More than ever, people are hocking their rockers and buying plane tickets. Many senior adventurers are proclaiming, “Age matters only if you’re a cheese.” Travel is their fountain of youth.
These days, many “seniors” are more energetic than their backpacker grandkids. Even for these folks, the topics covered below could be of particular interest to them too. I’m not a senior, yet so I asked seniors to share their advice on The Graffiti Wall at www.ricksteves.com. Thanks to the many who responded, here’s a summary of top tips from seniors who believe it’s never too late to have a happy childhood.
When to go: Since most seniors are retired and can travel whenever they want, it’s smart to aim for shoulder season (April, May, Sept, Oct). This allows you to avoid the most exhausting things about European travel: crowds and the heat of summer.
Planning: The Internet is an invaluable resource for booking flights, checking train schedules, researching and reserving hotels, and lots more. If you’re not already an Internet whiz, enlist someone to help you. Local travel classes (often offered by travel stores or libraries) are a good way to inspire you and help kick-start your planning.
Travel insurance: Seniors pay more for travel insurance but are also more likely to need it. Find out exactly whether, and how, your medical insurance works overseas. (Medicare is not valid outside the US; check your supplemental insurance coverage for exclusions.) Pre-existing conditions are a problem, especially if you are over 70, but there are plans that will waive those exclusions. When considering additional travel insurance, pay close attention to evacuation insurance, which covers the substantial expense of getting you to adequate medical care in case of an emergency especially if you are too ill to fly commercially.
Packing: Hauling a big bag is a major concern for seniors. Instead, bring a rolling suitcase.Figure out ways to smoothly carry your luggage, so you’re not wrestling with several bulky items. For example, if you bring a second bag, make it a small one that stacks neatly (or even attaches) on top of your wheeled bag.Packing light is even more important for seniors when you pack light, you’re younger. To lighten your load, take fewer clothing items and do laundry more often. Bring along a magnifying glass to help you read detailed maps and small-print schedules, and a small notebook to jot down facts and reminders.
Medications and health: Be certain to take a full supply of any medications with you.It can be difficult and time-consuming to fill a prescription in Europe, and even non-prescription medications (such as vitamins or supplements) may not be available abroad in the same form you’re used to. Pharmacists overseas are often unfamiliar with American brand names, so you may have to use the generic name instead (for example, atorvastatin instead of Lipitor). Ask your doctor before you leave for a list of the precise generic names of your medications, and names of equivalent medications in case of unavailability. If you wear hearing aids, be sure to bring spare batteries it can be difficult to find a specific size in Europe.
Flying: If you’re not flying direct, check your bag because if you have to transfer to a connecting flight at a huge, busy airport, your carry-on bag will become a lug-around drag. If you’re a slow walker, ask the airline or flight attendant to arrange transportation so you can easily make your next flight. Since cramped leg room can be a concern for seniors, book early to reserve aisle seats (or splurge on roomier “economy plus” or first class). Be careful to stay hydrated during long flights, and take short walks hourly to avoid the slight chance of getting a blood clot.
Accommodations: If stairs are a problem, request a ground-floor room. Think about the pros and cons of where you sleep: If you stay near the train station at the edge of town, you’ll minimize carrying your bag on arrival; on the other hand, staying in the city center gives you a convenient place to take a break between sights (and you can take a taxi on arrival to reduce lugging your bags). To save money, try hostels, which offer the bonus of ready-made friends (and you’ll really impress all the youngsters bunking with you). No matter where you stay, ask about your accommodations’ accessibility quirks whether there’s an elevator, if it’s at the top of a steep hill, and so on before you book.
Getting around: Subways involve a lot of walking and stairs, and are a pain with luggage. Consider using city buses or taxis instead. With lots of luggage, definitely take a taxi (better yet, pack light). If you’re renting a car, be warned that some countries, and some car-rental companies, have an upper age limit.
Senior discounts: Just showing your gray hair or passport can snag you a discount on many sights, and even some events such as concerts. (The British calls a senior discount “concessions” or “pensioner’s rate.”) Always ask about discounts, even if you don’t see posted information about one you may be surprised. However, note that at some sights, US citizens aren’t eligible for the senior discount (because the US is notorious for not reciprocating).Seniors can get deals on point-to-point rail tickets in Scandinavia, Austria, France, Belgium, and more (including the Eurostar Chunnel crossing between Britain and France). To get rail discounts in some countries, such as Britain, you can purchase a senior card at a local train station (valid for a year, but still worthwhile on a short trip if you take several train rides during your stay).Railpasses for Britain and France give seniors a discount in first class. It’s rare, but a few airlines do offer discounts to seniors; Always ask.
Sightseeing: Many museums have elevators, and even if these are freight elevators not open to the public, the staff might bend the rules for older travelers. Take advantage of the benches in museums; sit down frequently to enjoy the art and rest your feet. Go late in the day for fewer crowds and cooler temperatures. Many museums offer loaner wheelchairs.Take bus tours (usually 2 hours long) for a painless overview of the highlights. Boat tours of the harbor, river, lake, or fjord are a pleasure. Hire an English-speaking cabbie to take you on a tour of a city or region (if it’s hot, spring for an air-conditioned taxi). If you’re traveling with others but need a rest break, set up a rendezvous point. For easy sightseeing, grab a table at a sidewalk caf for a drink and people watching.
Educational and volunteer opportunities: For a more meaningful cross-cultural experience, consider going on an educational tour like those run by Road Scholar, which offers study programs around the world for those over 55 (one to four weeks, call or check online for a free catalog, tel. 800-454-5768).
Long-Term Trips: Becoming a temporary part of the community can be particularly rewarding. Settle down and stay a while, doing side-trips if you choose. You can rent a house or apartment, or go a more affordable route, and “swap” houses for a few weeks with someone in an area you’re interested in visiting. You can visit various websites (including www.transitionsabroad.com and www.escapeartist.com), books (such as the “Living Abroad in…” series, www.livingabroad.com), and magazines (such as International Living), which offer tips about retiring to a foreign land, for either long-term or short-term.
Resources for seniors
Ed Perkins writes an excellent “seniors on the Go” column at www.smartertravel.com/senior-travel.
AARP’s website has a good section on travel.
Senior-travel books include Unbelievably Good Deals and Great Adventures That You Absolutely Can’t Get Unless You’re Over 50, by Joan Rattner Heilman (McGraw-Hill); Travel Unlimited: Uncommon Adventures for the Mature Traveler, by Alison Gardner (Avalon); and The Grown-Up’s Guide to Running Away from Home, The Grown-Up’s Guide to Retiring Abroad, and The Grown-Up’s Guide to Living in France, all by Roseanne Knorr (Ten Speed Press).
Rick Steves (www.ricksteves.com) writes European travel guidebooks and hosts travel shows on public television and public radio. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org, or write to him c/o P.O. Box 2009, Edmonds, WA 98020.