Seniors and Traveling

About 39 million Americans are now 65 or older. Not only is this segment of the population booming, but today's seniors are generally healthier and more active than ever before. The trend has produced a corresponding boom in travel organizations eager to work with older people. You can now get discounts on hotels, motels, buses, trains, and boats, and, if you like, enjoy a host of travel adventures designed specifically for older travelers. Here are some of the best:

The hostel experience

How can you travel the world on a limited budget, have a comfortable place to sleep each night, and still have money left over for meals and sightseeing? The answer: Stay in a youth hostel. (The term youth hostel is actually outdated, because few hostels have age restrictions anymore.) Hostels attract all sorts of people, and not just because they are inexpensive. Staying in a hostel is a great way to meet people and to discover intriguing places and sights completely off the beaten path.

Though they don't offer luxury lodgings, hostels are usually clean, comfortable, and well-situated. Be prepared for minor inconveniences: There may be a curfew, so check for such restrictions at each hostel. Single-sex dormitory-style rooms are the norm, but you can often find a private room for you and your partner if you make reservations in advance. Most hostels have kitchens with basic utensils like pots, pans, and dishes available for community use, and a few have cafeterias. Bring along your own soap, shampoo, and towels to use in the showers, as well as a sleep sheet: two single sheets sewn together like a sack. (Most hostels provide these for a fee, but it's good to be prepared in case one doesn't.) Blankets and pillows are provided.

Hostels typically charge a modest daily fee. In the United States, this is usually $15-20 a day in rural locations or small towns, and $25 to $45 in big cities for a shared room, if you show a membership card in American Youth Hostels ($18 a year for those 55 and over). Some cities offer private rooms for $50 a night and up, although some urban hostels, like those in central New York City, may charge up to $170 a day for that privilege! If you don't have a membership card, the hostel will usually accommodate you as a "guest member" for a slightly higher fee.

For guidebooks and membership information, contact:

Hostelling International/American Youth Hostels (HI/AYH) http://www.hiusa.org
8401 Colesville Road, Suite 600
Silver Spring, MD 20910
301-495-1240

Road Scholar

Another version of the hostel experience is Road Scholar (formerly Elderhostel Inc.), which caters to the older traveler. Whether you want to take a walking tour of the English countryside, hear jazz in New Orleans, study the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, or go on a sailing expedition in the San Juan Islands, your fee covers registration, accommodations, meals, classes, field trips, and limited accident insurance. Prices for a typical five-night program in the lower 48 United States are between $600 - $1,000; international and Alaska and Hawaii trips run higher and last longer (up to three weeks).

Road Scholar welcomes both couples and single travelers, and even offers special trips you can take with your children or grandchildren. You have your choice of private rooms or doubling up, sometimes with an assigned roommate. To get more information or order a catalog, call Road Scholar's toll-free number, 800-454-5768. The organization's Web site is http://www.roadscholar.org/default.asp. There you can browse the catalog as well as register for any of their programs. For scholarship information, write:

Road Scholar, Inc.
11 Avenue de Lafayette
Boston, MA 02111-1746
Attn: Scholarships

Day trips from senior centers and churches

Perhaps the most overlooked opportunity for inexpensive entertainment can be found at your local senior center. Short classes, shopping excursions, and day trips to festivals, parks, and theatrical and musical events are typical offerings at senior centers around the country. Most are free or available for a modest fee. Signing up for a trip can also be a good way to meet people in your own community who have similar interests. These trips may require advance registration, so you might want to get a schedule of upcoming events from your local center. Don't forget to inquire as well at your local church, synagogue, or mosque about any trips they might offer.

You can usually find senior centers listed under city government in the phone book, but check state listings as well. City and county community services departments often have listings of senior centers in the region. Elder Care Locator (800-677-1116 or www.eldercare.gov), a nationwide information service for seniors, can also help you locate a center.

Traveling alone

"Travel may seem like a cure-all for everything, but if you're one of the 2.6 million American men and 11 million American women who have been widowed, traveling may not be the same happy trail it is for others," says Kelly Ferrin, a gerontologist and author of What's Age got To Do With It. She recommends the following groups that specialize in coordinating trips for singles:

The Women's Travel Club http://www.womenstravelclub.com
800-480-4448

Women Traveling Together http://www.women-traveling.com
864-949-6757

Walking tours

Walking tours are increasingly popular and range from a one- or two-hour stroll to expeditions of three weeks or more. In Dublin, for example, you can take a half-day walking tour led by history graduates who will discuss the people and places behind the Irish Revolution. In Prague, there are tours of sites frequented by the former Czechoslvakia's famous authors, including Kafka, as well as "ghost tours" of places involved in supernatural legends. Many U.S. cities offer history-oriented walking tours as well.

