Traveling Without Unraveling

I just returned home from one of my favourite weeks of the year.  The annual convention of the Hearing Loss Association of America (HLAA), held this year in St. Louis, is a fun few days of hanging out with a thousand best friends and learning about stuff that will help me communicate better.  This year there was a baseball game and a book signing thrown in for extra excitement.  (Well, the St. Louis Cardinals game would have been exciting if I liked baseball and if the noise hadn’t benched my hearing aids.)

Getting to St. Louis and staying in the hotel involved some of the many challenges that induce sweaty palms and racing pulses in people with hearing loss. But as an experienced traveler, I pride myself on being able to eliminate some of the barriers and dealing with the rest without unraveling like a sweater.  In fact, this year I presented a workshop on the subject, A HoH on the Road: Traveling with Hearing Loss.

(Note:  HoH = Hard of Hearing)

Having hearing loss is no reason not to travel, but there are a few things a HoH should know before setting out. To distill a 75-minute presentation down to blog-size, this is what I’ve learned in a lifetime of hearing loss travel.


  • Temper tantrums, sobbing and playing the HoH card won’t get you anywhere if you’ve been bumped off a crowded flight.


  • People will be helpful if you tell them you have hearing loss….


  • ….AND if you explain what you need.


  • The above two points are must-have skills for the successful HoH. I don’t care what you call yourself, just don’t hide your communication issues—let people know what you need them to do, i.e., speak louder or softer, turn this way or that, slow down, lose the gum or shave the mustache.


  • At check-in, advise hotel staff of your hearing loss and ask them, in the event of fire, to please send a cutie-patootie fireman (or woman) to break down your door and carry you to safety. In St. Louis, the staff of the incredible St. Louis Station Hotel had received st. louisHoH-communication training by HLAA and the front desk was ‘looped’ for easy talk for those of us with telecoils.  Frankie, my check-in person, told me there was a great team of rescuers standing by should they need to evacuate 1000 HoHs, and I put in first dibs on the best looking fireman on duty. (One has to make the most out of a bad situation.)


  • Let airline personnel know that you “don’t do” PA announcements and that you need help to understand when it’s your turn to board (pre-boarding is nice) and what’s being said on the PA announcements while in the air. And if you run out of things to complain or advocate about, don’t forget to ask why, in this age of accessibility, are there are no captions on the airline movies!


  • Bluffing is pretending you understand when, really, you haven’t got a clue. Don’t do it—ever. If you ask for directions and then bluff while they’re being given, you may find yourself in a side street, late at night, totally lost. Not a safe feeling, especially for a HoH who can’t make out sounds in the dark.


  • An extra change of underwear isn’t the only important thing you need to pack; take along backup hearing aids and CI stuff, lots of your-size batteries, cleaning kits and a device to suck moisture out of your technology while you sleep—you’ll be sorry if you don’t. And—if you are super-organized—a copy of your audiogram is helpful should you find yourself in need of emergency hearing care. Otherwise, use the audiogram to pass the time with a stranger, explaining this new game of x’s and o’s.


  • As much as you love wearing your hearing aids, there are times when you should not wear them. Scuba-diving comes to mind.  On the boat, pack them in a dry-aid before jumping in the water, otherwise your little ear-pieces will become expensive fish food.


  • Before you leave home, especially for a long trip, have your hearing health care provider give your hearing aids or CI a thorough cleaning and checkup.


  • But Accidents Will Happen Anyway. The unwritten law is that if something is going to go wrong with assistive technology, it will be on a weekend, when your hearing professional can’t be reached, or when you’re in a place far, far away.


  • Which is Why You’ll Have Spares: old hearing aids and LOTS of your-size batteries. (I know I said this already, but I speak from experience: you do not want to be caught without backups. Along the Great Wall of China, let’s say, or on your way up the Eiffel Tower.)


  • At night, you need more than your jammies. If you can’t hear hotel wakeup calls or the hotel clock-radio alarm, take along a personal device that flashes or vibrates you into a conscious flasher


  • When all else fails, take along a hearing person. There’s no shame in it and s/he can carry the bags.


On my trip home to Toronto, which involved two flights, I practiced what I preach. I told the flight attendant there were a few of us on the flight with hearing loss and we don’t understand PA announcements.  “Have a seat,” she said. “I’ll bring you a Braille card.”


About Gael Hannan

Gael Hannan is a writer, speaker and advocate on hearing loss issues. In addition to her weekly blog for, which has an international following, Gael wrote the acclaimed book "The Way I Hear It: A Life with Hearing Loss". She is regularly invited to present her uniquely humorous and insightful work to appreciative audiences around the world. Gael has received many awards for her work, which includes advocacy for a more inclusive society for people with hearing loss. She lives with her husband on Vancouver Island, British Columbia, Canada.


  1. I hate the idea of going to a beach because there’s nowhere safe to keep the HAs if I head to the water. I’m scared I’ll come back to find everything stolen :/

  2. Love the Braille comment. Sort of like when I talk about a hearing loop, they proudly say that they already have someone that signs.

  3. Recently flying back from Halifax, I went to the checkin counter to pre-board and was greeted with
    ‘Oh, you are the deaf lady. I was looking for you. But, you don’t look deaf!’
    I just couldn’t go down that road!
    Great column, thanks Gael!

  4. Wonderful article. I wish I was there. Went with family to a dirty crater and left with dirt in my hearing aids. No one seemed to care that I spent the next few days unable to hear (probably talking about me). I do have a question. Do flies like hearing aids. They were my only friends this trip. Thanks for all the tips though. Next trip is flying and I sure can use the suggestions.

  5. Have been offered the Braille card myself Gael!! That really helps us to hear…NOT!!!
    Good tips!

  6. I have absolutely no problems when traveling. That’s not to say unexpected things no longer happen, they do, but I’m such a calm traveler — I don’t consider my being deaf much of a factor when I travel — not much can phase me. Mishaps aren’t the end of the world, even getting lost, and once you convince yourself of that your travel life will be so much more pleasant.

    Yep, you need to declare (in your own words and terms) your inability to hear to everyone you encounter, and you need to do so in a manner that puts people at ease. I usually say “I’m a lipreader, I need to see you speak.” Straight. To the point. I’ve stated exactly what I need.

    I flew last night, in fact. As I entered the plane I paused to tell the flight attendant, “I need you to know I’m deaf. I read lips very well, so if you get my attention before speaking we should be good, but lipreading doesn’t always work, so I have a pen and paper with me. I don’t need anything in particular — I’m a frequent traveler — but I won’t hear announcements and in case of an emergency I need to be notified face to face.” The flight attendant always thanks me for the info.

    When someone sits next to me, I let them get settled and then let them know I’m deaf (and that’s their good fortunate if they’re not looking for a chat… they usually chuckle a my little joke) and if they need to get my attention, simply tap me on the arm.

    It’s smooth sailing… er, flying from there on out. Though this does work on boats. Trains too. Buses are a bit more challenging for some reason, but any mode of traveling can be approached calmly.

    If it doesn’t fit in my carry-on, it stays home (too many times my checked baggage has been waylaid — my luggage is more well-traveled than I am) :o)

    Be in the moment and force yourself to enjoy your travels… life is too short to stress out while getting to the places you want to go in life. ~~Michele

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