Travelling and airports

In my 20s, when my vision was relatively good, I did the one year (1983/4) backpacking stint alone in the South Pacific visiting Hawaii, Fiji, New Zealand, Australia, Tahiti and the Cook Islands and I did not encounter too many problems because of my vision whilst travelling. I often found others in the youth hostel that were also doing my “route” and we were even going to be on the same plane so things just seemed to fall into place. I had a few contact addresses in some of the places and these contacts were only too pleased to show me around their area …. I did not have to worry about not seeing signs or getting lost whilst with them!

Today, with vision that has deteriorated drastically over the years, airports and travel in general is a real worry and challenge for me if travelling by myself. The night before a trip via an airport is usually one of restless sleep! I divide my trip from home to the airport and final destination into segments and can thus get a sense of satisfaction when each segment has been successfully completed and checked off.

I have now acquired a white cane and airports are one of the few places that I actually use it in order to get assistance. I must admit, it did not give the immediate help that I thought it would! Friends have told me that it is not obvious that I have a visual impairment as I always walk briskly and with determination from point A to point B (but would never see any friend along the way!). In other words, people seem to mistrust me using a white cane!

OK, so I could ask for assistance when I book my flight but then maybe you tend to be molly-coddled and I like to wander around a bit by myself …. can usually manage to find the toilets by following women who stride off with determination into a side corridor! I often ask other travellers who are looking up at the departure board to help me to find my gate number and I have always received the best of help and a smile. I usually ask them to point out the direction I should walk to get to the gate and then ask someone else once I have entered the gate area …. in other words, when in doubt, ask, ask, ask! Once I asked some British Airways ground staff if I had come to the right gate and received real “royal” treatment …. allowed to sneak behind barriers to a closer toilet, led to the plane and given priority seating …. sometimes such treatment is SO welcome.

However, I sometimes wonder what type of education airline staff have been given with regard to the visually impaired – or maybe they were off sick that day! At Heathrow, with my white cane very visible, I politely asked a British Airways gal if she could just tell me what gate my flight would be leaving from, to which she replied check on the board later! I politely told her that I could not see the board and that was why I was asking her. I think she then did realise her mistake and said if I stood by her desk she could tell me as soon as the gate was shown – which she did but that was the abrupt end of the assistance!

I usually ear-mark a few passengers on the same flight and then follow them (closely!) to passport control and baggage reclaim once at our final destination. I have a suitcase with a very large first letter of my surname stencilled on it so I can easily see it on the carousel.

So, do you use a white cane? Do you have any tips and tricks when travelling alone? Any airports that are a nightmare for the visually impaired?! Please share with us! :)