtub might work).
Always pack as lightly as possible and bring only the things you know you (and your assistance dog) will need. Always keep your most important items — medications, passport, documents — with you in a carry-on. Checked baggage is for extra clothing and other non-essentials.
Making the most of your destination
If you plan thoroughly, you just have to take your time and enjoy your vacation once you reach your destination. A lot of that depends on where you stay, what you eat and where you go.
Hotels, resorts, spas, bed-and-breakfasts and other places to stay should not have a problem accommodating guests with low vision. There could be issues with stairs and other obstacles. Contacting the management in advance can help ensure somebody is available to help you navigate.
Most lodgings have strict rules for pets that may apply to your service dog. Make sure you find out the rules before your arrival.
If you plan ahead, you may be able to secure Braille menus if you need them. Be sure to double-check that restaurants and other dining establishments can accommodate your dietary needs. Sometimes you don’t find out what’s available until you’re on-site and placing your order.
Again, don’t forget about the dietary needs of your service dog.
You might feel fine kicking back at the hotel lounge and taking a taxi to a local concert. Guided tours reduce the risk of getting lost or injured in an accident, but you may not enjoy the regimented timeline. Do what feels best while staying in your comfort zone.
A few final points about traveling with low vision
Keep these thoughts in mind throughout your vacation:
Citizens of other countries may have different attitudes toward people with disabilities. These attitudes might not be negative — people might be too helpful — but they may take some patience on your part. Be prepared to educate people on how much assistance you need.
Ask lots of questions. Things you take for granted at home (like flush toilets) may be foreign concepts in foreign lands.
Get familiar with exchange rates and local currencies. If you’re not buying with your home currency, it may be difficult to estimate the costs of local goods and services. Take some time to work out the math.
Reach out to people with low vision for information and advice. They’re the perfect allies when you’re in unfamiliar territory.
Vacation is a time to relax and take a break from the relentless stresses of everyday life. Wherever you go, give yourself plenty of time. If you enjoy having a schedule, then go ahead and travel with a tour group. If you’d rather improvise, then don’t overstress yourself trying to stay on somebody else’s timetable.
Perhaps the best way to vacation is to soak up the benefits of your strongest senses. It’s a gift to taste a fine wine or touch a stone worn smooth by a mountain stream. Let yourself enjoy those moments — and let them inspire your next vacation.
Tales of a blind traveler. National Public Radio. August 2006.
Meet our contributors – Tony the Traveller. GetAboutAble.com. Accessed April 2021.
Travel and recreation for the visually impaired and physically disabled. National Library Service for the Blind and Print Disabled. Accessed April 2021.
Traveling internationally with a guide dog or service animal. Mobility International USA. Accessed April 2021.
Before you fly: The transportation Security Administration and people with visual impairments. Access World, American Federation for the Blind. September 2012.
World map showing the spread of plug types. WorldStandards. March 2021.
Be My Eyes. Be My Eyes. Accessed April 2021.
Complete list of destinations. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Accessed April 2021.
Get vaccinated before you travel. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Accessed April 2021.
Traveling on trains and buses. VisionAware.com. Accessed April 2021.
Cruising as a senior with a visual impairment: How to get the most out of your adventure. Access World, American Foundation for the Blind. February 2016.
Packing for holiday travel. VisionAware.com. December 2013.
Blind and low vision tips for going abroad. Mobility International USA. Accessed April 2021.
Page published in May 2021
Page updated in September 2021