The COVID-19 pandemic brought a steep decline in travel among seniors, who were most susceptible to the illness turning deadly. But after smaller gains in 2021 and 2022, Americans over age 60 are again hitting the road with more frequency than any other demographic in 2023.
“So much travel is for older adults in the United States because that’s the demographic that has the time and the resources to travel,” said Andrea Holbrook, president and CEO of Holbrook Travel in Gainesville. “In general terms, there are a lot of options for older adults for both domestic and international travel.”
Yvonne Gilbert, a certified travel associate with AAA in Gainesville says seniors make up the majority of her clients.
“Sixty percent of my travelers are seniors,” she said. “They have the money, the resources, and the time. And once they have retired, they go from doing one trip a year to doing two or three, or even four.”
Holbrook and Gilbert agree that travel can be good for one’s mental and physical well-being. Savvy international travelers can also take advantage of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which offers everything from COVID-19 travel information to a disease directory and traveler advice.
The National Council on Aging points out the benefits of travel in an article on the organization’s website: “In general, traveling and meeting up with family and old and new friends is really vital for our mental health,” said Kathleen Cameron, senior director of NCOA’s Center for Healthy Aging.
In Canada, the country’s national parks service has a program called PaRX that allows doctors to prescribe travel with a free annual pass to the country’s national parks if the physician believes a patient could benefit from time spent in nature.
The United States has its own special program for seniors: Citizens and legal residents over age 62 can get a lifetime national park pass for $80—an entry fee that can also cover a travel companion.
Gilbert does a lot of work with cruise lines, which can be easier for older travelers because you only have to pack and unpack once and cruises come with plenty of amenities.
“People are traveling together and there is good camaraderie,” she said.
She also noted many cruises cater to seniors with cabin facilities set up for motorized scooters and wheelchairs, and sometimes even dialysis.
On the ground, Gilbert works with more traditional travel operators who put together bus tours that take people to see the sights without necessarily delving into deeper aspects of a location.
Holbrook Travel has a different take with its “vision that sustainable travel is a key to understanding and preserving the natural and cultural diversity of our planet.” Holbrook’s mother Giovanna founded the company in 1974. In the 1980s, she rescued 500 acres of Costa Rican rain forest and established the eco-lodge Selva Verde in Costa Rica. Although Giovanna recently passed away, her legacy lives on
Holbrook Travel partners with Road Scholar on trips to Costa Rica and other locations, including the Galapagos Islands. Road Scholar began as Elderhostel in 1975 when the organization took travelers to college campuses during the summer months when they were empty and organized field trips to surrounding areas.
“In 2010, we changed our name to Road Scholar to reflect the organization we had become,” said Kelsey Knoedler Perri, a spokesperson for Road Scholar. “But one thing that has never changed and will never change is that we are a nonprofit with an educational mission.”
Road Scholar considers itself the nonprofit world leader in educational travel for older adults, Knoedler Perri said. “Everything we do is developed around this mission of lifelong learning. We sometimes describe ourselves as a ‘university of the world’—not a commercial tour operator.”
At least one member of a travel party must be at least 50 years old to sign up for a Road Scholar trip.
“Road Scholar is ideal for older travelers because we provide opportunities for lifelong learning and for building social connections—both of which are so incredibly important for living longer, healthier, happier lives,” Perri said, noting that 65% of participants each year are returning travelers.
Not everyone likes to have travel arranged for them. Carla Roman, 71, prefers to do her own research and bookings, something she has done for family trips in the United States as well as for her numerous international trips to Latin America and Europe.
“I prefer doing it on my own because I get to see what I want to see,” she said. “I sometimes like to make changes as I get there, and I have a feeling that’s not very possible when you go with a group. Also, I think I can do it for less money on my own.”
Marcia Biggs, 67, and her boyfriend Michael Miller, 69, also do much of their own travel organizing.
“I do a lot of online research when I decide on a destination,” Biggs said. “I will also go to the library and get any books on the destination that are relatively recent to learn about museums, restaurants, nearby attractions, etc. Travel expert Rick Steves is a great resource because he travels smart and comfortably like an adult and recommends many family-run businesses around the world.”
Biggs said her partner insists on creating a spreadsheet several months out for their annual fall trips.
“The travel spreadsheet is like an itinerary at our fingertips and a security blanket,” she said. “We each have a copy, so if anything happens to one of us, we have all the trip information in one place.
Then there are others who opt to truly go off the beaten track.
Juan Melendez, 75, goes on a yearly hike with his sister and a few friends following one of the paths of the Camino de Santiago. The Camino has its roots as a pilgrimage to the shrine of the apostle Saint James the Great in the cathedral of Santiago de Compostela in Galicia in northwestern Spain. It has routes passing through Spain, France, and Portugal.
Melendez and his group usually go for several weeks at a time.
“It is a form of ‘walking meditation’ that does not keep you from sensing the physical world or communing with others, most of them strangers whom you will never see again,” Melendez said. “You feel you are part of something greater than yourself, and that is a profound human need.”
Travel, however, doesn’t necessarily mean a long international flight or thousands of miles on the road if domestic travel is more appealing. A weekend away at a nearby beach or another city just down the highway can be as gratifying as more taxing and time-consuming travel.
St. Augustine and Crescent Beach, just an hour and a half away are favorite locations for many elder residents of Alachua County—as is Cedar Key, just 45 minutes away down State Road 24.
Editor’s note: This is the tenth story in Mainstreet’s Aging Matters series. It was independently reported by Ronnie Lovler and underwritten by Elder Options. Some reporting was made possible by Lovler’s acceptance as a fellow into the 2022 Age Boom Academy, a program of the Columbia Journalism School, the Robert N. Butler Columbia Aging Center, and the Columbia Mailman School of Public Health.