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Mastering Air Travel as a Blind Person: Checking-in

Think of the last time you flew. It’s probably not a very pleasant memory, but think back to getting through the airport, fighting security, changing planes, having your gate switched, rushing to make a connection, and, then, imagine doing all of this if you were blind. I’ve done it several hundred times, some more successful than others. This is the first in a series of six posts to share some of the things I’ve learned to make it more efficient and a little less stressful. Here are some tips on mastering travel as a blind person.


Having a friend or family member with you will simplify the process, but you can’t always count on that so I’ll assume you’re traveling by yourself. The following suggestions may vary somewhat depending on the airport, its resources, and your best judgment.

  • Locate a customer service representative. If the airport has an outside kiosk for check-in, you’ll want to be sure that whoever drops you off either accompanies you to the kiosk or gives you good enough directions so that you can locate it yourself. If check-in is inside the airport, you’ll likely need to get a “red cap” to help you find your way. Remember you may well have to negotiate restraining ropes as well as lines of other passengers, and their luggage.
  • Know your itinerary. Before leaving home, you should make a note, in whatever method is most convenient for you, of your flight numbers as well as arrival and departure times. Generally speaking, the more you know about the details of your trip, the less likely it is that you’ll encounter problems if dealing with a marginal employee, and, less face it, almost every business has them.
  • Get assistance to the gate. Whether you checked-in at an outside kiosk or inside the airport, you’ll need to get assistance to go through security and get to your gate. Usually, the person who checked you in will know to do this, but, if you have usable vision and don’t use a cane or dog, you may have to ask. All that is necessary is to explain that you’ll need assistance to get to the gate. You’ll likely have to wait a couple of minutes until the assist person arrives.


While I’ve had some great experiences with assist people in large airports and some not very great ones with those in medium-sized cities, by and large, I’ve found people filling this role to be more pleasant and more helpful in small and medium markets. This having been said, there are some airports I try to avoid if possible because of the relatively poor quality of their assist personnel. I’d sooner volunteer for a proctoscopic exam than travel through places like Atlanta and Washington Dulles. On the other hand, I’m always pleased when I’m scheduled through Houston, Cincinnati, or Charlotte since I’m pretty sure to have a good experience.

  • Tip or not tip. Not all passenger assist personnel are created equal. Some airport authorities contract with independent companies to provide this service. Sometimes this results in good people, but, more often than not, this is not a good sign. Frequently, they’re scraping the bottom of the employment barrel. In situations like this, it’s especially important that you’ve got the details of your itinerary, know your gate, etc. I’ll provide more guidance about this in my next post.

People working for one of these contract companies are working for a very low hourly wage and are dependent on tips. Because the quality of this service can vary greatly and it often goes a long way to determining how stressful the entire flight experience is, the amount I tip can range from something pretty basic to something really generous. The amount depends on what they’ve done, how well they’ve done it, and how much of their time I’ve taken. I’m mindful that if I’ve asked them to go out of their way to find a restroom, pick up a bottle of water, or get a sandwich, I may be preventing them from helping another passenger and, therefore, they’ve passed up the opportunity for another tip. To paraphrase the children’s nursery rhyme, when passenger assist people are good, they are very, very good, and, when they are bad, they are horrid.

Sometimes, the person assisting you is an employee of either the airport or the airlines. My experience has been that these people do not expect to be tipped. In fact, it is sometimes against company policy. If I have any doubt as to whether the assist person is a contract or airport employee, I’ll make a point of asking them while they are providing the assist. This way, I haven’t offended someone by offering a tip when it is inappropriate or stiffing someone who is dependent on the tip for their income. Every now and then, a contract employee will refuse a tip. While this is undoubtedly a well-intentioned gesture, I always tell them that I appreciated their service and that this is how they earn their living. If they still refuse, something that is extremely rare, I will reluctantly honor their wishes but feel very uncomfortable about doing it.

In the next post, we’ll look at packing and luggage and why they’re more important than if you’re sighted.

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