By Jule Ann Lieberman and Vision Loss Resource Team
It is that time of year again for summer travel. Now that we are less restricted by the COVID pandemic, we may feel more comfortable leaving home. Whether you are traveling out of town or just back out into your own community, I thought it might be helpful if I share my thoughts as a person with profound vision loss who travels for work and pleasure.
Recently I traveled from my home in Devon to Harrisburg to participate in a conference as part of my work. This meant train trips, hotel stay and navigating a hotel venue.
Let us start at the beginning, which would be the planning stage. This trip, I contacted the conference hotel and made a reservation for a two-night stay. Since I travel with my trusty guide dog, I typically ask for a lower-level room if available. This helps me exit and enter more easily to provide my dog time to “do his business” without delays that can occur with a busy elevator. This year I observed that many of the conference attendees who have traveled with the help of their service dogs were all routinely given rooms on the first floor.
With the room reservation set, I then researched the best train travel to Harrisburg and back to Devon. The Am Track station nearest to my home is in Paoli, PA. This newly renovated train station has a platform that serves both the SEPTA regional rail line service between Philadelphia and Paoli Station and an Am Track train heading to Harrisburg and Pittsburgh. Paoli Station is busier and more complex than Devon station during the middle of the day. Boarding at Devon Station is much easier for me. The SEPTA train from Devon will allow me to exit one train and board the Am Track train on the same platform in Paoli.
Devon station during the middle of the day is incredibly quiet. Rather than hiring a shared ride to take me from my home and then maneuver through the Paoli train station complex, I arranged for a ride from home for the short distance to the Devon train station. Other than needing some assistance to lift my suitcase onto the regional rail train, this was much easier for me, as when in Paoli I just rolled off the train onto the platform shared by Am Track.
I scheduled my Am Track reservation on-line, and as it had my email address, I got notifications regarding any delays or changes to my scheduled train. This also included an email that offered an opportunity to upgrade my coach seat to business class through an on-line bidding process. Considering that I was traveling with a large suitcase and my 74-pound Labrador, having the extra room was very appealing. This train happened to be the Pennsylvanian which travels from New York to Pittsburgh through Harrisburg. Having traveled this train previously, I remembered that it could be crowded by the time it arrives in Paoli. I placed a bid and was upgraded to business class. One observation on this train is that the Am Track crew always seems friendly and extremely helpful in finding a seat for me and even pulling my suitcase to my seat, thanks crew!
AS it happened this time, a fellow conference attendee and colleague was also on that train. Once we arrived in Harrisburg, we both had Red Cap support staff accompany us to the elevator and then out to where taxi or shuttles pick up passengers. Fortunately for me, the hotel shuttle was available, and I joined her for the trip to the hotel. The shuttle driver escorted both of us to the hotel front desk to check -in.
The check-in process was smooth and I had ready my ID card and credit card for registration. Hint, keep your ID and the credit card consistently in the same place in your wallet to avoid having to identify them among various cards. Keeping a signature guide in your wallet also makes it easier to sign any registration documents during check in. I was then given my room keys. Yes, although traveling alone, I usually ask for two keys so that I can keep one handy and one in my purse to avoid forgetting and leaving my room without one.
I asked the bell captain to help me find my room. I then followed, being careful to note how many turns and in what hallway my room was located. I find it helpful to listen to sounds of ice machines, soda machines or any environmental sounds to clue me in that I am getting close to my room. I then “mark” with my dog the room location by reinforcing him with a treat. My dog is very dependable and once he knows the room, he finds it every time, even when I try to trick him up. Clever dog!
I locate the room number and read the Braille or raised numbers to confirm we are correct. Friends have tied a ribbon, twist tie or rubber band on the door handle to also confirm the correct room.
This hotel uses the magnetic swipe key. Finding the correct direction to insert and swipe can be a challenge. I have on past occasions requested a small piece of tape be added to the key to help me orient it when at my door. If I have not done this, I will pull out some tiny lock dots and place them on the key once I have successfully determined the direction.
Now the best part for my dog, dinner time. I pack enough food for the entire stay plus an extra serving or two in case there is a delay in my return. Always packed with me is my treat pouch for rewards and my clean up bags for being a good hotel guest.
The next step was to adjust the thermostat, as in this case the room was very cold. I tried contacting the front desk for assistance; however, the desk was quite busy. Rather than being terribly cold, I pulled out my iPhone and called my AIRA agent. Even she was surprised to read the temperature of the room was 62 degrees. She took a picture of the thermostat and guided me to the location to both the up and down controls and the choice of auto or fan.
I kept my iPhone handy and moved to the bathroom to locate the shampoo etc. I used my SeeingAI app on my phone to identify the tiny bottles and strategically located them in the shower. I also bring along my own bottles that have rubber bands of varied sizes to indicate the contents. Since I was staying only a few days, I packed my medications in pill packets, placed them in a separate larger zipped bag marked according to the scheduled time.
I have fortunately been to this hotel several times, so orientation is a little easier when traveling to the conference registration desk and sessions. I do read over the hotel description ahead of time at the conference website in case any renovations have changed the layout. This hotel has only one restaurant and it is conveniently just past the conference session rooms near the front door.
After getting settled in, I made my way to get an early dinner. I found the host near the entrance and was escorted to my table. Again, using my iPhone and SeeingAI app I read the menu.
The meetings and conference sessions digital program provided clear identification of session and room location. The only complication I encountered was at one of the evenings’ get togethers as it was in the dark sunken part of the lobby. I asked for assistance of one of my fellow attendees to help me get to the elevators which was one of the orientation points I memorized to return to my room. Asking for assistance is acceptable and most people are happy to help once you let them know the help you need.
On the last evening of the conference, I stopped back at the front desk and scheduled a shuttle ride back to the train station. I was taking the Pennsylvanian back to Paoli so again bid on an upgrade ticket. Although the train was not overly crowded, I did appreciate the extra leg room. I repeated the same journey back to Devon on the regional rail where I arranged for a pickup to take me home. It was a great conference, meeting with old friends and being introduced to students preparing to be vision professionals.
Travel independently as a person who is blind or has low vision can be a success with planning. Remember to pack your patience with yourself and other travelers. Traveling by air is not that much different, planning and arranging assistance with the airlines can make for a positive experience. I hope this story gave you some ideas and you are ready to venture out this year.