If you're in good shape and have thirsty boots, you might want to try a longer walking/hiking tour. These relaxed expeditions let you experience the local culture, flavor, and history of a place and generally last a week or more. They involve small groups (16 people or fewer) and are moderately paced; a typical walking day covers 5 to 12 miles. Accommodations range from hotels and country inns to a hospitable farmhouse. The price of the tour usually includes lodging, most meals, and transport fees (moving your luggage between destinations). But whether you want a day's walk exploring the history of Berlin or three weeks touring the Italian countryside, here are some places to get ideas:

Great Outdoor Recreation Pages http://www.gorp.com

Sierra Club http://www.sierraclub.org

Elder Treks http://www.eldertreks.com

Road Scholar http://www.roadscholar.org/default.asp
800-454-5768

Walking the World http://www.walkingtheworld.com

Overseas Adventure Travel www.oattravel.com
Offers 12- to 16-day walks through several European countries.
800-493-6824

Ole Spain http://www.olespain.com
888-869-7156

Cultural exchange and language programs

It's never too late to learn another language, and one of the best ways to do so is by full immersion in the language and the culture of its native speakers. Many language programs offer homestays, either with families or with teachers who give private instruction. Like the other students, you may find that nothing provides greater motivation than the need to communicate. Here's a sampling of programs and resources that welcome older students:

Experiencia Centro de Intercambio Bilingue y Cultural AC www.mexicoamigos.com
866-4SPANISH

AmeriSpan Study Abroad http://www.amerispan.com
215-751-1100

Cemanahuac Educational Community
Offers intensive Spanish-language and cultural studies in small classes (five students or fewer) in Cuernavaca, 90 miles south of Mexico City, and in the small rural town of Buenavista, in the state of Guerrero. Students live with host families.
Contact the educational programs coordinator at 614-876-8768.

National Registration Center for Study Abroad http://www.nrcsa.com
The NRCSA has programs in dozens of countries; you can register in the section for "mature adults" if you prefer studying with people closer to your age
414-278-0631

If you've already mastered another language and are looking for an opportunity to practice or to make connections with people from other cultures, several organizations offer homestays to travelers looking for cultural exchange. These include:

United States Servas www.usservas.org
1125 16th St., Suite 201
Arcata, CA 95521-5585
707-825-1714

Intergenerational trips

The most valuable thing you can share with the next generation may be the gift of your time. Here are some programs that offer trips you can enjoy with your children, grandchildren, nieces, or nephews:

Road Scholar Intergenerational Programs http://www.roadscholar.org/default.asp
800-454-5768

Great Camp Sagamore http://www.sagamore.org
An old-fashioned summer camp stay to be enjoyed by grandparents and kids alike.
315-354-5311

Rascals in Paradise http://www.rascalsinparadise.com
Intergenerational adventure trips for three to six families per trip.
415-273-2224

Historical /cultural tours

If culture, history, literature, or art is your passion, you may want to contact the following organizations:

Literarytraveler.com
This Web site has compiled listings of specific art and literary tours available through various companies or individuals.
800-314-8602

Smithsonian Associates http://smithsonianassociates.org
Offers several courses and tours dealing with history and art.
202-633-3030

Country Heritage Tours http://www.countryheritagetours.com
This group has stitched together several itineraries designed to take in culturally important sights and world-famous quilt shows.
800-346-9820

National Trust for Historic Preservation http://www.preservationnation.org
Offers several tours that focus on historically significant works of art and architecture.
800-944-6847

ETC: Educational Travel Community http://www.travelearning.com
Maintains a database of educational tours offered by nearly 1,000 museums, historical societies, universities, and various nonprofit groups.
406-745-4800

Bike tours

If you dreamed in your younger years of cycling through the south of France, you may want to look into it now. Bike tours typically have a set itinerary, which means a planned lunch stop and a final destination for the evening; otherwise, you are free to enjoy the beauty of your ride. Most tours also include something called a sag wagon, a vehicle that will carry your luggage (and you, if necessary) between stops. The guide operating the sag wagon is also expected to regularly check whether anyone needs mechanical or medical assistance. (Make sure that the tour you sign up for provides this service, and ask what trips are offered for seniors or people in your range of fitness.). To find out more about bicycle tours, contact one of these providers:

