Savvy Senior Travelers

On the Lauterbrunnen–Wengen train, Berner Oberland, Switzerland
Savvy travelers know it's never too late to have a happy childhood.
By Rick Steves

Looking for a fountain of youth? I've long noticed that older travelers seem younger than average in their appearance, attitudes, and energy levels. Travel is an excellent way to stay young in spirit — and many senior adventurers are proclaiming, "Age matters only if you're a cheese" as they plan their next trip (and the one after that).

When to Go

If you 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, and it saves money, too.

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.) 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

When you pack light, you move effortlessly through Europe. To lighten your load, take fewer clothing items and do laundry more often. Fit it all in a roll-aboard suitcase or a carry-on that converts to a backpack. Figure out ways to smoothly carry your luggage, so you're not wrestling with a big bag or several bulky items. For example, if you bring a second bag, make it a small one that stacks neatly (or attaches) on top of your wheeled bag.

A small notebook or your phone's notes app is handy for jotting down facts and reminders, such as your hotel-room number or Metro stop. (Your phone's camera can take visual notes, too.) Recording these things will help keep your mind clear and uncluttered. 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.

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 (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. See my general advice on getting medical help 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 my tips and resources for travelers with disabilities.

Flying

If you're not flying direct, you might consider checking your bag to avoid lugging it to a connecting flight through a huge, busy airport. (Be sure to keep medications and other important items in a smaller carry-on bag for the plane and any layovers.) 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 airplanes' lack of legroom can cramp your style, 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

Hotels vary widely in their amenities and layouts, so think about your needs before you book. Ask about any accessibility quirks for the hotel you're considering — find out whether it's at the top of a steep hill, has an elevator or stairs to upper floors, and so on. If stairs are a problem, request a ground-floor room. Location matters, too: 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).

With the advantage of a more flexible schedule, older travelers can often find good alternative accommodations for longer stays. You can rent a house or apartment, or even swap houses for a week or more with someone in an area you're interested in. The swap needn't be simultaneous, and can sometimes include cars and recreational equipment like bikes and canoes. Travelers' cultural exchange organizations offer you the chance to stay in locals' homes for a minimal courtesy fee and learn about your destination from those who live there.

Getting Around

Subways involve a lot of walking and stairs (and can be a pain with luggage if they're crowded). They also have relatively few stops; just getting to the station can be a journey on its own. If you want to do less walking, consider using city buses or taxis instead. City buses stop frequently, and with a little planning you can align your sightseeing itinerary with convenient routes. 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

At some sights, senior discounts are reserved for European citizens, but at other sights — and even some events such as concerts — just showing your gray hair or identification can snag you a discount. Always ask about discounts, even if you don't see posted information about one — you may be surprised. (The British call discounts "concessions"; look also for "pensioner's rates.") In non-English-speaking countries, memorize the phrase for requesting a senior discount or write it down on a card to hand over at the admissions desk.

Most rail passes are about 10 percent cheaper for seniors age 60 and up. And seniors can get deals on point-to-point rail tickets in Austria, Belgium, Great Britain, Finland, France, Germany, Italy, Spain, and Norway. Qualifying ages range from 60 to 67 years old. But to get many of those discounts — including in Austria, Britain, Germany, Italy, and Spain, and a second tier of discounts in France — you must purchase a senior card at a local train station (valid for a year, prices range from €5 in Spain to €130 in Germany). Note that advance-purchase discounts are usually as good as or better than the senior card offers.

Sightseeing

Go late in the day for fewer crowds and cooler temperatures. 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 who'd appreciate a lift. Many larger museums offer loaner wheelchairs. Take bus tours (usually two hours long) for a painless overview of a city's 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 in England or playing boules in France. If you're traveling with others but need a rest break, set up a rendezvous point. Some people — of all ages — find that one day of active sightseeing needs to be followed by a quiet day to recharge the batteries. Europe needn't be non-stop museums and markets: Grab a table at a sidewalk café for a drink and people-watching.

Educational, Exchange, 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 for those over 50, with trips from several days to several months. International cultural exchange organizations like Servas offer the opportunity to meet and stay with welcoming locals — an inexpensive way to get intimate with a new place and its people.

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. If you're considering retiring abroad, two good resources are Expat Exchange, where you'll find tips and resources for expatriates, and International Living, with extensive reporting by North Americans who have moved overseas. The Living Abroad series (Moon Travel Guides) offers a look at the challenges and rewards of life in European destinations including France, Italy, London, and Paris.

More Tips

The AARP (formerly the American Association of Retired Persons) provides an extensive library of travel-related articles and advice for seniors, including destination guides, budget travel recommendations, and an interactive trip finder. The AARP also offers info on retiring abroad.