Senior Citizens: Up, Up, and Away

Later this year, Sen. John Glenn of Ohio will travel into space on what might be considered the ultimate adventure trip. Although not a vacation by any means, his upcoming scientific mission aboard the space shuttle highlights the changing role of seniors in a society with a rapidly aging population.

While the latest figures available - in a 1993 study by the United States Travel Data Center - indicate that 55-plus travelers make up just 17 percent of the domestic travel market, the impact of the mature traveler is substantial.

"We make up 70 percent of the motor-coach market and nearly 50 percent of the cruise market," reports Adele Malott, editor, with her husband Gene, of The Mature Traveler newsletter. "And although seniors comprise only about one-third of the US population, we hold 50 percent of the passports issued."

According to travel writer Marcia Schnedler, 50-plus Americans spend some 80 percent of US vacation dollars.

And their numbers are growing.

One baby boomer turns 50 every 7.6 seconds, according to statistics released at a recent conference of the American Society on Aging. By 2011, the number of Americans 65 and over will double.

"Baby boomers now entering the mature travel market have often been to all the standard places," says Ms. Malott. "Now they're looking for adventure."

Today's seniors are trekking through deserts, climbing mountains, and exploring rain forests.

"We're living longer, staying healthier longer, and we've got the money to travel," says Ms. Schnedler, whose monthly column, "The Time to Travel," appears in more than 200 United States newspapers.

"There's always been a misconception that senior travel means sedentary travel," she continues. "But now, even traditional tour companies are transitioning from 'sit on the bus and look out the window' trips to participatory, educational tours. There's a major trend to active vacations."

Ms. Malott agrees. "Many companies are offering 'soft adventure.' You can hike through the English countryside, bike through California's Napa Valley, or go white-water rafting in Idaho, but you get creature comforts like a hot bath at night, sometimes even gourmet meals."

Companies like Grand Circle Travel and Saga Holidays cater to travelers 50 and older. "We offer river cruises in Siberia, DC-3 plane rides in Africa, and excursions to Borneo," explains Saga's Kerry Crisley. "It's not just sitting on a motor coach."

As important as the physical exercise is the mental activity. "I love the learning," says Bettie Salem, a veteran of nine trips with Elderhostel, a Boston-based company that offers educational vacations in the US and abroad for those 55 and older. Ms. Salem, a semi-retired legal secretary in Orange County, Calif., has studied opera in Pasadena and attended the Edinburgh Festival in Scotland.

"You usually have a class in the morning. And at lunch, everybody's always so bubbly, discussing what we've learned. In the afternoon, there may be a tour; in the evening, perhaps the theater. I love exploring new ideas."

Part of learning about a place is meeting the people who live there. "Many travel suppliers offer people-to-people experiences," says Ms. Malott. "At a lunch on a Grand Circle tour to Portugal, you found yourself sitting at a table with students from the university, able to talk one-on-one and ask questions, just like they were your neighbor."

Volunteer vacations, offered through companies like Earthwatch or Global Volunteers, are also gaining favor. "You pay for your trip, and you go some place for three or four weeks," Malott continues. "Maybe you're helping to teach English, or you go to Israel and participate in an archaeological dig."

Prices for these active vacations vary according to destination and the nature of the trip. Saga Holidays, for instance, offers a 10-day tour of Nicaragua for $999 per person; a 12-night trip to the Orient costs $2,399, including air fare and most meals. All-inclusive rates for Elderhostel may be as low as $400 a week.

And senior travelers can often save money in other ways. "The mature traveler is chronologically gifted," says Malott. "Once you turn 50, you qualify for lots of discounts. Maybe a hotel is celebrating its 50th anniversary; They'll give a discount to you if you're 50. There are lots of deals like that."

Some airlines offer senior discounts on air fares, and some offer books of four-to-eight coupons sold for a fixed price for round-trip travel within the US.

Senior discounts are sometimes available on trains and cruise ships, and because retirees usually have more flexibility than those with full-time jobs, they can more easily take advantage of last-minute travel discounts.

Malott recommends joining a travel-related club for seniors. "The most famous is AARP, the American Association of Retired Persons, but there are others, like Mature Outlook. By showing your membership card, you can get discounts at hotels and rental car agencies.

But always compare the senior discount with other deals that may be offered. You may be quoted a senior rate that's higher than the current promotional rate. Ask for the lowest possible rate; then ask if the senior discount is applicable to that.

Sometimes it is. And when you're traveling overseas, look for the term OAP (for "old-age pensioner") to get discounts on museums and attractions.

Other resources

* For general information, "The Mature Traveler" newsletter costs $29.95 a year for 12 issues. Call 800-460-6676 to order both the newsletter and "The Mature Traveler's Book of Deals," also by Gene and Adele Malott.

* For information on RV travel, "Shirley and Harry's RV Adventures" costs $36 a year for 12 issues. Call (201) 605-2442.

* Marcia Schnedler's monthly column, "The Time to Travel," is syndicated to more than 200 newspapers through Universal Press Syndicate.

* Travel companies catering to mature travelers:

Elderhostel (617) 426-8056

Grand Circle Travel 800-248-3737

Saga Holidays 800-343-0273

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