According to Rick Steves, there are three kinds of people on the move, tourists, travelers, and pilgrims. Steves is a globetrotter who’s made the international world come alive to millions of Americans through his numerous TV travel shows, radio interviews, and books. I will use his distinctions to organize my article because while many assume a trip means a quick tour, cool cuisine, and a few postcards, journeying can mean much more. Using this discussion about the pros and cons of each type of travel and a few resources, I hope you can step out confidently, wherever and however you decide to go. I have provided some additional information on international travel in my blog series.
Since many people with international interests start with the most convenient way to go, with an organized group, I am going to devote the most time in this article to this means of seeing the world. Obviously, the web or any travel agent offers far too many standard tour packages to mention. But let’s consider some factors if you are debating a cruise versus a land tour.
On cruises, it’s relatively easy to get acquainted with the ship. After all, there are only so many ways to design one. Hallways are straight, decks are railed, and you will learn quickly which way is forward by sensing the waves. Better yet, you will find that many standard features ranging from bars to beauty salons appear on specified floors. Most cruise staff are well acquainted with special-needs passengers, and they want to help. On a cruise, you have 100% control of how much time you want to spend quietly in your cabin versus dancing under the stars, dressing up and dining, venturing ashore, or to various programs on board. If you fear seasickness, I can assure you the crew has ample means to help, from medication to meals delivered to your cabin.
A few additional advantages might seem obvious, but I didn’t consider them until my first cruise. The biggest was that once I had unpacked, I didn’t have to worry about baggage and being on the move again until the end of the voyage. It felt nice that I could set foot in five countries without even thinking about where my shoes were or if I’d forgotten that sweater at the last hotel. Additionally, cruises provide at least a glimpse of many places if you take advantage of the port calls. Most include local tours for an additional fee. River cruises often include such local tours as part of the package. And if you are scouting for somewhere you might want to visit longer later, cruising is a great way to cast your net and explore.
Group Travel by Land
Taking a tour by land offers its advantages. Whether you decide on an overall sweep of Europe, or a deep dive into French cuisine, by contrast with the unpack-and-forget-it aspects of a ship, group travel by land involves much more. To maintain popularity with your group, being on time and keeping up is essential. Package tours usually provide a travel host knowledgeable about the places you will visit, with in-depth insights you will appreciate. However, the standard policy for tour guides doesn’t allow pushing a traveler’s wheelchair or other special-needs guidance, such as walking together.
Additionally, many travelers I have encountered on standard land tours did not expect the amount of walking, climbing steps, or standing often expected on a group trip. Again, knowing your physical abilities and asking the tour company or someone who’s visited the destination is always a good idea. One resource I discovered while researching this article is the Society for Accessible Travel and Hospitality. Professionals primarily comprise this group, but the site also appears to invite comments and participation from travelers with disabilities.
Some of my blind friends who have traveled in groups have brought a travel companion. This may be as simple as asking your significant other, “Want to come?” or working things out with a special trip with a grandchild or close friend. Most of my friends have paid part or all the companion’s expenses, mainly to thank the person for what is frankly the extra energy and thought it takes to be there when you need this person. In cases where you haven’t spent a lot of time alone together, it’s very important to have a realistic talk with your companion about what you need, for example, “I want to take your arm when we’re walking steps,” or “You don’t have to tell me there’s a bird singing, I know that, but maybe if you see the bird, you can tell me what it looks like.”
Something I like to call “sighted guide fatigue” can enter a relationship between you and your companion. Simply put, most people are not used to looking around for two. Be sure as you plan the trip that you allow your companion some free time as you do other things. This means allowing each person the space and time needed to relax and enjoy on their own.
Trips Geared to Special Needs
Several of my blind friends have also taken advantage of trips geared to special needs and/or nonvisual travel. I’ve heard nearly unanimous good reports on the following organizations:
Travel Eyes and Mind’s Eye run a few national and international tours per year that are easy to find on their websites. Often, the earlier you sign up, the better the deals.
Responsible Vacation offers wheelchair-accessible travel and a philosophy of respect for local cultures and places they visit.
Journeying without a tour package has its complications but also its rewards. The beauty of traveling independently (whether alone or with a companion) is that you get to plan your visit’s duration, scope, and purpose. This allows you to explore the sides of life not always posted on package vacation plans. For example, if you love churches, gardens, or music halls, you can visit many in one area for as long as you wish.
If you’ve followed my advice from part one of this series (link) and made some friends abroad, you will likely have a willing person or family meeting you on the other end who will be delighted to show you around their home stomping ground. While for financial reasons it may be tempting to ask for accommodations with friends abroad, keep in mind that (1) they may have far more limited space than what we often take for granted in the USA, (2) your needs will be different than those of a sighted person and could create stress for your host if they have limited experience with you, and (3) if you ask, it may be very uncomfortable in many cultures to say no. However, it’s safe to say that you can accept if a friend abroad offers you a place to stay. It will be important to discuss what role your host will expect to have when you come, ranging from just a roof to a tour guide devoted to spending much of your stay together. If you and your host agree, it’s fantastic. Most friends abroad will be offended if you offer money directly. Still, they often appreciate going out for dinner and having you handle transportation costs for them and other direct expenses.
With Airbnb and other non-hotel hospitality now available, it may be worthwhile to research where you want to stay and sign up for this accommodation. Often hosts of the apartments or rooms available through bed and breakfast facilities are eager to tell you about the best places to eat, pray, walk, or tour in their area, and sometimes they’ll even take you there. Without asking directly, you won’t know this in advance. It is usually possible to hire an English-speaking guide for individuals or groups, though rates will vary greatly depending on your city or country of origin.
Of course, you can also research and contact individual hotels in advance, or if you are the fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants type, you can decide where you will stay on the spot. However, this option may make you more vulnerable to those who assume your dollars are limitless!
Before your mind races to monasteries and miracle sites, let me define “pilgrim” for this discussion as a traveler who wants to make a positive difference in our world. This includes opportunities such as faith-based mission trips. Still, it also embraces humanitarian projects to address issues as diverse as environmental clean-up, agriculture, education, medical, or even language learning. The list of needs and what we can do is nearly infinite, so you can decide what area most closely fits your skills and interests.
It may surprise you how creative you can be in addressing needs. I once went to Costa Rica on a construction project, but with my cooking and cleaning skills, I could support our on-ground staff in the kitchen. So, dissecting a project deeply before assuming you can or cannot participate is always a good idea. Regarding humanitarian projects, it’s quite common for a group to go together, which allows you both flexibility in what you can do (like on that construction project) and a friendly team available to lend you a hand if you need it.
While such trips seldom offer the plush accommodations of a hotel or cruise, who needs that anyhow? What they do provide, unlike most other kinds of travel, is an in-depth view of life in another part of the world, often in a country lacking things taken for granted in other parts of the world. Trips can range from just a week or two for mission-focused service to over two years with Peace Corps, long enough to provide a close-up picture of realities you may not expect as you get to know the territory and make friends. And yes, nearly everyone who is a recipient of a pilgrim’s visit will show an attitude of gratitude and respect. By going with the flow and keeping your complaints and expectations to a minimum, I’m confident you will represent your country of origin and the blind community with flying colors.
by Elizabeth Sammons