Seniors Hop the Rail For Flexibility and Freedom

Today's trains are far cry from yesterday's chug-a-chugs

Robert and Jean Kerr knew they wanted a European vacation but weren't sure what kind to plan. They had been to Europe once before, but that trip was quick and on the cheap.

This time, they wanted something different. What caught their eye was a 21-day odyssey covering five countries and nine major cities. One leg of the journey would be on the legendary Orient Express, that stretch of a grand hotel on wheels.

"Oh, it has style, panache, glamour, and old-fashioned deluxe," waxes Mr. Kerr, speaking from his home in Cuyahoga, Ohio. "The polished wood, brass, seats like velvet.... It is spiffy. You cannot be overdressed and the older folks really lap it up."

The Kerrs are two of thousands of senior travelers who are eschewing the "total coach" and cruise experiences and enjoying the benefits of train travel.

While exact numbers are unknown, trends suggest that train travel may be on the rise with this older population - whether a company-organized trip, or part of an independent travel itinerary. This is especially true in Europe, where train tradition is strong.

The reasons older travelers say they are attracted to rails range from convenience and comfort to old-fashioned romance and outstanding views that you wouldn't necessarily get on the roadways.

The Orient Express is just one of four trains the Kerrs took on "The Great European Rail Spectacular," a trip designed and conducted by Grand Circle Travel, a Boston-based company specializing in trips for the "seasoned traveler," those 50 and older.

On the "Rail Spectacular" the Kerrs journeyed through Italy, enjoyed a home-hosted dinner with a Tuscan family, and then took the Orient Express in Venice to Innsbruck, Austria. In Chur, Switzerland, they boarded the Swiss Glacier Express (see page B1) to glide through the southern part of Switzerland. "That was the neat one," because of the spectacular scenery, says Mr. Kerr.

After that, they moved on to Lausanne and hopped on the TGV Bullet train to Paris. After some time sightseeing there, they were whisked away to London on the high-speed Eurostar "Chunnel" Train (see page B2).

"All I could think of was 'How in the world can they make the train ride so smooth,' " says Berwin Jerkins, who took The Great European Rail Spectacular with his wife, Mary. "The last time I rode a train was in the late '40s and it was clackety-clackety-clack."

What's interesting is that a good number of the people on this type of trip are train buffs, notes Mr. Jerkins. They're interested not only in riding trains, but also in the history and details of them.

One of those buffs is Bob Arlt. The graphic artist from Los Angeles went on the Rail Spectacular this past August with several family members.

Of course, the Orient Express was a particular treat, he says, because of the exquisite restoration, which cost millions. "The craftsmanship was the real thing," says Mr. Arlt with a twinge of awe in his voice. "It didn't have that Disneyland look."

The group also took a cog train in the Alps, which added to the experience. "But you don't have to be a train buff to enjoy this kind of trip," Arlt assures. For some people it's just another mode of transportation.

"We try to provide a contrast on the tour - the scenic trains are slower, the high-speed trains get you places fast," says Rob Kelly, vice president of product development for Grand Circle Inc. "The whole mode of transportation by train is relaxing," he points out. You can get up and walk around, talk to other folks, and you can relax and enjoy a meal at the table.

The cost of Grand Circle's 21-day trip ranges from $3,695 to $4,295, depending on the season, and includes 19 nights accommodation in first-class hotels along the way, breakfast, all train rides, 21 lunches, 8 dinners, and allows plenty scheduled-in free time.

PLANNED tours aside, some mature travelers prefer the more independent rail experience, mapping out their own itineraries and free-wheeling it a bit.

"Seniors are traveling more like kids," observes Rick Steves, host of the popular PBS show "Rick Steves' Europe Through the Back Door." These are not the types who travel by coach and expect to be pampered, he says. They have their rucksacks, train passes, a good map, and hiking boots. As Mr. Steves is fond of saying: "You can't measure how old you are by the year you were born.

"There are people in their 70s who have the world by the tail," says Steves enthusiastically during a phone interview. He jokes that on some tours he feels like a "worried father" having to tell seniors to "get out of that castle" and "come down off that ancient wall! Can't you read the signs?" There is a particularly hearty cross-section of seniors, Steves sums up. "The people I see are an inspiration."

Rail discounts for senior travelers are also cropping up in certain places, depending on the country or city. For example, you might be able to get first-class tickets at second-class price, says Steves. In Scandinavia, the Scanrail 55+ pass is considerably less than the regular price.

Generally speaking, trains are part and parcel of traveling in Europe, but what people sometimes take for granted is the flexibility they offer.

"Unlike a cruise or airplane, if you really feel like it, you can get off - another train is always coming," says Kady Goldfield, public relations director of Elderhostel, a nonprofit educational program for seniors. Many Elderhostelers who go through a program in England, for example, end up traveling to Europe afterward.

Ms. Goldfield also notes that on trains, you often witness unique scenery, such as countryside villages and agricultural communities. In some cases you're seeing poor communities, she says, and that can be very revealing.

Goldfield also reinforces the probability of mingling with local people.

"Train travel gives you intimacy that you don't get, say, in an airplane or on a pre-booked coach. And the people you meet are certainly a big part of the travel experience."

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