This is rather ironic, as Alex served as Ontario provincial chairperson for the 2005 National Access Awareness week. I was already considering writing a blog post on travel as we are going on our fifth cruise in September, and was thinking of the questions I am often asked. You know the kind of thing: How do you do it? Is it different for people with disabilities? Stuff like that.
My answer is always the same. No not really, I just make sure I'm well organized and do a few extra checks on proper documentation for my guide dog. And checking is always good, right?
It's all in the planning
Think of all the trips you have taken. Why were some better than others? Did you stress out or fret about things you should have done beforehand? Yeah I know, we all do to some extent but planning is everything for me. As a blind person, my curious mind knows no bounds and I firmly believe that you get as much out of an experience as what you put in to it. Sure, I may not see my surroundings, I simply experience things differently but I can assure you it is just as rewarding. And, because I may need to ask questions or seek information, I meet some great people and learn lots of tips along the way.
Determining your destination
If it is a vacation, you are in control. If it is for business, you go with the flow and more research may be needed on your part. For example, you may be attending a conference and the location is in a hotel. For convenience it is easier to stay in the same place as the conference. This is where I kick into high gear. Here are some tips that work for me:
Call the hotel directly, not a general reservations number. This way you can speak to the hotel staff where you are staying.
If you have a guide dog, let the hotel know and ensure they put a note on your reservation. It makes things easier when checking in.
Make a copy of your reservation reference number and have it with you at time of check in.
Go online and check the hotel amenities and features.
If it is a cruise, I make myself a deck plan of the ship ahead of time so I know what amenities are on each deck. Of course the first couple of days are spent getting oriented, though that again is the same for everyone. Because I can't read print signage it may take a bit longer but dogs have terrific memories and they "know" where you have previously been. Take the time to teach your dog your room location. A friend of mine went back to the same hotel after 5 years and the dog took him back to the room where he'd stayed before. But I digress.
I book all shore excursions online ahead of time from the comfort of my living room. I can take time to read the itineraries, compare options, and thoroughly enjoy this planning and research. Basically I do as much online as I can prior to leaving home. This way I'm not stressed out in an unfamiliar destination and can use my access technology to read and prepare before I leave home.
Remember to take your mobile device with you, as you can take advantage of checking flight status boards, receiving updates and alerts. All in the palm of your hand, and it is all accessible from your mobile device. As an example, check out FlightView for iOS, and FlightView for Android. I don't leave home without it.
Arriving at your destination
Once you've arrived, if you need assistance, make staff aware of how best to provide it. It will make your stay that much more enjoyable and memorable for hotel staff as well. This could include:
Marking the room key card so you know which way to insert it in the door.
Showing you the closest fire exit (Yes, I needed that once).
Orientation to the elevator buttons if there aren't raised print numbers or labelled in braille.
Location of the dining room etc.
Dog relief area. Not all establishments have a designated spot but those that do will be happy to show you where it is. Remember to ensure there is a garbage can nearby as well. And be sure to pick up after your dog. As they say in the commercial, "it's the right thing to do," and leaves a good impression for the next dog team that stays there.
Time to go home
Yes I know, if you were on vacation, all good things come to an end, and if your trip was for business you'll be ready for some down time.
Let hotel staff know your feedback. Sometimes they are really over the top and you had an awesome stay. Or there could be something they could do better next time. I always like to think I'm making it that much easier for the next person who stays there whether or not they have a guide dog.
Treat all encounters with staff as a learning experience for both of you. You never know when you'll be back or where your journeys will take you.
Travel Resource Links
I have listed a few sites that can provide more information on travelling for persons with disabilities – with and without service animals. You can also check out CNIB's July 2012 Insight E-Newsletter for stories on travel by blind and partially sighted Canadians.