Savvy Senior Travelers
Skills and Tips to Help You Make the Most of Your Next Vacation to Europe
by Rick Steves
Age matters only if you’re a cheese. Many seniors are more energetic than their backpacker grandkids. But even for these folks, travel abroad is not without questions and concerns. I’m not a senior—yet—so I put an appeal on the Graffiti Wall of my website asking seniors to share their advice. The following tips were distilled from their many helpful responses.
One of the first things to consider when planning a trip to Europe is 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, and October). This allows you to avoid the most exhausting things about European travel: the crowds and heat of summer, and the high prices that follow the mobs.
If you’re not yet comfortable using the Internet, learn how to get online (or enlist someone—maybe at your public library—to help you). The Internet is an invaluable resource for booking flights, checking train schedules, researching and reserving hotels, and lots more. Local travel classes (often offered by travel stores or libraries) are another good way to inspire you and help kick-start your planning. And having an email account (such as Yahoo or Google’s Gmail) that you can access from anywhere in the world makes it a snap to keep in touch with family back home.
As you plan your trip, evaluate whether you’ll need travel insurance, which reimburses you for the non-refundable portion of your trip if you have to cancel. Seniors pay more for travel insurance—but are also more likely to use it. When comparing insurance policies, pay close attention to evacuation insurance. This covers the substantial expense of getting you to adequate medical care in case of an emergency. Also find out exactly whether and how your medical insurance works overseas. (Medicare is not valid outside the U.S.; check your supplemental insurance coverage for exclusions.) If you decide to purchase comprehensive travel insurance, go with a big-name company, such as Access America (www.accessamerica.com or 800-729-6021), Travelex (www.travelex-insurance.com or 800-228-9792), Travel Guard (www.travelguard.com or 800-826-4919), or Travel Insured International (www.travelinsured.com or 800-243-3174). Insuremytrip.com allows you to compare insurance policies and costs among various providers. This company also sells insurance (Insuremytrip.com or 800-487-4722).
Hauling a big bag is another concern for seniors. Instead, bring a rolling 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 maybe even attaches) on top of your wheeled bag. To lighten your load, take fewer clothes and do laundry more often. Bring along a magnifying glass to help you read detailed maps and small-print schedules, a keychain flashlight for candlelit restaurants and dark hotel hallways, and a small notebook to jot down facts and reminders.
Pack a full supply of your medications. It can be difficult and time-consuming to fill a prescription in Europe. And even non-prescription medications (such as vitamins or supplements) may not be available abroad in the same form you’re used to. Pharmacists overseas often aren’t familiar with American brand names, so having the generic name helps (for example, atorvastatin instead of Lipitor). Before you leave, ask your doctor for a list of the precise generic names of your medications, and names of equivalent medications in case of unavailability.
Transport your prescriptions in their labeled containers to avoid trouble at the airport. And keep your medication in your carry-on bag in case your checked baggage is delayed. If you wear hearing aids, be sure to bring spare batteries—it can be difficult to find a specific size in Europe.
Unless you’re flying direct, go ahead and check your bag. If you have to transfer to a connecting flight at a huge, busy airport, a heavy 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 your flight early to reserve aisle seats (or splurge on roomier “economy plus” or first class). Drink lots of water during long flights, and get up frequently to stretch your legs.
Before choosing a hotel, evaluate the pros and cons of where to sleep: if you stay near the train station at the edge of town, you’ll minimize having to carry your bag on arrival. But 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 your hotel to avoid having to lug your bags). If you have limited mobility, ask if the hotel has an elevator; if not, request a ground-floor room. 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).
Becoming a temporary part of the community can be rewarding. Settle down and stay a while, doing side-trips if you choose. At a minimum, spend two nights in each place to allow yourself a more leisurely tempo. For longer stays, you could rent a house or apartment, or go a more affordable route and “swap” houses for a few weeks with someone in an area that interests you (consider HomeLink: www.homelink.org, 800-638-3841; or HomeExchange: www.homeexchange.com, 800-877-8723).
Think about how you’ll get around town. Subways involve a lot of walking and stairs (and are a pain with luggage). Consider using city buses or taxis instead. If you’re renting a car, be warned that some countries and some car-rental companies have an upper age limit—to avoid unpleasant glitches, reserve ahead and mention your age. Drivers over 70 may have trouble renting in the Czech Republic, Greece, Poland, Slovakia, and Turkey. The maximum age is 80 in Denmark, and some locations in the U.K. and Northern Ireland won’t rent to anyone over 69. You can’t rent a car in the Republic of Ireland if you’re 75 or over, and you’ll pay extra if you’re 70 to 74. If you’re considered too old, look into leasing, which has less stringent age restrictions.
Being older does have its perks. Just showing your gray hair or passport can snare 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 them posted—you may be surprised. But note that at some sights, U.S. citizens aren’t eligible for the senior discount (because the U.S. is notorious for not reciprocating).
Seniors can get deals on point-to-point rail tickets in Scandinavia, Austria, France, Belgium, and more (including the Eurostar Chunnel crossing between Britain and France). To get rail discounts in Britain, you can purchase a senior card at a local train station (valid for a year, but worthwhile even on short stays if you take several train trips while there). Railpasses for Britain and Scandinavia give seniors a discount. It’s rare, but a few airlines do offer discounts to seniors.
To sightsee in relative comfort, try a city bus tour (usually two hours long) for a relaxing 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). If you’re traveling with more active companions and need a break, set up a rendezvous point. Grab a table at a sidewalk café for a drink and people-watching.
Be aware that most museums have elevators, and even if these are freight elevators not open to the public, the staff might bend the rules for older travelers—it’s worth asking. Take advantage of museum benches; 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.
For a meaningful cross-cultural experience, consider going on an educational tour such as those run by Road Scholar (formerly Elderhostel), which offers study programs around the world for those people 55 and older (one to four weeks,www.roadscholar.org).
Today’s savvy seniors are proving that overseas travel is possible—no matter what your age.