Savvy Senior Travelers

By Rick Steves

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. I'm not a senior — yet — so I put an appeal on my Travel Forums 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

If you're retired and can travel whenever you want, it's smart to aim for shoulder season (April through mid-June, or September and October). This allows you to avoid the most exhausting things about European travel: crowds and the heat of summer.

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 US except in very limited circumstances; check your supplemental insurance coverage for exclusions.) Pre-existing conditions are a problem, especially if you are over 70, but some plans 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.

Packing

Packing light is especially important for seniors — when you pack light, you're younger. To lighten your load, take fewer clothing items and do laundry more often. Fit it all in a roll-aboard suitcase — don't try to haul a big bag. 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.

Carry an extra pair of eyeglasses if you wear them, and bring along a magnifying glass if it'll help you read detailed maps and small-print schedules. A small notebook is handy for jotting down facts and reminders, such as your hotel-room number or Metro stop. Doing so will lessen your anxiety about forgetting these details, keeping your mind clear and uncluttered.

Medications and Health

It's best to take a full supply of any medications with you, and leave them in their original containers. Finding a pharmacy and filling a prescription in Europe isn't necessarily difficult, but it can be time-consuming. Plus, nonprescription medications (such as 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). Before you leave, ask your doctor for a list of the precise generic names of your medications, and the names of equivalent medications. For more on getting medical help in Europe, see Medical Care in Europe.

If you wear hearing aids, be sure to bring spare batteries — it can be difficult to find a specific size in Europe. If your mobility is limited, see Travelers with Disabilities for tips and resources.

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, request a wheelchair or an electric cart when you book your seat so you can easily make any connecting flights. Since cramped legroom can be a concern for seniors, book early to reserve aisle seats (or splurge on roomier "economy plus," or first class). Stay hydrated during long flights, and take short walks hourly to minimize the slight chance of getting a blood clot.

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). No matter where you stay, ask about your accommodation's accessibility quirks before you book — find out whether it's at the top of a steep hill, has an elevator or stairs to upper floors, and so on.

Getting Around

Subways involve a lot of walking and stairs (and are a pain with luggage). Consider using city buses or taxis instead, and when out and about with your luggage, definitely take a taxi. 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.

Senior Discounts

Just showing your gray hair or passport can snag you a discount at many sights, and even some events such as concerts. (The British call discounts "concessions"; look also for "pensioner's rates.") Always ask about discounts, even if you don't see posted information about one — you may be surprised. But note that at some sights, US citizens aren't eligible for senior discounts (partly because the US is notorious for not reciprocating).

Seniors can get deals on point-to-point rail tickets in Austria, Belgium, Great Britain, Finland, France, Germany, Italy, Spain, and Norway (including the Eurostar Chunnel crossing between Britain and France). Qualifying ages range from 60 to 67 years old. To get rail discounts in some countries — such as 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 railpasses 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, such as joining a tea dance at a senior center. If you're traveling with others but need a rest break, set up a rendezvous point. Some 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 such as those run by Road Scholar (formerly Elderhostel), which offers study programs around the world designed for those over 55 (one to four weeks, call or check online for a free catalog, tel. 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.