About five years ago>, travel companies began toying with the idea of rolling back senior discounts, and sometimes all a bad idea needs to take root is to get planted. As any older flier knows, nearly all airlines have wiped out senior fares. Many hotels require older customers to join clubs with steep fees to qualify for price breaks. And the value of AARP s travel deals declines with each passing year. This year, for instance, members can get up to 20 percent off at Best Westerns or 5 to 15 percent discounts on the best available rates at Starwood-owned hotels essentially meaningless offers.
But on their way to wiping out these perks, the industry has run into two obstacles. One, of course, is the sluggish economy. Overall travel sales in the U.S. (including spending by international visitors) dropped 9 percent in 2009, according to the research firm Mintel, and spending this year remains choppy. The other is aging boomers, who, characteristically enough, are demanding a wider array of choices: more family-friendly hotels for their progeny, more adventurous tour packages for themselves and more easy-to-use accommodations for their parents.
We are, therefore, at a very interesting moment. Airlines and hotels are suddenly eager to build (or rebuild) long-term relationships with retirees and near retirees. To make this situation work for you, you need to leverage the freedoms that come with age. If you re retired (or working part-time near retirement), you may have one obvious advantage: You can make last-minute plans, travel during the week or take off-peak vacations far more easily than younger adults. Your best bet is to remain flexible about the timing of a trip, use an online engine to compile available deals, and only then call the most attractive airlines or hotels to find out if better offers are available for seniors.
If price matters most to you in booking a hotel, you can join the crowd that s searching Web sites such as Travelocity or Hotwire for opaque deals, in which you enter your destination and desired price and don t find out where you re staying until after you buy a trip. Recently, however, several sites offering transparent deals, in which potential hotels are listed before you make a reservation, have improved significantly in their ability to screen for features important to seniors, such as easily accessible walkways, parking for people with disabilities and roll-in showers for wheelchair users. Expedia is by far the best at this, allowing you to search according to seven categories of accessibility.
You can find a list of airlines that are on Twitter at tweepml.org/Airlines-on-Twitter
As you d expect, given the coming demographic bulge, businesses are setting up group trips for every stripe of vacationing boomer, whether you re interested in genealogical research or hiking the Khyber Pass. So hooking up with the right company can make for a really satisfying and affordable vacation. I m the kind of guy who drags my family through museums in every city we visit, so I am happy to recommend Exploritas (exploritas.com; 800-454-5768), a program run by the nonprofit Elderhostel that sets up educational guided tours for seniors. Exploritas programs include single-day excursions, cruises, small-group Road Scholar trips and grandparents grandchildren travel. And the organization is wooing boomers in an effort to reduce the average age of its customers, which was 73 in 2009.
There are a couple of important areas where senior discounts have changed recently but still apply. I consider the America the Beautiful Senior Pass (888-467-2757), formerly the Golden Age Passport, to be the single best travel deal in the country. If you re 62 or older, this pass lets you, plus up to three other adults and any number of children traveling in your vehicle, get into national parks, forests, monument grounds and recreation areas. It costs just $10, and it never expires. The senior pass also gives you 50 percent off charges for expanded amenities, such as camping, swimming or boat launching.
Alternatives to air travel offer plentiful senior fares too. Amtrak gives a 15 percent discount to riders who are 62 or older and regularly offers bigger breaks on particular routes. Early this spring, for example, senior passengers traveling along the New England coast got a 50 percent break on fares. Eurail offers senior passes to travelers 60 or older in various countries; as of this writing, discounts were available in Ireland and Romania. Greyhound takes 5 percent off the price of unrestricted fares for passengers 62 or older.
Finally, it s important to consider two types of temporary insurance. If you re going abroad, you may need emergency medical coverage, because Medicare and many HMOs cover only expenses you incur within the U.S. If your risk of serious sickness or injury is substantial if you have a chronic illness, say, or you re planning a hazardous adventure you ll want to protect yourself from potentially huge out-of-pocket expenses and from the cost of an emergency flight home.
And if you are prepaying for a significant part of your trip, as cruises and tour packages often require, take a look at trip-cancellation insurance. Tour operators around the globe are hurting, and you don t want to lose your investment if your promoter tanks. In February, for example, XL Leisure, a British firm, went bankrupt, stranding thousands of customers. The more money you re putting down and the more exotic your tour operator, the higher your risks. Do note that insurance rates vary widely. (Looking to cover my parents emergency medical costs during a hypothetical two-week trip to Iceland, I found quotes ranging from $185 to $467.) Ask your carriers what they offer, then compare prices online at SquareMouth.com and InsureMyTrip.com.
Eventually, when the economy improves and business travel picks up, airlines and hotels will jack up their prices. But that looks like something to worry about in 2011. For now, if you want to travel, you re still in the driver s seat.