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Senior Discounts Aren't Always the Best Deals

Stores, airlines and even the U.S. government flog bargains for people in their 60s or older, but some are not quite the steals they seem

By Caroline Mayer

I’ll never forget the day I turned 21 and bought my first bottle of alcohol (rum, as I recall). A college senior, I dashed to the liquor store, ready to whip out my ID. But when I got to the cash register, the owner just laughed. Barely 5 feet tall, with a face full of freckles, I looked more like 13. “You wouldn’t dare come in here to buy a bottle unless you were 21,” he said, accepting my money and shooing me on my way. I left the store feeling, shall I say, somewhat sobered. I was glad to have scored that bottle of rum, but a little disgruntled about the reason I didn’t have to prove my age.


Today, 41 years later, I often get a similar feeling when I’m asked if I want the “senior” discount, which is typically offered to people 60 — or 65 — and older. Sure, I want a bargain, but do I really look old enough to qualify? In the end, I realize the answer is yes — and I really shouldn't complain when it means I’ll be saving money.


Senior discounts (I hate the phrase, but that’s what they’re typically called) are available practically everywhere you open your wallet. They “sort of exploded exponentially” as older shoppers came to represent a fast-growing demographic, says Jim Gilmartin, owner of Coming of Age, a marketing and advertising firm that specializes in reaching in older consumers.


Today, you can find senior discounts at movie theaters (many AMC theaters, for example, offer reduced tickets on Tuesdays if you’re 60 or older), supermarkets (Harris Teeter and some Publix stores, 5 percent off on certain weekdays for customers 60 and up), clothing stores (Banana Republic, 10 percent off for shoppers 65 and older; T.J. Maxx, 10 percent on Mondays if you're 55 or older), fast-food chains (McDonald’s, half-price coffee and small sodas at many outlets for customers 65 and up) and airlines (Southwest Airlines, reduced fares for flyers 65 and older). Then there are the myriad discounts AARP offers its members 50 and older and the public transportation fare reductions that many cities provide.



But you need to be careful about this kind of offer. I've discovered that some promises of senior discounts on the Web aren’t what they claim to be, and even when companies really do offer discounts, the “deals” aren’t always bargains.


Web sites like BradsDeals, and are good places to start tracking down discounts if you’re 60 or older. Trouble is, some of the offers that appear on discount-aggregator sites like these may be inaccurate, out of date or not applicable where you live, as I found when I double-checked a few of them. So you really need to do your own double-checking before you take any offer at face value.


For example, several Internet lists of discounts for seniors maintain that Banana Republic gives anyone 50 or older 10 percent off. But a store official told me that its discount applied to customers 65 and up. The Food Lion supermarket chain does not offer any senior discounts, despite several sites that say it does.


And don’t assume that even a legitimate senior discount is your best deal.



I learned this lesson recently when I went on Amtrak’s site to buy a ticket for a trip from Washington to New York. I spotted an advance fare for $49, but knowing Amtrak gave discounts to seniors, figured I could do even better. So I clicked the box for a senior fare (offered to travelers 62 and older), which is 15 percent off the standard fare. Turns out that senior ticket would have cost $62, significantly more than the $49 ticket I had found.


Why did the Amtrak senior discount cost more? While the company's 15 percent senior discount is available for any trip, any time — with no advance-purchase requirement or limit on the number of seats available — Amtrak also runs other promotions that are available to anyone, regardless of age, and these may be even better deals. That $49 fare, for instance, was part of a special sale offering 25 percent off. But these promotions often come with strings attached — usually a 14-day advance-purchase requirement and limited seat availability.


Similarly, although Southwest Airlines recently offered a $292 senior fare (for passengers 65 and up) on a one-way ticket from Washington to Albuquerque, N.M., its online Wanna Get Away fare for anyone was $241. A Southwest rep explained that its senior fares are fully refundable, but Wanna Get Away fares are not refundable.

You might also save more at restaurants and stores through daily-deals sites, like Groupon and Living Social. Their discounts are available regardless of your age, and can often be significant.


One more tip: When you're shopping, don’t hesitate to ask if a store has a senior discount. Some retailers don’t advertise these bargains, and the worst that can happen is that the salesperson will say no.


Do you have a favorite “senior discount” or a tale of one that turned out to be not much of a deal? Please contact me at [email protected]

Caroline Mayer is a consumer reporter who spent 25 years working for The Washington Post, covering such issues as product safety, scams, and credit cards. Mayer has received several awards, including the Betty Furness Consumer Media Service Award. She has written for Consumer Reports, CBS MoneyWatch, Ladies Home Journal, Kaiser Health News and others. Follow her on Twitter @consumermayer Read More
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