Tips for Seniors Traveling Abroad
Ideas from travelers who have learned to make their trips easier
More people than ever are hocking their rockers and buying plane tickets. Many senior adventurers are proclaiming, "Age matters only if you're a cheese." Travel is their fountain of youth.
These days, many seniors are more energetic than their backpacker grandkids. But even for these people, the topics covered below can be of particular interest. I'm not a senior — yet — so I put an appeal on the Rick Steves Graffiti Wall asking seniors to share their advice. Thanks to the many who responded, here's a summary of top tips from seniors who believe it's never too late to have a happy childhood.
When to go: Since most seniors are retired and can travel whenever they want, it's smart to aim for shoulder season (April, May, September, October). This allows you to avoid the most exhausting things about European travel: crowds and the heat of summer.
Planning: The Internet is an invaluable resource for booking flights, checking train schedules, researching and reserving hotels, and lots more. If you're not already an Internet whiz, enlist someone to help you. Hometown travel classes (often offered by travel stores or libraries) are a good way to inspire you and help kick-start your planning.
Travel insurance: Seniors pay more for travel insurance — but are also more likely to need it. Find out exactly whether and how your medical insurance works overseas. (Medicare is not valid outside the United States; check your supplemental insurance coverage for exclusions.) Pre-existing conditions are a problem, especially if you are over 70, but there are plans that will waive those exclusions. When considering additional travel insurance, pay close attention to evacuation insurance, which covers the substantial expense of getting you to adequate medical care in case of an emergency — especially if you are too ill to fly commercially. For more on your complicated travel-insurance options, see Travel Insurance: To Insure or Not to Insure?
Packing: Hauling a big bag is a major concern for seniors. Instead, bring a roll-aboard suitcase. Figure out ways to smoothly carry your luggage, so you're not wrestling with several bulky items. For example, if you bring a second bag, make it a small one that stacks neatly (or even attaches) on top of your wheeled bag. Packing light is even more important for seniors — when you pack light, you're younger. To lighten your load, take fewer clothing items and do laundry more often. Bring along a magnifying glass to help you read detailed maps and small-print schedules, and a small notebook to jot down facts and reminders.
Medications and health: Be certain to take a full supply of any medications with you. It can be difficult and time-consuming to fill a prescription in Europe, and even non-prescription medications (like vitamins or supplements) may not be available abroad in the same form you're used to. Pharmacists overseas are often unfamiliar with American brand names, so you may have to use the generic name instead (for example, atorvastatin instead of Lipitor). Ask your doctor before you leave for a list of the precise generic names of your medications, and the names of equivalent medications in case of unavailability. If you wear hearing aids, be sure to bring spare batteries — it can be difficult to find a specific size in Europe. For more health tips, see my article on Staying Healthy. If your mobility is limited, see my article on Resources for Disabled Travelers.
Flying: If you're not flying direct, check your bag — because if you have to transfer to a connecting flight at a huge, busy airport, your carry-on bag will become a lug-around drag. If you're a slow walker, ask the airline or flight attendant to arrange transportation so you can easily make your next flight. Since cramped leg room can be a concern for seniors, book early to reserve aisle seats (or splurge on roomier "economy plus" or first class). Be careful to stay hydrated during long flights, and take short walks hourly to avoid the slight chance of getting a blood clot (for more information, see Jet Lag and the First Day of Your Trip).
Accommodations: If stairs are a problem, request a ground-floor room. Think about the pros and cons of where you sleep: If you stay near the train station at the edge of town, you'll minimize carrying your bag on arrival; on the other hand, staying in the city center gives you a convenient place to take a break between sights (and you can take a taxi on arrival to reduce lugging your bags). To save money, try hostels, which offer the bonus of ready-made friends (and you'll really impress all the youngsters you're bunking with). No matter where you stay, ask about your accommodations' accessibility quirks — whether there's an elevator, if it's at the top of a steep hill, and so on — before you book.
Getting around: Subways involve a lot of walking and stairs (and are a pain with luggage). Consider using city buses or taxis instead. With lots of luggage, definitely take a taxi (better yet, pack light). If you're renting a car, be warned that some countries and some car-rental companies have an upper age limit — to avoid unpleasant surprises, mention your age when you reserve (for details, see Driving in Europe).
Senior discounts: Just showing your gray hair or passport can snag you a discount on many sights, and even some events such as concerts. (The British call a senior discount "concessions" or "pensioner's rate.") Always ask about discounts, even if you don't see posted information about one — you may be surprised. But note that at some sights, U.S. citizens aren't eligible for the senior discount (because the United States is notorious for not reciprocating).
Seniors can get deals on point-to-point rail tickets in Scandinavia, France, Belgium and more (including the Eurostar Chunnel crossing between Britain and France). To get rail discounts in some countries — like Austria, Britain and Spain, and a second tier of discounts in France — you can purchase a senior card at a local train station (valid for a year, but worthwhile even on a short trip if you take several train rides during your stay). Most rail passes don't offer senior discounts, but passes for Britain and France do give seniors a discount in first class. It's rare, but a few airlines offer discounts to seniors. Always ask.
Sightseeing: Many museums have elevators, and even if these are freight elevators not open to the public, the staff might bend the rules for older travelers. Take advantage of the benches in museums; sit down frequently to enjoy the art and rest your feet. Go late in the day for fewer crowds and cooler temperatures. Many museums offer loaner wheelchairs. Take bus tours (usually two hours long) for a painless overview of the highlights. Boat tours — of the harbor, river, lake or fjord — are a pleasure. Hire an English-speaking cabbie to take you on a tour of a city or region (if it's hot, spring for an air-conditioned taxi). Or participate in the life of local seniors; join a tea dance at a senior center. If you're traveling with others but need a rest break, set up a rendezvous point. Many seniors find that one day of active sightseeing needs to be followed by a quiet day to recharge the batteries. For easy sightseeing, grab a table at a sidewalk café for a drink and people-watching.
Educational and volunteer opportunities: For a more meaningful cross-cultural experience, consider going on an educational tour, like those run by Road Scholar (formerly Elderhostel), which offers study programs around the world for those over 55 (one to four weeks, call or check online for a free catalog, telephone. (800) 454-5768).
Long-Term Trips: Becoming a temporary part of the community can be particularly rewarding. Settle down and stay a while, doing side trips if you choose. You can rent a house or apartment, or go a more affordable route and "swap" houses for a few weeks with someone in an area you're interested in (for more on home exchanges, see House Swapping Tips).
Rick Steves writes European travel guidebooks and hosts travel shows on public television and public radio. Email him at [email protected] and follow his blog on Facebook.