Road Scholar http://www.roadscholar.org/default.asp
800-454-5768

International Bicycle Tours http://www.internationalbicycletours.com
860-767-7005

Senior Cycling http://www.seniorcycling.com
A company whose focus is tours with senior riders in mind.
540-668-6307

Eco-tours

Bird-watching in the rainforest, monitoring an endangered Green Sea turtle as she lays her eggs, or learning about the medicinal uses of plants from a shaman are just a few of the activities that fall under the recently coined term "eco-tour." This kind of tourism has become a means of survival for some native cultures under pressure from outside development, and many tours are available in biodiversity hot spots like Costa Rica, Belize, or Ecuador. If you're interested in eco-tourism travel, try these Web sites:

Road Scholar http://www.roadscholar.org/default.asp

Sierra Club http://www.sierraclub.org

Great Outdoor Recreation Pages http://www.gorp.com
Specializes in adventures for all ages and abilities.

National Audubon Society http://travel.audubon.org
The society's "Nature Odyssey" offers camps and ecological workshops that go beyond just bird watching.
800-967-7425

Workshops, classes and seminars

With courses for seniors on everything from surfing the Web and online investing to contemporary politics or ancient Chinese medicine, finding something to whet your intellectual appetite shouldn't be difficult. If your local senior center doesn't offer anything, try your local college or university -- or consider study abroad. For a description of short-term programs, look in your bookshop or library for Great American Learning Vacations (published by Fodor). It contains a wealth of detailed listings for art, photography, writing, and cooking courses offered nationwide. Here are a few more programs you may want to look into:

Chautauqua Institution http://www.ciweb.org
Offers a wide variety of programs at its complex on the shores of New York's Lake Chautauqua. Its "55-Plus Weekend" and "Residential Week for Older Adults" programs are popular and fairly inexpensive.
800-836-ARTS

Smithsonian Associates http://smithsonianassociates.org
Offers several itineraries with educational themes
202-633-3030

Road Scholar http://www.roadscholar.org/default.asp
An international organization that offers affordable seminars both in the United States and overseas.
800-454-5768

Senior Summer School http://www.seniorsummerschool.com
This school offers seniors two to 10 weeks of courses at one of six participating colleges.
800-847-2466

Institutes for Learning in Retirement
Consists of 250 colleges and universities throughout the country that offer noncredit, college-level courses for those who can attend daytime classes near them.
Contact Road Scholar Institute Network 800-454-5768.

Cruises and bus tours

Okay, we'd probably be remiss not to mention cruises. But some of the best vacation deals include cruises because they're so popular that cruise ships are competing for your passage.

Talk to your travel agent, or call one of the companies that specialize in getting you discounted rates. And here are a few companies to check into for cruises with a slightly different flavor:

Saga Holidays http://www.saga.co.uk/holidays/ocean-cruises.aspx
Specializes in cruises for travelers over 50 and sails out of England to such destinations as Iceland, Scandinavia, Spain, the Baltic, and the Canary Islands.
0/800/096-0081 (from the United Kingdom)

Road Scholar http://www.roadscholar.org/default.asp
Offers several courses designed to explore the waterways of the United States on all sorts of vessels, from sailboats to river barges. Call 800-454-5768 or browse the "Adventures Afloat" catalog.

Coach tours

If you enjoy being on the road but would rather have someone else do the driving, here are a few companies that offer interesting coach tours:

Fancy-Free Holidays http://www.fancyfreeholidays.com
Specializes in both domestic and overseas coach tours for senior travelers.
800-421-3330

Trafalgar Tours http://www.trafalgartours.com
Provides luxury coach tours both domestically and abroad.
866-854-0103

References

U.S. Census Bureau. State and County Quick Facts. Aug. 16, 2010 http://quickfacts.census.gov/qfd/states/00000.html

AgingStats.gov. 2008 Older Americans: Number of people age 65 and over by age group, selected years 1900-2006 and projected 2010-2050. http://www.agingstats.gov/agingstatsdotnet/Main_Site/Data/Data_2008.aspx

U.S. Census Bureau. 2006 American Community Survey. http://factfinder.census.gov/servlet/ACSSAFFFacts

Joan Rattner Heilman. Unbelievably Good Deals and Great Adventures that You Absolutely Can't Get Unless You're Over 50. McGraw-Hill: 2011, 288 pp.

Eugene S. Mills. The Story of Road Scholar. University Press of New England: 1993, 197 pp.

Jim Williams. The Hostel Handbook for the USA and Canada (2011). Jim Williams.

The Independent Hostel Guide, Backpackers Press, 2011.

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