An ‘aging traveler’s’ take on travel

This item appears on page 17 of the July 2009 issue.

My wife, Nancy, and I were the oldest patrons in the restaurant. Younger senior citizens addressed me as “sir.” That’s when I suddenly realized, in my 75th year, that I have become an aging traveler.

I’m one of those lucky people who has traveled each year from childhood. Retired for more than 15 years, I continue to travel independently two or three times a year. While we have aged, my spouse and I are healthy and still more or less mobile. We believe that the purpose of travel is not to rush from place to place but to explore an area, silently observing and learning the local lifestyle.

Recently, travel has become more challenging. Our politicians, after overstating the threat of terrorism, have designed an airport security system which gives passengers the illusion of safety through discomfort.

Government debt and economic policy have weakened the dollar and raised oil prices. The airlines have been losing money for years, but now they put the blame for it on the government’s security and oil policies. Additionally, the airlines seem to have developed the unique theory that if a seller cheapens the product and raises the price, the product becomes more desirable and thus profitable.

Still, travel continues to fascinate us.

Despite occasional fear articles in the media, we have little concern for our safety. Our few incidents of risk have been more amusing than stressful.

In Rome in 2005 we encountered a few Gypsy girls waving newspapers in the hope of relieving us of money. We yelled and they left.

In 1999, a thief on a motorcycle in southern France stole a camera from our rental car while we were stopped for a traffic signal. This resulted in a long conversation in a mixture of French and Spanish with the local police who did not speak much English.

In Beijing I broke a toe while window-shopping. It permitted a close-up look at a Chinese hospital.

None of these events were as stressful as crossing the street in the United Kingdom with the cars coming from the “wrong” direction.

As we have aged, we have increased the use of hotel safes, money belts and hidden pockets. We keep credit cards separate from cash. We notify our credit card companies where we will be traveling. We dress inconspicuously, trying to blend into our surroundings. We avoid empty streets at night.

Yet everywhere we have traveled, we have met helpful, friendly people who have gone out of their way to help us as they would their grandparents.

In Paris I stopped to look at a map, and a lady insisted on leading me to my destination. At the Olympia Theatre in Dublin in 2005, a young lady insisted that the manager give us seats with more legroom. If you are old enough, even French waiters smile as they correct your French pronunciation!

Since I am retired, I have plenty of time to do research. Planning a trip is almost as much fun as traveling.

The Internet is invaluable in searching for hotels.

In addition, our travel library, which contains Zagats, Michelin’s Red and Green books and Frommer’s guides, provides the basis for knowledgeable booking of both hotels and restaurants. I avoid guides that are written for the young or for those who romanticize lumpy beds and bad plumbing.

I avoid quaint hotels with no elevators unless they agree to give me a room on the ground floor. I also avoid hotels in remote locations.

I should use the Internet more often to make reservations, but I usually telephone in the hope of getting the room I want and then I confirm by e-mail.

On occasion, we have been tempted to join an organized tour. Except for a few top-of-the-line tours, such as opera tours with Dailey-Thorp (Big Horn, WY; 800/998-4677,, in my experience tour travel gives you rushed, mindless travel, mass-market hotels and bland, institutional food.

Other exceptions are some trips offered by Elderhostel (Boston, MA; 877/426-8056, www.elder Elderhostel books one or two better-located hotels that are used as bases from which to cover an area.

Along with having a limited number of locations visited on each trip, Elderhostel is good at providing lower-priced room-and-board, entertaining programs with excellent lectures and guides, and congenial companions who are interested in the theme of the trip. Their groups are usually small and so they can provide marginally better food. In addition, their insurance program and tour coordinators are a great help in the event medical attention is necessary.

International flights now require passengers to arrive two hours before takeoff. This allows for a margin of error for the security system and, perhaps, makes us feel safer than if there were no long lines.

Nancy purchased a folding cane to help with long walks. Since she began carrying it in airports, we have found that it speeds up security passage for us and on occasion gets us to the head of the line.

Because the airlines use a hub system and the government’s Customs and security systems are cumbersome and slow, there is barely enough time to change planes. For us, the answer in most situations is to order a wheelchair. For a modest tip, we employ a knowledgeable person who can reduce airport hassle to a minimum.

This is particularly important in Atlanta and at New York’s JFK and when making connecting flights in Amsterdam or Palermo. Even with a wheelchair, one should avoid changing planes at Paris’ Charles de Gaulle Airport, where it seems that any change of planes involves a bus trip and another terminal.

As a defense against inadequate legroom and overcrowding, we usually try to fly business class when traveling overseas. We concentrate our air travel to a single airline and use a frequent-flyer credit card. We usually have little difficulty in getting a free business-class upgrade as long as we remain flexible about our schedule.

While an upgradeable ticket is more expensive than the lowest tourist fare, it allows us to relax in special waiting rooms, reduces chances of catching a passenger-born illness due to overcrowding, and contributes toward our arriving rested at our destination.

Also, we have amassed enough mileage to get special status that gives us access to a special line to check in, early entry onto the plane and better seat assignments.

If we fly tourist class, we always book an aisle seat for each of us. If we are lucky, one of us may be next to a vacant seat. At worst, we have some aisle room to use as our own.

Although auto travel is the best way to see the countryside, our age has limited this option. In a number of countries, older drivers cannot rent a car. Moreover, an auto is useless in large European cities. We try to rent from airport to airport and avoid driving in large cities; it is a bit more expensive, but we avoid endless searches for downtown auto rental offices.

More and more, we rely on trains. In this era of vanishing porters, it is not easy to travel by train with luggage, but once you’re on board, train travel in most of Europe is fast and quite pleasant. Senior-citizen discounts, Eurail passes and different national railpasses make choosing the right ticket complicated. If asked, the people at Eurail are helpful in advising as to the best price for your itinerary.

Our advantages as aging travelers are that we have been around long enough to not panic at media scare stories, and we know our time is limited. We can never see everything.

Visiting new places and revisiting places we enjoy, we ignore the “mad bombers” and overprotective bureaucrats and will continue to travel at our pace as long as we are able.


Wethersfield, CT