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Older, Wiser and Ready to Go


© St. Petersburg Times

Travel agencies, airlines, hotel reservation desks and tour operators are busy making room for another cash register. It's labeled, "SENIORS."

The federal government estimates there are 71-million Americans older than 50, and they spend more than $568.7-billion a year -- more than any other age group. What's most inviting to the travel industry is that seniors take more frequent trips, stay away longer and go farther than younger people.

But those are the generalities. Realistically, older folks pose challenges for the travel industry because of other factors:

-- Members of this age group are better educated, with broader interests, than their predecessors.

-- Their travel schedules have become more flexible. It's not the traditional two-weeks-in-the-summer vacation anymore.

-- Seniors also want to participate, to explore places and meet local people.

-- They want security, but they do not necessarily want to be cooped up with a bunch of other Americans staring out tour-bus windows.

-- And though they have more money to spend on travel, they still seek value for their dollar.

"Older people are moving away from materialistic goals toward the experiential," says the nation's keeper of travel statistics, Suzanne Cook.

"This is the first generation to approach the world as individuals, rather than as members of a group -- ethnic, community or church group," said Cook, senior vice president of the Travel Industry Association of America. She spoke to the National Conference of State Legislatures, meeting in St. Petersburg last month.

Consequently, travel marketers are rejecting the tendency to lump those older than 50 into a single stereotype, recognizing that preferences are more accurately described by lifestyle than by age.

For example, affluent people ages 55 to 65 who are still working, tend to buy short, independent tours. That is, a six-day trip to one country, with a lot of unscheduled time, makes more sense to them than a 12-day bus tour of western Europe. On a per-day basis, the shorter tours can cost more than the longer ones.

Considering such variables, commercial travel operators and non-profit organizations are developing programs ranging from study tours to snowmobile safaris to white-water rafting. Package operators are extending tour dates into the late fall and early spring.

Discounts for seniors abound. Major hotel and motel chains offer special rates to guests over 50. Airlines sell booklets of senior-discount coupons. Ski resorts are offering two-for-one passes, discounting lift tickets by 75 percent, even offering free skiing to those 70 or older.

This age group was also the impetus for an increased number of less-regimented package tours. These vacations allow a group of travelers to remain at each spot on the itinerary for several nights, enjoying more free time and optional excursions, which provide for a deeper look at an area.

The basic package tour is still one of the most attractive options for travelers who enjoy the security of a knowledgeable professional who arranges transportation, lodging, food and the itinerary itself. But greater numbers of people are saying that they would rather be on their own, putting together a trip by selecting options from tour-company catalogs. What's out there?

Among the increased options aimed at seniors:

STUDY TRAVEL: A major trend has been creation of education-based travel programs, most often sponsored by museums, zoos, universities and professional organizations. Hundreds of colleges and universities rally their alumni by offering trips or credit courses abroad. Zoos often schedule safaris or other wildlife-focused tours. Other organizations seek volunteers to work on scientific and archaeological projects at the lowest level -- digging in the dirt or collecting the specimens.

The best-known travel/study organization is Elderhostel, a nonprofit organization that links people 60 and older with short-term, low-cost programs at universities, conference centers and museums, in North America and overseas. Through Elderhostel, about 300,000 vacationers a year spend one to two weeks (two to four weeks on overseas trips) at a college or other educational institution, eating in dining halls, sleeping in dormitory-type lodgings and taking classes in everything from geology to cross-country skiing.

The fee, which averages $300 per week in the United States and Canada, includes room, board and instruction.

Other non-profit groups are the Close Up Foundation Program for Older Americans, which sponsors one-week trips to Washington, D.C., for behind-the-scenes civics lessons; Interhostel, based at the University of New Hampshire, which offers overseas trips and seminars combined with excursions; and the Smithsonian Institution's Associates Program, teamed with the commercial Saga Holidays company, to offer reasonably priced study tours.

PEOPLE-TO-PEOPLE PROGRAMS: Other travelers are more interested in learning from personal interactions rather than in an academic setting. Among the agencies operating this way:

Seniors Abroad, which sponsors home stays for those older than 50, plus a program of hosting older people from overseas.

Folkways Institute of Portland, Ore., has lecture tours, treks and programs enabling personal exchanges with individuals.

The Friendship Force, whose members take turns hosting and visiting each other around the world. Host families provide lodging and food as well as experiences in everyday aspects of their lives and culture.

Elderhostel also has volunteering programs, in which travelers share skills and interests with residents of other nations.

SOFT ADVENTURE: Adventure travel traditionally has appealed to people who want physical challenges. But many seniors prefer the adventure of experiencing and learning about the outdoors without having to keep up with lithe 20- or 30-year-olds or camping in the rain. For them, the answer is "soft adventure," which typically provides the comforts of indoor plumbing and a hot shower. More than a dozen companies have created such trips for seniors.

Activities range from nature walks to rafting to hiking in places around the globe. A number of companies specialize in easy bicycling tours. For those seeking something more strenuous, Eldertreks, a Canadian company, has tours to places as varied as Borneo, Vietnam and Costa Rica, focusing on fragile cultures and environments.

EXTENDED-STAY TRIPS: Popular for more than a decade are trips overseas that combine the convenience of having on-site, professional help and lodging arrangements with the addition of optional tours. These allow travelers to unpack for a while in one location while making trips of a day or longer to delve more deeply into an area. A side benefit to these extended trips is the chance that bad weather won't ruin an entire trip. Specialists in group travel for older people are Saga Holidays and Grand Circle travel.

GRANDPARENT-GRANDCHILD TOURS: Traveling together can give grandchildren and grandparents time to become better friends, to celebrate a special event and to let two generations get together when parents are divorced. Pioneer in the field is Grandtravel, but Elderhostel and several companies have tours with itineraries and activities designed solely for grandparents and grandchildren. If you go

For information on organizations mentioned here, contact the following:

Elderhostel, 75 Federal St., Boston, MA 02110-1941; call (617) 426-8056.

Close Up Foundation Program for Older Americans; 44 Canal Center Plaza, Alexandria, VA 22314; (800) 363-4762.

Interhostel, University of New Hampshire, 6 Garrison Ave., Durham, NH 03824-3529; (603) 862-1147.

Smithsonian Institution's Associates Program, 1100 Jeferson Drive SW, Washington, D.C. 20560; (202) 357-4700.

Seniors Abroad, 12533 Pacato Circle N, San Diego, CA 92128; (619) 485-1696.

Eldertreks, 597 Markham St., Toronto, Ontario, M6G 2L7; (800) 741-7956; (http://www. eldertreks.com).

Folkways Institute, 14600 SE Aldridge Road, Portland, OR 97236-6518; (800) 225-4666.

Friendship Force, 57 Forsyth St., Suite 900, Atlanta, GA 30303; (404) 522-9494. Saga Holidays, 120 Boylston St., Boston, MA 02116; (800) 343-0273.

Grand Circle Travel, 347 Congress St., Boston, MA 02210; (800) 221-2610.

Grandtravel, 6900 Wisconsin Ave., Suite 706, Chevy Chase, MD 20815; (800) 247-7651. SC: PG: 1E TY:

Originally published October 19, 1997

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